When the Normans invaded in the 11th century they discovered a proliferation of vineyards in southern England. Chiefly managed by monasteries they not only produced wine for the monks but also verjuice (a condiment made from the juice of unripe grapes or crab apples). The monastery at Ely produced so much verjuice that the monks could afford to sell it.
No medieval cook worth his salt would be without verjuice in his kitchen. It added a pleasant sharpness to dishes and provided an alternative to bitter oranges and lemons (which in northern Europe were not easy to come by). It also had medicinal uses and when mixed with honey was believed to be good for treating mouth ulcers, sore throats and scabrous eye infections.
But it’s funny how the popularity of foodstuffs waxes and wanes over time. War and religious upheaval meant that by Elizabeth I’s reign many of the monastic Anglo-Saxon vineyards had disappeared and with it went our wine industry and the production of verjuice from grapes. It can’t be a coincidence that the use of verjuice in recipes starts to decline from this period onwards.
Whilst the production of verjuice may have dwindled the ingredient itself has not been entirely forgotten. There are organisations both at home (even here is Sussex) and abroad producing verjuice such as the Australian Maggie Beer. Her verjuice is tart with an underlying fruitiness and is much less astringent than white wine vinegar. New World verjuice is apparently fruitier than the European stuff. Elizabeth David notes that in Italy a particular type of acidic grape called agresto was used for the sole purpose of making verjuice. Whatever its origin it’s easy to see why it was so popular, and deserves to be so again.
Egurdouce or Sweet & Sour was a commonplace sauce for meat and fish in the Medieval period, possibly a throw back to the Romans who also liked this combination. This particular recipe originates from the Forme of Cury and called for goat or rabbit meat. I’ve used an adaptation of the 14th century version from Pleyn Delit with a few amendments of my own. Don’t be put off by cooking meat on the bone – it really does enhance the richness of the sauce. However, if you really would prefer the meat off the bone then reduce the quantity to 600g.
If you like a bit a tartness in your food do check out food historian Angela Clutton‘s book The Vinegar Cupboard. It’s packed with many great ways vinegars can be used to balance and enhance flavours, and enable modern cooks to make the most of this ancient ingredient (plus it won The Jane Grigson Trust Award in 2018).
Take connygnges or kuydde, and smyte hem on pecys rawe, and fry hem in white grece. Take raysouns of corance and fry hem. Take oynouns, parboil hem and hew hem small and fry hem. Take rede wyne and a lytel vynegur, sugur with powdour of pepper, of gynger, of canel, salt; and cast perto, and lat it seep with a good quantite of white grece, & serve it forth.
Forme of Cury, 1390
Ingredients (Serves 4)
900g shoulder of lamb on the bone
30g lard or dripping (or 2 tbsp vegetable oil)
2 onions, finely chopped
375ml red wine
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp chopped parsley for garnis
Preheat the oven to 150℃.
Heat the lard, dripping or oil in a large casserole over a medium to high heat. Brown the pieces of lamb in the hot fat (in batches if necessary) then remove from the pan. Reduce the temperature slightly then fry the onions until they are just starting to colour.
Add the ground spices and plain flour. Cook for a minute before adding the wine, verjuice, 75g of honey, currants and salt. Return the meat to the pan then bring to the boil. Transfer to the oven and cook for 45 minutes or until the lamb is tender. Taste the sauce – if it is too tart add more honey. Scatter with chopped parsley and serve with couscous or rice.