The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deem’d it meeter
To carry off the latter…
‘The War-Song of Dinas Vawr’, Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866)
Use bay−leaves, spices, herbs of allsorts, vinegar, cloves; and never forget pepper and salt. This advice is hidden deep within the long introduction of an early 20th century cookbook I have. This plain bound book holds recipes that appear outstanding for their profound dullness, as I find in many other historic cookbooks whose contents can appear at first sight uninspiring for a curious cook, but it just maybe that I have missed the point. The guidance is given for meat dishes and encourages elaboration of a basic recipe according to your taste. A bald recipe can look staggeringly bland but there was it was taken for granted that ‘filling the gaps’ or embellishment was in the hands of the cook.
I was encouraged by a parallel that struck me with the performance of early music (music in Western culture from earliest time to the beginning of Classical period). The ornamentation of the mostly unadorned scores with trills, passing notes, runs etc. was up to the performers’ ability and experience but also to their particular taste, and that of their audience; so it was with seasonings, herbs and spices were added to the basic recipe to suit the cook, consumers and circumstances. Baroque sonatas can exist as a single melody over a bass line on which the experienced musician would improvise harmonies. The performance of gorgeously colourful piece, with well-integrated ornamentation and scrunchy chords, can hang on a meagre-looking score – as a historic dish can on a couple of lines of text. Here is the bare manuscript of the Henry Purcell’s stirring ‘Golden Sonata’. (This makes Ivan Day, the accomplished historian/chef, the food world’s equivalent of, say, the historian/musician Christopher Hogwood.)
So when, in the course of researching other things, I came across a reference to a savoury Gower pie in Augusta Hall’s (Lady Llanover) Good Cookery (1867) its cryptic description did not deter me from realising it in modern terms; but not to the extent of Wendy Carlos’ Moog synthesizer transcriptions of Bach, at least I hope not.
There is also a dish made by the [Gower] natives which seems to evince an Eastern origin which is made of pumpkin, mutton and currants.
The ‘Eastern origin’ was perhaps mediated by the Mediterranean, for instance the Sicilian cuisine that is rich with meat, fruit and spices – as was our own mediaeval cookery. As you can see from the recipe at the end of this post, I have added some spices; some tagine spices or a coriander-rich ras el hanout mixture – a complex mixture that can include dried peppers, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and even rose buds and lavender whose flowery sweetness can work especially well with mutton. (We have such a good supply from ‘The Jolly Butchers’, little did I think I’d ever become a mutton bore. The meat currently comes from Rhossili at the end of the Gower Peninsula; sheep, as we know, have a good head for heights.)
In other parts of her cook book Lady Ll describes a technique for gently cooking, or reheating, meat without making it tough, as cooked mutton can be prone to get. By using a double boiler as a bain marie she describes a prototype sous-vide technique (without the vacuum), a method is now all the rage in certain restaurants. The diced
meat, with some finely chopped aromatics such as carrots and celery, is placed in the pan and is just covered with water or stock. Lean meat comes out very tender after about an hour or so, more fatty meat such as neck or shoulder may take twice as long (and be the tastier). The meat is then mixed with other pie ingredients and finished off under the pastry lid in the oven. I tried some lean mutton this way with some light chicken stock and the result was meltingly tender.
This book of Lady Ll’s clearly may reward further investigation. As Augusta Waddington she inherited the Llanover estate in Gwent. She married Benjamin Hall (later Lord Llanover) who was to become a MP and Commissioner of Works at the Palace of Westminster when clock tower was raised; the striking bell, Big Ben, is named after him. Lady Ll had an omnivorous passion for Welsh culture – music, folk-dancing, costume, cookery, manuscripts, poetry, etc. And, as others did in Europe in those heady nationalistic times, where there was not sufficient quantity of culture they ‘extended’ what they had. It is claimed Lady Ll more or less determined the form of
today’s national Welsh dress, in a similar way to how Sir Walter Scot ‘extended’ the Scottish tartan in the early 19th century. The important thing, it seems, was the enthusiasm for the subject. Thankfully, where there is an excess of earnestness there is balancing medium of satire, such is Thomas Love Peacock’s mixture of Errol Flynn and Men of Harlech that heads this post. ‘The War-Song of Dinas Vawr’ bloodthirstily, but gently, lampoons the romanticism of ancient manuscripts and ‘princes of old’ generally. (Removed from the context of its times, the gentle parody lived on anthologies to be merry sung by hill-walking families, as one friend recalls. It has gone on to be taken quite seriously in some quarters it seems.)
A close friend of Lady Ll’s was Caroline Lucas, later Lady Wilkinson, who may have possibly been her informant for the apparent exclusivity of Gower pumpkins, from either her Swansea family home or subsequently her rural home at the centre of the peninsula;
This fact – if fact it is – appears unknown to the current Sages of Gower, of which there are many. I will stop myself mooting possibilities and leave such conjectures to the experts. Whether Gower was the only place to grow pumpkins in the UK at that time, or how they cooked them, is unverified. My pie may be as ‘cod’ as Peacock’s parody but the one thing I can affirm is that it is delicious, and the hungry hoards of friends that have ‘glutted’ on it are of one accord on this.
Gower Mutton and Pumpkin Pie. Why post a recipe for such a wintry dish at nearly the end of April? Spring in the UK has been cancelled this year.
1kg (2.2lb) mutton, cut into rough 2cm pieces.
2 onions, finely chopped.
A sprig of fresh rosemary (or alternatively some good dried herb mixture).
Ras el hanout spice mixture, to taste.
Salt & Freshly ground black pepper.
300ml litres (1/2 pint) chicken or lamb stock.
425g (1lb) pumpkin, or butternut squash, peeled and cut into rough 2 cm chunks.
Small hand full of dried fruit; raisins, currants
(I have recently used a few golden sultanas to good effect).
Level tablespoonful of flour.
350g (12oz) pastry, rolled to about 1cm (thin 1/2 inch) thick.
1 egg, beaten.
- Tidy up the mutton and place in the double boiler, filling with stock up to the level of the meat (the meat will shrink during cooking). Simmer with the lid on until its tender, one to two hours depending on the cut of meat, just keep trying it – and of course checking the water has not boiled away. Alternatively, stew in a slow oven until tender.
- Pre-heat the oven to 200°C, Gas 6.
- Gently fry the onions and garlic in the oil and, at the end of their time, briefly add the spice mix and raisins.
- Strain the meat from the cooking liquor and mix with the onion/spice mix. Add the squash and enough of the cooking liquor (and if necessary extra stock) to cover it and simmer for 15 minutes to cook the veg. Take off the stove to let cool.
- Place the mixture in pie dish and sprinkle with the flour. Cover with the pasty, brush with egg wash, and bake for 30-40 minutes ‘til cooked.