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A Potted History

To pot a Swan

Bone and skin your Swan, and beat the flesh in a mortar, taking out the strings as you beat it; then take some clear fat bacon, and beat with the Swan, and when ’tis of a light flesh-colour, there is bacon enough in it; and when ’tis beaten till ’tis like dough, ’tis enough; then season it with pepper, salt, cloves, mace, and nutmeg, all beaten fine; mix it well with your flesh, and give it a beat or two all together; then put it in an earthen pot, with a little claret and fair water, and at the top two pounds of fresh butter spread over it; cover it with coarse paste, and bake it with bread; then turn it out into a dish, and squeeze it gently to get out the moisture; then put it in a pot fit for it; and when ’tis cold, cover it over with clarified butter, and next day paper it up. In this manner you may do Goose, Duck, or Beef, or Hare’s flesh. [E. Smith 1739]

Before the age of refrigeration, meat was preserved in a variety of ways: it was cured in salt, smoked, doused in honey and even buried in ash, but one of the tastiest ways it was preserved was that of ‘potting’. With the widespread availability of refrigeration potting may no longer be a necessary form of preserving, but it is a method that yields absolutely delicious results and one that combines tastiness with thriftiness, indeed the forgotten art of potting is long overdue a revival.

By the Medieval period the tradition of preserving meat and fish under a layer of clarified fat was in use. Small game birds and sometimes fish would be preserved whole by boiling them before dipping them in fat and then laying them is a pot and filling it to the top with more melted fat. Soon it was discovered that if the meat was pounded and mixed with butter and spices before being sealed with clarified butter it not only acted as a preservative, but created a delicacy. Through potting, surplus food could be kept for a future date without the fear of it turning rancid. Indeed the early tradition of potting was an expensive treat that combined costly spices with a way of preserving the best cuts of meat.

Sir Hugh Plat an English inventor , writer on agriculture and avid collector of recipes was a great advocate of potting and wrote during the Stewart period that potted meat would keep ‘sweet and sound for three weeks’ even in hot weather. With the promise of long keeping and flavoursome results cooks were quick to start potting all kinds of fish and fowl. There was no shortage of options when it came to potting, recipes to pot everything from swans to venison existed, whilst pigeon preserved in claret and butter was reported to keep for a quarter of a year.

As the spice routes opened up and spices became more affordable and accessible to more householders, the world of potting became available to an increasing audience and was no longer the preserve of the rich. Records show that the foods potted included meats (ham, beef, veal, tongue, and game), poultry (chicken, turkey, and swan), small birds (woodcock, quail, lark, and pigeon), fish (char, tench, trout, and eel) shellfish (lobster, crab, and shrimp), mushrooms and cheese (also termed Pounded Cheese).

It is fair to say that the commercial potted pastes of the 20th century were poor imitations of what had once been quite opulent. Like many people I was put off potted meat by childhood memories of the cheerless, commercial meat-pastes spread on white sliced bread and squashed into a lunchbox. The little glass jars of salmon, beef and crab all shared the same slightly granular texture and was the stuff of unimaginative sandwiches and school day groans. Thankfully, home-made potted delights are amongst the finest pleasures in life and the taste of potted shrimps served with a squeeze of lemon and some good toast is guaranteed to lay all memories of commercial potted food to rest.

Potted Shrimps

Ingredients:

  • 220g, cooked, peeled shrimps
  • 70g butter
  • ½ tsp ground mace
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • Clarified butter

Method:

Melt the butter gently in a saucepan and add the shrimps and spices and warm carefully (do not boil as this will toughen the shrimps). Stir as they heat and when thoroughly hot, spoon them into little pots and chill. Seal with a good ½ inch of clarified butter.

To Clarify Butter

Clarified butter is butter from which all milk solids has been removed. The result is a clear yellow fat that has excellent keeping quality.

Place the butter in a heavy saucepan over a very low heat. Melt gently. When completely melted, cool slightly and then skim off all the froth from the surface. You will then see a clear yellow layer on top of a milky layer.

