In which we discover that some millers are extremely unobservant, nixies are both powerful and patient, love can overcome many obstacles and it takes a supernatural incident to keep a hunter away from his Jägerschitzel.
This is a really interesting story and has a lovely ending which as we know is not always guaranteed. This version is taken from the Grimm tale and Hans Christian Andersen hasn’t been anywhere near it though which may explain that. I’ve never been sure whether he chooses the sad stories on purpose or its just the way those stories ended.
Why are Hans Christian Andersen’s tales so sad?
I refuse to talk about the little Christmas Tree because it makes me too sad even in June. Anyway we have gone off topic although maybe we haven’t. Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid is very different from our Nixie. We could maybe consider how our siren voiced temptress became a mute soulless creature who could only be redeemed by human salvation. I blame Han’s disappointing love life or maybe christianity or maybe both.
An ATU of your very own
Anyway we are getting ahead of ourselves, we need to look at our tale before we consider our river mermaid. This tale has its very own ATU index entry, ATU 316 – The Nix of the Mill Pond or The Mermaid in the Pond although there are versions are far away as Chile and Brazil. A forerunner of this tale is considered to be Fortunio from the Facetious Nights of Giovanni Francesco Straparola or The Pleasant Nights of Straparola from the 16th Century.
Fortunio in that story is adopted as a baby but cursed by his adoptive mother when he leaves to find out more about himself. The curse says that he will be taken by a siren and to cut a long story short he is and he has to be rescued by his bride as in our tale. There are a lot of differences and our story is much simpler but you can see the influence. This is one of the tales that the Grimm brothers did not hear from a storyteller but was taken from a magazine Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum, vol. 2 (1842) as written by Moriz Haupt.
More Grisly Alternative Tales
There are two strong themes in this tale that appear in other tales without our watery protagonist, that of a wife rescuing her husband and a child unwittingly promised by a parent to rescue them from a bad situation. The situation in this case was poverty but it is often a more grisly danger, such as dying of starvation in the woods as in the Grateful Prince, an Estonian tale.
There is another example in the the Grimm tale: The Girl without Hands, which when I think about it also features a miller. We have looked at the wife rescuing her husband and going to great lengths to do so in The Black Bull of Norroway so I won’t list those tales again. This was slightly different as unlike most of these types tales our wife in this case was not blamed for her husband disappearing. Doesn’t that make a nice change?
How long was the miller’s walk exactly?
So back to unwittingly promising your child to the person who is saving you. You can see how it might happen if you have been away from home for a couple of years or even 6 months and you didn’t know you had a child but I do feel the miller in this case could have guessed. He must have known his wife was very pregnant even if she hadn’t gone into labour in the very few hours Ince he left the house.
I think it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that it was more likely to be a kitten or puppy but what do I know. There does at least seem to be an easy solution here, just say away from the Nixie’s pond. Its definitely easier than having to cut your child’s hands off or swapping them for a peasant’s child in the other tale I mentioned.
A touch of the Shaman
We’ll move on to the nixie in a moment but before go I’d like to give mention to the possibly shamanistic elements of this tale. The wife dreams of the solution and then pursues the solution by following the steps in her dream. There ate also three realms at this point, the underwater realm of the nixie, the earthly realm of the wife and the airy realm of the old woman on the mountain which is accessed via dreams. There is also the transformation and the expulsion to the alien realms before they meet again. It’s certainly something to think about.
Nixie or Ariel?
So to our nixie, a powerful water spirit who likes to kidnap humans. German folklore is full of them, they even appear in Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four part opera by Wagner in the form of Rhine Maidens. The Rhine maidens do seem to mean well at least. Our Nixie has more in common with the Lorelei who tempts sailors to their death on the reef by the sound of her voice whilst sitting on a rock in the Rhine. She has the ability to appear as a beautiful human woman as well as a water creature with a tail. There is however usually a sign of her watery nature such a wet skirt. She is very powerful and good at making bargains in her favour.
As I questioned earlier, how did we move from this dangerous, clever creature to voiceless Arial and the sad sea foam to which she returns? I’ve just realised whilst examining this that I can empathise with the hunter, the hunter’s wife, the nixie and even the miller’s wife but I’m really annoyed with the miller. He got to get rich and didn’t even have to try and help get his son back. There are no real consequences to his bad decisions are there?
Jäger, Chasseur, Cacciatore or Hunter?
Its time for food now and this is may win first prize for tenuous connections but we are going to investigate hunter style dishes. The man who was stolen by the nixie was a hunter and he enjoyed his food, remember how worried his wife was when he didn’t return for his jägerschnitzel? Jäger is German for hunter so any German dish that starts with that is a hunter style dish. This is also the case with French dishes labelled à la chasseur (hunter in French), or cacciatore in Italian. In English these are normally labelled either using the French chasseur or Hunter style or Hunter’s (insert item like pie or chicken).
Pub Menu Travesty
It has been very interesting to research but before I share my findings with you I want to just talk about British pub dish Hunter’s Chicken which is chicken wrapped in bacon in bbq sauce topped with grated cheddar. Its normally served with mash and appeared on pub menu’s about 25 years ago. It bears no resemblance to any of the dishes I’m going to talk about but its ridiculously popular and you can even get a ready meal version. The only solution I can suggest is that someone invented it, said what shall we call it and some bright spark decided to dismiss centuries of tradition and just call it hunter’s chicken. So there we are. We won’t mention it again.
