From sweet to sour, or tart. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the most delicious pork scallopini at an Italian restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York. It had an interesting acidic flavor in its sauce–my stepmother identified it as vinegar, but after looking through a bunch of recipes, I’m pretty sure it was verjuice, a close relation with a long history. Verjuice (or verjus) just means “green juice”, and generally it refers to the juice of strained unripe apples or grapes, hence the tartness, but I’ve seen references to it in recipes dating way back–and most prominently in the late fourteenth-century household guide Le Ménagier de Paris and the Tudor cookbooks of Thomas Dawson. I always thought verjuice/verjus was just another name for vinegar (an incredibly important substance in the medieval and early modern eras–essential in both cooking and preservation), but upon closer reading, it’s clear that it is different, as this recipe from Le Ménagier makes clear: SAUCE FOR RABBIT OR FOR RIVER-BIRD OR FOR WOOD-DOVE. Fry onions in good oil, or mince them and put to cook in the dripping-pan with beef drippings, and do not add verjuice nor vinegar until boiling: and then add half verjuice half wine and a little vinegar, and pass the spices. Then take half wine half verjuice and a little vinegar, and put all in the dripping pan under the rabbit, dove or river-bird; and when they are cooked, boil the sauce, and have some bits of toasted bread and put in with the bird.
Verjuice was (is) neither vinegar nor wine, but perhaps something in between, which is not my original observation. In this foodie world that we live in, it was only a matter of time before verjuice made a comeback, and the Australian chef Maggie Beer started producing it commercially a while ago. Just the other day, I was strolling through a shop in Newburyport, and there it was. So now I can try to make my own perfect scallopini–or maybe a traditional syllabub for our Christmas Day desert.
Noble Verjus at Wishbasket in Newburyport; Title page of the 1610 edition of Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewel, which has many recipes calling for verjuice; “As sour as Verjuice”, George Hunt print c. 1825, British Museum.