So, a few days ago I posted that the plans for the Christmas cookery week at Hampton Court Palace would include the use of the reproduction multi armed spit that we have in store….and true to my word, we fired that beast up yesterday to do some roasting with.
We first came across the idea of a multi armed spit when looking through a copy of Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera in the Brotherton Library in Leeds over a decade ago when we first tackled the idea of the Elizabethan use of the Kitchens at Hampton Court…
Those images leapt off the page and seemed like just the sort of thing that was ripe for reconstructing and testing experimentally but we had to ask ourselves what was the likelihood of a Papal cookbook having any influence at the court of Elizabeth the first? Another research trip a little later on really helped us out with this matter as we found an almost identical image in an English book from 1594, The Jewell House of Art and Nature by Sir Hugh Plat…
This image illustrated Plat’s ‘secret’ no. 14, How to turn five spits at once with one hand… something that any self-respecting spit turner would find a god send, as did we! This showed that the idea that was illustrated in Scappi’s book had travelled outside of Italy and the Papal court, in fact Plat himself says that he borrowed the idea from there at the end of his text, and had come to England where Plat wrote and published. It may not have been common, in fact it might never have been made at all, but the point about experimental history is to test and construct or reconstruct objects, items and theories that exist in the historical record rather than the just archaeological one.
So What does Plat suggest is the way to enable this to happen?
Simply attach five spits together, like a mole spear, ensuring that there’s a handle at one end and that they are spread wide enough apart to allow the meat to be placed onto each respective spit. Add a metal cross to support the free ends of the four bars that do not form the axis of rotation and Bob’s your uncle as they say.
Unfortunately we were much younger then, and less diligent and so weren’t specific enough when it came to the instructions for reconstruction, so rather than have the spits arranged as Plat shows…attached to the central bar in one plane and then the outer two arms bent one way, the inner two, the other; we ended up with the four shorter spits arranged in a cross shape around the central one. It’s not a huge diversion from the original, but it is sufficient enough to annoy the hell out of me whenever I see it!
You’ll notice that we had to use some modern plastic trestles to support the spit whilst it was being loaded with meat; which is why we did it away from public view….yes, yes, I know this is public, but here I can explain the reasons and rationale to all of you, that’s just not possible with a couple of hundred visitors stood around you watching the action unfold…there’s also another reason for the trestles too. I keep calling the multi spit a beast and it truly is. Our normal spits weigh around 10Kg unloaded, this baby weighs in at just over 30Kg (about 66lb) before the meat is added!! Our meat of choice for testing this tool…chicken, simply because it’s the most cost-effective meat to use to fill the spits and test the operation; but in this case we added some beef to the centre spit in order to have all five in use rather than have a second beef laden spit running at the same time.
The beef went on first onto the central spit, we’d split the joint into three pieces to try to get it to cook at the same rate as the chickens would otherwise it would mean a lot of mucking about trying to unload the chickens then put the spit back together again to finish cooking the beef.
Getting the chickens on was a bit of a faff compared to the beef as the cavity and holes are much too big to hold the birds onto the relatively thin spit bars, so Robin had to run the bar through the body of the birds diagonally from just above the wishbone on one side of the carcass to the diagonally opposite side on the back of the bird.
With all of the meat in place the supporting metal cross was added to lock all of the free ends together and secure the spit as one…
With that part complete, the chickens needed to be secured in order to stop them from simply staying still whilst the metal rotated as if it was a miniature chicken Ferris wheel rotating around the beef. This was achieved by the deft use of long skewers pinning pairs of birds on adjoining spits rather like this…
Now fully loaded with 12 chickens and 1 beef knuckle joint, the weight of the spit had increased a little. The chickens weighed just about 17Kg (about 37lb) and the beef 6Kg (around 13 lb) so the whole shebang weighed in at around 53Kg (just under 117lb)…not exactly lightweight!
Robin and Ross carried the spit through to the fire to the “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” of the assembled visitors and selected a rack to use for the roasting
A few quick turns in order to check that nothing was moving that shouldn’t have been and then the meat was in for the duration.
