Tuesday, 27 December 2016

First, fix the problems

I've already made most of a complete outfit for my Basket Project, even though I never posted about it. Sorry about that. We'll talk about the foundation garments another day, but there were four major issues with the outer frock. Conveniently, they're all visible in this photo:
Courtesy of Lord Richard of Salesburie
The first is that I had a fairly spectacular geometry failure when I was putting in the gores. I wanted to use up all my fabric and have plenty of swish, so I made three-panel gores instead of two. As gores are right-angle triangles, this meant that I ended up with panels that were different lengths on both sides. That's why the bottom hem has those funky corners.

Two options here. One, I could piece on more fabric to fill in the gaps. Two, I could trim the bottom edge all the way around to even it up. I decided to trim it, since I had used up every scrap of the fabric when I originally made the frock. End result is a shorter frock, but some of the ladies in the manuscript have shorter overfrocks that reveal the contrast colour underneath.

Inevitably, this fix led to another problem - the underfrock I'm wearing is pieced. Shortening the overfrock as much as I needed to meant that the join became visible, so I had to take that apart and shorten it, too.

Second problem is less visible - the neckline. It's supposed to be almost like a boat neck. What I ended up with was more of a scoop.

It's not a good look. Also, it falls off my shoulders. This is a pretty easy fix - I've just shortened the shoulders to create a neck opening that's a much shallower curve, little more than a slit across the top.

Third problem is those sleeves. They are not supposed to be loose and baggy, but very tightly fitted. Also, they're too long. Easily fixed - take them off, cut them to be fractionally larger than the sleeves of the underfrock  (which I managed to get just right), rehem, reattach.

Incidentally, issues like this are one of the best things about the "hem then assemble" school of garment construction. If I'd seamed the sleeves, I would have had to unpick the felling the whole way around the armscye and down the side seam, undo the hem, fix the sleeves, reseam and then fell the whole thing again. This way I just had to snip one stitch and pull out the single thread. Reassembly just means whipping it back into place and shortening the side seam.

Final problem wasn't so much a construction failure as it was a timetabling failure. All of the frocks in the manuscript that have these short fitted sleeves also have fur-lined tippets. I got as far as sewing the fur onto the backing fabric (largely due to the assistance of my mother!) but never sewed them on.

And the whole fixed outfit, looking rather more respectable!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Sneaky Vegan Feast

A few months back Boss Laurel was making noises about how difficult it would be to put together a feast for an event that was a) entirely made of dishes/ingredients from pre-1600 recipes; b) entirely vegan; c) tasty enough that it would be enjoyed by meat eaters. This inevitably pushed my "challenge accepted" button, which I'm sure will surprise no-one. I spent a few hours poking through my cookbooks and concluded that while it would be difficult, it wouldn't be impossible.

I'd committed to cooking for Yuletide University and ran the idea of a vegan feast past the event steward. She liked the idea and gave me the go-ahead, so I set out to make it happen.

I decided to go with Arabic food embodied in al-Warraq for a few reasons. First, I just really like the food from that cookbook, and whenever I've worked from it before it's been well received. Second, I knew there was an entire chapter on "simulated dishes Christians eat during Lent" (i.e. substitutions for meat). Third, I wanted my guests to have as few expectations about what the meal would be like as possible. European food, particularly early food, tends to be very meat-focal. And medieval recipes aren't really that different to modern ones. I was concerned that if people sat down and ate something from a meat-and-two-veg cuisine, they'd be emotionally dissatisfied even if it was tasty and nutritionally complete. Arabic food is exotic enough that most of my guests wouldn't have an instinct of what it 'should' look and taste like.

At this point I sat down with al-Warraq and started marking things that sounded good. There's a lot in al-Warraq that sounds good, just as an aside.