What Hunter Style are You?
Hunter style dishes fall into three styles from what I can discover. Firstly the sort of food that can survive being out on a hunt without access to civilisation. Secondly, the sort of food that you can imagine being served to a hunter who has brought home game and other things from the woods. Finally dishes that are cooked in the style of a higher status game dish but with more common meats to allow middle class people to ape the aristocracy.
The first style is all about foods that can survive being outside for long periods of time such as sausages like Mysliwska, Polish hunter’s sausage or Jadgewurst, the German equivalent. Mysliwska is a relatively short heavily smoked, semi-dry sausage and unlike normal sausages is baked after smoking to improve its longevity. Breads like jäger bread which contained a good balance of rye flour which kept the bread sturdy but edible for longer are another example of this style.
The second style is that of foods reminiscent of hunting often including game, offal and mushrooms. There are countless examples: jägerschnitzel, a meat slice, breaded, fried and served with a mushroom sauce, chicken chasseur (a wine, onion and mushroom sauce), chicken cacciatore (a red wine, mushroom & onion sauce), Hunter’s pie a pork style cold pie containing venison and even pheasant breast.
There are some people that say that chasseur sauce and cacciatore are fairly modern and indeed chasseur in the gastronomic sense doesn’t appear in the OED until 1889 and the cacciatore sauce containing tomatoes and peppers is not the sauce that was invented in the Renaissance. It can’t have been because neither the tomatoes or peppers were around then. There are however lots of regional Italian recipes for both rabbit and chicken cacciatore in Bianco which contain onions, mushrooms and wine and not a sign of tomatoes. These recipes are much older.
I can’t actually argue with the modernity of chicken Chasseur, but the sauce its based on (sauce espagnole) is much older and we don’t actually know that people hadn’t added the mushrooms and wine before. There is actually a written recipe for Hunter’s chicken (not the never to be mentioned again modern British one) in a Danish manuscript that starts ‘Here begins the little book on the art of cookery’. This manuscript dates from around 1300 and was bound in a codex along with a text on plants and a text on the art of stone cutting. The headings are all in latin but most of the recipes are in Danish. Here is the translation of the recipe:
“About a dish called Chickens Hunter Style
One should roast a hen and cut it apart; and grind garlic, and add hot broth and lard, and wine and salt and well beaten egg yolks, and livers and gizzards. And the hen should be well boiled in this. It is called ‘Chickens Hunter Style.’”
The wine and the offal are very present here and 700ish years is a decent pedigree.
The third style is all about status, hunting was a rich person’s pursuit so access to big game meats like venison meant that you were of high status. Middle class people who wanted to increase their status would use recipes like Hunter’s mutton which was mutton cooked as you would cook venison. 18th Century cookbooks were full of such recipes, Hannah Glass refers to a similar dish as being a ‘genteel dish for a first course’. The Menagier de Paris even has instructions on how to counterfeit venison from a piece of beef and that was in 1393! This changed as time went on and duck and rabbit definitely did not retain any high status.
So what does that tell us about our recipe? I’ve decide to go with jägerschnitzel as that is what our hunter missed out on. I have recently started using Kenji Lopez-Alt’s recipe in the New York Times which is perfect but here is the recipe for the mushroom sauce which is really what makes it hunter style so I don’t feel like I’m cheating.
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion ,finely chopped
2 cloves garlic ,minced
500g fresh mushrooms of your choice sliced
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons plain flour
500ml beef stock (those juicy stock cube things are fine but you may need 2)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
A couple of shakes of Worcestershire sauce
A couple of grinds of black pepper
3 tablespoons double cream (optional if you don’t like creamy sauces)
- Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and fry the onions until beginning to brown.
- Add the garlic and cook another minute.
- Add the mushrooms and cook until golden and the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated.
- Add the butter and melt. Add the flour, stir to combine and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continually.
- Add the beef broth, vinegar, thyme, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Stir continually until the gravy is thickened.
- Cover and simmer on low, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes.
- Add seasoning to taste. Add cream, stir and allow to warm before serving
The Penguin Book of Mermaids, Cristina Bacchilega
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. Jack Zipes, vol. 2 1987
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes, OUP 2000
The Great fairy tale tradition : from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : texts, criticism by Jack Zipes 2001
The Nights of Straparola – Straparola, Giovanni Francesco, Morlino, Gerolamo; Waters, W. G. (William George), Hughes, Edward Robert
Francisco Vaz da Silva. (2010). The Invention of Fairy Tales. The Journal of American Folklore – https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerfolk.123.490.0398
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Volumes 1–3 Edited by
Saucier’s Apprentice – Raymond Sokolov
Sauces, A Global History – Maryann Tebben
The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook – Niki Segnit
Sauces – James Peterson
Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections – Robert Applebaum
Game A Global History, Paula Young Lee
The Modern Cook, Charles Francatelli 1846
A Guide to Modern Cookery – A Escoffier 1907
French Domestic Cookery 1846
The French Cook – Louis Eustache Ude 1818
French Domestic Cookery by an English Physician 1825