To Roast a Pike

A pike roasted in front of the fire according to the directions in Elizabeth Birkett Here Booke 1699. It is stuffed with pickled herring, herbs, spices, anchovies, butter and garlic.
I am currently working on a project at a wonderful seventeenth century house not far from where I live in the Lake District in a stunning village called Troutbeck. The property, which is called Townend Farm, is now in the ownership of the National Trust, but for many centuries was the former home of the Brown family. The Browns were 'statesmen', a local term for farmers who were proprietors of their own land. Statesmen farmers were a fiercely independent bunch who valued education. The Browns were no exception. Over many generations they built up an extensive library and never threw anything away. A vast collection of their domestic papers has survived, leaving a remarkable record of the minutiae of domestic life in this beautiful house over nearly four centuries. 

Townend Farm, Troutbeck, Cumbria - perhaps the best surviving example of a Lake District statesman's house.
Among the papers is a small hand written collection of medical, domestic and cookery recipes which was compiled in 1699 by Elizabeth Birkett, also from Troutbeck, who married the house's owner Benjamin Brown in 1702. With my help, the National Trust are using this book, which is now on display at Townend, to interpret the domestic life of the house as it was in Elizabeth's day. I have trained the staff to cook some of her recipes in the 'downhouse' (kitchen), so every Thursday visitors are treated to  'A Taste of Townend'. I have also set up the 'firehouse' (best room) with a table laid with typical dishes of early eighteenth century Lakeland. One of these is a replica of Elizabeth's roast pike recipe. In order to make this very convincing replica, I had first to roast a real pike using her directions.
Elizabeth's 1699 recipe for roasting pike, a fish which has always been plentiful in the English Lakes.
Although they are displayed in front of a nineteenth century fireplace, the cob irons and spit in this photograph date from the lifetime of Elizabeth Birkett. It is just the sort of arrangement that could have been adapted for roasting a large fish such as a pike.
This wainscot chair is carved with the initials of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brown and 1702 - the date of their marriage. It was however, carved much later than this.
To roast a large fish like a pike on a spit requires a technique sometimes called 'splinting' which involves lashing hazel wands around the fish to create a cage. This  prevents the fish falling off when it starts to cook and become fragile. Elizabeth must have used this method, though she does not mention it in her recipe. A very full account of the technique was given by Isaac Walton in The Compleat Angler (London: 1653) in a recipe which is very similar to that of Elizabeth. However, Walton suggests filling the pike's belly with oysters, while Elizabeth gives the alternative of pickled herring. I have tried both recipes and they are equally good. I always use Walton's directions to splint the fish with lathes and filleting.

Isaac Walton (1594-1683) by Jacob Huysmans. 
Here are Walton's directions -

'First, open your Pike at the gills, and if need be, cut also a little slit towards his belly; out of these take his guts, and keep his liver, which you are to shred very small with Time, Sweet-margerome and a little Winter-savoury; to these put some pickled Oysters, and some Anchovies two or three, both these last whole (for the Anchovies will melt, and the Oysters should not); to these you must adde also a pound of sweet butter, which you are to mix with the herbs that are shred, and let them all be well salted (if the Pike be more than a yard long, then you may put into these herbs more than a pound, or if he be lesse, then lesse Butter will suffice): these being thus mixt with a blade or two of Mace, must be put into the Pikes belly, and then his belly sowed up, and so sowed up, as to keep all the Butter in his belly if it be possible, if not, then as much of it as you possible can, but take not off the scales; then you are to thrust the spit through his mouth out at his tayl, and then with four, or five, or six split sticks, or very thin lathes, and a convenient quantity of Tape or Filliting, these lathes are to be tyed round about the Pikes body from his head to his tayl, and the Tape tyed somewhat thick to prevent his breaking or falling off from the spit, let him be roasted very leasurely, and often basted with Claret wine, and Anchovyes, and Butter mixt together, and also with what moisture falls from him into the pan: when you have roasted him sufficiently you are to hold under him (when you unwind or cut the Tape that tyes him) such a dish as you purpose to eat him out of; and let him fall into it with the sawce that is rosted in his belly, and by this means the Pike will be kept unbroken and compleat: then to the sawce, which was within, and also in the pan, you are to adde a fit quantity of the best Butter, and to squeeze the juyce of three or four Oranges: lastly, you may either put into the Pike with the Oysters, two cloves of Garlick, and take it whole out, when the Pike is cut off the spit, or to give the sawce a hogo, let the dish (into which you let the Pike fall) be rubbed with it: the using or not using of this Garlick is left to your discretion.'