Once I'd put together a longlist, I started pulling together a rough outline of the feast. I knew I wanted to start with an assortment of nibbly things on the tables per the chapter on "seasonal fruits and fruits served before the meal". I knew I needed a LOT of flatbread. I knew I wanted a couple of vegetable dishes, a couple of protein dishes, a sweet dish, and a centrepiece dish. I also wanted a good mix of textures and colours, as well as things served both hot and cold. My goal was to select dishes that would counter the stereotype that all vegan food is bland, boring, and full of lentils!

One of the recipes I initially passed over was a recipe for fried truffles. And then I came back to it. You see, normally two-thirds to three-quarters of a feast budget is taken up by animal products - meat, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, honey. Once you take out all of those ingredients, you have a LOT more money to play with. I decided to build this feast around a centrepiece of truffles, because how could I not?!

After a lot of feedback from an assortment of awesome people and a bunch of testing, the menu I ended up with was this:

  • Dried apricots and figs
  • Fresh green grapes
  • Olives
  • Toasted walnuts
  • Flatbread
  • Tahini
  • Cold aubergine salad dressed in sauce
  • Hot boiled cabbage dressed in [a different] sauce
  • Dish of white beans with mustard
  • Lentil stew
  • Lenten “omelets” made of chickpeas
  • Coconut milk rice pudding
  • Fried truffles with fried onions
  • Fried mushrooms with fried onions
  • Spiced apple conserves
  • Sliced fresh radishes

There were two other dishes that didn't make the final cut. One, walnut crepes, I ditched for being too fiddly. The other, a simulated shrimp paste made from lentils, was so nasty that neither Spouse nor I could eat it. No way was I serving that!

Redactions with commentary next. This section is pretty long, so if you just want the reactions and reflections, scroll down to the bottom. 

Rather than serving distinct courses, I sent out dishes in a fairly constant stream. This was deliberate - I didn't want the disruption of the break between courses to remind people of what wasn't there. The redactions are just my working outlines, as sent to the kitchen crew. Page numbers in brackets for the original recipes in the edition linked above.

Dried fruit and grapes and walnuts are on the table to start the meal, as are bowls of tahini and hummus. I also had olives and bowls of salt on the table. The olives were a bonus - the event steward had a partial jar of them she wanted to use up. The salt should really have been flavoured with spices, but all of the recipes called for asafoetida, which I'm unfortunately allergic to.

Flatbreads go out on platters throughout as needed. No change here. I used bought naan bread because making flatbread generates smoke, and the site's smoke detectors are stupidly sensitive.

Sliced radishes go out at the end of the meal as a palate cleanser. Store in water in the fridge until served. Could have skipped these. People were too full to want them!

Truffles - fry in their own oil with a little salt, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Serve on a bed of onions fried in the same oil with some crushed almonds. (p. 343) I had a moment of idiocy while cooking the lentils and mushrooms, so the truffles just got done with black pepper. As strong as they are, it's not like they needed the extra flavour!

Mushrooms - exactly as with the truffles, but use sesame and olive oil for half the batch (in case people don’t like truffle oil.) No cumin in the mushrooms because I accidentally put all of it in the lentils. Oops. I decided to do mushrooms because I couldn't afford enough truffles to be a dish in their own right. They were a tasting dish. The mushrooms compensated for that and also allowed people who weren't into truffles to have some of the luxury dish.

Apple conserves - peel, core, and chop. Bring a large pot of water to the boil with white sugar and a small amount of vinegar. Add the apples. Turn down the heat and cook gently until the apples soften into mush. Throw in the pot of mixed spices Constanza is bringing over. Throw in saffron just before serving. (p. 486) The spices in question were cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, mace, and nutmeg. There should have been spikenard, too, but it's impossible to find. I also forgot to put the saffron in, so ended up using it in the lentils.

White beans - boil tinned cannellini beans for 25 minutes. Drain and coarsely mash. Add vinegar, salt, olive oil, and fresh mustard (see recipe). (p. 295) Doesn't sound like much, but this dish is SO GOOD. It's really strongly flavoured and tastes great with flatbread. Heated the beans in the oven because there wasn't room on the top of the cooker.

