Fake Fish

Medieval apple pie for Lent

Minature of the Flood, with Noah's ArkLent: fish, fish, fish
In the Middle Ages the catholic church prescribed what was on the daily menu. Each week counted at least one day, and more often three or even four days (depending on where and when in medieval Europe) during which no meat was to be eaten. For many catholics Friday was still an obligatory 'fish day' until well into the twentieth century. In this way one was weekly reminded of Jesus who died on the cross on what we call Good Friday. Other possible days of fasting were Wednesday (because of Judas' treason) and Saturday (to honour the Virgin Mary). Together with this weekly cycle, there was also an annual cycle of fasting days: the Ember Days (these mark the beginning of the new seasons, in December, March, June and September), Advent (the four weeks before Christmas), and Lent (the six weeks between Carnival and Easter). Added together, this means that to the medieval christian, meat was prohibited foodstuff during a third to more than half of all the days in the year (even if he or she could afford it).

But why fish?

The eating of fish was allowed, Lent was not a 'vegetarian' time. A simple (perhaps too simple) explanation is that during the Biblical Flood, meant to punish mankind for its sins, all fish survived! It was clear that fish were free of all sin.
An other explanation is that meat, especially red meat, would 'heat' the human body according to the medieval health theory. This means that the body was more susceptible to lust. Medieval theologians saw a connection between the sins of the body (our 'meat') and the eating of meat. But fish on the other hand had a cooling effect on the human body. Eating fish would lessen any sinful inclinations of the consumer.
For people living near the coast, fishdays were no great hardship: seafish was easy to come by. When you lived inland you had to rely on either freshwater fish or conserved fish as stockfish and other salted and/or dried fish. Those who could afford it owned fishponds to be assured of an ample supply of freshwater fish.

The menu during Lent

During the six weeks between Carnival and Easter (the forty days of the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness, minus the Sundays) there was an extra prohibition. Not only meat, but also milk, butter, cheese and eggs were banned from the table. In February and March, at the end of winter, supplies ran low, and what was left of fruit and vegetables was old, wrinkled and mouldy (except of course for some cabbages like winter leeks and in Italy broccoli).
The staple diet consisted of bread, porridge or gruel made of grain (rye, spelt, wheat), peas (pea soup!), salted or dried vegetables, fish (fresh and preserved), onions, leeks, (old) apples, nuts, and for the wealthy dried dates, figs, raisins and currants, and almonds. Almonds were very important, because these were the basis for almond milk, almond butter, and even almond cheese. All of these were used as replacement for forbidden dairy products (let it be clear that around the Mediterranean Lent was less drastic, because in those regions the basic cooking ingredient was olive oil, not butter or animal fat). Imagine how interested the medieval cook would have been in something like vegetable margarine!
If you want to partake of Lent the medieval way, you'll have to limit yourself to one meal a day between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and abstain from all meat and dairy produce. Allowed foodstuff: fish, vegetables, legumes, grains, wine and beer, sugar and honey, fruit, dried fruits and nuts. The medieval way means that of vegetables and fruit you are only allowed those varieties that are local and in season!
You can read more about Lent on this site by Ken Collins. Also, see this article by Christina Nevin on the site of the Phillipine Society of Medieval Studies.

Lent during the seventeenth century
Here you can read more about Lent in seventeenth-century France, especially Good Friday.

The recipe for Fake Fish

Two fake fish, before and after bakingWhen you think of it, a period of six weeks in which all you get to eat besides fruit and vegetables is fish, fish and again fish is rather wearysome. It seems however that some people hadn't had enough of fish yet: a recipe for apple pie in the form of a fake fish, especially for Lent, is written down in a Middle Dutch manuscript from the end of the fifteenth century (edition). The recipe has a variation: you can also prepare mock meat in the guise of calf's ears.
The fake fish is a closed apple pie, or resembles apple dumplings, according to which size you make it. The calf's ears are deep fried pastry, formed like the ear of a calf, and filled after frying with the uncooked stuffing that is also used in the apple pie or the dumplings.

Dough for Lent
When you read the recipe given below, you will find that it does not mention any dough for the fake fish. It is just the stuffing that is described. However, in the previous recipe in the manuscript, which is for fake fish outside Lent, it is stated clearly that the apple stuffing is meant to be packed in dough, and then baked in the oven for half an hour. Moreover, the recipes before and after these fake fish are for "roffioelen", small pastries. The stuffing for fake fish outside Lent is made with apples, eggs and butter.

