Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Torta in balconata

Last weekend, the re-enactment season of this year started for us with a visit to the Historic Open Air Museum in Eindhoven. This meant preparing some dishes in advance as well. One of these was the extremely delicious 'Torta in balconata' or 'tiered dried fruit pie'. The torta has several layers of dates, walnuts and raisins with dough layers in between. Easy to make, to take with you, and very, very tasty.

Take the whitest flour you can get, three libra in quantity, and take two oncie of sugar and take a libra of almonds, and thrity-six good walnuts, and half a libra of raisins, and twenty-five dates, and half a quarto of cloves; and take a good quantity of almond milk; take the flour, moistened with water to make it very thick, and take the pan and grease it well with oil; make a crust from flour with crushed sugar and the aforementioned spices; take the walnuts, then the chopped dates and well-washed raisins, and the red cloves; and put a crust between each layer, and put a crust on top of all these things to make a torta.

Torta in balconata

The recipe is given in three parts: the pate brisee or the dough, making the almond milk, and preparing the pie.

Pate brisee:

  • 3 cups of flour (450 g)
  • 14 tablespoons cold butter (200 g)
  • 2/3 cup water (around 18 cl)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
Prepare the pate brisee at least an hour in advance. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and rub the flour into it until the mixture has the consistency of sawdust. Dissolve the salt in half the water, and add to the flour mixture. Combine quickly with your fingertips, without overworking, just until the dough comes together. If necessary, add more water as required. Form into a disk or ball, wrap in plastic wrap and leave at least an hour to rest in the refrigerator. I usually make this dough a day in advance, resting it in the fridge.  

Left: the cold butter and flour with the consistency of sawdust. Right: the finished pate brisee, before being put in the fridge.

Almond milk:

  • 1 cup almonds (150 g)
  • 1 litre water
Prepare the almond milk by grinding the blanched almonds in a food processor and adding half the amount of warm (60-70 degrees Celsius) water to it. Mix again with the food processor. Put the mixture through a cheesecloth lined in a strainer. Hold a bowl under it. I found that adding the cheesecloth is not really necessary; the ground almond particles already line the strainer as a natural sieve. Put the almonds back in the food processor and add the rest of the water. Repeat the process. The remaining ground almonds can be used in baking (cookies) or in a soup such as cream of chicken.   

Left: the white almonds in the food processor, just before grinding. Right: the ground almonds in the strainer can be used a second time to extract the almond milk.

Catching the almond milk. No extra cheesecloth in the strainer is necessary to get a clean almond milk.

Pie filling:

  • 2 tablespoons of sugar (25 g)
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup raisins (75 g)
  • 18 walnuts, shelled ( = 36 half walnuts)
  • 13-16 fresh dates
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Divide the dough into thirds. Roll the first third into a circle large enough to line a deep 22 cm tart pan. Cut off  the excess parts of the dough. On your work surface sprinkle the pastry with some of the sugar and the cloves and press them into the dough with the rolling pin (or your hand). Line the tart pan and arrange the walnuts on the sugared pastry. sprinkle liberally with almond milk.

Left: a third of the dough is rolled out in a rough circle. Right: the tart pan is used to measure the circle of dough and the remainder of the dough is cut of. 

Left: the dough is sprinkled with sugar and ground cloves. Right: the halved walnuts are arranged on the dough.

Left: the walnuts are liberally sprinkled with almond milk. Right: a layer of dough is added on top of the walnuts.

Divide the second third of the dough in half and add the pieces of dough that remained from the first third. Roll one piece into a thin circle that will fit into the tart. Cut of the excess pieces of the dough. Sprinkle with sugar and cloves and press them into the dough. Place this on top of the walnuts. Half the dates, remove the pit and arrange them on top of this layer of dough. I preferably use Iranian sun dried dates, these are the best to use for the torta. Sprinkle the dates liberally with almond milk. Roll out the other small piece of dough (with the excess dough of the previous layer added) as before and place it on top of the dates.

Left: the fresh sun-dried dates added on top of a new layer of dough. Right: and sprinkled with almond milk.

Arrange the raisins on top of this layer and sprinkle liberally with almond milk. Roll out the rest of the dough and cover the pie, sealing the edges well. Bake for at least an hour and check if the top of the pie has turned a golden brown. My torta in balconata took 1.5 hour to bake.

Left: the dried raisins added on top of the next layer of dough. Right: and sprinkled as well with almond milk.

Left: the torta just after 1.5 hours from the oven. The crust is golden brown. Right: The cut torta showing the alternating layers (balconata) of dried fruits and dough. 

The finished torta in balconata.


