“Come join me for dinner and we can discuss your needs,” Callum said, sweeping a hand toward the stone home. There were no windows, and a good fire took the chill out of the air. The smell of food made me realize how long it had been since I had eaten. While I carried plenty of provisions, I was often too busy to eat during a voyage.
Callum laid out two bowls of lamb and barley stew and a fresh loaf of bread with butter. Colorful rings of leeks and carrots dotted the stew. I wasn’t much of a cook myself, but the rich broth was also flavored with thyme and rosemary and a touch of ginger. The bread was also flavored with rosemary, and a sprinkling of salt baked into the crust. “Who makes this wonderful bread?” I asked.
Yes, it’s summer. I’m drinking lavender-honey infused lemonade and hoping the central air doesn’t break down in the worst heat wave we’ve seen this year. But my novel in progress is set in medieval Ireland, and the above excerpt is from a damp, cool night, where a stew and hot fire would be most welcome.
I’ve written about food in historical cooking in the past. And as I keep working on new novels, I can’t help but explore more recipes. What could be more satisfying to medieval Irish sailors and Scottish mercenaries than a lamb and barley stew with fresh bread?
Here is my somewhat modern adaptation of the recipe. As much as I hate anachronism in historical fiction, I don’t mind it when I’m cooking. After all, my spice cabinet alone represents nearly every culture known to man, and I love to improvise. When I realized my characters kept noting the rosemary and ginger, Stubb’s Rosemary and Ginger Rub was a natural choice.
Lamb and Barley Stew
2 lb. lamb, cut in bite-sized pieces
3 tbl. flour
3 tbl. olive oil
3 large carrots, chopped
4 leeks, cleaned and sliced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (or 1 and 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme)
1 tsp. Stubbs Rosemary and Ginger Rub
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 bay leaf
1 bottle Fraoch Heather Ale
5 to 6 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Season lamb with salt and pepper and Stubb’s Rosemary and Ginger Rub, and coat with flour. Brown in cast-iron pan for about 5 to 7 minutes, remove and set aside.
Heat olive oil in stock pot and cook carrots and leeks for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add lamb, then broth and ale and herbs, simmer 20 minutes. Add barley, cover stock pot, and simmer for another 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust seasonings as desired.
I found the Fraoch Heather Ale to be an essential ingredient that really added to the flavor of the stew, but it may be hard to find. Check shops known for their beer selection. It’s an ancient recipe, using heather rather than hops. If it’s unavailable, substitute with a dark ale, such as porter or nut brown ale.
3 cups flour
1 cup water (approx. add more as needed)
1 packet yeast
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried rosemary, ground (I use mortar and pestle)
2 tbl. butter, softened
Mix yeast with small amount of water, add a small pinch of sugar to activate. Add flour, rosemary, and salt, butter, then add water and knead until dough is smooth and workable, about 10 minutes. Let dough rise, covered, for 90 minutes. Punch down and let rise for another hour. Punch down again, shape into loaf and place in greased bread pan (I use butter here, too) let rise for another 20 to 30 minutes while oven heats to 450.
Halfway through baking, when crust is just getting golden, remove bread from oven. Fill small bowl with water and salt – it should be a thick mixture. Use basting brush to lightly dot bread with mixture, then return it to the oven. The salt-baked crust is a nice touch! Serve bread with the best butter you can get: organic, homemade, or European style.
It’s a simple, hearty meal. You may empathize with my protagonist, who is pondering stealing away her friend’s cook…
Callum sat back, quiet. I ate while he pondered, nodding as he offered another serving of stew. “Give your steward’s wife my compliments.”
Callum winked at me. “You want to take her back with you as well?”
“Well, I don’t want to be selfish, but if your steward and his wife are seeking greener shores…”