In her hilarious mock travel guide to many bad (and some good) fantasy novels, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones has this to say about stew:“Stew (the OMTs [Official Management Terms, which is to say, clichés] are thick and savory, which translate as ‘viscous’ and ‘dark brown’) is the staple Food in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in Camp you are likely to be attacked without warning (but see Bath) and in an Inn prone to be the center of a Tavern Brawl, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.”
This reminds me that I should re-read the book, together with the novels set in the eponymous Fantasyland (Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin). There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: Patricia McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn comes to mind, where one of the characters is a scullion in a noble house in a definitely medievalish world and there is a litany of foodstuffs running through the background of those scenes.
I am minded of this by a stew I made last week, and a thinner soup that might even have made it to being a potage I made today. Last week the stew involved beef, and onions, and mushrooms (fresh and dried), and some fairly random dried cariboo meat that has been in my freezer for longer than I should admit to. It hasn’t changed in flavour in the years I’ve had it there; I tear off a piece to eat as an occasional snack, reminded of my early childhood and mindful of how completely barbaric it would strike most of my acquaintance.
Today I made a lamb stew that was neither viscous nor dark brown, though it was savoury. I had the slightly over-rare remnants of a roast leg of lamb made for supper last night, and added to it onions, rather wilted celery, garlic, a wilted leek, and some carrots that I’ve been diligently going through; they’re not my favourite vegetable, but I ended up with about eight pounds’ worth after Christmas. These I simmered for several hours and then, in a fit of enthusiasm and a desire to use up some of the large bunch of parsley I bought earlier in the week for kedgeree (apart from the kedgeree it has also been a major ingredient in a pasta dish), I made parsley dumplings.
It was actually very tasty. And I felt quite pleased, because the whole meal was something any medieval person could have eaten and enjoyed. Even the pepper would be acceptable; the Venerable Bede left some in his will in the eighth century, so I feel it’s perfectly acceptable.
Actually, now that I think of it, I put in three allspice berries, which ruins the verisimilitude slightly; allspice comes from Jamaica, so, with peppers and vanilla, is a new-world spice. But I daresay leaving them out wouldn’t have affected the flavour all that much.
Even the dumplings were good, though I am slightly concerned as to what they’ll be like tomorrow . . .