Mustard - combine equal parts ground mustard seeds and ground walnuts. Moisten with vinegar until it has the consistency of mustard sauce. Add a little salt. (p. 196) Strictly speaking, after mixing the ingredients one ought to sieve them. The resulting liquid is the mustard and the solids get mixed with other ingredients to make another sauce. However, as I didn't need any of the other sauce, I just left the liquid and solid mixed together.

Lentil stew - wash and pick over red lentils. Cook lentils with chopped garlic and cumin in vegetable stock until the lentils become soft. (p. 293) One kilo of red lentils (which bizarrely turn green when you stew them), about a tablespoon of cumin, three heads (yes really) of garlic, 7 vegetable stock cubes, and a teaspoon of saffron threads. Although this was supposed to be a thicker dish, one of the kitchen crew got a little carried away adding water to the pan. It turned into a creamy thin soup, almost like a puree. Mad props to the kitchen team who convinced me that the consistency was a feature, not a bug.

Rice pudding - wash rice and soak overnight in enough coconut milk to cover. The next day, bring to boil enough water to scantily cover the rice (but don’t put the rice in yet!). Once it has boiled, add the rice and the coconut milk, along with some sesame oil and white sugar. If it dries out before the rice is properly cooked, add a little more coconut milk. It should be sticky, not runny - all the liquid should absorb into the rice. (p. 262) Due to a logistics problem, we didn't have enough saucepans and had to do this in the oven. Turned out really tasty, though. The coconut milk is a substitute for regular milk as described in the chapter on simulated dishes.

Chickpea omelets - boil tinned chickpeas until they get soft enough to mash. (Or cheat and use the wet grinder.) Add some minced boiled onion to the chickpea mash, along with a small amount of olive oil, ground almonds and walnuts, black pepper, and some xanthan gum. Pour the mixture into a frying pan and cook it in a little olive oil until it’s done and resembles a real omelet. (p. 236) Forgot to add the onions. These bore no resemblance whatsoever to actual omelets, but they were incredibly tasty. Used xanthan gum because I couldn't find any food grade gum arabic in time. The addition of ground nuts to the mixture was based on the recipes for egg-based omelets on p. 326.

Aubergines - boil, drain thoroughly, chill. Chop just before serving and dress with sauce of vinegar, caraway, cinnamon, galangal, mint, parsley, salt to taste. Add oil to dressing just before serving. (Both the aubergine and cabbage recipes are taken from the chapter on cold bawarid.) If you describe cold boiled aubergine as a salad, people will generally have a go at it. Which is good, because it's incredibly tasty.

Cabbage - Chop, boil. Dress with sauce of vinegar, white sugar, ground almonds, caraway, cinnamon. Also very tasty. Strictly speaking the cabbage should have been chilled, but I decided that one chilled boiled vegetable was probably pushing my luck, let alone two.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the feast was received. I hadn't announced the vegan nature of the food in advance, and I'm told that some of the guests didn't actually realize it was vegan until it was pointed out to them. One person said, "I've just eaten a vegan feast and I'm not angry about it. Good work." Which is a pretty nice compliment, actually!

The lentil soup was the surprise star of the show. The serving dish came back so clean we could probably have gotten away without washing it, and the only criticism I heard was that there wasn't more of it.

I got the impression people were intrigued by the truffles, although they definitely weren't to everyone's taste. Still, the very scanty leftovers were snapped up the next day.

The rice pudding was meant to have gone out in the middle of the feast, but because it had to be done in the oven ended up going out last, accompanied by the apple conserves. Consequently, we had more rice left over than I had expected - everyone was too full to eat much of it!

If I'd known how well the meal was going to be received, I'd probably have skipped the rice pudding and apple conserves. Instead, I'd have rounded off with some of the chewy candies elsewhere in the book and possibly coffee. It would have made the whole thing more nicely balanced. That said, I was counting on the rice pudding to be something inoffensive and tasty for anyone who was too put off by the weirder stuff.

