Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430) - .xl. Oystrys in grauy bastard

Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430) - .xl. Oystrys in grauy bastard

The  Two fifteenth-century cookery-books : Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430), & Harl. MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS. 55 Thomas Austin allows an interesting look at our culinary past. Oysters were a very cheap and plentiful source of protein in the Middle Ages.  Although the oysters that were most likely eaten (ostrea edulis) were much smaller then the oysters many of us enjoy today.  So it is surprising that the manuscript only contains three specific preparations for oysters in the pottage section.

Oysters, whelks, cockles, muscles and limpets are shellfish that were plentiful. The Romans brought with them their love of shellfish when they arrive in Britain in 43AD.  After they left, the oyster fell out of favor, however, by the 8th century that was no longer case.  Oysters were once more a very popular food.

Fish and shellfish were eaten on days that meat and animal products were prohibited--Lent, all Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (in some cases), Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Saint Lucia's (December 13th), Ash Wednesday after Whitsunday (8th Sunday after Easter) and Exaltation of the Cross (September 14th). In total, more then half the year meat and animal products were forbidden.

Additionally, Medieval physicians believed that serving fish and meat together in the same meal would make an individual sick.  This belief was prominent until the 17th century, where they were enjoyed as an hors d'oeuvre or main meal.

The title of this particular recipe is a bit baffling.  "Bastard" usually refers to a Spanish sweet wine (similar to a muscatel)  that became popular in the 14th Century.  However, there is no wine in the recipe below.  Perhaps if wine had been substituted for the ale this recipe would have been better enjoyed by the taste testers.  The problem wasn't the oysters but in the ale that was used.  I used a ginger flavored ale, believing that it would compliment the ginger already included in the recipe.  However, the flavor of the oysters and the ale did not marry well.  I believe this dish would have been much more successful had I used a darker beer, a stout, porter or black lager, all of which are rumored to pair well with the briny creatures.

.xl. Oystrys in grauy bastard.—Take grete Oystrys, an schale hem; an take þe water of þe Oystrys, & ale, an brede y-straynid, an þe water also, an put it on a potte, an Gyngere, Sugre, Saffron, powder pepir, and Salt, an let it boyle wyl; þen put yn þe Oystrys þer-to, and dresse it forth.

xl - Oystrys in grauy bastard. Take grete Oystrys, an schale hem; an take the water of the Oystrys, and ale, an bredey-straynid, an the water also, an put it on a potte, an Gyngere, Sugre, Saffron, powder pepir, and Salt, an let it boyle wyl; then put yn the Oystrys ther-to, and dresse it forth.

40 - Oysters in Gravy Bastard - Take great oysters, and shell them; and take the water of the oysters and ale, and bread strained, and the water also, and put it on a pot, and ginger, sugar, saffron, powder pepper and salt, and let it boil well; then put in the oysters there-to, and dress it forth.

Interpreted Recipe                                                                      Serves 2 as Main, 3 or more as side

1/2 cup ale (see note above)
1/2 cup oyster liquor or other fish/clam stock
2 tbsp. bread crumbs
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. sugar
2-3 threads of saffron
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 can of oysters (don't judge!)

If you have oysters you will want to clean them.  If you are like me and you purchased a can, drain the liquor from it and mix it with the ale, spices and bread crumbs.  Bring to a boil and wait till the broth begins to thicken.  Add the oysters, and cook till heated through and thickness of sauce is to your liking.  Serve them.

As stated previously, I used the wrong ale to make this dish and the taste testers were unhappy with me.  However, we all agreed that a more complimentary ale would have created a much better dish.  Would they eat this if served at an event? The answer was no.  I will leave it to you to decide.