Today, I finally get to write my account of a wonderful event that I was privileged to attend two weeks ago. This winter, I was surprised by an e-mail from Marta Sikorska, a Polish culinary histoirian of some renown. She had extended an invitation to a culinary symposium hosted by the Instytut Polski in Düsseldorf. It was part of a cycle following the seasons, and its topic was springtime in the Polish and German culinary traditions. Several eminent food scholars, among us Regina Frisch, Anna Mikolajewska, Josef Matzerath and Peter Peter, would meet to exchange ideas, present on our chosen subjects, and each provide a recipe to be combined into a menu. These recipes were forwarded to Maciej Nowicki, chef and head of culinary history education at the Wilanow Royal Palace who provided modern interpretations which we tried out together in the kitchen of the Restaurant Agata’s. The following evening, we were all called on to present our work to an appreciative audience at the museum Schloss Benrath while the kitchen team from Wilanow provided samples for tasting. It was a most excellent two days, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet all these fascinating people in person.
The recipe I presented was not new, but it recommended itself both for its seasonal context and its association with Poland via Prussia. May Cake has already featured on this blog several times, from its plain origins in the fifteenth century to its complex incarnation in the sixteenth. The version that was chosen for interpretation came from the recipe collection of Sabina Welser:
176 Take a pound of raisins, a pound of wine berries, five small pieces of May butter, a handful of hyssop, a handful of ground ivy (glechoma hederacea), some sage, about ten leaves, twice the amount of mint, a handful of costmary, about fifteen eggs and a half pound of sugar. The herbs are chopped, baked for two hours. The batter must be stirred with the herbs. For the bottom, two eggs, it must be made as though for a tart.
I had made this before, but then it was as part of an Easter feast and did not play a major role. At the hands of a master cook, it turned into something very different. A creamy custard in a crisp case rested on violet honey and caramelised nuts, with the raisins in a sweet sauce. Fresh flowers for decoration were inspired by the cibus Maiis in the libellus de lacte, another of my favourite recipes to serve as a springtime treat.
It was not, of course, a historically accurate interpretation. The filling would have been much more strongly seasoned with herbs and green from their juices. The dried fruit belonged in the cake, not alongside, and neither honey nor nuts feature in the original recipe. In a way, though, Maciej Nowicki did exactly what the cooks of the Welser family had done five centuries ago: He translated an interesting recipe into the grammar of contemporary hauite cuisine. Once this had called for raisins, figs, and sugar. Today, it requires an artful arrangement of complementing parts. And it was very good indeed. To my great regret, I had to leave the celebration just as the conversation became animated to catch a late train home. I would have loved to stay, to talk, enjoy the evening air and – have one or two more of these May Cakes.