The inaugural Jonathan Swift Festival begins this week, running from November 23-26, 350 years after the birth of Dublin's best-known writer, satirist and poet. As a champion of the rights of the poor, his actions earned him the Freedom of the City of Dublin. His best-known work of fiction, Gulliver's Travels, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1726.
Born in Hoey's Court, near Dublin Castle, and buried in St Patrick's Cathedral, Swift spent his most productive years around Dublin 8, so it is fitting that the festival will culminate with a candlelit long-table dinner for 300 guests in St Patrick's Cathedral - where he was the dean - next Sunday evening. But rather than traditional event fare of beef or salmon, the menu will feature 17th-century dishes with which Swift would have been familiar, such as pickled eel, chicken fricassée and pease porridge, the recipes sourced from a handwritten cookery book from the time by Dubliner Hannah Alexander, who lived near St Patrick's.
Historian Dr Deirdre Nuttall is a descendant of Hannah Alexander and grew up with the book hidden in a drawer of her parents' house. "The book was written on Ship Street, just around the corner from the cathedral, in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Hannah Alexander was a young wife and mother, and very fortunate compared to the majority of people in Ireland at the time. While not a member of the aristocracy, she would have been in the top 5pc of society.
"I was aware of the book for years, and I always liked cooking, then I found myself with a couple of free months so I spent them transcribing 40,000 words of recipes. Over the years, I started to cook some of the dishes. I have a sense that Hannah intended to publish it because there's an index and it's very ambitious food - fancy food, if you like - with lots of froths and foams, and some quite elaborate dishes.
"I was amazed by the variety of the ingredients that were available in Dublin at the time; the recipes are very heavy on spices such as mace and nutmeg. The British Empire was expanding and there was access to all these ingredients. Hannah even used a number of Hindi words in the text, because the English words for some of the spices she was using did not exist yet - I found it fascinating."
As a historian, Nuttall says that she is often frustrated by the lack of information that exists about women's lives. "There's much less written about women. We know that Hannah's husband worked in Dublin Castle and we know what he looked like, but we don't know what Hannah looked like or even what her name was before she married. All we know of Hannah is her food, and that she liked cooking elaborate food. I think perhaps she was quite socially ambitious - she did a lot of entertaining, although she may not have even attended her own dinners, just brought up the food and disappeared again.
"There are clues in the book, because she's using white bread, which was a luxury at the time, and exotic ingredients such as anchovies and ambergris. She also includes some recipes about how to take easily available things and process them so that they look like fancier things. At the time olives were very costly, and she has a recipe for how to take unripe plums and put them through an elaborate process and pass them off to your friends as olives, so obviously she wanted to impress her friends and her husband's colleagues and friends."
After Hannah's death, the book was passed on to her daughter - also Hannah - who lived on Aungier Street and who was the same age as Swift and a contemporary of his. "We know Swift knew the family," says Nuttall, "but we are not sure how well he knew them - he does mention one of their relatives in his diaries, and they were neighbours."
To devise a menu for the evening, Nuttall collaborated with Mary Farrell, the executive head chef at Morton's, which has stores in Dublin's Ranelagh and Hatch Street. "I had already cooked a number of the recipes because I cook them for my family pretty regularly," says Nuttall. "They like the chicken fricassée, which is basically a chicken stew with meatballs, anchovies, mace, nutmeg, capers and lots of wine. They call it 17th-century chicken, so they ask, 'When are we having 17th-century chicken for dinner?' There are a lot of very rich desserts with cream and sugar… The food is actually delicious - but not for losing weight on!" On the night, guests will be served canapés of pickled eel that's been slow-cooked in the oven in white wine and mace, followed by family-style platters of smoked ham and ox tongue with pickled cucumber and gooseberry and elderflower preserve, and a main course of chicken fricassée.
"Chicken now tastes completely different to how it did back then," says Farrell. "It would have had a much stronger, gamier flavour. But when you cook it the way Hannah tells you to, you get really good flavour from the capers and anchovies. Mace is a lovely aromatic and there is a nice sharpness to the dish.
"Potatoes were only just coming into Ireland in Swift's time, so we are serving soft white bread rolls instead. On the side will be pease porridge - in essence, pea purée cooked in beef stock with marjoram and sorrel, with strawberries and violets mixed through it. There's also an artichoke bake, made with French-style artichokes baked in white wine with dried fruit, which sounds unusual but works really well; it's sweet and sour at the same time."
