A good way to powder or barréll beefe.
TAke the beefe and lay it in mere sawce a day & a night. Then take out the beefe and lay it vpon a hirdle, and couer it close with a sheete, and let the hurdle be laid vpon a peuerell or couer to saue the mere sauce that commeth from it: then seeth the brine, and lay in your Beefe againe, see the brine be colde so let it lye two dayes and one night: then take it out, & lay it againe on a hurdel two or three dayes. Then wype it euerie peece with linnen cloth, dry them and couch it with salt, a laying of Beefe and another of salt: and ye must lay a stick crosse each way, so that the brine may run from the salt.
The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, 1594
Take the beef and lay it in mere sauce a day & a night. Then take out the beef and lay it upon a rack, and cover it close with a sheet, and let the rack be laid upon a bowl to save the mere sauce that comes from it: then bring the brine to the boil, and lay in your beef again, see the brine be cold so let it lie two days and one night: then take it out, & lay it again on a rack two or three days. Then wipe it every piece with linen cloth, dry them and cover it with salt, a laying of beef and another of salt: and you must lay a stick across each way, so that the brine may run from the salt.
The text of the original recipe comes from the transcript by Sam Wallace, available here.
“Powdered Beef” is listed as a suggested dish to serve in the first course of a feast in A Proper New Booke of Cokerye, A Book of Cookrye and The Good Huswifes Jewell part 1. However, none of these books contain a recipe for this dish. This indicated to me that a household manager would receive the Powdered Beef readily prepared (perhaps from the butcher who sold the meat) – it wasn’t made by the kitchen staff.
However, given it was clearly an important part of most feasts, I set out to find out what it was, and whether I could make it. I found the recipe above, from which I concluded Powdered Beef was clearly preserved beef, similar to modern corned beef; the beef is soaked for several days in a brine solution, then packed in salt.
However, this method did not contain a recipe for the brine solution, or “mere sauce.” What was a mere sauce, precisely? In the glossary of the printed, annotated edition of The English Housewife, I discovered a “mere sauce” was a marinade (Markham and Best, 1994, 305). I also discovered a recipe for baked red deer, where the deer is soaked in a mere sauce for a night; this mere sauce consisted of vinegar, beer and salt (Markham and Best, 1994, 98).
Even though this recipe uses red deer, I wasn’t sure about the mere sauce using beer; it did not seem “refined” enough. I remembered a recipe for a wet brine Australian chef Adrian Richardson suggests for beef which is based on red wine (Richardson, 2009,246), which was very easy to adapt into an Elizabethan recipe; I just needed to substitute appropriate spices for allspice. Richardson uses this recipe for bresaola (p251), or air dried beef, and the process of soaking the beef is very similar to the method described in the Good Huswife’s Handmaide.
I made this for a Lochac cooking competition, and I had no idea how it was going to turn out until I opened the container to set up for the competition. We discovered you could actually eat the meat without cooking it – the long soak in the mere sauce and then the salting basically “cooks” the meat, similar to bresaola.
I intend to try this again, using the beer and vinegar mere sauce, and seeing how the beef goes in a pottage. This would also be a great way of preserving meat for camping if you don’t want to use an esky/fridge/cooler.
1.5 kg boned beef joint, such as topside, rump or silverside
For the mere sauce:
|1.25L red wine||1 tbs black peppercorns||1/2 tsp mace|
|500mL water||1 tsp cinnamon bark||2 bay leaves|
|150g salt||1/2 tsp cloves|
- Combine the mere sauce ingredients in a pan, and bring to a simmer, stirring until the salt is dissolved.
- Bring the mere sauce mix to the boil and boil for 2 minutes. Then remove from the heat and leave overnight to cool.
- Remove any excess fat and sinew from the meat. At this stage, it will be a vibrant red and quite soft to the touch (as typical meat is).
- Pour the mere sauce into a non reactive bowl, such as glass or plastic, and then put the meat into the mere sauce, making sure it is submerged. Cover very loosely with plastic wrap, and then put a weighted plate on the plastic, ensuring it submerges the beef.
- After a day, turn the meat over within the mere sauce, then re-cover and re-weight. You will see the meat has taken on a deep purple colour from the red wine, and is now slightly hard to the touch.