Overall? I'd say it was a complete success. I'd have liked to have spent more time practising the recipes beforehand, and at some point I want to return to the omelets. I have a plan to make some of al-Warraq's egg omelets so that I can see what I'm aiming for, consistency-wise. Once I've got that figured out I can start playing around with different quantities of liquid and gum.

Addendum - would you believe there was milk powder in the wretched naan bread I bought? Should have just dealt with the smoke detectors and made my own from al-Warraq's recipe. Bah.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The next thing

There's always a "next thing". In this case, it's a mostly-needlework project that I'm hoping will be completed by the end of next July in time for our major SCA camping trip.

Among attendees there's a tendency to have more and more stuff every year. There are some who have so much in the way of equipment and furniture that they have to hire a van to get it all there. That's absolutely fine if you can manage it, and if I'm perfectly honest I'd love to do that myself. For lots of reasons (starting with no driving license and ending with very little storage space) I can't, however. So, this year, instead of wrestling with the limits of a small flat and public transport, I've decided to embrace it and have a completely different Raglan experience.

Instead of channelling my inner noblewoman, with her baggage train, servants, and travelling bed, I'm going to try channelling someone from a lower walk of life - a merchant. I could still travel, but instead of bringing my accomodation with me I'd be relying on inns. And as for baggage, I'd be limited to what I could carry myself (or get a packhorse). That being the case:

I did a little shopping at the re-enactors' market this weekend!

My new basket looks smaller than it actually is - it's the full length of my torso and a bit larger around. The plan is to take only the personal equipment that I can carry in the basket or wear on my body. Well, that plus my longbow, of course. I'll also have the tent and camping bed I share with my spouse serving as a substitute inn.

As for the specifics of what goes in the basket... Well, that's where the needlework comes in. Most of the clothing I own is rather bulky, or comes from a time and/or place where I can't prove the use of such baskets for transporting goods. That being the case I'm planning to put together a new wardrobe, because why wouldn't I?!

I'm working entirely from Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, which is an illuminated version of the Romance of Alexander originating in France from between 1338 and 1344. It contains a vast number of illustrations, and is rather unusual because it shows both lower class people (in the marginal decorations) and the nobility (in the body of the text), giving a much better idea of how clothing changed at that time and place according to rank.

The plan is to have around 5 linen shifts, three or four linen underdresses, and two or three wool overdresses. Additionally, I'll need veils, hose, a belt, shoes, and things like a bowl and an eating knife. Collectively it shouldn't take up more than a third of the basket, which will leave space for extra things like my quiver and arrows.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Constanza's chocolate science, as served at Raglan Fair XII

This article previously appeared in the September issue of the Baelfyr.

In the lead-up to Raglan Fair, I took part in an online course called A History of Royal Food and Feasting, put together by the University of Reading and the Historic Royal Palaces. One of the sections was on drinking chocolate, primarily during the reign of George I, but also included earlier history of this luxury food.

A major component of the course was practical work making the foods (and drinks!) discussed. One of the ones that particularly interested me was a recipe for chocolate wine by John Nott from his Cook’s Dictionary of 1726. This recipe was described as indicative of chocolate wine recipes. I didn't have time to make it before I left (and foolishly forgot to write down the recipe), so my version was an approximation. Still, it tasted good, and the proportions were nearly right! 

Original recipe:
Take a pint of sherry, or a pint and a half of red port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce
of white starch, or fine flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these as before. But, if your chocolate be with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar; and so in all.

My attempt (For Science!)

4 100g bars of 85% cocoa solids plain chocolate (Course notes stated that it was important to use chocolate of at least 80% cocoa solids. Mine came from Tesco; Hotel Chocolat sell 100% bars.)
1 bottle of decent port
4 tablespoons of white sugar (approximately - I poured it in and tasted it until it stopped being so bitter I couldn't drink it)
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of ginger (I honestly don't know where I got the idea that there were meant to be spices in it, but put them in I did.)

