This recipe for black sauce was popular all over Europe in the Middle Ages with many variations and alternative names like sauce infernal. They all use fried and ground livers as a base. In England it was served up with roast meat; capon in this case was used as were various game birds. Other countries used other additional flurries such as Parma ham, dried ceps, onions or garlic and spread it on toast or bread.
The recipe comes from a manuscript with the rather clinical name Ashmole MS. 1430, dating unsurprisingly from 1430. To put the year in context, Henry VI of the House of Lancaster is on the Throne; the political bubblings are beginning that led eventually to the War of the Roses around 20 years later. The original hand-scribed pages are kept in the British Museum, but the manuscript did appear in print along with some other 15th century cook books in the late 19th century.
Jane doesn’t give the original recipe that she bases hers on, but I did find it online. It is written in Middle English and takes a little deciphering:
Black sauce for capouns y-rostyde.—Take þe Lyuer of̘ capouns, and roste hit wel; take anyse, and grynde parysgingere, and canel, and a litil cruste of̘ brede, and grynde hit̘ weƚƚ aƚƚ to-gedre; tempre hit up wiþ verious, and þe grece of the capon, þanne boile it̘ and serue forþe.
I translate it as:
Take the livers of capons, and roast them well; take aniseed, ground ginger, and cinnamon, and a little crust of bread, and grind it well all together; temper it up with verjuice and the fat of the capon, then boil and serve forth.
Going back even further in time to the very first known practical cook book – Forme of Cury – written around 1390 contains a recipe for mallard in black sauce.
I made it to go with roast chicken rather than roast capon and it is best made whilst it is resting so you can skim off the fat from the roasting tin and use it to fry the livers.
Pass a beady eye over a pound of chicken livers, making sure that there are no big gristly bits or little green bile ducts left on them. Heat some chicken fat in a frying pan and add the chicken livers. Make sure that the heat is really high so that the livers brown nicely whilst keeping the insides moist and pink. This should take about 4 minutes in all – though it might be worth poking one of the biggest livers with a slenderly-pointed knife to check that the liver is not still raw. Medium rare is good, but anything less than that could be risky, there are several cases every year of Campylobacter brought about by eating undercooked chicken livers.
While the livers are frying, demolish a slice of bread, crusts removed, in a food processor; or if you want to keep it old school you can grate it. Tip in the livers and whizz again – old-schoolers can pass them through a sieve or mincer. Season with the spices: I went with a quarter teaspoon each of ground aniseed (you could also use star anise), ginger and cinnamon. Don’t forget the salt and pepper. Give it a final spin in the food processor. The sauce will be very thick indeed – it should be a spreadable consistency and not in the least pourable. It looked like a big scoop of liver ice cream – except that it was hot! Strange.
Reheat the sauce and add some cider vinegar or lemon juice to taste (or verjuice like in the original recipe – you can buy it online). If it is really thick, let it down with a little water.
#347 Sawce Noyre for Roast Capon. This was a strange one indeed – it was made up of pure liver and was therefore very rich, though when eaten with a big piece of relatively bland chicken it did balance out better. The best way to eat it, it turned out, was to spread it on some bread as those in mainland Europe did. I liked the spice combination a lot, especially the aniseed; I may use it in chicken liver pâté. Aside from that though, I think this one’s left in the history books! 4/10.
The starter to the dinner party. The problem with dinner parties is that unless you’re careful, you end up stressed out in the kitchen cooking away and not seeing or speaking to anyone. This warm salad seemed just the job, as long as everything was prepped beforehand; it takes only minutes to make. This recipe looked simple and very tasty indeed – anything with chicken livers and fried bread always gets my vote. I also like that in this recipe appears in the Vegetables chapter of the book!
FYI: although liver is both delicious and cheap – be warned of potential poisoning through an overdose of vitamin A. However, this only really applies to polar bear, seal and husky liver. But you have been warned, so don’t come crying to me when you’ve got serious hypervitaminosis.
This recipe serves four to six people:
Briefly boil 12 ounces of mange tout in salted water; just two minutes will do it. Don’t put a lid on (the same goes for any green vegetable) as it keeps them crisp and gives them a vibrant green colour. Drain them and keep them warm in a bowl in a low oven. Now cut six rashers of streaky bacon into strips and fry them in a little sunflower oil until crisp, remove, drain, add more oil, then fry 24 (ish; let’s no get too pernickety) bread cubes in the oil. When golden brown, drain and keep them and the bacon warm. Make a simple vinaigrette from some sunflower or hazelnut oil and some white wine vinegar. Use a ratio you prefer, though Griggers suggests 3:2 oil to vinegar. Stir this into the mange tout. Now fry the chicken livers: you need six – cube them and remove any gristly bits and gall bladders should there be any. Fry them quickly and briefly – they should be a little bit pink inside. Remove them from the heat. Carefully stir in the bacon and liver and serve straight away.
#196 Mange Tout Salad with Chicken Liver and Bacon. This was delicious. The salty and fatty bacon and rich metallic liver were perfectly balanced with the bland and sweet mange tout. The crispy croutons add extra textures too. I really love these simple recipes in the book (you’re not always sure which ones they are going to be). Minimum effort, maximum reward. Brilliant stuff 8.5/10
A cheap treat. I love chicken livers, yet so many people seem to turn their noses up at them – I suppose it’s because it’s offal and folks are squeamish. It is silly though, since they are the main ingredient in pate. Any road, any local butcher should sell them very cheaply – I bought 250 grams for about £1.20 and they were prepared too, which reduced the amount of faffage later. If you buy them – do check they have had their bitter green fall bladders removed or the food will be ruined. This recipe appealed to me because of its simplicity, but also because of its ‘devilled’ (i.e., spiced) nature – a very Victorian way of cooking things (eggs and kidneys spring to mind). Devilling seems to be having a resurgence recently – the day after I cooked this, some chef on The Great British Menu competition that’s being shown on the BBC cooked devilled crab claws. Hopefully it will get popular again.
Have a go at this – it’s enough for 4 people as a starter.
Finely chop a medium-sized onion and fry it in 2 ounces of clarified butter gently. Whilst you wait for the onions to soften, chop up 8 ounces of chicken livers roughly, raise the heat and fry the livers quickly, do this for only 2 minutes, 3 at the most. This is why clarified butter is required – it doesn’t burn when you heat it as the ‘butter solids’ have been decantered off. I made my own by melting some butter gently, skimming off any scum from the top and decanting and solids away that had sunk to the bottom. Take the livers off the heat and add 2 teaspoons each of Worcester sauce and Dijon mustard, Cayenne pepper, 3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs, ¼ pint of whipping or double cream, and finally some salt and black pepper. Mix well and check your seasonings. If you like you devil a spicy one add more – I did! Divide between 3 or 4 ramekins and sprinkle with more breadcrumbs and melted butter. Bake at 190°C for 15 minutes and serve with toast.
#147 Devilled Chicken Livers – 9.5/10. I may change this to a 10/10 as it was a perfect starter. Absolutely delicious – the devil was fiery yet it was perfectly tempered with the cream and breadcrumbs. The big strong flavours had no chance of drowning out the rich creamy chicken livers. Brilliant stuff. I haven’t stopped thinking about since I made them, and my stomach is rumbling as I type. This is definitely a Grigson classic!