Recipes for dough are scarce in medieval cook books. I have taken the liberty of creating a lenten dough myself. It is a kind of puff pastry made with oil and ground almonds instead of butter and eggs. The result is a supple, elastic dough which is easy to roll out. If you add sugar this dough could also be used for modern cakes (low on cholesterol!).
In an English manuscript from the fifteenth century (edition) there is a recipe for 'hattes in lentyn' (small pastries formed like hats, with a stuffing made of fish and dried fruits). The crust is made with  "past of paryd floure knodyn with milke of almondys, & put therto a lyttyll safron". So my recipe for this pastry is not anachronism!

More recipes for Lent

You can find more medieval recipes for Lent in the edition of Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and noble food) on this site, such as apple sauce, porridge with almonds and bread, fish pasties and fake partridges. Other recipes for Lent with modern adaptations:  Apple sauce, Apple frittersBlancmange with crayfish, Spicy pea soup, Genestada, Fake eggs, Pike in galentyne, Stockfish with peas.

The original recipe
The spelling in the recipe is exactly as in the original manuscript. This means that -even for Dutch people- it will be more difficult to understand. For example, j and i were interchangeable. Read jn as in.
The manuscript, which is conserved in the Royal Academy in Gent (Belgium) as nr.15, is a convolute. It consists of several seperate smaller manuscripts, which at some point in time were bound in one volume. There were four such manuscripts, three with mainly culinary recipes, the last with medicinal recipes. The culinary parts of KA Gent 15 have been published by W.L. Braekman (edition). 
The recipe for fake fish also appears in the Nyeuwen coock boeck (New cook book) by Gerard Vorselman from 1560 (edition). More on the manuscript KANTL Gent 15 you can find in 'Ende dienet ter tafelen'. Culinaire recepten uit de Middeleeuwen ('Serve it forth'. Culinary recipes from the Middle Ages), by C. Muusers, in the volume Een wereld van kennis (A world of knowledge), pp.147-167. This contains also a number of recipes from the manuscript with an adaption.

Om gheuormde wijs te maken in die wasten ende oeck calfsoeren. To make formed fish during lent and also calf ears
stoet jn enen mortijer vijf of sees appellen schon gheschelt sonder kersel huijs ende doter jnne van ghestoten amandellen of gheroost pepercock met een luttel sofferaens ende backt dese jn olye of mackt groten wijs backse gheuerwet ende van gheghat jnden ouen Crush in a mortar five or six apples, peeled and cored. Add sugar, ginger and cinnamon, and add some pound almonds or toasted gingerbread with some saffron. Bake this in oil. Or make a big fish: bake this in the oven, painted and with some holes in it.
Item calfs oeren maeckt aldus nempt gheplet deck sausijer ronde maeckt dat dobbel ende dan slaet die tve langen eynden te samen ende dan nempt scherp eynde tussen tve wijnhgheren ende steckt jrst dat runt ende en luttel daer nae met allen ende als dit stijf is nempt dat wijt ende doet daer jnne vanden vorseyde stof sonder sieden ende dijnt dat. Calf ears are made thus: Take the flattened dough, rounded like a saucer. Make it double, and take the two long ends together. Then take the pointed end between two fingers, and put first the rounded end in [the boiling oil], and shortly afterwards the whole. Take it out when it is crunchy, and put some of the afore mentioned stuffing in it without boiling [it], and serve it.

Modern adaptation of the recipe Print the recipe
For 12 to 24 portions.

The dough
500 gram (4 1/2 cup) flour
125 gram (1/2 cup) oil (neutral of taste)
40 gram (1/3 cup) ground almonds
3 decilitre (1 1/4 cup) water
1 tsp. salt
saffron (optional)
whole or sliced almonds to make scales if you want to
The stuffing
3 apples
90 gram (1/2 cup) cane sugar 
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. saffron
2 slices gingerbread, lightly toasted en crumbled, or 40 gram (1/3 cup) ground almonds

The stuffing with apple for the fake fish.Preparation in advance
Prepare the dough by mixing all the ingredients well together. The given quantities are relative: you may have to add water or flour accorling to wether the dough is too crumbly or sticky. Knead until you have a homogenous dough. Cover with plastic foil and let it rest for an hour in the refrigerator. Half an hour before you want to roll the dough, take it out of the refrigerator.
Make the stuffing: Put everything in the blender.

