REPASTS: BLANC MANGER

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In his latest Repasts column, which considers meals found in books, Jon Fasman writes of blancmange, a dessert Chaucer associated with his cook's weeping ulcer ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010 

“A cook they hadde with them for the nones…

But great harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That, on his shin a mormal hadde he;
For blanc manger, that made he with the best.”
 
~ Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales”, c1387
 
 
Chaucer’s cook, hired by pilgrims wealthy enough to travel with their own caterer, has several dishes in his repertoire, but his speciality is “blanc manger”, or blancmange. Today this has the whiff of the sickroom, boarding school or grandmother’s house, but in the 14th century it would have been both novel and chic. Not that Chaucer was a fan: he sees an affinity between the dish and the cook’s mormal, or weeping ulcer.
 
Like so many English desserts, blancmange is bland, sweet, inoffensive and rather wobbly, particularly in its most basic modern variety, which is simply milk flavoured with vanilla, sweetened with sugar and thickened with cornstarch. To the medieval cook this would have seemed thin gruel. Blanc manger was a heftier dish, thanks to its inclusion of an infrequent guest at the dessert table: chicken, which was boiled, shredded and mixed into the almond/milk mixture.
 
Although Western cuisine occasionally dresses meat with sweet (pork with apple sauce, or lamb with mint jelly), it tends to avoid dressing sweet with meat, as here. But a version of blancmange survives in contemporary Turkish cuisine: tavuk gogsu, in which poached chicken—so finely minced as to be undetectable except by the weight it adds—is mixed with milk, cream and sugar, along with a bit of cinnamon and a few almonds for decoration.
 
Moving south from Turkey, the Levantine variation on blancmange is called muhallabia, a light, meatless concoction of milk, cornstarch, rosewater and almonds that’s found in the refrigerator cases of contemporary Syrian and Lebanese restaurants. Although the almonds hint that blancmange might originally be Arabian, and hence a descendant rather than a cousin or progenitor of muhallabia, evidence is thin on the ground, and similar desserts of thickened sugar and milk dishes existed throughout medieval Europe.
 
A more refined contemporary version omits milk entirely and opts instead for almond milk, made by mixing ground skinned almonds with water and a bit of whatever clear, strong liquor you have to hand. Pour this slurry into a tea-towel and wring it out so hard that you can’t hold a pen for two days. The white liquid that emerges is then blended with sugar and gelatin. Pour it into a decorative mould (or several), then top with cream and berries. Even Chaucer wouldn’t dare mock something so elegant.
 

(Jon Fasman is the Atlanta correspondent for The Economist and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City".)

Picture credit: Clifford Harper