Country Matters: Nibbles from a glutton's table

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NEXT Friday Kingshead House restaurant at Birdlip, on the rim of the Cotswold escarpment, will lay on a special dinner billed as 'A Country Gentleman's Kitchen in 17th-Century England'. And with 350th anniversary celebrations of the Civil War cropping up all around, the idea seems thoroughly appropriate.

A musician will serenade diners with lute and guitar; but the event will not be a mock-medieval banquet, with serving wenches, jesters and horseplay. Rather, it will be a serious attempt to reconstruct the sort of meal that one might have eaten in a gentleman's house of the day.

In a preliminary note the restaurant's enterprising proprietors, Warren and Judy Knock, explain that by the 17th century 'dining - among the rich - had become a domestic, civilised affair, no longer an enormous communal meal in the great hall'. They might have added that many new tastes were coming in. The first coffee reached Britain in the 1650s; while tea and chocolate also arrived about then, although both initially remained very expensive. Potatoes, which had been introduced from America at the end of the 16th century, were a staple in Ireland by the middle of the 17th century, but in England had yet to take over from grain as the ordinary person's main source of carbohydrate. Among the well-to-do, however, many exotic ingredients were taken for granted, among them lemons, Seville oranges, wines from France and Spain, spices from the Orient.

In creating their 17th-century menu, the Knocks have drawn on recipes by some of the earliest English cookery writers. One, Robert May, was a professional cook who had published The Accomplisht Cook in 1660. Perhaps it was because his father had also been a professional that he hankered after the great culinary set-pieces that had been all the rage among the Elizabethans.

These were extraordinarily elaborate - witness Mr May's instructions for a 'subtlety' that included paste models of a ship, a stag and a castle, all on separate platters, some distance apart, with trails of gunpowder laid around them. The stag was to have 'a broad arrow in the side of him and his body filled with claret wine' and, at either end of the charger bearing him, there was to be a pie, one filled with live frogs, the other with live birds.

The idea was that the trails of powder would be ignited and, 'to sweeten the stink', the ladies would fling eggshells full of rosewater at each other. Next the arrow would be drawn from the stag's side, releasing a flow of wine 'as blood running from a wound'; and then, 'lifting off the lid of one pie, out skips some frogs, which makes the ladies to skip and shreek . . . ' The birds, released from the other pie, and 'by a natural instinct flying at the light', would put out the candles, 'so that what with the flying birds and skipping frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the company'.

Nothing so fantastical will be attempted next Friday; but Mr May will be represented by his recipes for warm salmon and crab pie, and 'savoury fraise', a form of vegetable pancake.

Another of Judy Knock's authorities is Elinor Fettiplace, originally Poole, who was born and bred at Sapperton, not far over the hills from Birdlip. Her Receipt Book is more accessible to modern readers, for it was republished, with a stimulating introduction and extra instructions by Hilary Spurling, in 1986.

As Ms Spurling points out, one of the most attractive features of the book is the glimpse it gives of 'an orderly, interlocking rural economy organised to supply and service most of its own wants'. Bread was baked and beer brewed in the house. Vegetables came from the garden, rabbits from the warren, milk 'cow-hot' from the dairy.

Lady Fettiplace represents the new wave of cooking that emerged during the early 1600s. She was practical and down to earth, a specialist in the art of preserving fruit and pickling such vegetables as 'hartichocks' and 'cowcumbers'. Roses featured strongly in her recipes - in rose-petal jam, red rose syrup, 'honie of roses' and in many patent remedies, for bathing bloodshot eyes and other ailments.

She was also a mistress of puddings - fritters, pancakes, tarts, custards and creams - and left a memorable recipe for 'The Lord of Devonshire, his pudding' - a majestic-sounding concoction of bread, dates, raisins, currants, beef-bone marrow, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, which (according to Ms Spurling) 'will rear up out of its dish and should be rushed quickly to table before it collapses'. This, I am glad to see, is on the menu next week.

Greedier by far than Lady Fettiplace was the third of the Knocks' mentors, Sir Kenelme Digbie (1603-65), the eccentric Royalist, philosopher, traveller, diplomat, naval commander, medical researcher, writer, bon viveur and (not surprisingly) hypochondriac. His portrait, painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, shows him plump as a partridge: there is no mistaking the fact that, like Shakespeare's justice, he was 'in fair round belly, with good capon lin'd'.

His book of recipes, posthumously published as The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digbie Opened, reveals him as one of the most dedicated trenchermen in history. Although he includes many dishes invented or perfected by well-known people ('My Lord of Denbigh's almond march pane', 'My Lady Diana Porter's Scotch collops'), he also constantly discloses his own intimate knowledge of, and fascination with, the processes of the kitchen. His instructions for cleaning and gutting lampreys could only have been written by someone who had tackled that slimy job many times.

Nor do his precepts stop at stove and sink. Anxious that all ingredients should be the finest, he advised on how to obtain the best venison. 'Before the deer be killed, he ought to be hunted and chased as much as may be.' His patent means of fattening young chickens 'in a wonderful degree' consisted in feeding them on rice boiled in milk, giving them nothing but milk to drink, and letting a candle burn beside them all night 'for, seeing their meat, they will eat all night long'.

One matter that exercised Sir Kenelme a good deal - as it did Lady Fettiplace and all her contemporaries - was the problem of preserving food. Lacking refridgeration, they relied heavily on salt, and evolved elaborate methods of sealing cooked meat in jars by capping with butter - as in Sir Kenelme's recipe for baked and potted pigeons, 'which are thus excellent, and will keep a quarter of a year'.

He was also deeply interested in beverages, and devoted nearly half his book to the preparation of ale, small ale, Scotch ale, cider, meath (mead), currant wine and many varieties of metheglin, a decoction of herbs and honey fermented with yeast.

With its sweet cream by the quart, its butter by the panful, its pies made of hare, goose and pork 'all well hashed and seasoned', its quaking-puddings, slipp-coat cheese, flomery caudle and sack-possetts, Sir Kenelme's closet is rich indeed. On Friday the old boy will be represented by a first course of buttered eggs with whiting and sippets, which he himself described as 'a most savoury dish' - and I feel sure that he will be with us in spirit, to induce a festive atmosphere.