Culinary Notes: Napoleonic pies - and rats in onion sauce

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The Independent Culture
LET'S FACE it, food just doesn't taste the way it used to. Time was, we milked our cows by hand, directly into the syllabub bowl. We raised free-standing pastry "coffins" to encase perishable pie fillings. We "sweetened" rotten meat by burying it for three months - then cooked it, smothered in sugar and spices, for several hours before serving it forth. (And if the result was unrecognisable, so much the better.)

Of course, all this was 200 years ago, when Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey was sailing the seas and keeping Napoleon's navy at bay, all the while eating Lobscouse, Burgoo, Skillygalee, Drowned Baby, Floating Archipelago in the Shape of the Galapagos, and Millers Dressed in Onion Sauce.

Recreating the tastes of early 19th-century food is not unlike today's popular sport of trying to recreate the musical sounds of the same era. No matter how faithfully you reproduce the conditions, the effect will never really be the same, because the environment, our bodies and our senses have changed. It's not just the sound itself that is inevitably different: it's different partly because the ears that hear it now are not necessarily equivalent to the ears that heard it then.

It's exactly the same with food: you can use the same implements, the same ingredients, and the same combinations of flavourings - but the ingredients themselves are not what they were, nor the reasons for using them. Our palates, like our ears, are attuned to the age in which we live. It simply isn't possible to go back.

The challenge, then, is to rediscover and recreate, in a form that our modern palates can accept, the foods (both real and fictitious) of the Napoleonic era - and of the Aubrey/Maturin novels in particular. The obstacles are legion.

Chief among them, perhaps, is the source material or, in some cases, the lack thereof. It isn't difficult to find period recipes for most dishes, but deciphering them can be another matter. Until the mid-19th century or so, cookery books were woefully inexact when it came to such minor matters as quantities, proportions and cooking times.

Quite often the best approach in such cases is the "Goldilocks method" of estimating: start with too much; then overcompensate ("Now to the other extreme you're tending"); then compromise. The result will almost inevitably be just right.

But what to do when there is no source material at all? "Millers" in onion sauce are a case in point: the culinary literature of the 19th century yields no recipes for ship's rats in any sauce whatsoever. Floating Archipelago in the Shape of the Galapagos is another such, as are any number of elaborate and fantastical sea-pies and puddings.

Culinary deconstruction is the key. Like ordinary academic deconstruction, this discipline studies the text for clues that the writer almost certainly never intended to put there, and like ordinary deconstruction, if necessary it can be conveniently twisted to produce a desired result.

It is sometimes the only tool available for deciphering these references. It's merely a matter of delving a layer or so beneath the surface: not for unconscious motives or broad philosophical themes, but for such clues as the nationality of a whaler's pastrycook; the season when a particular pie was served; a breakfast scene that providentially reveals the presence of bacon fat.

To the enlightened - or determined - researcher, the text of the novels supplies all deficiencies. And the bacon fat, by the way, is a key ingredient of Millers in Onion Sauce, which proved truly delicious, especially with baby peas and tiny new red potatoes.

Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas are the authors of `Lobscouse & Spotted Dog; a gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels' (Norton, pounds 21.95)