The Fight Between Carnival and Lent: Or, a personal metaphor for the struggle to balance the Creative with the Historical

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent: Or, a personal metaphor for the struggle to balance the Creative with the Historical

I have no shame in high-jacking the title off of a celebrated Bruegel painting to frame my current state of mind. In my mind its fitting, especially since this internal battle is indeed occurring in the first full week of Lent. My medieval counterpart would currently be abstaining from eating meat (excluding fish) and dairy (including eggs), as well as being extra pious; while I’m sitting here debating whether to pin or sew the sets into the new ruffs I’m making.

It seems like a shallow and easy to answer question, but the underlying currents have me asking some rather difficult questions about the “creative” part of the SCA versus the history that we allegedly should be striving towards. Throw in practicality, as well as the overarching modern mindset into the mix and the question isn’t quite so shallow any more.

In context, I’ve been reading Ruth Goodman’s new book, How to be a Tudor: The Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. It is really fantastic and has me re-thinking most of the ways that I approach the SCA – especially since I feel like I’ve been treading water for some time in the oft coined “persona development” side of things. Reading this book feels like a whole new world of possibilities have been opened to me on the historical front, and I’m only about half way done on the first read through. (Expect a full blog post write up when I finish on the second read through after notes have been taken, right now I’m just reveling in the joy of it all.) This book takes the information presented in the similar experimental archeology programs Tudor Monastery Farm and Tales From the Green Valley, to a whole new level.

Enter: the description of preparing a ruff. Goodman describes the process as starching the ruff, drying, smoothing the ruff and starch to a sheen, and then finally setting the actual ‘sets’ with a hot poking rod and pinning in place. Pins were used so that the ruffs could be easily laundered and the process repeated. Styles of sets could quickly change from one preparation to the next as well. Sometimes a bit of warmed beeswax would be used to hold the sets in place in lue of the pins.  Fast forward to today and most ruffs used in costuming and historical portrayal have sewn sets and are starched and worked out to give a lovely even set every time with the conservation of time spent on the preparation of the ruff to a minimum. But that is one of the problems, time and labor are worth so much more today then they were in the 16th century. It is assumed that us modern persons will take the “creative approach” to our projects for practicalities sake. What do we do when modern practicalities contradict reasonable historical ones? Historically it would have been more practical to pin the ruff, yet today we see it as an inconvenience. Or, even worse, as laziness or sloppiness.

On my first ruff, I had read that indeed pins were used to set ruffs. Granted I had intended to sew the sets shut but lack of time indeed prevailed, so I left the pins in anyway – it was after all a period choice thing, right? When questioned about the pins, I explained that in the period they were one option used to set ruffs – oh the raised eyebrows and skepticism! (In no form or fashion am I saying that this ruff was perfect, it wasn’t, amusingly it was the pins that people had problems about – not the actual wrongness of the ruff shape, etc.) And even worse, the self consciousness of “Oh no, they are going to think that I’m horrible and lazy and never look at anything I make with a shred of belief ever again!” Granted, after reading Goodman’s work, I feel a bit more validated about my previous pin preference. Except, and it is a big one, I feel that I’m more torn than before about the ever present fight between making the historical choice (as odd as it might seem to others) or going with the “creative” side of the SCA and not coming off as a nutter. Well, maybe not that drastic, but when researching an era that is not as well pursued as others, “pretty” tends to come across as correct – and that’s not always the case. Which, that opens up another can of worms in regard to SCA philosophy as to whether things should be encouraged to fit into our modern “pretty” sensibilities, or the ideal that authenticity itself is beautiful?

But that is not the heart of this battle in my mind tonight. Tonight, it is about whether to pin, or not to pin. Throw myself into the history of the period and the mindset of those that truly thought much differently than we do now? Or remain at a safe, comfortable, pre-set ruff distance? Granted, if I take this first step, a marvelously period kit isn’t going to materialize over night. But a step is a step. If I pin, then I can make more batches of homemade starch (no, not the pre-made powder type, the good stinky stuff). A glass smoothing stone can be commissioned from the local glassblower, and a board won’t be hard to find. A metal worker can make a poking stick, and viola! a period ruff setting set up. But what about everything else?

Ruffs weren’t the only things pined. Hundreds of thousands of pins were being shipped into England at any given time. According to Goodman, pinning ones ensemble together was especially necessary if you were a woman who at the time was most likely either pregnant, in between pregnancies, or had a body that was no longer the one you had on your wedding day. Stomachers helped hide gaps in the clothing of the torso, as well as could be easily adjusted on a daily basis to conform to a changing body. These and other accessories were often pinned on, and women went through a lot of them – pins that is. Skirts that had a neat little pleat at the end of a wheel farthingale – yes, those too are thought to have been pinned in place. How do we cope with this vastly different concept of wearing clothing in context of the expectations of the SCA? I don’t have an answer, but I think that it is an important question that any person engaged in any sort of historical reenactment or recreation has to ask themselves – or at the very least, engage in an internal dialogue once in a while.

 

A Very Cheesy Blog Post, no really.