Now Plat says that this tool enables the use of less fuel than if you had multiple spits one above another upon the rack and if by this he simply meant that your fire doesn’t need to be as high and thus uses less wood then this is correct; the single multiple armed spit takes up much less vertical space before the fire than five similarly loaded spits would do. It also allows one person to do the work of three and removes any need to swap spits up and down the vertical face of the fire to ensure even cooking of all the meats…but it does present similar problems to using five spits in that it becomes virtually impossible to tend to the fire as the spits and meat block the way. So in this case, rather than try to build a small fire and maintain that at a constant level throughout the cooking time, the State Apartment Warders responsible for the fire built what can only be described as a monster of a pile of burning wood then simply left it and we used a fire that was constantly, but slowly cooling. It worked a treat! There was no problem with the cooking or the fire over the two hours of roasting, yes it took a little longer then it normally might if we were simply roasting chickens on a single spit (we would expect that to take around an hour at most) but that is because the fire was cooling all the time; it did however have the benefit of less time and labour expended on dealing with the fire and the Warders only needing to keep a watchful eye on it as opposed to the constant manipulation that we ask of them when we usually roast.
When it came time for the meat to be removed from the spits, we decided to work in situ rather than try to carry the hot spit back out away from the public to a more convenient area. Ross held the handle end fast while Robin dealt with the business end so to speak. The metal cross was released, it’s held in place with a pin that passes through the central bar and stops it from sliding off of the end, and then it was pushed back out of the way. With the ends of the four outer spits floating freely, there was enough space between the spits and the rack to allow the chickens to be easily removed, and once the skewers retaining them were removed then they slid off in the blink of an eye into waiting bowls and trays. The beef on the central spit proved a little more tricky to deal with and though one piece slid off, the remaining two had to be cut off.
With the meat removed…to substantial applause I might add…all that was left was to wash up the spit and drip tray and store them ready for next time. So when is next time? Currently we’re planning on finishing the week with a bang and firing this up again on the last day…but this time adding more chickens (16 in total rather than 12) and possibly some more beef…we might even try beef on the outer arms rather than just the centre, but I haven’t run that idea past the guys yet…if you hear distant screams of Nooooooooo!!! then they weren’t up for that idea 😎
I took some video of the spit in action, but IT restrictions mean I can’t include it in this post….I’ll upload them as soon as possible and let you all have a look as seeing it in action makes it much easier to understand.
So what’s the upshot of this? What have we learned? Well the principle of having five spits attached to one another so that one person can turn them all is pretty sound. The meat cooks well and evenly through even though you might presume that it may not as it would be shielded from the heat of the fire by the other pieces of meat when it rotates away from it, and that the side facing away from the fire when the meat is at its closest to the heat is much further away when that side is turned to face the fire. I don’t think I could say with any certainty if it was indeed more fuel-efficient as without using carefully controlled firewood such as kiln dried timber, the amount of moisture in each piece will vary considerably meaning that two similar looking fires can generate vastly differing amounts of heat and burn for very different lengths of time…perhaps something to think about investigating in the future? What we can say is that there is a degree of labour and time-saving in that the work tending the fire is offset from the duration of the cooking to the time before the meat is placed on the rack. This time spent preparing and building a larger than normal fire appears to be much less than would be needed if the fire was constantly tended and refuelled. I suspect that this practice would need to be the norm if multiple spits as opposed to the single multi-armed spit were filling the rack in front of the fire as in both cases, actually being able to reach the fire to add fuel or manipulate the shape of the fire is extremely difficult. The fact that you do not need somebody dealing with the fire during the roasting time also means that they could be used elsewhere in the kitchen, perhaps looking after multiple fires simultaneously with less effort than if they were having to load fuel onto several fires through the roasting process or doing other tasks and this may help to explain why there are no staff listed within the surviving staffing lists of the kitchens of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I that appear to be responsible solely for the fires….again, food for thought and future investigation I suspect.
So, long story short, does the multi armed spit work well…