O. Redon, F. Sabban and S. Serventi, 1993. The medieval kitchen. Recipes from France and Italy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA. ISBN 0-226-70685-0.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The medieval tool chest: the two man cross-cut saw

The two man cross-cut saw appeared first in the 10th century in the Northern Alps, but only became common in the mid-15th century. The saw was mostly used by carpenters, and only after medieval times became an ubiquitous tool for lumberjacks or woodcutters (to cut the tree logs into smaller units).  The saw is worked by two man, which both use the saw on the pull stroke, and relax when the other pulls. This saw is often depicted together with the Apostle St. Simon, who reputedly was martyred by being sawn in half lengthwise. The saw in this period traditionally is shown with a straight blade of the same width throughout, and two large handles into sockets forged onto the blade following the width of the blade. However, the blade could also have a belly, being wider at the middle of the blade. Also the setting of the handle could differ, such that the handles went through the blade, or that the handles were directly riveted to the blade.

Top: Two man sawing a board lengthwise on a saw horse with a two man saw. Around 1300-1340. British Library, Manuscript Royal 10E. IV, folio 99 verso. Right above: St. Simon with a two man cross-cut saw. The handles go 'through' the blade. Baptismal altar, St. Johanniskirche, Luneburg, Germany. Around 1507/1508 by Benedikt Dreyer. Left: A two man cross-cut saw. Building of Salomons temple St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Prudentius: Psychomachia, Codex Sang. 135, page 434. 10th century.

Most of the blades had ordinary peg shaped teeth, but at the end of the 15th century also M-shaped teeth appeared. These teeth allow a better removal of the wet sawdust. A figure of St. Simon with a saw with M-teeth is depicted on a casket of Duke Rene II of Lorraine and his wife Phillipine of Gueldres, which was offered for their wedding in 1477. From the same period dates an engraving of St. Simon by Martin Schongauer.  Slightly later is a sketch of an M-toothed saw in the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (dated between 1488-1497).

Emperor Maximilian visiting carpenters. Woodcut from Der Weisskunig from Hans Schaufelein, 1517. 
The emperor holds a 2 man cross-cut saw.

Two man working a cross-cut saw on a workbench. The workbench is fitted with a screw clamp. Blockbuch Eysenhuts, 1471. Herzogliche Bibliothek, Xyl III no. 8. Gotha, Germany.

Left: St. Simon with an M-saw on the casket of Duke Rene II of Lorraine and his wife Phillipine of Gueldres (1477). Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France. Right: Engraving of St. Simon with an M-saw by Martin Schongauer (1450-1491). Museum L'Oevre Notre-Dame, Strassbourg, France.

The sketch of an M-toothed saw in the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (around 1488). 
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, France.

Detail from a woodcut from Von der Dyngen Erfyndung by Polydor Vergil, showing an M-toothed saw. 
Augsburg, Steiner 1537, folio VC r.

We currently have two two-man cross-cut saws, which are antique ones of unknown manufacturing  date. We did have three, but one was given away to be turned into a ‘singing’ saw. Of the two left, only one has recently been fitted with turned handles into the sockets. The other one, needs to have some sockets added first. Actually, these saws do not fit in our medieval tool chest as it they are much too large. The length of the saw blade is almost 2 metres (1.7 m for the complete saw). The blade is belly-shaped with a thickness of approximately 2 mm, as the blade is thicker at side of the teeth. It has peg-shaped teeth of 15 mm, with 3 teeth per 5 cm in a regular cross-cut setting. In comparison, the two-handed push saw has a blade thickness of 3.3 mm and a push-cut setting of 4 teeth per 5 cm.

 Our belly-shaped two man cross-cut saws.

 The attachment of the socket and handle to the two man cross-cut saw.

Left: the peg-shaped teeth of the first (complete) saw. 
Right: the W-pattern of the other saw blade, also providing room to remove the wet sawdust.

The third 'singing' saw worked by Marijn and Bram at Chateaux Vaeshartelt, the Netherlands.

Sources used:

  • W.L. Goodman (1964) The history of woodworking tools. Bell and Hyman Ltd., London, UK.
  • H.T. Schadwinkel and G. Heine (1986) Das Werkzeug des Zimmermanns. Verlag Th. Schafer, Hannover, Germany.
  • F. van Tyghem (1966) Op en rond de middeleeuwse bouwplaats. Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse academie voor wetenschappen, letteren en schone kunsten van België. Jaargang XXVIII nr. 19.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Some wooden needle cases and other textile working tools

At our woodworking course we have a new electric lathe, and I wanted to try this machine to make some wooden needle cases. Such needle cases existed in bone and metal forms in medieval times, and likely as well in wood - but this is difficult to prove as the items are rather small and relatively fragile. The needle case consisted of a hollow wooden cover, in which a hollow wooden bobbin sits, in which needles can be stored. In fact, it is a complete sewing kit.

