This feast could easily have been a disaster. My van broke down the night before the grand shopping, I was recovering from a nasty chest cold, had other health problems nagging, and got to site 3 hours late. Thankfully I had a completely kick-ass kitchen crew, because I couldn’t have done this without them.
The theme of this feast was late 14th/early 15th century French, definitely urban, and definitely seasonal. I usually stick with seasonal produce for cost reasons, but this is the first feast that I’ve set out specifically to choose seasonal dishes out of the manuscript. It’s incredibly easy to do a seasonal menu out of Le Menagier de Paris and Chiqart’s “On Cookery”, so many of the dishes specify which season they were eaten in.
Bowing to seasonal pressures was difficult and not always clear. I was trying to stay with spring dishes for 14th century medieval France. What was available in the late spring in 14th century medieval France is not what is available in late spring in 21st century Florida. Due to the vagaries of our modern food system I could get any of the seasonal items I wished, if I could afford to pay for them. This led to the only major last-minute menu change. We were supposed to serve leeks braised in almond milk for the second course. I had tested this recipe, it was delicious! When I did my final price-shopping 2 weeks before the event, Walmart had big fat leeks with a reliable 4 or 5 inches of usable vegetable. When I arrived that morning to actually buy said leeks, what I found was a pile of sad leeks that were only slightly larger than scallions with only a few scant inches of usable vegetable each. At the same price. I would have to buy twice as many pounds of leeks to feed the same number of people.
I balked. I just couldn’t do it. The most beautiful and seasonal vegetable at Walmart and not already in the menu was asparagus, so I ended up buying asparagus instead. Let me be clear: asparagus is nowhere in these manuscripts. I’m not even sure a 14th century Frenchman would have known what an asparagus was. I refuse to make up any silly and convoluted “if an Italian happened to be in Paris…”, no. The asparagus was inexpensive and I knew it would be popular. It’s a recognizable “spring” vegetable. This is one of those situations, like the bra under the good handsewn garb, where we know something is incorrect and choose to do it anyway.
I also served mussels. Big, fat, beautiful Greenland mussels. I received no end of questioning about the mussels, but at least 50% of the people were excited. I portioned 2 mussels (served piping hot, as part of a large hot first course, with fresh parsley, pepper, and white balsamic vinegar) per person. I received exactly 4 mussels back to the kitchen, and the only reason I think we got them back was because they were buried under empty shells. People were going from table to table stealing leftovers. To any aspiring cooks reading this blog: if anyone tells you not to serve seafood at feasts? Don’t listen to them. People love it if you cook it well and serve it at the correct temperature.
Other things I learned at this feast:
Always have a meat person and a bread & pastry person chosen ahead of time and make sure they know what they’re doing. I don’t make large roasts often and wasn’t too confident about making roast beef for 100 people, so I asked someone ahead of time and he was fantastically awesome. Same with the gracious lady who stepped in at the last minute to take over making 200 rolls and umpteen miniature tarts on site.
I always do fish but shellfish are popular too, maybe more popular than fish! I’ll definitely do shellfish again.
If you fall behind on one task on the kitchen plan, start skipping ahead as much as possible. You’ll need those extra minutes later.
Dessert buffets are the shiz-nit, especially if you can make or buy all of the items ahead of time.
Kitchen & Support crew:
Meat Guy: Qaratai Kereyid of An Crosaire
Bread & Pastry Goddess, Plater of the Angels: Ysabeau Jean-Louis Durant of An Crosaire
Subtlety and candied orange & lemon peels: LalitaDasa
Hall Steward: Thalassia Hellas of An Crosaire
Head Server: Caitriona inghen Ui Loinsigh of An Crosaire
Wonderful honey-nut candy: WolfMom
Kitchen Crew: Maol Mide ingen Medra, Alianore de Clare, Thalassia Hellas, Lalita Dasa, Attilio, Twan, Gemma of An Crosaire