- After another day, remove the meat from the mere sauce, and place on a rack over a plate to allow any excess liquid to drain off. It should be slightly harder to the touch.
- Put the mere sauce in a pan over heat, and bring to the boil. Boil for at least 2 minutes, then leave to cool completely.
- Return the mere sauce to a clean non-reactive bowl, then return the meat, and re-cover and re-weight. Discard any liquid that drained from the meat.
- Soak the meat for another four days, turning the meat in the mere sauce once every day.
- After a week, remove the meat from the mere sauce and discard the mere sauce. The meat will now be very firm to the touch. Put the meat on a rack over a plate and leave in a cool place for at least a day, to drain off any excess liquid (which should be discarded).
- Dry the surface of the meat completely, and cut into chunks that will fit into your storage container. Cut some wooden skewers so they will fit inside the storage container. Put salt in the bottom of the container, then liberally rub each chunk of meat with the salt. Layer the meat inside your container, with a layer of the wooden skewers between each layer of meat. Store in a cool, dark place.
- When you want to use this, after brushing off the excess salt, you can eat the meat from the middle right away – the long soak in the mere sauce and packing in salt has effectively “cooked” the meat. However, it is quite salty and some may find it too salty.
- If you want to use the beef in a pottage, soak the meat for at least 4-6 hours in water to remove some of the excess salt, then add to the pottage as normal. You probably won’t need to salt it.
- It is unusual to find a dish like this in feast menus. Preserved meat such as this was the primary meat of the lower classes, not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a feast intended to show off. It may have been intended for lower tables where lesser guests were seated, or it may have been served to the high table, with the mere sauce as I have made it here, using expensive ingredients like wine and spices, to serve “poor man’s food” that poor men couldn’t afford to eat; or to contrast with the more luxurious dishes to highlight the divide between rich and poor.
- I have largely followed the method from the Good Huswife’s Handmaide, but I soaked the meat for a longer period, which was suggested by Adrian Richardson’s recipe for bresaola, where he specifies soaking the meat for a week and turning it every day. The longer the meat is soaked, the further the mere sauce penetrates.
- Finding the right salt for preserving can be tricky. Modern table salt has anti-caking agents added to stop it from clumping; you also find salt sometimes has extra iodine added. Both will interfere with the preserving. Iodine actually destroys the enzymes in the meat that help to break down the fibres. If you can’t find salt that doesn’t have additives, get some rock salt and crush it.
- The spices have very little to do with the preservation process – they simply add flavour (and would have enhanced the luxury factor). However, oily spices such as cloves and cinnamon do have antiseptic properties which help can stop the growth of bacteria.
- When you’re preserving, you’re attempting to prevent food spoilage from starting – once food has started to spoil, pretty much all you can do is throw it out. Food spoilage is caused by harmful bacteria. Like most organisms, bacteria require certain essentials to grow – a food supply, and a comfortable environment; most also prefer a moist environment. Some harmful bacteria also require oxygen, but one of the most dangerous organisms, botulism, prefers an anaerobic, or oxygen-poor, environment. Essentially, when you’re preserving, you are creating an environment that’s hostile to bacteria (McGee, 2004, 173).
- Salting is one of the oldest food preservation methods, and is still used today in the production of gourmet meats such as bresaola (beef), prosciutto (ham) and gravlax (salmon). It works by drawing out the moisture from food, which sees off most bacteria, and prevents the growth of botulism, which doesn’t like a highly saline environment. When used with meat, salt also reacts with enzymes in the meat to change its chemical structure, breaking down the fibres and tenderising the meat. (McGee, 2004, 174).
- In medieval times, food spoilage was considered to be caused by an excess of cold, wet humours. So to preserve food, you had to drastically increase the hot, dry humours. According to Platina, “the virtue of salt is fiery so that it contracts, dries and binds whatever bodies it touches. If dead flesh is salted in time, it is very well preserved.” (Scully, 1995, 55).
- You will lose some volume from the meat during the soak in the mere sauce. The soak in the salty liquid drives the water from the meat, which results in the meat becoming harder and denser, and aids in the preservation(McGee, 2004, 174).
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