Dissolve the chocolate over a low heat, stirring with a whisk. You could use a bain marie, but it worked perfectly well in a saucepan over a gas ring. Once the chocolate is completely dissolved, slowly add the port, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the chocolate and port have combined smoothly. Add the sugar and spices. Pour into a jug and serve hot.

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Back when Boss Laurel and I set up this apprenticeship malarkey, there were terms and conditions. One of the things I had to do was make myself an apprentice belt. (Context for the non-SCA readers - there's a tradition within the Society that apprentices wear belts, usually green, to mark their status. Frequently the belt is a gift from the Laurel to the apprentice, but not always.)

The belt didn't have to be green, in my case, but I had to make it myself. And when I say "make it myself", I mean I had to do all the steps the craftsperson would have done in the Middle Ages. So, had I made a leather belt, I could have bought a metal buckle, but I'd probably have had to tan my own leather.

The mission was further complicated by two things. One - I don't like wearing belts. Two - I already have two green apprentice belts, both of which were gifts from dear friends and are what I wear all the time. So whatever I made needed to be not at all belt-like and also not duplicate the function of either of the others I already own.

I put the whole thing on the back burner, mostly to give myself time to mull it over and figure out what I'd actually wear. Then the 16th century happened and I basically made myself a new court outfit in the style of the English 1540s. What I never did get around to making for it was a jewelled girdle, because jewelry-making is WAY outside my comfort zone. Also, it's expensive, and it's hard to find table-cut gemstones.

Then I came across this portrait and found another option:
Copyright the Royal Collection
Specifically, this bit of it:
Looking at it closely, it's essentially a string of pearls with a chain and medallion hanging off the front. Even I can manage that!

I set off to my favourite crack dealer needlework supply shop and came home with an assortment of artificial pearls, gold beads, and gold chain. I had considered threading all of it on silk, but I want this to be sturdy enough to survive more than one event, so I decided to buy tiger tail. The nylon component is modern, but jewelry on wire is accurate.

Once I got home, I spent mumble-mumble hours with a bead reamer smoothing the insides of the beads. Again, this is for long-term survival of the girdle - any sharp edges run the risk of wearing through the wire.

There's no clasp visible in the painting, but it has to fasten somehow. I've used a hook and eye and put them at the front of the pearl strand - it'll be easier to put the girdle on, and it means I can use the hook to attach the chain and pendant.

I've used the gold beads to space out the pearls because the shop didn't have enough pearls in the right size to fit my waist.

The pendant is a silver and garnet Christmas decoration my mother bought me in Istanbul years ago. It needs a good polish, but it's pretty and does a good impression of the pomander pendants on many of the girdles shown in portraits.

And finally, the finished girdle.

Photos with the full outfit next month - it takes nearly an hour to get into it, and I need assistance from someone better with hoopskirts than my spouse!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Exhibition review - Opus Anglicanum at the V&A

Yesterday evening I went to the members' preview of the new Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A, courtesy of my lovely colleague. It was, in a word, amazing. No photos allowed, sadly, so this will have to be words only.

The exhibition itself fills about five rooms of the museum's flexible exhibition space. It comprises 83 objects, mostly embroideries, but also a nice range of stained glass, needlework tools, tiles, and brass rubbings (among other things!). The objects are nicely spaced out, so there's plenty of room to look around. Also, many of the cases are glass on both sides so you can see all the way around the objects. The signage and labelling is also really good, plenty of information about the thread AND the ground fabric, including notes about the weave structure. There was one button I wanted to know more about, but that was the only problem.

The embroideries themselves are mostly ecclesiastical, but there are also pieces from court inventories as well as fragments too small to identify. They span about 350 years, with most of the collection dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. In addition to the more usual gold-and-silk on linen, there are also examples of some more unusual things, including a seal bag that is the only known extant piece of medieval English wool inlaid work (on loan from Westminster Abbey, no webpage available), and a chasuble which is the earliest known example of kanzi fabric in England. (Kanzi is an Iranian blend with a silk warp and cotton weft.) The objects on display are from a number of collections outside the V&A, including the British Library and the National Museum of Iceland, among others.

