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John Saturnall’s Feast


When I saw the cover in the remainder pile at Harvard Book Store, I knew it was one of those stories I’d fall into and be thoroughly immersed in the author’s world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—you know it when you see them. The cover may not even be that alluring, but some Muse whispers, “You need to read this one.”

Granted, I’ve devoted an entire series to the portrayal of food in fiction on this blog. And the book delved into medieval cookery and talked about spiced wine, quodlings, and frumenty, and the descriptions of the dishes were delightful. It was a challenge to decide which one to cook. Ironically, as I read the first page, I was reminded of Modernist Cuisine and the artful works of world-renowned chefs such as Ferran Adrià.

“Now Saturnus’s Gardens are overgrown. Our brokeback Age has forgotten the Dishes that graced the old God’s chestnutwood tables. In these new-restored times, Inkhorn Cooks prate of their inventions and Alchemical Cooks turn Cod Roes into Peas.” 
The innovation of food art has been with us a long time.

Right from the outset, John Saturnall’s Feast is steeped in moody and beautiful descriptions: the rain-soaked opening scene, in which our hero is delivered to a manor to spare his life. Harassed by villagers after his mother is accused of being a witch, John is hired to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor. The legend of Buccla’s Wood is well-known, and John’s mother protects the cookbook that holds recipes for a feast of a pagan era. Buccula’s Wood is destroyed by Saint Clodock, and the lineage of these ancient characters carries on through this story.

Set in 1625 England, the novel takes place just as Cromwell rises to power with the civil war. By the time the war comes to the borders of Buckland Manor, John has been a cook in the lord’s employ for a while, and spends three winters as a camp cook while the lord of the manor fights for king and country. A despicable boy who bullied John as a child returns as one of Cromwell’s Puritan clergymen, and takes roost in the broken manor during the transitional years of the Commonwealth.

It’s an amazing historical novel, and as a reader, you’re right there in the kitchens from the moment John walks in and impresses the cooks with his sophisticated palate. The noise, the smells, both pleasant and not, all the frenetic activity of the kitchen is described down to the last detail. When John identifies ingredients to a broth he only just tasted, he’s confronted by Master Scovell, who demands to know how he came to be in possession of such talents:

Sprite/ Sayer? The creature that lives on the back of your tongue. That steered your palate through the broth in my copper, naming its parts. There are not a dozen cooks alive who would perform such a feat. You guide. How do you name him…A cook needs a familiar. The earth’s fruits are without number. No cook could master them alone.” And with that, not only does he find himself with a job, but an assignment.

His task is not easy: Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, is fasting in protest of her betrothal to the “insipid” Piers Callock. Of course, after a rough start, John and Lucretia fall in love, and it’s their romance that is at the heart of the novel—along with the food, which is described just as passionately.

Lady Lucretia dumps every meal he prepares for her at first. He then brings a beef stew with sweet herbs and dumplings that she cannot resist. The culinary journey mirrors their romance, and by the end of the novel, circles back to the spiced wine that opened the legendary feast prepared by the witch Belllica.

The first men and woman drank spiced wine. They warmed it with honey and flavored it with saffron, cinnamon, and mace. They roasted dates and dissolved them…”
With its wonderful turns of phrase and brilliant characterization, John Saturnall’s Feast is truly that—a feast.

While all of the recipes captured my imagination, the one that I set out to make was the herbed beef stew with dumplings. Maybe it’s the chill fall air setting in, or maybe the magic of courting through food reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate (one of my favorites!), but an herbed broth and rich dumplings sound just perfect for right now. I stayed fairly true to the recipe I had for medieval beef stew, but of course, with cooking being an art…experiments will happen. I also made a couple of loaves of black bread to go along with it.
Enjoy, and be sure to enjoy it alongside the novel!


Beef Stew with Herbed Dumplings

Ingredients for stew
4 lb. beef chuck, cubed
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 carrots, shopped
6 celery stalks, chopped
1 bottle beer, such as nut brown ale or porter, though I used Froach Heather Ale
2-3 cups beef broth (enough to cover ingredients in crock pot)
1 ½ tbl. baharat spice mix (A Middle Eastern spice mix made of cloves, black pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika, though specific ingredients may vary. You can find a recipe here at food.com)
1 ½ tbl. Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbl. corn starch

Combine ingredients in crock pot, and set on low for 7 to 9 hours, or 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours.
Meanwhile, begin to prepare dumplings within about 45 minutes of stew being done in crock pot.

Ingredients for dumplings
2/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 ½ tbl. herbs de Provence
1 1/2 cups flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Let milk and eggs come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Mix ingredients for dumplings together, stir until blended.
Before adding the dumplings, transfer stew to stock pot. Save some of the broth, add cornstarch, and stir well until mixed. Add back to stew. Spoon dumpling mixture on top of the stew. Cover tightly and simmer until dumplings are puffed. You should be able to poke a toothpick in and have it come out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve with black bread.

Black Bread

1 packet dry yeast
4 1/2 cups flour
2 cups rye flour
1 tbl. Turkish coffee grounds (or espresso, some people use instant coffee)
2 tbl. cocoa powder
1/4 cup molasses
2 tbl. honey
4 tsp. salt

In large bowl, activate yeast with a small amount of warm water and a pinch of sugar. Add both kinds of flour, then the rest of the ingredients. Knead for about 20 minutes. Let rise, covered, for two hours.
Punch down the dough and halve it, let both portions rise for another 45 minutes.
Grease bread pans with butter, punch down dough and form loaves in the pans.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake until dark brown and hollow-sounding when tapped, approximately 35 minutes. Let cool before serving. 

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