Last week I wrote about my first experiment with pottage. Now that I have ripe peas in the garden I wanted to make pottage with them. The intention was to make two – a thicker one and a thinner one. As with last week’s pottage, I would not use salt or pepper, but only a stock with herbs for seasoning. This time I left the celery out of the stock, as I wasn’t sure that the celery from the supermarket was very much like the celery available in the fourteenth century.
For the thicker fresh pea pottage I had to find something to thicken it. In the fourteenth century this would have been a grain or bread. In poorer households it was more likely to have been grain, as using it for pottage rather than for bread was a way of making it go further.
I used pearl barley as the thickener. A couple of years ago I accidentally and unwillingly grew barley in the garden when seeds from the barley straw I put round the strawberries germinated. I dug up the barley sprouts, but, on the principle that I could have grown barley if I hadn’t considered it a weed, barley was what I used. The pearl barley from the supermarket is a lot more refined than anything eaten in the Middle Ages, so the taste and texture would be different. This meant that I didn’t have to soak it to soften it, which would have been necessary for a fourteenth-century housewife. She would also have had to make grain stretch from one year’s harvest to the next, so she probably would not have used the same generous quantity for one person as I did.
Around this time of year I usually make a few pea risottos, so I was expecting the pottage to taste a bit like that, but without the oil and salt. To some extent it did, although the barley was chewier than rice.
I rinsed the pearl barley and boiled it on its own for 10 minutes, then I let it simmer for 30 minutes. While the barley was simmering, I chopped the onion and garlic and boiled them. I drained the barley and added it to the stock. Finally I added the peas and herbs and let them simmer for a couple of minutes.
There weren’t as many peas as I had hoped, but there must have been days when the fourteenth-century housewife had to make her fresh vegetables go further than expected.
It was definitely filling. That was down to the barley. It was not terribly tasty, but I think that might have been because there were too few peas to hold their own against the barley and the onion. I also think it’s the boiled onion which causes the odd aftertaste. Drinking a mug of ale would probably have helped with that. This is not a version of pottage that I would particularly want to eat again.
Yesterday I finally had enough peas to make a thin pottage with them. I boiled the onion and garlic for 20 minutes, then added the peas, chives and marjoram. They simmered for a very short time. I had expected that this pottage would be the least interesting, but it was very tasty. It wasn’t terribly filling, but it was enough to stave off hunger pangs for the afternoon. I think it would be most useful as a summer dish on a day when little work was required to be done in the fields.
Trying to make something that resembles a medieval pottage has raised many questions.
The process of cooking it on my gas hob was, of course, much faster than it would have been on an open fire in the fourteenth century. This raised two questions. The first was whether or not this would make any difference to the taste. The second was to wonder how an army on the move would have coped. In my novel Beloved Besieged an army crosses Aquitaine. There are too many men to stay in inns, so they would have slept in tents or in the open air, making camp each night. It would have taken a long time to cook for an army of thousands of men over open fires. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything on this subject. The Black Prince’s armies were renowned for covering great distances in a day, which would have meant even less cooking time.
Quantities is another problem. My helpings were fairly large, as I was not afraid of the barley running out, nor was I trying to make dried herbs last until spring. Would a poor person in the fourteenth century have been able to eat the same amount? I don’t know.
What I have learned is that pottage did not have to be bland, even without salt and pepper.