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White Eats

August 22, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

Probably the frumpiest, tattiest, most declasse dessert in England is blancmange (pronounced bluh-MONJ), which is milk-flavored gelatin. English foodies are forever reminding their fellow citizens that its medieval ancestor, blancmanger (pronounced blahn-mahn-ZHAY), was an elegant, showoff dish of rice, sugar and almond milk (an extract of ground almonds). Blancmanger often included pounded chicken breast as well.

This is quite true of 14th and 15th century English blancmangers. However, haute cuisine was international in the Middle Ages, and there are a number of recipes from Spain and Italy, not to mention France, where the dish originated. They paint a somewhat different picture.

The oldest recipe, dating from around the year 1300, was just boiled chicken and rice cooked in its broth with a little sugar. Optionally, you could add almond milk--or just plain cow's milk. Other recipes make it clear that, at least to begin with, the almond milk was only used on days when you were supposed to abstain from eating animal products.

Still other recipes included white bread crumbs. In fact, the one thing that ties all the blancmanger recipes together is that they used the whitest ingredients available at the time. (Blancmanger means "white eats," more or less.)

We have to remember how boring medieval European meals must have been without the many brightly colored vegetables we know. Food colorings were often added at feasts. Of course, the one color you couldn't create by adding a coloring is white. You had to start with white ingredients, and it added panache that rice and almonds were expensive imports.

In this sense of being white food, the much-derided modern English blancmange continues the medieval tradition quite honestly. For good or ill, English foodies might say.

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