Carefully pour the clear fat into a jug, leaving the milky residue in the pan. The milky residue makes a nice addition to soups and risottos, but it is important not to allow it into your yellow clarified butter as it will impair the keeping quality.

Potted goods were staples in the coaching inns and taverns of the 18th century, where a steady flow of unannounced guests meant that a successful landlady relied on a larder stocked with potted delights to create meals at short notice. Indeed I must admit that where impromptu suppers are concerned you can’t beat some bread and potted meats, cheeses and mushrooms.

To Pot Beef

Cut six Pounds of the Buttock of Beef into pieces, season it with Mace,

Pepper, Cloves and Ginger, beat together, and mixed with salt; lay it in a

Pot with two Pounds of Butter; bake it four Hours, well covered up;

Before it is cold take out the Beef, beat it fine, and put it down close in

Pots, and pour on clarified Butter.’

From ‘The Country Housewife’ by Richard Bradley, 1753.

Modern Redaction

My modern version of the Georgian recipe above is always a hit with supper guests and a popular addition to festive gatherings.

Ingredients:

  • 450g stewing steak
  • ½ tsp ground mace,
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves,
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ¼ tsp ground rock salt
  • 50g butter for cooking
  • Clarified butter for sealing

Method

Place the beef, spices and butter in a casserole dish and cook in the oven on a low heat for 1- 1 ½ hours or until tender.

Tip

I use all manner of vessels to pot my meats and cheeses in- from china teacups to soup tureens and butter dishes. The thing to remember is to always seal the potted meats etc. with a generous layer of well clarified butter to ensure maximum keeping.

Mince the beef finely and pack into a suitable container and top with a good measure of clarified butter. Allow to set and tastes best if allowed to mellow for at least a day. Delish served with a selection of home-made chutneys and fresh breads or else some crackers.

In these times of economic unrest we ought to employ some thrift in our potting and indeed you can make potted meat from any leftover roast. Simply mince the meat and mix with melted butter, a pinch of cayenne pepper, lemon zest, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Pack into a dish with a bay leaf on top and seal with a good layer of clarified butter.

Potted cheese is one of my favourite things to pot and it is an excellent way to use up odds and ends of cheese that you find lurking in the fridge. Simply grate up cheddar cheese or any other cheeses you have and combine with melted butter equating to a quarter of its weights, add cayenne pepper, ground mace and nutmeg to taste and a slosh of sherry before potting-up. This works well with the addition of a bit of stilton and is a good way of making a little cheese stretch further.

Finally, no winter evening is complete in my opinion without some hot toast topped with potted mushrooms. My recipe is adapted from a Victorian one and is best enjoyed in the company of a roaring fire.

Potted Mushrooms

Ingredients:

  • 30g butter
  • 800g mushrooms
  • Pinch of salt
  • ¼ tsp Black pepper
  • ¼ tsp celery seed
  • 1 tsp mace
  • 50 ml dry sherry,
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Clarified butter for sealing

Method:

Finely chop the mushrooms or pulse for a few moments in a food processor

Heat a large pan over medium heat, and then add the butter. Stir to melt then add the chopped mushrooms, sprinkle with the salt and spices. Stir to coat with butter. Increase the heat to medium high, cook until soft and beginning to colour.

Add the sherry and the lemon zest and stir well to combine

Cook out until the sherry has evaporated and then pot into suitable containers and top with clarified butter

Refrigerate at least 4 hours to let the flavours develop and the butter set. Take out of the fridge at least an hour before serving.

This will keep three to four weeks refrigerated and can be frozen. This is a great recipe for using up surplus mushrooms and never manages to last for four weeks in my household as there are many hungry hands and mouths willing to partake in a sumptuous supper of potted delights.

It is certain that if you spend time potting, you will soon have a larder filled with delectable delights and that you will never again be left wondering what to have for a snack and you’ll never be stuck when you need to feed an unexpected guest.

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