A spinach tart for the [history] books

As an amateur cook and someone who is interested in the cuisines of other cultures, I'm always interested in new ways to use ingredients. I love the salty-sour-sweet contrast of a green papaya salad or the crunch of a green apple sliced into a grilled cheese sandwich. So when I was flipping through the recipes of The English Housewife, waiting for inspiration to hit, I saw it... a "spinage tart" which sounded so disgusting that I just had to try it. Who, after all, would boil spinach in white wine, drain it, and then make a "marmalade" with said spinach, sugar, cinnamon and rosewater, to be poured into a tart shell? If someone had recorded it, I said to myself, it must have been good to eat, at least by the standards of the time.

As I've learned the past few months, it wouldn't be a recipe for the Historical Cooking Project if sourcing at least one ingredient didn't start with an awkward conversation. I went to a small market near my metro station, where I saw root vegetables I don't know the names of; red palm oil in tall plastic bottles; Mexican salsas; a wall of spice mixes for every South Asian dish you can think of; and, at the back, just what I was looking for, a small bottle of rosewater. At only two dollars, the price was right, but, waiting in line, I read the label, which said that the rosewater could be used "for a variety of purposes including religious ceremonies." Wait. Was I buying food-grade rosewater? I asked the man behind the counter if the rosewater was safe to eat, pointing out the label. "No, it's not only for religious ceremonies. It is good for everything," he answered.

It seems that the average person in 17th-century England would have said the same thing. Not only does rosewater show up in a variety of recipes in The English Housewife, but it was also used for cosmetic purposes -- as an ingredient in perfumes, for instance, or as a facial toner. I went to the store in the March cold to buy rosewater which travelled all the way from Mumbai.

If I'd had access to fresh, inexpensive roses, though, I could have made the rosewater myself, as someone in the 17th century would have done (or told a servant to do).

The recipe I was using the rosewater for was a little less straightforward. The book we used gives several pie recipes, from apple to calves' foot to oyster, but there was no option for a savory spinach tart. I decided to stick with the ingredients suggested; after all, the tansy that Nathalie Cooke made for our last 17th century meeting had also had a little bit of rosewater included.

According to the book, the tart was to be served alongside four other coloured tarts: one with stewed plums (for a black tart), one with apples (for a red tart, apparently), one with an egg yolk custard (which, I can confirm, makes a yellow tart), and one with an egg white and cream filling, for a white tart. In the interest of time, I chose to stick to the green tart with spinach filling. I don't know how 17th century cooks conserved the colour of the spinach, however. As it was cooking in the wine, the colour was disappearing quickly - and with it, my appetite for this tart. The smell of the liquid I drained off the spinach didn't help.

I decided to pour myself a glass of wine, since I'd already opened the bottle, to fortify myself for the next step of making spinach marmalade. Catharine Parr Traill's apple jelly, this was not. Yet as I stirred my spinach, I couldn't help hoping for some sort of transformation, some proof that by bolstering our contemporary spinach pies with onion and feta, we are, in fact, neglecting the vegetable's true purpose -- to be boiled, sweetened, sprinkled with rosewater and cinnamon, and eaten at the end of a meal.

I'm sorry to say that this wasn't the case. Indeed, my friend Adela, who, upon hearing what I was spending my Friday night making, had replied "eeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwaaaaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhh!"  had it right. The best thing that I can say for the finished product is that it did not look or taste like spinach. It was a shapeless mass, the color of something that had rotted, which tasted more like dried fruit than a former pile of leaves. While the finished tart was fine, I ended up getting rid of half of it, knowing that no one would eat it if I wasn't in front of them waiting eagerly for their review.

I have searched for the reasons for making a sweet stewed spinach tart to no avail. After all, the book contains recipes for both cooked and raw "Sallets," so it isn't as though English eaters were opposed to eating vegetables which tasted like vegetables. The practice of using vegetables in sweets continues to this day -- from zucchini muffins and carrot cakes, to spinach brownies which are designed to hide the vegetable behind sugar and chocolate, in order to get magnesium into the mouths of picky eaters. The "spinage tart" recorded in Markham's The English Housewife has not survived in the culinary canon; as I found out, there's a very good reason for that. I assure you that this is one recipe which doesn't need a renaissance.