‘I can’t believe the cook’s belted me again, his stinking beery breath shouting in my face. I only left the spit alone for two minutes to run to the toilet and it’s only blackened a little……’
I often walk in to The Great Kitchen at Stirling Castle and close my eyes, allowing myself to be transported back 500 years and wonder what life was like for those who worked there. The young boy who tended the spit all day, was he starving as he returned home having looked after the meat for Mary, Queen of Scots? Fed only on brose and thin broth? Or was he relatively well fed off the kitchen leftovers?
The recreation of the kitchen scene of the middle ages features a huge array of people going about various tasks. Baking bread, making beer, carrying venison as well as the kitchen boy generally getting skelped. Like the rest of the castle it’s a wonderful educational experience and a great family day out. Some of the foods that line the tables that would have been used for preparation would be familiar to most of us today; carrots, milk, turnips, potatoes, beef and pork. Some such as peacock and swan perhaps less so. Lying open on the recipe book stand you’ll find a few illuminated pages with details of food from the 16th Century and one in particular caught my eye, for a number of reasons. Stewed mutton. I think mutton is a most underused and underrated meat, rich, earthy and packed full of flavour and I was always going to be drawn to its promise. The other reason was the way the dish was seasoned in those days. Salt being hugely valuable and highly sought after was obviously not to be wasted on the simple sheep slow cooking over the fire. Instead lemons, pepper and sugar would impart the freshness desired by the privileged Scot of the day.
Some of the ingredients would be virtually unknown to us; sanders or red sandalwood was used to impart colour while vergious or verjuice is the juice of unripe crab apples or grapes. Therefore to try to recreate this dish in a modern context I’ve swapped sanders with smoked sweet paprika to impart both the red colour and also the smoky flavour you’d expect from something that would’ve been cooked over a wooden fire. For the vergious I’ve seen cider vinegar suggested however I used a splash of Angostura bitters as it seemed to me possibly as much bitter as sour.
16th Century Stewed Mutton
1. In a heavy based pan heat the butter and brown the mutton. Then pour over the beef broth to cover;
2. Add in the lemon, currants or raisins and a good grating of black pepper;
3. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1-2 hours until the mutton is tender;
4. Add in the paprika and sugar and stir, cook for a further couple of minutes then finish with the splash of bitters and serve.
Recipe recreated with kind permission of Historic Scotland