This recipe is an attempt to recreate a dish served at the legendary Pontack’s Head tavern in Abchurch Lane, which reigned supreme as London’s foremost eatery at the close of the seventeenth century.
It is listed in the Johnson Family Receipts manuscript as Crayfish Pottage, but the instructions give so much leeway in terms of ingredients, it’s more appropriate to call it a seafood pottage. It would appear that the Johnson Family, or whomever composed the recipes in the manuscript, was a great admirer of the fare at Pontack’s, as there are no fewer than four entries ascribed to that establishment. Whether they were frequent visitors or merely collected the receipts from others, it gives a glimpse into the type of food served and enjoyed there by Pepys, Swift, Defoe and London’s society elite.
Although luxurious, with ready-prepared seafood and good quality fish stock, it is ready in mere moments.
1 litre fish stock
250g soft white breadcrumbs
4 spring onions, finely chopped
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground allspice
400g prepared crayfish tails, prawns, lobster, cockles, mussels, shrimp
1 handful fresh parsley
8 sprigs dill
2 large yolks
150ml double cream
salt and pepper to taste
Put the fish stock, breadcrumbs, onion, mace and allspice into a pan and simmer for 10 minutes
until slightly reduced.
Whisk the yolks with the cream and mix into the soup, stirring as the mixture thickens.
Add the prepared seafood and allow to warm through.
Strip the fresh herbs from the stalks, chop finely and stir into the soup.
Taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Serve with crusty bread and toast sippets.
This recipe was chosen for it’s multi-purposeness , because you can use this method for any of the above-mentioned seafood, or perhaps even a mixture of two or three.
Potting used to be a means of preserving, the clarified butter being used to make the contents impervious to air-borne microbes, etc. Properly potted food could last days, if not weeks, without the need for refrigeration. When required, the butter was removed and the potted food used for whatever purpose the cook had in mind.
Nowadays, potted food is consumed in much the same way as a pate, spread on crisp toast or crackers. In this adaptation, the butter used to bind the seafood is delicately infused with spices before being combined with the fish and seasoning.
Potted Shrimp, Prawn or Crayfish
100g clarified, unsalted butter
1 blade mace
1 slice nutmeg
270g cooked brown shrimp, prawns or crayfish
Extra clarified butter to seal
Put the clarified butter and spices into a small pan and heat over a very low flame for 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for a further 20 minutes.
Remove the spices and combined with the seafood. NB British brown shrimp are tiny and perfect for spooning onto a finger of toast, so you might prefer to omit the next stage, and just season and pot them directly. Prawns and crayfish are larger and thus require chopping to make them easier to
pot as well as easier to spread when served.
If you opt for chopping up the seafood, pour the mixture int a food processor and blitz intermittently until combined.
Taste and add salt and pepper as required.
Spoon into small pots or ramekins.
Pour over a thin layer of clarified butter to seal.
Jane Parker, 1651 adapted from A New Booke of Cookerie, 1615
The availability of British seafood has increased dramatically with the introduction by the major supermarkets of dedicated fish counters staffed by professional fish mongers. No longer do we have to live close to our coastline in order to enjoy fresh seafood. Ideally, you would create this dish from scratch, and if you have the time and the inclination, it will no-doubt be superb. However, for those with limited time, by taking full advantage of pre-prepared seafood and ready-rolled puff pastry, this can come together in less than 30 minutes.
I first came across this recipe in the household manuscript book of Jane Parker (MS3769 at the Welcome Library). I subsequently discovered that she had copied it from John Murrell’s 1615 A New Booke of Cookerie, rephrasing it slightly and adding a little note to herself about changing the shape if frying them instead of baking. As noted elsewhere, Mistress Parker was not reticent about embellishing and improving the recipes she cherry-picked from the scant number of cookbooks of the day to suit her own style and preferences.
I have refrained from chopping the seafood as finely as suggested, much preferring to allow the constituent parts to be both distinguishable and identifiable omce the crisp pastry reveals it’s contents. I have added only pastry decoration to the original recipe.
Cockle and Mussel Puffs
200g cooked cockles
200g cooked mussels
4 large yolks
¼ tsp pepper
pinch of salt
a little grated nutmeg
60ml white wine
60ml orange juice
2 sheets puff pastry
1 large egg for glazing
Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas 7.
Mix the cockles and mussels in a bowl.
Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Mix 2 tablespoons of the orange juice with the yolks and stir to combine.
Pour over the cockles and mussels and toss gently.
Taste and add more orange juice if liked, but beware of making the mixture too wet.
