When condiments were as salty and sour as hell

Seasonal supper: for the ideal medieval meal

 

Though you may not have noticed, condiments over the past few hundred years have become incredibly sweet. What started out as a method of preservation, transformed, with the advent of industrial sugar production in the 18th and 19th century, into something akin to a jam.

As Magnus Nillison writes in his Nordic Food Cook Book (Phaidon, 2015), jam making was almost non-existent before the commercial production of sugar beet in Europe. What then did our condiments and preserves taste like before the advent of sugar? Honey, of course, was something that we all could have added for additional sweetness. Mostly they were as salty and sour as hell.

Recently, I came across the mention of a medieval Irish condiment which consisted of onions, salt and dillisk. There were no other details. As you know, I love seaweed and revel in finding old references to it in our food culture.

After their natural sugars had come to the fore, I seasoned the batch with some sea salt and milled dillisk

I decided to try and make two versions to see what the condiment might taste like. Firstly, I sliced some onions and divided them into two equal piles. For the first version, I fried the onions in a little oil on a low heat. After their natural sugars had come to the fore, I seasoned the batch with some sea salt and milled dillisk. I placed it to one side and allowed it to cool. For the second version, I placed the onions in a 2 per cent salt brine with some dried whole pieces of dillisk and let them ferment for five days at room temperature. 

The first was a sticky, umami-rich condiment that would pair beautifully with any hard Irish farmhouse cheese. The second was much more sour. Yet because of the different profile of this condiment it needed a creamier cheese, like Durrus. 

In both, the dillisk worked wonderfully, adding body and salinity to the mix. I don’t know what our ancestors would have made of my interpretation. But I can definitely see them enjoying a condiment such as this with some venison roasted over an open flame. Perhaps they would have thrown in some bitter greens such as sorrel and dandelion to make a perfect medieval meal.

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