Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 5: A Dauce Egre, Fish with a Sweet & Sour Onion Sauce

Tak luces or tenches or fresch haddock, & seth hem & frye hem in oyle doliue. & pan tak vynegre & pe thridde part sugre & onyounnes smal myced, & boyle alle togedere, & maces & clowes & quybibes.  & ley pe fisch in disches & hyld be sew aboue & serue it forth.
Utilis Coquinario, fourteenth-century English culinary manuscript

The above text represents the entire recipe for dauce egre, or fish with a sweet and sour onion sauce, from the medieval culinary manuscript Utilus Coquinaro.  So now that you've got the recipe, what do you need me for? Kidding!  I don't know what I would have done without all the many excellent translations and interpretations that are available in print and online - though I must say that Middle English is starting to look a bit less foreign to me now, and I even rather enjoy reading it. (That said, I do not see historical reenactments in my future, as much as I do love a good wimple.)

I'm not going to lie, some of these dishes I've cooked up for the 12 Days of Feasting have been a little labor intensive, and at times I really have felt like an ancient serving wench or maid. (Or is that "mayde"?) Not that it hasn't been fun and worth it! Sometimes, though, it's nice to make something fresh and flavorful that's also simple. This dish totally fits that bill,  plus it tastes surprisingly modern.

When I first tasted the sauce, I was afraid that the sourness was going to be absolutely overpowering, but after it reduced a bit, the sugar mellowed it out, the onions added their subtle sweetness, the spices gave it a kick, and it became very well-balanced. And once  I tasted the sauce and the fish together it all made sense  - the buttery mellowness of the fillet was the perfect vehicle for the pungent sweet-and-sour  sauce.

In the spirit of making a full medieval meal, I served this with peas porridge. It was a perfect match, as the herb-y, earthy flavor of the peas was an ideal foil for the bold sauce and melt-in-your-mouth fish.

A Dauce Egre: Fish with a Sweet & Sour Onion Sauce
serves 2
adapted from Celt Net and Gode Cookery
  • 2-3 fillets of a firm white-fleshed fish, such as haddock or cod, about a pound total. (There was no haddock the day I shopped, so I bought hake instead. It was really good, but it wasn't quite firm enough, as it just barely survived the poaching process in one piece.)
  • 1 1/2 cups red wine vinegar
  • 4-plus tbsp sugar
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg or mace
  • 1/2 tsp ground clove
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp ground cubeb pepper or black pepper* 

(*Thank you so much to readers telesilla and lostpastremembered for pointing out web sites such as the Spice House and Mountain Rose Herbs where hard-to-find spices can be purchased. It was too late for me to order them by the time I had to start cooking, but I definitely plan to in the future!)

First, poach the fish in water for about 5 minutes.  When poaching fish, never let the water boil - you just want it to simmer gently so the fish doesn't fall apart.  Also, use enough poaching liquid to just cover the fillets. For added insurance - especially if you're worried that the fish isn't quite firm enough - you can wrap it in cling film before poaching to make sure it holds together:
Drain the fish and set aside. Combine the spices, onions, vinegar, and sugar.  Bring to a slow boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Taste to make sure there's a sweet/sour balance. It's going to have a very strong flavor  at this point  - don't panic! Let the sauce reduce by about 1/3-1/2 and everything will be fine. Meanwhile, in a skillet fry the fish in olive oil for about 2 minutes on each side.  To serve, just plate up the fish and pour the sauce over.

That's it - you're welcome for a really easy medieval dish! This is a snap, and it would also be a fun new menu item to include in a traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Fishes.

See you tomorrow for Day 6 in the 12 Days of Feasting! And to my vegetarian friends, if you've made it this far, I promise you'll be happy with tomorrow's dish - and so will you meat eaters, it's a good and flavorful one!


  1. Interesting recipes, I get excited about recipes, foods, preparations, and ingredients from the past. They can shed light into the world of yore and lore and sometimes act like a time machine into the ways people lived years ago.


  2. This sounds good and really unusual...

  3. funny how aigre in French means sour, they used a lot of spices during that time - i am intreegued by the sweet and sour flavors in the fish - great post!

  4. @cajunchefryan: i totally agree- you can learn so much about a culture and a people by not only what they liked to eat, but how they ate it and what was available.
    @miriam: it was unusual in a good way!
    @citron: tha tis interesting. you know, this recipe was written after the Norman conquest so I guess it makes sense because the old French had already had a big linguistic effect on the language, so you have this interesting blend of anglo-saxon and french words .... at least, i think so!

  5. I love pretending like I can understand that Middle English at the beginning of your post. And even more glad that you tell us what to do later - cause I would have been quite confused. I'm loving these posts, great job!

  6. This looks like a very tasty fish dish. I like all of the bright flavors in this recipe!

  7. This looks great. I am really enjoying this series of posts.

  8. Well Haddock happens to be both my husbands and I favorite that explains something from the past of our other lives...this fish with the spice sounds like something we would love , those types of spices I usually use in rice also more like a lebanese style that my aunt made..but the hake sounds good too but the background and the culture you are so inspired by is coming together wonderfully as these posts puts me right in that time period and makes me want to eat this another fine post and awesome addtition to the 12 days of feasting :)

  9. This is nice and interesting dish. Something that I will cook even on normal days!

  10. so well done, love your researching into foods and you know how much I love fish...the nutmeg & clove are interesting additive but I can see how with the sweet vinegar it balances...sorry a day late, power was out last nite...

  11. Veyr different and looks yummy. This series is just awesome

  12. @tastyeats: I like pretending I can understand it too! ; )
    @freshlocalandbest, @lisa, @evelyne: thanks!
    @penny: you mean normal days ans opposed to medieval days?
    @pegasuslegend: thank you! i would probably go with haddock over hake in future just because i think it would hold together better.
    @drick: i'm glad your power is back on!

  13. I Really love to create different kinds of recipes like this on1y