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Eighteenth century appetizers from two culinary historians

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For much of the history of the western world, the diet of the common person was limited more by finances than by availability. There were always the affluent that were the foodies of their day. Fortunately it was in those households that “receipts” were recorded and some eventually made it to early 18th century cookbooks.

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London’s Chef Fergus Henderson and Philadelphia’s Dr. Clarissa Dillon have never met yet share a no-nonsense and unsentimental approach towards the diet of their 17th and 18th century Anglo ancestors. Fergus Henderson is the chef and owner of London’s Michelin star St. John Bar and Restaurant and is considered responsible for the revival of nose to tail cooking. Dr. Dillion, Professor Emeritus, Bryn Mawr College, is America’s foremost expert on American colonial cooking and household industries.

Both Fergus and Clarissa would agree that a 17th/18th century middle class diet was healthy only if the diner did a large amount of physical labor, but the historic recipes deserve perpetuation as occasional parts of a 21st century meal. At St. John Bar and Restaurant, in a former 18th century townhouse and smokehouse near the city’s historic Smithfield central meat market, the menu concentrates on dishes that would have been common to many Englishmen up to the 1970s – steak and kidney pie, sweetbreads, Eccles cake – prepared to standards that one would expect of a Michelin star establishment.

A standard on the St. John menu are roasted marrow bones. The concentrated meat essence of marrow has been an ancient flavoring agent. Bone marrow is a main ingredient in the classic Italian dish ossobuco (braised veal shanks). Chef Fergus Henderson’s recipe is simple, classic and flavorful. The marrow is a warm pate and the parsley salad adds a piquant counterpoint.

Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

(Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gallatly, "The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking", 2012)

Ingredients: (3 to 4 servings)

  • 12 veal marrow bones (3-4”)
  • coarse ground sea salt
  • toasted slices of whole grain or French bread
  • 1 large bunch flat leaf parsley
  • 2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 modest handful of capers
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt & black pepper to taste

Preparation: (note:Ask the butcher or meat department manager to cut the marrow bones into 3 -4” sections.)

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Place the bones in an over proof pan or baking sheet. The roasting process should take about 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the bone. You are looking for the marrow to be loose and giving, but not melted away, which it will do if left in the oven too long (traditionally the ends would be covered, but I like the colouring and crispness at the end).
  3. Meanwhile lightly chop your parsley, mix it with the shallots and capers. Just before serving the bones, lightly nap with olive oil, add the lemon juice and salt to taste and toss.
  4. Here is a dish that should not be completely seasoned before leaving the kitchen, rendering seasoning by the actual eater unnecessary; a last minute seasoning especially in the case of coarse sea salt, gives texture and uplift at the moment of eating. My approach is to scrape the marrow from the bone onto the toast and season with coarse sea salt. Then a pinch of parsley salad on top of this and eat.

Dr. Clarissa Dillion is in her ninth decade with no intention of slowing down. She’s in demand as a speaker and hands-on teacher of 17th and 18th century American and English cooking, gardening and household industries. A native of Philadelphia, Dr. Dillion utilizes the patrimony left by William Penn when he established his superbly planned colony by conducting workshops in a number of historic house museums. Her standards are exacting and historic inaccuracies, both in print and methodology, feel the sharp critique of her knowledge.

Attempting to make ingredients taste like another is as old as cooking. Eggs and butter were common English and Colonial American ingredients. This recipe does taste surprisingly like sautéed mushrooms. Use the same good quality whole grain or French bread for this dish as for the bone marrow.

To make eggs eat like mushrooms

(R. Smith, "Court Cookery: or the Complete English Cook," pub. 1725, T. Wotton, London)

  1. Take six eggs, and boil them hard, peel them, and cut them in thin slices; put a quarter of a pound of butter (4 oz.) into the frying-pan, and make it hot; then put in your eggs, and fry them quick, for half a quarter of an hour (7 1/2 minutes); throw over them a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. For sauce, take half a pint of white wine (8 oz.), the juice of a lemon, a shallot shred small, a quarter of a pound of butter, and stir it all together, and lay it on sippets (toast), and serve it.

Recipe writing, as we know it, is quite modern. “Receipts” of the past were more notes for the cook than exact instructions. But the flavors remain the same with combinations yet to be rediscovered. Food bridges the centuries.

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