A medieval recipe for entertainment

Nigel Gant get down to some medieval food preparation at Ayscoughfee Gardens. Photo: SG300711-113NG To order photographs, please ring 01775 765433.
Nigel Gant get down to some medieval food preparation at Ayscoughfee Gardens. Photo: SG300711-113NG To order photographs, please ring 01775 765433.
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MEDIEVAL cooks had an unusual recipe for a soothing drink for a squiffy tummy “for an olde man” involving stale ale and about 13 eggs.

That is a recipe contained in a copy of a medieval cookbook so is probably a genuine suggestion “to make a caudle to comfort the fromacke”. However, our ancestors apparently had quite a quirky humour, with quite a lot of medieval and Tudor game-playing connected to food. An example might be the four and twenty blackbirds familiar to us from the nursery rhyme, but which really did fly out of a pastry pie crust when it was cut as entertainment for assembled guests.

Naturally, that would only be at high-class parties in some pretty special places, which is the experience of Long Sutton couple Nigel and Julia Gant, who run 4 and 20 Blackbirds, providing demonstrations of medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan food preparation and presentation. They have taken their re-enactment of life in those periods to what Julia calls “some amazing places” such as grand houses and estates, as well as the more intimate surroundings of Ayscoughfee Gardens last weekend, where they assembled half a dozen other ‘medieval’ traders and invited members of the public to get involved in the preparation of the food as well as tastings.

It’s a hobby verging on an obsession, according to Nigel, who, Julia says, “stayed in the 14th century for 20 years” prior to their meeting almost six years ago. He was into fighting with re-enactment groups – he says “combat re-enactment” while Julia, an American with more colourful language, refers to “hack and slash”. Interestingly, when they met Julia, a professional violinist until three or four years ago, already had an interest in costuming, something she had done in the States, and possessed an Elizabethan dress, but had plans to make at least one dress from each century starting from the 13th.

Nigel had been forced to stop the fighting when they met: at 23 stone, he was finding it difficult – the armour alone weighs as much as seven stone, and then there is the helmet and heavy weaponry. Having lost nine stone on the Lighter Life weight reduction programme – something Julia runs – Nigel’s love of re-enactment was reignited and they spent a year with a group called Knights of Honour, when Julia was asked to design a kitchen, come up with authentic recipes and get involved in cooking.

“We realised we wanted to specialise in cooking because we both had an interest in the historic element of food and we started 4 and 20 Blackbirds,” said Nigel. “We had realised from the re-enactment that whenever there was a kitchen it always attracted a lot of interest. People are fascinated by watching somebody else chopping up a cabbage.”

Visitors at Ayscoughfee were able to watch the authentic production processes, the grinding and milling, as well as the cooking, done over a large fire box with cauldrons suspended on chains, and a spit, and the wood-fired bread ovens. Food is authentic too, with dishes such as wild killed rabbit, pheasant, pig and venison, as well as butter churned on site.

Julia has sourced manuscripts with copies of original 15th century recipes as well as books and DVDs, keen to keep things as authentic as possible, the only one so far she hasn’t liked a dish of herring covered in powdered sugar!

What they do is educational, and so Nigel and Julia have formed a Community Interest Company, which enables them to apply for appropriate grants. It is also quite physical work, so they are very keen on attracting new members to join them, particularly people with an interest in history and cooking.

Contact them via the website to find out more – www.4and20blackbirds.co.uk