Roll the pastry sheets lightly to smooth, then cut four strips of 1cm width across the shorter side of each pastry sheet. Leave one sheet for the bases, and roll the second sheet thinner (tops), to fit overthe filling easily without stretching.
Moisten the edges of the bases and use the strips to build up a border around the edges.
Divide the solid part mixture evenly between the four bases and spread out. Don’t worry about adding the liquid at this stage, wait until the pies are sealed.
Moisten the pastry strips with a little water and lay over the lids.
Brush the border with water, then lay over the lids, pressing around the filling firmly to seal.
Trim the edges to neaten. Use a pastry or pizza wheel, or a neat, vertical cut with a sharp, unserrated knife. The cleaner the cut, the better and more puffed the edges will become.
With the back of a knife, press down all around the pie, 5mm from the edge, to seal.
Brush the tops of the pies with beaten egg, making sure none drips down the sides, as this will stick the pastry layers together and stop them from puffing up. Cut a vent hole to let out steam during cooking.
Divide any leftover liquid between the pies, pouring it through the vent hole.
Use pastry offcuts to shape some decorations. Leaving these pieces unglazed will make them stand out more against the glazed pastry.
Transfer the pies to a baking sheet lined with parchment.
Bake for 12 minutes, turning the baking sheet around 180 degrees after 6 minutes to ensure even colouring.
Battalia Pie is a classic, double-crust pie from times past, the filling for which filling could be made from any of a number of ingredients. It’s origins are thought to come from the French béatilles, meaning titbits, and originally comprised of all the little odds and ends that are too small to use by themselves: cockscombs, lamb stones, sweetbreads, ox palates, etc.
By the 18th century, the spelling had settled onto Battalia, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a much more ad hoc affair (beatille, beatilla, beatilia), although the French origin can still be seen. To the ear, however, it sounded closer to ‘battle’ and William Rabisha embraced this interpretation with gusto, styling his fish pie in a pastry castle, complete with crenellated battlements, which I think is a fabulous concept as well as being visually stunning for a special occasion or centrepiece.
This design works especially well with the mixture of ingredients called for in his filling, as he suggests that each tower hold a different kind of fish and sauce. Then again, he also suggests that the decapitated heads of the various fish and seafood creatures be stuffed and propped on the battlements like some macabre seafood re-enactment of the siege in Beau Geste, thus illustrating the importance of being selective when choosing which aspects of historical recipes to revive.
Another presentation idea is to utilize the castle and battlement elements for a cold, seafood buffet, as in the picture above. Each tower is filled with a different seafood, and the main body of the ‘castle’ can incorporate garnishes, salads and seafood items better suited to being laid out, such as smoked salmon and/or trout and oysters on the half shell.
Instructions are given below for how to construct and bake your crenellated pastry castle. Do not be constrained by the picture – only by the dimensions of the tin that will fit inside your oven: a large roasting tin will give you ample space in which to lay out your centrpiece.
Neither should you think only in terms of rectangular shapes for your ‘castle’. Use whatever baking tins you have to hand and create your own fortified masterpiece. A variety of heights will add interest as well as flexibility to your display.
Batalia Fish Pie
William Rabisha, 1661
Game Pie Pastry made with wholemeal flour instead of white
2 large eggs for glazing.
To make the castle pie shell
Select a pie tin suitable for serving; round of rectangular, either is fine. It should be at least 10cm deep in order to form the walls and crenellations.
Select tins to shape your towers. These can be ordinary tins from soup or vegetables; remove the labels by soaking, and cut off both ends, leaving a tube. Cover all of the tins with foil or baking parchment, leaving one end open on each of the smaller ‘tower’ tins. The pastry will be baked on the outsides of the tins, to ensure a neat appearance.
Turn all of your tins upside down. Grease well.
Preheat your oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6.
Roll out the pastry to about 1cm and use to cover all of the tins with a smooth layer. Trim any excess pastry.
Re-roll the scraps of pastry and cut into 3cm strips. Brush the top edges – which are currently the bases of the tins – with beaten egg and attach the strips of pastry. Press firmly.
Using a sharp knife, cut out the crenellations on the towers and the castle. Make them 1.5cm deep and 1.5cm wide.
Brush the pastry with the beaten egg.
Using the tip of a sharp knife, lightly score the pastry into a brickwork pattern.
Set your tins, still upside-down, onto a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes until browned and firm.
Remove from the oven and CAREFULLY turn the tins the right way up.
Ease the foil/parchment away from the tins and lift out. Remove the foil/parchment, leaving the pastry shell. Brush the insides of the pastry with beaten egg and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes until fully cooked.