Trencher is a chewy bread that once served as plates in medieval times. Jon Fasman considers its literary roots in his latest Repasts column ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2009
“Feed, you slave; thou mayst think thyself happy to be fed from my trencher." ~ Christopher Marlowe, “Tamburlaine the Great, Part I” (c1587)
Tamburlaine the Scythian shepherd and bandit (as he was at the beginning of the play) would not have been able to issue such a taunt to Bajazene, the Turkish emperor; only Tamburlaine the conqueror of Persia and Turkey could, for trenchers—slices of stale bread, usually six inches wide and four fingers tall, that served as plates in medieval times—featured only on the tables of the wealthy. After they had sopped up all the juices from the meal’s roast joint, they were cut up and given to servants, dogs or poor people; and who, other than the rich, could afford to do anything with bread other than eat it?
The name “trencher” probably came from tranche, the French word for “slice”. The bread used was probably wholemeal, and could have been made from a variety of grains, including wheat, rye and spelt. Typically, four days passed between baking and “trenchering” a loaf of bread, and the loaf itself would have been quite basic, made from little more than flour, salt and some sort of fermented starter (baker’s yeast was not yet invented; medieval bakers relied on natural yeast slurries not dissimilar to beer wort—a mixture of water and sugars produced by mashing malted barley). The combination of wholemeal flour and a natural starter would probably have produced a densely aerated, thick-crumbed, quite chewy bread similar to modern sourdough.
There’s a trencher recipe in “Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook” (Bloomsbury), by the noble booster of forgotten British foodways Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly, head baker at Henderson’s London restaurant St John. The recipe calls for white flour, caster sugar, salt, water, full-fat milk and (to dot over the trencher just before placing the joint upon it) beef dripping. The most notable addition here is the milk, which ensures a soft, dense bread, ideal for sopping and soaking. For this same reason, South Asian bakers often add yogurt or ghee to their naan; the fat provides a more luxurious, less austere mouthfeel.
Gellatly’s trencher is oblong, sized not for an individual diner but for the whole roast. Before serving, the top crust is sliced off and the juicy meat placed upon the interior. The result—soft, warm, yielding bread saturated with savoury, beefy, rich juices—is too good to give away to anyone, no matter how deserving.
Picture credit: daisybush (via Flickr)