Preheat the oven at 200 dgC/390 oF. Divide the dough into two. Roll out the first part to an oval form. Use a pizza roller or a knife to cut out the form of a fish. Arrange the fish on a baking tray. Sprinkle some toasted breadcrumbs on the dough, to absorb the moisture of the stuffing. Spread the stuffing on the dough, leaving free the outer rim of the dough.
Roll out the second part of the dough, and cut the second fish, which is to cover the stuffing. Make two holes in it, one where you would expect the eye of the fish, and another near the tail. Place this second fish on the stuffing, and press the rims of the two fish well together. Now you can form fins, tail, gills, scales, whatever you want, to give your fake fish a realistic appearance. 
Place the fake fish in the middle of the oven, bake for 45 to 60 minutes.

To serve
This applepie can be served either hot or cooled to room temperature. In the fifteenth century this ' fish'  would have been served alongside with real fish. Now we serve applepie for dessert, or with tea or coffee. However, this applepie is spicier then the average modern apple pie, especially when it is made with gingerbread instead of ground almonds. 

All descriptions of ingredients

"Fast"days - Actually, these were days of abstinence: fasting means not eating anything, while abstinence means not eating some things. Fasting is what Muslims do during the Ramadan between sunrise and sunset. The Christian Lent meant abstinence of all food of animal origin. Ideally there was only one meal a day. The money thus saved was not to be used for oneself, but should be given to the poor (or the church).
Gingerbread - The "peperkoek" or "ontbijtkoek" that you can buy in Dutch supermarkets is made of rye flour, honey and spices. Although probably not the same thing as meant in the original recipe, it can be used as a substitute. But, since the recipe mentions ground almonds as an alternative, you could use these instead.
Saffron - The orange-red stigmas of a crocus. In medieval times (as in modern times) it was used to colour dishes yellow. When using gingerbread in this recipe instead of ground almonds, you can leave out the saffron. The colouring of saffron is too subtle to compete with the dark colour of toasted gingerbread.
Ground almonds - You can buy ground almonds (they are the main component of marzipan), or grind the almonds yourself. Ground almonds are used in the same way as grated coconut is: you can make almond milk, to thicken sauces with. The almond milk can also be used to make almond butter (like peanut butter!). During Lent almond milk was an important substitute for milk and eggs in recipes.
To make almond milk you add to 150 gram ground almonds 1 litre water. Let soak for twenty minutes. Pass through a sieve with a piece of cloth in it. The drained and squeezed liquid is the almond milk (You can repeat the process with the same almonds to obtain more milk). The used ground almonds can be recycled: add them to dough or other (medieval) dishes. When you have to grind the almonds yourself, let 120 gram almonds soak several hours in 1 litre water, then crush them with the water in a blender. Sieve this in a sieve with a piece of cloth in it.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • Manuscript Koninklijke Academie der Nederlandse taal- en Letterkunde (KANTL), Gent (Belgium) sign. 15
    The first volume of the convolute: W.L. Braekman, "Een belangrijke middelnederlandse bron voor Vorselmans’ Nyeuwen Coock Boeck (1560)". In: Volkskunde 87 (1986) pp. 1-24. The recipe for Fake Fish is on p.64
    The second and third volumes of the convolute: W.L. Braekman, Een nieuw zuidnederlands kookboek uit de vijftiende eeuw. Scripta 17, Brussels, 1986.
    Christianne Muusers, "'Ende dienet ter tafelen'. Culinaire recepten uit de Middeleeuwen", In: Een wereld van kennis  Ed. Verloren, Hilversum, 2002, pp.147-167, with some recipes and adaptations of these recipes
    A digital diplomatic edition of this manuscript is in progress.
  • Manuscript Universiteitsbibliotheek, Gent (Belgium) sign. 476
    Manuscript UB Gent 476: Ria Jansen-Sieben and Johanna Maria van Winter, De keuken van de late Middeleeuwen (Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 1998, second, revised edition; or. 1989)
  • Gheeraert Vorsselman, Eenen nyeuwen coock boeck
    Gheeraert Vorselman, Eenen nyeuwen coock boeck. Edition E. Cockx-Indestege, Eenen nyeuwen coock boeck. Kookboek samengesteld door Gheeraert Vorselman en gedrukt te Antwerpen in 1560. Wiesbaden, 1971
  • Universiteit Yale, sign. Beinecke 163
    Yale University, Beinecke 163, editie: An Ordinance of Pottage: An Edition of the 15th Century Culinary Recipes in Yale University's MS Beinecke 163. Editie Constance B. Hieatt. (Londen, 1988). The recipes for ' hattes' (nrs 112 and 113) on p.80.