From Isaac Walton, The Compleat Angler (London: 1653).
A Windermere pike about to be lashed to a spit with a cradle made of hazel lathes and tape (filleting).
The pike roasts in front of the fire/
A salmon cooked using the same method. This was roasted at Gainsborough Hall a few months ago. Note the similarity of the cob irons to those at Townend Farm.
A pike roasted to Elizabeth's recipe and garnished with jagged Seville oranges.
The pike for the Townend table
A special occasion dinner in the Townend Firehouse
A recipe for a sauce for boiled pike in Elizabeth's hand, but given to her by Lady Winifred Strickland of Sizergh Hall. 
Winifred Trentham Lady Strickland, by William Wissing. Courtesy NT. 
Elizabeth's recipe book contains a number of old charms for various ailments that would have been frowned upon as 'papist' in late seventeenth century Westmorland. There are also a number of recipes from local Catholic recusant families such as the Braithwaites of Burneside and most notably from the Stricklands of Sizergh Hall. I have reproduced Madame Strickland's sawce for boyld pike above. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Lord and Lady Strikland went into exile in France with James II. It is possible that Elizabeth's family were Catholics. I will deal with some Elizabeth's other recipes in future postings.

Visit Townend Farm website

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to speak on food stamps and hunger at Tufts April 11

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) will give the keynote speech Friday April 11, 4pm, at a Tufts University conference titled "Food Stamps and Hunger in America."

The event is part of the annual "Issues of the Future" conference organized by Tufts Democrats. Rep. McGovern is a leading advocate in Congress on behalf of U.S. nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Chapter 10 in Food Policy in the United States addresses "Hunger and Food Insecurity," including links to many other readings and data resources. On this blog, related material can be found under the tags for SNAP and hunger. For example, a 2011 data visualization shows how SNAP participation ebbs and flows with the changing macroeconomy.

The dilemma of fair trade bananas

At Civil Eats yesterday, Aliza Wasserman explains the dilemma for the public interest entrepreneurs who are developing a fair trade banana market. The article describes a recent conference at Tufts University.

The most difficult question is whether fair trade bananas should come only from smallholders and cooperatives (preserving fair trade principles but limiting scale), or instead whether fair trade sourcing should allow larger plantations so long as they follow the stipulated principles (sacrificing a small-is-best principle but achieving a larger share of the total market).

Wasserman writes:
Fair Trade banana plantations have also been crucial to building a robust supply of Fair Trade bananas. Plantations represent both a key challenge and opportunity, by providing the promise to impact the broader industry and bring Fair Trade bananas to a larger consumer base. Nearly everyone at the conference hoped to impact the broader industry, whether they are focused on the future of small-scale or “smallholder” farmers, or the overall future of Fair Trade bananas.

But many of the presenters felt that the current pricing system, in which the Fair Trade certifying bodies, like Fair Trade International or FLO, distribute the same premium to plantation owners and small landholders alike, represents a major flaw in the system. Many in the industry believe that cooperatives of small producers should receive a premium that is linked to their higher cost of production relative to plantations, which can take advantage of economies of scale. Yet, the first banana producer to receive Fair Trade certification was a plantation, and scaling up Fair Trade would not be possible without them.
While a student at the Friedman School, Wasserman was a regular contributor to the U.S. Food Policy blog.

What if Walmart paid employees enough to avoid food stamps?

I enjoyed this video for sharp writing, clarity of data presentation, and measured tone.

While still relying on economic markets for a thriving food economy, we nonetheless can expect our major grocery chains to do better on wages. No matter what one thinks of the proposed federal minimum wage increase, it is clear that the nation's leading employers should face binding social norms that constrain them to pay wages that reach a certain threshold.

What should the threshold be? It is possible that some threshold would be too high, counter-productively putting grocery companies out of business. But, this video focuses on a much more humble and minimal threshold. At the very least, major grocery chains should pay wages sufficiently high to keep workers off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rolls.

Farmers want immigration reform

Nobody understands better than farmers that immigrants to the United States are real people and hard workers, not a caricature.

When the leadership of the House of Representatives last year nearly failed to pass the farm programs, conservation programs, and nutrition programs in the farm bill, it showed that farmers had lost much political influence in the House. Similarly, as ferociously anti-immigrant views recently have blocked immigration reform in the House, farmers again feel the loss of their political influence.

Greg Sargent in the Washington Post this week described the views of Craig Regelbrugge, the co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform:
“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”
Likewise, the Post quoted Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League:
“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy [McMorris Rodgers of Washington], move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”
Not all Republicans are anti-immigrant, just those who pander to certain constituencies that use terrible anti-immigrant rhetoric to block reform in the House. In more ordinary times, many farmers have voted Republican, and they likely will do so again in the future. I follow the carefully non-partisan work of the AGree agricultural policy initiative on this issue.

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