Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I cry in supermarkets. This shouldn’t surprise regular readers who’ll know my emotion gland can be overwhelmed by the simplest of things. There’s a three-fold complexity to my feelings about supermarkets. Firstly, it’s the rudeness of fellow shoppers with barging tendencies unable to understand those like me with weak decision making skills. Secondly it’s my lack of decision making skills and wanting to taste everything despite there only being three meals in a day and seven of those days between shopping trips.

But thirdly, and primarily it’s what supermarkets represent. Weeping in the cheese aisle amongst the crumbly varieties with county names, the Lancashires, Cheshires, Cheddars. I thought about the history of those cheeses, the heritage and how centuries of tradition now sit wrapped in plastic for our convenience with labels designed to attract us with an idealised version of the history, the heritage, the centuries of tradition. The answer is to purchase such at farmers markets, but supermarkets are convenient, which also make me inadequate.

Unfortunately The Shakespeare Cookbook by historian Andrew Dalby and cook Maureen Dalby goes some way to increasing that inadequacy, since although I’m not necessarily a terrible cook I’m an unpractised one which means there’s little chance of the recipes listed being anything like the mental pictures they conjure (another reason for the supermarket tragedy). Luckily then, it’s much more than that, the authors utilising a number of contemporary sources to offer a taste (sorry) of eating habits and favourite dishes in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

The Shakespeare connection involves ransacking the plays and their sources for food references and extrapolating those out into explanations for the surprisingly large variety of dishes which were available in the period, some of which are now available in supermarkets but many entirely alien to our tastebuds, though it’s almost disappointing Baxters don’t produce a tinned variety of Swan Chauder. As well as quoting from a variety of cookbooks (most of them now available online), the authors also provide contemporary equivalents for modern chefs to try.

For Hamlet, that’s the feast Hamlet refers to when question Horatio on his appearance in Elsinore, “Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” The Dalbys aren’t sure if the prince is speaking literally but we’re quickly introduced to the food he’s referring to, “cooked meats” being pies, the pastry cases before filling fittingly, given the themes of the play, called “coffins”. We’re then provided with recipes for hot water crust pastry and shortcrust pastry neither of which seem that complicated even though they undoubtedly are.

Given my culinary inadequacy I’m probably not the best judge of whether this works as a cookbook. Structurally it’s unusually set out, with chapters themed around various plays with a short introduction focusing on various textual victuals, either metaphoric or consumed on stage followed by short pieces explaining these various elements, some more tenuous than others. Would a serious foody want these recipes to be more conventionally clustered around the usual headings, starters, meat dishes, fish dishes, deserts and drinks?

But if the book has a particular strength its that it doesn’t just rely on Shakespeare for illustrative quotes featuring when necessary works by his contemporaries, with Middleton’s The Witches allowing us to see what may have been on the Macbeth’s table during Banquo’s visitation and a rousing speech from Maid Marion in Jonson’s unfinished Robin Hood play The Sad Shepherd providing a glimpse of the Bohemian sheep-shearing feast in A Winter’s Tale. And when that fails they quote from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which shows an eclectic attention to detail.

Whether any of this will improve or deteriorate further my ability to visit supermarkets without it becoming some great personal tragedy will be hard to tell. Perhaps the trick will be to select a recipe at random, wait a moment, yes, hodgepot, gather the ingredients and make an attempt. The authors replace marigold flowers with saffron so that seems perfectly doable. Perhaps I’ll report back. But until then at least when I see marchpane, or rather marzipan on the shelf, I’ll know it’s always been a convenience food, even in Shakespeare’s day.

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby is out now from the British Museum Press.  RRP £10.99.  ISBN: 978-0714123356.  Review copy supplied.

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