Black Satchel: Historical Cookery: Cookery at Raglan

Feast of St Werenfrid, AS LIII

Every year, I spend a week at Ffair Rhaglen, which is Insulae Draconis' premier event for the year, and more or less the only real camping event. Admittedly, last year, I only spent a half week, and even that was a bit blurry because I had a ferocious headcold. But this is AS LIII, and it was a fresh new Raglan.

I taught a class entitled 'Basic Campfire Cookery'. This involved the ground up process of how to light a fire, how to manage a fire, how to cook over it, sneakily included the inclusion of cooking from a period recipe, making changes and substitutions on the fly, and finished up with serving a meal to the Royal Household. It seemed to go well. But it brought up a couple of things I want to mull over.

The first is a skill we don't have anymore: fire management. It's down now to knobs on cookers, and mostly it's a matter of knowing which setting on the cooker works best for a particular process. So I know that if I'm shallow frying stuff in butter (and what else would you shallow fry in?), I need setting 6.5 on my own induction hob. This is of no use at all when I'm cooking in the same frying pan over a wood fire. So you need to know how fire behaves. Flames are good for boiling, but not good for roasting or for frying, both of which want radiant embers. Not the grey of charcoal cookery, either, but red with some grey around the edges. And with the timbers not so close together that they'll start to go up in flames again, but not so far apart that they go out. And they shrink as they burn, so you're constantly raking them in a little closer to each other and making sure that there's another area of the fire that's burning suitable bits down to replace the ones that will shortly burn out. Constant, steady heat is almost impossible. And if you're doing something on your pan that is sensitive to that, such as flatbreads, you can get some very variable results even over a few minutes.

I have a little of this skill, because we had a solid-fuel range at home when I was a kid, and there were certain things you needed to do if you wanted the kettle to boil, or the oven to come to a more or less steady heat. And later, my father showed me how to light a fire from twigs and dry moss, and how to cook over it in a basic sense. The rest I've more or less developed for myself - but I'm still not good at it. I forget, sometimes, that just because there is fire there that there isn't necessarily the right kind of heat. And sometimes I neglect to maintain the line of succession of logs, having new ones getting to the right state to push them into the 'main' fire when they're needed.

This has knock-on effects on the equipment with which you can best cook. It looks like having a metal grill over the fire, on which you can place pans and kettles, is useful. It isn't, really, unless you've significant access to the fire from the side, because mostly all you're doing there is preventing yourself from accessing the actual fire. Having your cooking vessel suspended from a tripod or crane, on the other hand, renders things much easier, and unsurprisingly, this seems to be a more accurate medieval practice. You can also change the height of a suspended vessel much more easily, bringing it closer to or further from the heat. And it makes the bellows, with which you can go from embers to a blazing fire in seconds, an utterly essential tool, rather than a convenience or even an ornament. I had two bellows at Raglan this year, and found myself selecting the smaller or larger one as necessary. I felt a need for an even smaller one with a long nose at one point, so there's clearly space for precision tools there.

The second thing is the difference in dishes between cooking them at home in small quantities on an induction hob, and in cooking them in large quantities over a fire. The dishes from al-Warraq seem to benefit from quantity, for a start. Both the mulahwaja and the somewhat adapted mishmishiyya (combining elements of two recipes) I cooked worked out considerably better for having larger amounts. The tastes blended and integrated better, the meat cooked more in pretty much the same time, and the vegetables (and fruits) contributed to the sauce and didn't stand out as separate things as much. And the fire itself, in both the variability of its heat and the addition of the particular smoky taste when you cook over wood, seems to have an effect as well.

Since the recipes don't have quantities, it's not like there's much precision to be had from them. So it's purely the choice and combination of ingredients, and the effects of the vinegar and spices on the other ingredients, which work better in the kind of conditions for which they intended, which make the difference. I am enormously curious as to whether having proper period-style soapstone pots, as opposed to my cast-iron pans, would make a difference as well.

I'm not planning to cook as much next year, and I'll probably do different dishes. But I'll be keeping an eye on the aspects of fire management - and passing on what skills I have there - and the suitability of recipes for quantity and environment.