How to Cook Medieval Fish Chewets

Maeve L'Estrange

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.


In medieval Ireland, a variety of species were fished from lakes, rivers and seas and served up – for example, in chewets, or small savoury pastries.

Accounts from the times capture the diversity of catches, as do the bones examined by zooarchaeologists in more recent years.

Archaeologists have uncovered, too, many of the tools used in the fishing industry. They’ve found fish hooks, line-sinkers, netting needles and evidence of timber boats. In one instance, they also dug up prongs from possible eel-spears.

In Dublin, religious houses and hospitals controlled the rights to fishing on the largest of its rivers, the Liffey. Among them was the Holy Trinity Priory, begun in 1038 by the Danish Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard, and known nowadays as Christ Church.

They laid claim to fisheries on the river, to fishing boats allowed on it, and to the tithes of fish caught there. Then, early in the 13th century, King John granted rights to the citizens of Dublin to fish on parts of the Liffey.

In the 14th century, the accounts for this priory show 19d (pence) being paid to “Edward the fisherman” for fish. That’s a big sum for the times. It must have been either an important delivery or have included arrears.

Another entry with a similar cost is one of salmon recorded at 18d, followed by an entry of 2d being paid to the person who baked it. Other entries for salmon are for 2d. Perhaps, that 18d was for a greater quantity of that fish, for a feast say.

Throughout the accounts, the cost of fish was generally low. Turbot for 5d. Gurnard for 1d. Oysters between 1d and 4d. Trout for 1d. Eels a little more, at 3d.

Tublynges a little less for 2½d. And salted eels for 8d.

Another unusual entry is for herring. Normally, it would be listed for 1d or 2d, but one entry lists 200 herrings at a cost of 16d. A bulk sale that suggests 12 herring were bought for 1d.

Nowadays, you probably won’t find lampreys in your local fishmongers, but they were popular in medieval times. Lampreys are a type of eel, but when cooked their flesh resembles meat. On days of fast and abstinence, of which there were many, lampreys were a meat substitute.

The 13th-century accounts of the Earl of Norfolk record a presentation gift that was purchased for “the Justice of Ireland, and the Treasurer of the place”, which was made up of bread, wine, two salmon and three lampreys. It was an expensive gift for important people, costing 22s (shillings). There were 12 pence in a shilling.

Meanwhile, at medieval fairs or bakeries, one may have been able to buy chewets, small savoury pastries filled with fish or meat.

The recipe that I have included this month uses haddock. But these pastries can be made using cod, hake, salmon, meat or poultry. In medieval times they were known as “chauet yn fysch dayes”.

Haddock Chewets

Ingredients

  • 275g / 10oz haddock fillet
  • 6 dates
  • 100ml / 1/8pt water
  • 25g /1oz raisins
  • 25g /1oz chopped walnuts
  • Large pinch ginger and cinnamon
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 200g/8oz plain pastry

Method

Place the fish and dates in the water and poach for 10 minutes. Drain and grind with a pestle and mortar. Add the raisins, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon and salt and mix together.

Roll out the pastry and use two-thirds to make four pastry cases approximately 6cm/2½inches diametre by 4cm/1½ inches high. Place the mixture into the cases.

Cut the remaining pastry to form four lids. Moisten the edges, put them on the cases, and pinch into place. Cut a small hole in the centre of each lid.

Bake at 200⁰C/400⁰F/gas mark 6 for 35 minutes. Eat while hot.

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Maeve L'Estrange: Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.

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