I started playing around with the concept of hard/aged cheeses last May after being inspired by Ruth Goodman’s processes on both the Tudor Monastery Farm and Tales From the Green Valley shows on the BBC. Since then I’ve had a lot of very tasty fun, and happy to say that I feel that I’ve been largely successful. (Success measured in 1. No food borne illness yet, to myself or others, 2. My picky husband and other willing victims think the cheeses taste good, and 3. I just finished off the last round of the first batches from last May and it was still edible – it was a salted batch and got hard quick, so it has spent the last nine months in the fridge getting grated for toppings.)

This year began with the experimentation of aging cheese in wax. After a discussion in November with Mistress Elianor de Morland, waxed cheese sounded like a fun experiment and by her experiences six months was the magical aging number for yummy cheese. So by my reckoning if I waxed the cheese the first of January, then it should be ready and sharable in time for Lilies War. To spice things up a bit, I chose to try out two different versions of cheese to be waxed. The first was un-aged and waxed the day out of the press, and the second was aged one week then waxed. I used the same recipe for both batches: 1 gallon whole milk, 1 cup plain Greek yogurt to get the cultures going, 6 cups half and half, and a vegetable based rennet. This follows the gist of the most basic recipe of cheese given by Gervase Markham in his 1615 work The English Housewife. Markham recipe for a “new cheese” uses the fresh milk of the morning’s milking with the addition of the cream from the previous night’s milking – introducing the cultures that I use the yogurt for as well as the fat that I use the half and half for. He gives the batch a quick scalding (yes, they knew that raw milk had the possibility of carrying things that made one ill, and no this will not be a forum for the raw milk v. pasteurized milk argument), cooled it, added the rennet from the specially prepared calf’s stomach, and then proceeded with the siting, straining, and pressing bit. The cream from the half and half gives the cheese a nice creaminess as well as the added bonus of the fat content effectively doubling the yield of the cheese.

I currently use a wooden bowl with drilled holes in the bottom and bulletin board pins for legs as a make shift press, it gives me a period shaped cheese following the same pressing mechanics of weight on top = compression. (I’m still researching period cheese presses and deciding between the ceramic Roman type or the wooden medieval type.) The cheese gets flipped half way through with more weight added on the second press to achieve a fairly equally pressed cheese. It then gets salted or brined for around a week or more and hangs out on an elevated reed mat in my handy storage room/cheese cave that says between 58 and 68 degrees throughout the year. Winter time is a bit rough for the cheese due to uber low humidity in my home, but a small humidifier ran on low seems to help a bit in the room. Which in historical perspective, I couldn’t be making cheese in the winter anyway because the livestock are pregnant and not in milk. After the cheese was pressed and one round aged, I moved to the waxing stage. Instead of the modernly available gulf waxes or vacuumed cling bag to simulate wax, I used bees wax heated in a double boiler (read as aluminum pie pan over a small saucepan) and then brushed the wax on building up to a thick coat of wax that filled any small cracks and crevices. Cleverly, fingers crosses anyway, I marked the rounds with sealing wax to denote which ones were un-aged and the one week aged round. They are currently hanging out until Lillies and getting turned on a regular basis.  A photo of the waxed rounds below.

 

 

waxed cheese

Waxed Cheeses

 

On Facebook, I had mentioned using another of Gervase Markham’s recipes for turning leftover buttermilk into cheese. While he suggests giving the buttermilk to one’s poor neighbors so that you would receive good marks for the afterlife, I chose to take Option B and follow his other suggestion and turning into cheese. The long story short of it, I’m fairly certain that the cheese that this makes is more of a fresh cheese for spicing and eating right away than for aging. Granted, I had some issues with dryness and splitting (how I learned about the humidifier trick), but even then the end result while edible was a much lower quality product than the fresh curds. So if you were wondering how that experiment came out, there you go.

Finally, I just set up a cheese that I’m pretty excited about for this weekend. As a thank you to my hosts gift, I made a creamy cheese salted with black truffle sea salt. Instead of adding half and half to the milk, this cheese was made with a half gallon of half and half. After straining and hanging it, the curds are fluffy and can best be described as a cross between whipped cream and butter. (If you have ever churned your own butter in an old fashion crockery and stick churn, it is a bit more substantial than the consistency of the mixture when it is right on the cusp of separating from the grainy whipped cream into butter and liquid.) Once smushed into the press, the curds firm up to a beautiful albeit delicate round of cheese that is in one word – decadent. This will only be aged and salted for a couple of days before eaten, with my hosts hopefully enjoying it. See mouthwatering cheese below.

 

cheese with truffle

Black Truffle salted cheese

 

Hope you enjoyed this cheesy post!

Okay, so a final note, I age my cheese directly above my growing vinegar in the store room. While warned in the past about cross contamination, I have not had any disastrous consequences to either the vinegar or the cheese. In fact, the one batch of cheese that did have a slight vinegar note to it was actually nice and quite complex. In Gervase Markham’s ideal farm house set up, both the dairy and the buttery (where the butts of ale and other alcohols are kept) are joined to the kitchen which houses the brewing and stilling vessels. Considering that these items were generally manufactured in the same home throughout the period, I feel that some modern sensibilities are clouding culinary expectations – but that is another topic. Your mileage may very, but don’t feel like you have to choose one or the other without some experimenting.