Guest Post: Ken Albala's Cervelat from the Livre fort excellent de cuysine 1549

This past spring I had the opportunity to cook for our annual graduating seniors party at my house -- about 40 people. The recipes all came from a 16th century cookbook I recently translated with a friend, the The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An edition and translation of the 16th-century Livre fort excellent de cuysine. What made it so much fun is that I invited students to cook with me. We made various pies, one including fish and a splash of verjus (unripened grape juice) and butter which was a great hit, another with greens and cheese, called a spinach dariole. There was also a kind of spicy chicken stew called hochepot with red wine, prunes, dates, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and a lot of sugar. There was frumenty, something like risotto but made with wheat berries, milk and saffron. We also cooked a rabbit with bacon in a small clay vessel called a pipkin, and some marvelous crespes, which are more like funnel cakes cooked in clarified butter rather than a modern crepe.

 Samantha Martinez and Amy Eastburg, history majors at the University of the Pacific

One of the most fascinating things about the book is that many of the recipes seem to have inspired, even if indirectly, recipes found in the first Canadian cookbook La Cuisinère Canadienne, which was published in Montreal in 1840. I think the anonymous author consciously chose antiquated recipes as a matter of promoting national French identity, which was being threatened in these years by an influx of English speaking immigrants. Interestingly, like Quebecois language, the cuisine retained many old forms of recipes. One that comes to mind of course is tourtière. 

My favorite dish of the evening was a cervelat. It’s a kind of sausage you still find in France, sometimes even with a pinch of nutmeg as in the recipe below. Of course sticking to the recipe as closely as possible is essential, and normally I would cook it in a pot on the hearth exactly as they would have centuries ago. The flavor is pretty much the same in a modern pot on the stovetop, but I think essential to the texture is that no modern machines be used. That is, the meat really does need to be chopped by hand and stuffed into casings with your fingers. Since this is such a small batch, 3 pounds of meat and fat only take about 20 or 30 minutes to process, so it’s not terribly arduous. As for the proportions, you should use pork shoulder, which usually has about 25-30% fat content, so there’s no need to separate the meat and fat. Just chop it all up together.

When finely chopped, add 3 tablespoons of sea salt and if you would like to play it safe, a half a teaspoon of sodium nitrite. I use instacure #1 which can be bought easily online. In the past impure salt most likely contained nitrates, and it’s essential if you want that familiar pink color and toothsome texture in the sausage. Grind in a lot of black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Mix everything up with your hands. Then take beef middles, which can also be bought easily on line and simply stuff the casings with your fingers, pushing everything down as you go and squeezing out pockets of air. Then tie them off on both ends with kitchen twine. Poke the sausages with a pin all around so they don’t burst when you cook them. Ideally let them sit several hours to let the flavors combine.

Next gently poach them in chicken broth for 15 minutes. Let them cool. They will indeed last a long time under refrigeration or in a cave if you’re lucky enough to have one. Here’s the original recipe in 16th century French and modern English.  

Cervelat (page 245)
Pour faire cervelat prenes deux livres de chair de pourceau maigre une livre de gresse & haches le tout bien menu, puis prenes poivre Muscades et sallez a point puis emplisses voz boyaulx et les lyez par les boutz & les faictes boullir ung boullon et se garde longtemps.

Cervelat sauages
To do cervelat, take two pounds of lean pork flesh, a pound of fat and chop all very finely. Then take pepper, nutmeg and salt just right, fill your casings and tie at the ends, and let them boil in a good bouillon and they keep a long time.

Ken Albala is Professor of History and Director of Food Studies at the University of the Pacific. He is the author or editor of 21 books including academic monographs, encyclopedias, and two cookbooks. His course, Food: A Cultural Culinary History, is available on DVD from The Great Courses company.