The lighting is low for preservation purposes, and as mentioned above there was no photography permitted. Plan to bring a sketchbook if you're not going to get the catalogue.

Speaking of the catalogue, it's 310 pages of hardcover, full-colour yumminess, well worth the £35 price tag. It weighs nearly 2kg, but it was definitely worth hauling home. In addition to the full catalogue, there are also eight essays detailing the context of Opus Anglicanum, its methods of work, the materials used, and the relationship between the English embroidery industry and the rest of Europe. There's a full glossary and an extensive bibliography. Additionally, each catalogue entry has its own set of citations where the object has previously been studied.

In summary, I'll paraphrase my excited Facebook post from last night:

If you are interested in historic embroidery. If you are interested in historic textiles generally. If you are interested in any sort of embroidery. If you are interested in heraldic display. If you are interested in 13th-century trade networks. If you are interested in ceremonial clothing. If you are interested in the relationship between medieval embroidery design and its contemporary artworks. GO.

Monday, 5 September 2016

In which I muse on curtains and growing up

I grew up in a home filled with handmade textiles. My mother made most of the soft furnishings, everything from blankets to tablecloths to embroidered guest hand towels. And that doesn't even cover the decorative things like tapestry cushions and Christmas tree ornaments. It was (and is) cozy in my mother's home, soft and warm and welcoming.

Inevitably, I started to do the same with my own home when I moved out. It's a very different style, to be sure, but I have handmade blankets on the bed and crocheted cushions on the sofa, along with lace snowflakes on the Christmas tree and samplers on the wall. "It's what grown-ups do," says the little voice in the back of my head.

The one thing I had never done was make my own curtains. That's Mom's thing. Actual curtains to keep in the warmth at night and sheers for privacy's sake during the day. I had never needed them, but the Spouse and I recently moved into a ground-floor flat that faces the road. It was a choice between making sheers or never opening the blinds.

Mom came through with a set of surplus sheers from her previous house that didn't fit her new windows, along with the leftover fabric in case I needed to make more. Good thing, too: the picture window in our bedroom took two curtains, so we were one short.

I had planned to leave the existing curtains as they were, but they were longer than the window openings and were driving me potty. So I spent the afternoon hemming the existing four and making one all by myself.

It's such a strange thing, really, but I had been terribly intimidated at the thought of making my own curtains. I don't know why - it's not like I've never hemmed interminable rectangles of fabric before. But somehow this was a much bigger deal than making garb or knitting socks. Maybe it was because Mom hasn't made any curtains since I left home, at least not that I've watched her make. All my memories of the process are from before I really started sewing properly.

I feel like I've levelled up or gotten bonus adulting points or something. Clearly it's time to have ice cream for supper.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

I don't even have a real excuse.

Life has been busy. Crazy busy. Running a ten-day SCA event for 150+ people on the other side of the country busy. I've been making stuff, but haven't really been up to posting much.

However, all this is behind me! The event is over! No-one died and the castle is still standing! I can make stuff again!

Things I am currently working on:

Yet another 16th-century shirt. This was one I bartered for some fencing armour and it's long overdue. Collar and cuffs embroidered, plain everything else.

A complete maintenance overhaul of all our garb and other bits. This is ongoing, but I've gotten a lot done, including darning some hose, reinforcing a bunch of seams, attaching trim, and regluing the soles of shoes. Most of what's left is finishing inside seams, but I have a pair of sleeves that need to be finished, too.

A crocheted Thing. Might be a shawl. Might be a blanket. I have no idea how big it's going to be when all the yarn has been used up, but it's mindless and good for my commute. (Oh yeah, I have a train commute now. We moved back in January.)

There are some major repairs pending on Spouse's wool coat after it got trapped in the suitcase wheels and dragged along the pavement earlier this year. Fortunately Mother Mine had leftovers of the fabric...