For dessert there's lemon syllabub ("heavy on the alcohol", says Farrell) and an orange fool, served with 'Lady Owens' sugar cakes': simple caraway seed cookies. "The menu was quite daunting initially," says Farrell. "But we've tasted all the dishes several times and invited a few chefs in to give feedback; I'm really happy with the menu now."
Rather than wine, the meal will be accompanied by Jack Smyth stouts and ales sponsored by the Boxty House. "Water wasn't safe to drink in Dublin at Swift's time," says Nuttall. "Everyone drank beer rather than water, even children! There was a mild low-alcohol beer - known as small beer - especially for kids."
A Book of Cookery for Dressing of Several Dishes of Meat and Making of Several Sauces and Seasoning for Meat or Fowl by Hannah Alexander, edited by Deirdre Nuttall (pictured left), published by Evertype, will be for sale at the dinner, priced €14. It's also available on amazon.co.uk.
On the night, Nuttall will speak about her ancestor and the food culture in Dublin when Swift was alive. "I think we've always had a food culture," says Nuttall, "but the custodians of it have been women, and women haven't been literate for as long as men, so women like Hannah created our food culture. Although terrible things were happening in the country, it was also a vibrant time in Dublin which was growing really quickly and a very busy port, with ships coming in from the Caribbean, India and all over the world bringing in these new and exotic ingredients - for anyone interested in cooking, that must have been quite exciting.
"Hannah would have done her daily shopping at the markets around Thomas Street, where people from the surrounding countryside would have sold their milk products, cheese and meat and poultry and vegetables, and there were places down by the docks selling spices. There was no problem getting things - there were lots of oysters, for instance, from Dublin Bay. They would have been really cheap and plentiful, humble food, an everyday thing."
"The use of exotic ingredients in Irish food fell away as fashions came and went," says Farrell, "but mace, for instance, is still used as an ingredient in sausages and black pudding, even though it used to be used much more.
"Because I am researching women chefs for a PhD, I've found it really interesting to look at Hannah and see how knowledgeable she was about food. There was a big explosion in publishing at the time and, obviously, she must have read the recipes in the magazines and taken the time to write it all down. It was the time when the whole profession of chefs was starting but you don't hear much about the women and how much knowledge they had."
Tickets for the candlelit long-table dinner at St Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday November 26 at 7.30pm are €78 (booking essential: jonathanswiftfestival.ie; 01 453 9472). All November, Morton's will be selling a selection of 17th-century dishes; mortons.ie
A fricassée is a classic French single-pot slowly simmered stew. There are many variations but ultimately it relies on simmered chicken with hearty vegetables in a rich, silky sauce.
1 whole medium chicken (1.5kg approx), cut into 11 pieces
Salt and pepper
1 small white onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
225g mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
230ml dry white wine
900ml chicken stock
1 tsp fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
50ml cup heavy cream
2-3 tbsp roughly chopped fresh tarragon leaves
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Season the chicken on both sides with 1 tbsp salt and ƒ tsp pepper. Preheat a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add 2 tbsp butter and melt. Add half the chicken, skin side down, in a single layer; do not crowd the pot. (If the butter begins to blacken, lower the heat.) Fry the chicken, turning once, until golden brown on both sides (about 10 minutes total), and transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onion, carrot and celery to the pot, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Sauté the vegetables, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown in places (8-10 minutes).
Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms darken, become glossy, and begin to release liquid (4-5 minutes). Stir in the flour, and cook until flour is absorbed by vegetables and is no longer visible (about 1 minute). Add the wine, bring to a boil, stirring until liquid just thickens (about 45 seconds). Stir in chicken stock.
Add the chicken pieces, skin side up, in a single layer on the vegetables. Add the parsley, thyme and bay leaf, bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover partially. Cook for 25-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from pot and transfer to a clean plate. Simmer the liquid, uncovered, until reduced slightly (about 5 minutes).
Whisk together the egg yolks and cream in a medium bowl. Whisking constantly, pour half of the hot liquid from the pot, a tablespoon at a time, into the cream mix (tempering). Pour back into the pot and combine thoroughly.
Return the chicken to pot. Add freshly chopped tarragon, lemon juice and 1 tbsp butter. Bring to a simmer, stir gently to combine, and serve.