It was a bitterly cold and windy day when I decided to make the ultimate comfort food: lasagne. It had been a disappointing morning – every time the Met Office issues storm warnings I get my hopes up that Hurricane Santa might bring me a trampoline or part of someone else’s fence, but alas, yet again I hadn’t been good enough this year.
So, the lasagne was to cheer me up – proper comfort food, which I’ve been trying to avoid in an effort to be healthier. Something hot, cheesy and far too calorific to be good for me. I planned to eat it standing tear-stained at the window, brandishing a fork trailing strings of cheese and shouting “see what you’ve made me do, Santa?!’ angrily at the wind. As is his way, my husband gently suggested that the sight of a fully grown woman shouting cheesy nonsense at an invisible Santa two months after Christmas might give the neighbours cause for concern. He promised to look into whether adult trampolines were a thing, if I’d redirect my anger to something less overly dramatic.
Which is how I came across medieval lasagne, or Losyns, as Forme of Cury would have you spell it (click here for a bit more info on Forme of Cury when I made Caudle Ferry.) Cheese? Check. Pasta? Yes (after a fashion). Meat? Er…
Maggie Black, who translated and adapted this recipe in The Medieval Cookbook tells us that lasagne was thought by some to be considered an ideal dish to serve at a last course at a banquet. The heaviness of it would ‘seal in’ the copious amounts of alcohol imbibed during the dinner, at least for long enough until the guests got back to their own homes (although possibly not; most medieval hosts rich enough to throw banquets would also house their guests for several nights too.) There’s also some suggestion that lasagne would have been served to resting armies, being quick and easy to make and incredibly filling, as well as being a bit of a crowd pleaser.
The first thing I noticed about this dish was the pasta. There was a study done recently* that ranked homemade pasta as one of the best comfort foods there is – along with mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Having said that, I’m always a bit wary of people who have their own pasta machines because it does take a bit of effort and the sorts of people who make it regularly enough to need a machine always seem like the sorts of people who jog up mountains for fun, or think watching foreign art films without subtitles is a good date night. You know, people who just generally do well at all aspects of life in an effortless and supremely annoying way. My life always seems to be full of effort of one kind or another, so I have no time for that sort of smugness, and no time to make pasta regularly, so we don’t own a machine.
Medieval people must not have thought of pasta as the richly comforting food I do. The recipe I used said that the lasagne sheets should be made out of fine white flour, “paynedemayn” which had been mixed with water into a dough. No eggs, no seasoning, no nothing. With the dough made, I rolled it out into as “thynne foyles” as I could just using rolling pin and cut it into strips.
The worksurfaces were now covered in flour and sticky grey mush. Every time I make dough I think of the people we bought our house from: who excitedly told us that they’d updated the kitchen and put new worksurfaces in – their pride and joy. I had promised I’d take care of them. As I surveyed the mess of ground in dough, sticky stained wood and crevices turned ashy with flour no duster could reach, I hoped they had no idea this blog existed.
The recipe told me to dry the pasta, and back in the 14th century it would probably have been air dried over a number of days. Because I have to work in order to pay for the kitchen I promised I wouldn’t ruin, I didn’t have a couple of days to just do nothing waiting for this to air dry, so I laid the lasagne sheets out on a baking tray and dried them in a very low oven for 2 hours at 80 degrees until they were hard and brittle.
The lasagne sheets baking, I turned to the filling and was straight away struck by the next medieval twist. No meat. No filling, really, of any kind unless you just count cheese, which I did, so I cracked on with it.
Cheese was a very popular and common foodstuff of the middle ages, with many different varieties eaten throughout Britain. Since meat was expensive, pretty much every peasant household would make their own cheese as a vital source of protein and richer houses might buy more expensive or imported varieties from the continent. According to P. W. Hammond there were 4 main genres of cheese during the middle ages: hard cheese (like cheddar), soft cheese (like cream cheese), green cheese (a very young soft cheese) and the appealing ‘spermyse’ (cream cheese with herbs.)
The original recipe calls for grated “ruayn”, which is a cheese that no longer exists in its original form. Some people think it could refer to cheese made with rowan grass from the second harvest of crop season and so was only made at certain times of the year, whilst others suggest it may have been a variant of ruen cheese, which just meant cheese made with rennet. Either way, if I didn’t have time to air dry pasta I definitely didn’t have time to wait until the end of harvesting season to make some obscure long lost cheese. In 1170 Henry II bought 10,240 lbs of cheddar and so since it was definitely available by 1390, I couldn’t see too much harm in substituting ruayn for a mild Cathedral City, especially not one that was 50% off.
Once the lasagne sheets had dried, I boiled them in chicken stock until they were soft again (why?!) and then laid a layer of them in a rectangular dish. I sprinkled on a handful of grated cheddar and then a pinch of “powdour douce” – a curious medieval seasoning that appears in lots of recipes and for which no definitive recipe seems to exist (surprise, surprise). I knew from previous research (which quickly taught me to spell ‘douce’ correctly) that powder douce was meant to be a combination of sweet spices, such as cinnamon possibly with some sugar mixed in, and was the lighter alternative to the other popular medieval seasoning “powdour forte” which was seen as a stronger collection of spices containing black pepper. In the end I used Dr. Christopher Monk’s recipe, which also gave a very full account of the history and preparation of this enigmatic spice cocktail.
And so I built the cheesiest lasagne man has ever known: a layer of cheese, a dusting of powder douce, a layer of lasagne sheets, and so on until I had used up all the pasta. Into the oven it went for 20 minutes or so until the cheese was bubbling and the air smelt and felt odd – hot and spicy, but also greasy. My idea of comfort food heaven.
I’ll admit that when it was done even I was a little bit alarmed at the amount of melted cheese. I mean, it was literally just a dish of cheese with a few brittle bits of dough languishing in the middle. Luckily I pulled myself together and cut a slice to make your eyes water.
Initial thoughts were that the cloves in the powder douce ruined it slightly. Not liking cloves in any form, I imagine my initial dislike was down to personal taste, but as they were one of the most widely used spices in medieval England and a key component of the seasoning, I had to add them. The general flavouring was a peculiar mixture of cheese and cloves and one that I wasn’t used to, but wasn’t 100% unpleasant. This is something I’ve found is true for lots of the things I’ve cooked so far – often the combination of flavours is a bit jarring to modern palates, but aren’t necessarily horrible.
The lasagne sheets were quite flavourless but the texture was robust and very similar to pasta cooked al dente (MasterChef here I come…) It was clear their role was to add bulk and fill diners up, which it did well, rather than to be a complementary flavour to the cheese and spices.
Would I make it again? Yes, with tweaks: I’d cut out the spices for a start and include more salt. I’d use eggs in the pasta and I think the whole meal would work well with the addition of some sort of minced meat, possibly in a tomato sauce, added in with the cheese. Actually, as that sounds bloody delicious, I’m off to patent it.
*A study done by me. It was delicious.
9 or 10 lasagne sheets
3 pints chicken stock
175g cheddar cheese (more if you’d prefer your coronary to come earlier)
- Cook the lasagne sheets in a pan of boiling chicken stock until soft and malleable.
- While the pasta is cooking, lay a base of grated cheese in a rectangular lasagne dish. Sprinkle over a pinch of powder douce.
- Cover the grated cheese with 3 sheets of cooked lasagne.
- Repeat the pattern two more times: cheese, powder douce, lasagne until you have used up all the lasagne
- Sprinkle cheese over the top and bake in an oven at 160 degrees until cheese is melted and pasta is cooked through.