The Buccaneer Wedding Feast

I apologise for missing more posts yet, but things are returning to a more normal schedule and I hope to be back to regular short recipes soon. Today, I want to post a little about the project that took up so much of my time:

A good friend asked me to cook for the wedding she was hosting of another good friend’s sister, both of whom are in my medieval club. This time, though, the food would not be medieval. The couple had ordered a Cuban-style roast pig from a local butcher and asked me to prepare side dishes in the buccaneer style. I’ve been working – albeit frustratingly slowly – on a cookbook based on the seventeenth-century Caribbean, so this was a good opportunity to try my recipes.

With the main meat dish covered, I decided on two additional meats for variety and to provide for guests who do not eat pork. Fish, as I originally suggested, was disliked by too many and did not make it onto the menu. Instead, I chose to fake it.

The first dish was a plastron, the meat from the back shell of a turtle, as described by Jean Baptiste Labat. Obviously, sea turtles are a protected species and thus unavailable for eating. We went with veal which is the suggested substitute in cookbooks from a time when turtles were still sold. I rubbed a piece of roast with allspice, chili, salt, and cloves, added lemon and orange juice, put some of the peel into the liquid, and slow-baked it in a covered dish. The original recipe envisions the shell filled with the liquid and baked in a slow oven. The result was not comparable, obviously, but reasonably close.

The second fake was vers du palmiste, again based on Labat’s account. He describes the technique of coating unseasoned meat in a spiced breading while it roasted several times, most precisely in his account of eating palm grubs. With a view to the children at the table, and because grubs are very hard to source, we decided to use chicken instead. Coated in a breading seasoned with pepper, nutmeg, and salt, they were easily the most universally popular item.

A third protein dish made to accommodate vegetarians, but also popular with carnivores, was scrambled eggs seasoned with bitter orange juice. This does not have any link to the Caribbean I am aware of, but is attested both in the fifteenth-century Registrum Cocinae and later in various recipe books down to modernity. Most later versions are sweetened, but that seems to be owed to the modern idea that citrus needs to be. It does not. Orange works fine with savoury dishes.

The side dishes to accompany them were less ambitious and more honest: sweet potatoes, carrots in a mustard sauce, and coconut rice. The first is described so universally that it must have been a very common dish. Alexandre Exquemelin claims that the inhabitants of Tortuga ate sweet potatoes with a chili sauce for their first meal daily. They cooked them in pots covered with cloth in very little water, a process that I approximated by steaming. There is nothing exceptional about this dish, but it went well with the other things we had.

Labat is almost lyrical in his description of the gardens of Martinique and mentions that carrots, though imported from Europe, grew extremely well there. The inhabitants, he stated, eat them in mustard sauce or cooked with meat and pureed. Since he also described mustard being a popular condiment on flibustier ships, I opted for this as a safely vegetarian option. The sauce is a simple roux, described in French sources of the time. This would have been a bit of a luxury in the Caribbean where wheat flour was expensive, but not implausible. I had hoped to add palm hearts which were cooked in the same way, but there were none to be had.

The third side dish was coconut rice, a dish described by William Dampier. The original was cooked in coconut water after chickens, so it would have absorbed a lot of chicken fat and flavour. In order to keep it vegetarian, I opted for a vegetable stock to which I added rasped coconut, coconut milk (it should have been coconut water, but again this was unavailable) and round-grain rice, which was the type then popular in Europe. Cooked slowly in a crockpot, it turned out delicous, as it always does.

We served fruit and a small salad with these dishes, artfully arranged by my friend who is much better at these things than I am. Salads were a staple of seventeenth-century festive cuisine, though they were usually much more elaborate than this, and tropical fruit is described by all European explorers with awe. Many settlers ate it so regularly and in such quantities that physicians despaired for their health.

Two sauces rounded out the meal. One was the chili sauce so universally described that it must have represented a staple, probably descended from Native American cuisine, though strongly Europeanised. Labat calls it pimentade. The basic approach was a combination of salt, lemon juice, and ground chili peppers, sometimes with an addition of fat or other spices. I opted for some fairly mild chilis (we Germans do not deal well with hot foods as any döner salesman can tell you) with just lemon juice and salt, and the result was quite good.

The other sauce was a sweet and sour avocado mash, seasoned with lemon juice and sugar as described again by William Dampier. This does not show up in other sources and I suspect it was a rather limited specialty, but it has proven universally popular not just with the plantains he recommends it with.

To contribute to the sweet course which also included large numbers of cakes from various guests, I made two kinds of marzipan. Labat describes both in different parts of his account. The first was simply a European-style marzipan substituting peanuts for almonds. Labat was not particularly fond of this, but described that settlers cook it because almonds do not grow in the Caribbean. The second, though, is something he is deeply fond of: A marzipan made with cashew nuts and cocoa nibs. I am not sure what proportion he envisions, but a ratio of 1/4 cocoa to 3/4 cashew yielded a wonderfully chocolatey, though slightly brittle mix. I was in the kitchen when these went out and cannot attest to how popular they were, but when I brought leftovers to work Monday, they disappeared very quickly.

I thoroughly enjoyed cooking all of this, meeting lovely people, and feeling welcome and appreciated. The journey by rail was more of an adventure than I would have liked – there was flood damage to several main lines, and everyone is scrambling to complete overdue repairs before the European Cup – but that is just one of the usual vexations of living in Germany. Altogether, it was a good day and I hope a proper start to married life for the lovely couple.

We will soon return you to our regularly scheduled German Renaissance programming.

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