Some sewing stuff. Three wooden needle cases with bobbins: two made of walnut, one of cherry, as well as three loose wooden bobbins of cherry and beech.

Making the needle case was a wondrous experience. It went smooth and fast on the new machine. I used some walnut stock to make the basic wooden rod (around 25 mm) on the lathe. Then I divided the rod into four pieces: two cases and two bobbins. A relatively simple task to do. I hollowed the turned cases out using a drill press with a 15 mm forstner bit, but this could also have been done on the lathe. In fact, making the holes for the needles in the bobbin was done on the lathe with the bobbin fixed in the chuck and the drill in the dead centre of the tail stock.

Here the two parts of the needle case can be seen; The bobbin with the hole for the needles, and the wooden case for the bobbin. Ideally, a cord can be attached the the bobbin and the case, so the complete set can be attached to a belt.

The two walnut needle cases closed. The top one is finished with beeswax, bottom one with linseed oil. 

Previously, I had made such a needle case from cherry wood on an old unstable lathe, and made the holes using a centre bit on a hand drilling machine. This was a far more tricky process with an only 50% success rate.

 The cherry needle box. A piece of wool is used to plug the needle hole of the bobbin.

Previously, I also made some more bobbins from beech and cherry.

  Three empty bobbins.

And two full ones.

And a wooden pin or stiletto of beech. The pin is used as a help for making eyelets. Pushing it through the fabric creates a hole for the eyelet by forcing the weave apart.

Some other textile working tools shown on the first photo are a pair of scissors (bought at Glimmingehus in Sweden) and a ring thimble. The thimble is a 14th century original, now put back into use.

The ring thimble has retained a nice patina.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The medieval toolchest: the frame saw

There were different types of saws in use during medieval times, for instance the long two-handed saw in use for construction work. Another saw that is frequently illuminated in manuscripts is the frame saw, or it's specialised form, the bucksaw. This type of saw already was in use during Roman times, and still was being used during the 20th century in Germany and the eastern parts of Europe.

Jesus with his father Joseph at work in his workshop sawing a plank with a fixed frame saw. Other tools visible are a claw-hammer, a broad axe and an adze. 12th century manuscript?

The frame of the saw is build up of three pieces of wood, loosely fitting together in an H-form. The sides of the H-frame could either be straight or curved. The bottom of the H holds the saw blade, while the top has a twisted rope to keep the saw blade under tension, which was secured by a wooden wedge. Early examples of this saw type have the blade riveted in the lower end of the frame. Here sawing was only possible to the maximum depth of the wooden support in the middle of the saw. Later types have the blades inserted in a wooden handle so that the blade could be turned and larger lengths could be sawn. This saw type is mainly found in cabinet makers and joiners shops, as it is a very versatile tool, capable of sawing straight lines as well as curved ones.

 One of the lower glass windows of Chartres cathedral showing a woodworkers workshop (1205-1235). A yellow fixed frame saw is hanging next to a saw. Other tools visible are a plane and a pump drill.

 A large frame saw, handled by two carpenters. Detail of the fresco "Preparation of the cross" 
by Agnolo Gaddi (around 1380) in the Santa Croci basilica in Florence, Italy.

Two saws can be seen in this mosaic from 1180 depicting the building of the ark in the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. The man sitting on the ark is using a frame saw, while on the right two men are using a pit-saw to make planks.  

Left: A turnable frame saw depicted in the Hausbucher of the Mendelschen Zwolfbruderstiftung (1414), Neurenberg, Germany. folio 21r. Right: a turnable frame saw from the manuscript. Boccaccio, Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes malheureux, Mid 15th century. British Library, London, UK. Add. MS 18750, folio 5.

Our frame saw is relatively small and is turnable with a handle where the saw blade is inserted into. The frame, including the handle, is 56 cm long and made of beech. The actual saw blade measures 23.5 cm and was made out of a blade of a modern bandsaw. It has 3 teeth per cm and a blade thickness of 0.5 cm.  The saw can be used both on the pull and push (i.e. by turning the frame). We did have a longer middle support at first, but this made the frame saw less easy to operate. In principle, if you make this saw larger, you might operate it by two men, each at one end of the saw holding the frame (as shown in the Agnolo Gaddi image). One of the other useful features of this saw is that it easily can be taken apart, and made into a small bundle for transport.

Our medieval frame saw made of beech. The handles holding the saw blade were turned. 
The curved sides of the frame were made using a bandsaw and a spoke shave.

Left: Detail of the turnable handle of the frame saw. The saw blade is secured in the handle with a small nail. Right: Rotating the wedge will make the tension of the rope stronger. This will hold the saw blade more straight.