Part III (and final) Post on Food
In my family traditionally on Thanksgiving we would have suet pudding and only that one time each year. The pudding was always cooked in special round pans; it looked like brown bread with raisins in it, it was always served warm with whipped cream. Whatever we didn’t eat we fed to the birds.
Suet pudding came up again a number of years ago as I was listening to a series of books on tape by Patrick O’Brian. His books are about the British Navy in the early 1800’s and the main character, Jack Aubrey, was always eating Boiled Baby or Spotted Dog, which were both variations on suet pudding. These stories got me daydreaming about what it would be like to have a dinner of all of the foods that are described throughout the series. About the same time I was in a wine shop and found a couple of bottles of Madeira, which the characters are always drinking. One bottle I took to a wine tasting at my sister’s a couple of years ago, where it scored very poorly, and the other I kept in my cellar.
There’s a great cook book written as a companion to the O’Brian series called Lobscouse and Spotted Dog. This book traces the different dishes that are described in the series, talks a little bit about them, and gives instructions for making them. I’ve been holding on to a copy for a while and when my friends Mike & Lisa recently invited me to a dinner party pairing wine with foods, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out some dishes and give the Madeira a second chance.
Alas, there was no suet left in my freezer so I couldn’t make the Spotted Dog, but searching through the book I found the mention of Madeira coupled with Seed Cake.
Jack pulled the bell, and through the various ship-noises, all muted in this calm, he heard the quick pittering of his steward. ‘Killick,’ he said, ‘bring me a couple of bottles of that Madeira with the yellow seal, and some of Lewis’ biscuits. I can’t get him to make a decent seed-cake,’ he explained to Stephen. –Master and Commander, 363
Seed cake is basically a bread consistency, with plenty of butter and sugar, it’s yeasted and let rise, then baked. The seeds are caraway, cardamom, and coriander. Cumin seeds were also a recommended topping, but that seemed like a bit much and so I used the alternative option of sugared almonds. And of course served it as a dessert with the Madeira.
These recipes took a long time to make. To get the seeds for the seed cake you had to go to the bulk spices in the Co-op and buy the seed pods, then shell them – cardamom seeds are tiny black things inside a little pod and to get a tablespoon took about 20 minutes of shelling. If I’d made the authentic recipe for the cumin seed, it would have meant dipping each seed 12 times into hot sugar. A lot of the recipes had strange names (Bashed Neeps, Plum-Duff, Whipt Syllabub, Soused Hog’s Face, Dog’s Body, Burgoo, Skillygalee and Little Balls of Tripe a Man Might Eat Forever) and also hard to find ingredients (two sprigs wormwood, ¼ tsp cochineal – which is a beetle used for dye, rats, boned larks, sea elephant suet, and pigeons). It’s not an everyday cookbook . . . but thank you to Linda at the Galaxy Bookshop for helping me find it.
I really liked the Madeira at the wine tasting and thought it paired well with the dessert. I was in the minority. Other folks compared it with the plum wine, which they had compared with drinking cologne. I think we’d had too much wine by the end of the meal to appreciate the dessert. I brought it to my neighbors’ house the next day and they finished every last crumb. I’d like to try an expensive Madeira some day.
I loved the Patrick O’Brian books because you felt like you were there, you felt like you knew the characters, and it felt very authentic. It made me want to go out and learn to sail, which I did. Out in Oregon I sailed a little 10 foot dinghy through a strong wind and a strong current in the Columbia River. And the character Jack was so passionate about the food that he was eating that you couldn’t help but kind of want to be there eating it with him. I don’t know if his seed cake tasted better than mine.
That’s the last of my posts on food for now. Next time I’ll be back to writing about work . . . sugaring season is coming up soon and I’ll have more stories to tell about sugaring and flying.