Surprising Syrian and Shakespearean Spinach Sacks
To make a tarte of spinage. Take a spinach and parboil it tender, then take it up, and wring out the water clean. And chop it very small, and set it upon the fire with sweet butter in a frying pan, and season it, and set it in a platter to cool, the fill up your tart and so bake it.A Proper New Booke of Cookery (1575)
Today is the day we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, so let’s have a look at a recipe for spinach tarts which is contemporaneous with Shakespeare, with some of the ingredients even being mentioned in A Winter’s Tale.
The spinach tart described in the quote at the top of this post is pretty straightforward…. perhaps a bit too plain….. but in another cookery book (John Murrell’s A New Booke of Cookerie – written in 1615 – so not quite so appropriately named these days) also written contemporaneously with Shakespeare, there is a description for a Fridayes pye made with chard, ripe apples, raisins of the sun, orange juice…. and other ingredients all put into a ‘coffin of fine paste’. A coffin was a pastry case.
‘Raisins of the sun’ were mentioned in the list of spices required for the sheep-shearing feast in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. They were the largest grade of raisins, of the sun because they were sundried. They didn’t just add flavour, they were also good for you according to yet a third contemporary writer, Thomas Elyot, who declared that “raisins do make the stomach firm and strong and do provoke appetite, and do comfort weak bodies, being eaten afore meals”. So just as well we’ve billed this spinach pie as a starter.
However, looking through a Syrian recipe book I spotted a sort of spinach pie with many of the same ingredients as the English Tudor pie above, but with lemon juice instead of the orange juice, and the addition of chopped walnuts, feta, and sumac…. hence this Saucy Dressings hybrid – Syrian and Shakespearean spinach pies! They are good served with ham and a salad for lunch, or garnished with a bit of salad as a starter.
Listen to some gorgeous Tudor music (go to the bottom of this post) while you make these.
Recipe for Surprising Syrian and Shakespearean Spinach Sacks
Makes about twenty – about six people for lunch, ten for a starter.
- 500g/1 lb 2 oz good quality shortcrust pastry … ideally Dorset Pastry’s (Ocado and Waitrose stock it). Go here if you want a recipe for making it.
- 1 banana shallot, finely chopped
- 1 tsp sumac (this is a dried, ground berry. The name comes from the Arabic summāq (سماق))
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed with smoked sea salt
- About 15 walnuts, chopped and dry fried
- 2 tbsp raisins of the sun – or sultanas swollen and fat
- A bag of fresh spinach 200g/8 oz minimum weight – or as in the Tudor recipe above you could substitute for chard – which might even be nicer
- 50g/2 oz crumbled feta (this is about a quarter of a normal-sized block)
- Zest of a lemon
- About ten grinds of Indonesian long black pepper
- 1 small apple, peeled, cored and diced
- Olive oil for frying
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 tbsp furikake
- Heat the oven to 180ºC (aga baking oven).
- Dry fry the walnuts in a wok and put to one side.
- In the same wok heat the oil while you chop the shallot, apple, spinach and garlic.
- Fry the shallot gently for about five minutes, then add the apple and garlic. Don’t let either the shallot or the garlic burn.
- Add the raisins or sultanas, the walnuts and the sumac, stir.
- Add the chopped spinach, cover the wok, continue to heat gently for a couple of minutes.
- Stir in the feta, take off the heat and leave to cool.
- Roll out the pastry on floured marble (it’s quite a lot of pastry – if you only have a small surface do this half the pastry at a time). Roll it out quite thin – just thick enough to hold the filling but no thicker or it becomes stodgy.
- Find a pastry cutter or glass with a diameter of about 9 cm/3.5” and cut out as many rounds as you can.
- Squeeze down on the spinach mixture with a smallish plate and drain off liquid.
- Put a teaspoon of the spinach mixture into the middle of each round.
- Paint egg onto the exposed pastry around the mixture.
- Draw the pastry together into a sack, pressing to seal but leaving a small hole for the steam to escape. Make all twenty sacks.
- Glaze with the remaining egg, sprinkle with the furikake, lemon zest, and some salt flakes.