Leche Lumbarde: 15th century

My husband had an important work call to make on Tuesday morning. You know the kind – the ones you have to put in your calendar so you absolutely do not forget about them. The kind people ask “are you all ready for it? Let me know if you need anything.” The kind that you spend weeks worrying about and might, just might, treat yourself to some sort of calorie laden confection as congratulations for getting through it once it’s over.

In my husband’s case, this was an extra large bag of Haribo. He’d bought it a week or so ago in anticipation of The Call and lovingly stashed it at the back of the cupboard behind the beans and spaghetti hoops where it waited patiently for its time to come.

Unfortunately, that time actually came three days too early when, in a fit of sudden dinnertime anxiety about our terrible eating habits, I raided the cupboard looking for rice, wholewheat pasta or lentils to make something wholesome and disappointing with. As I pushed aside a jar of alarmingly red tikka sauce I saw the Haribo bag lurking in the shadows, hoarding its gummy bears, fizzy cola bottles and sour cherries.

It wouldn’t be decent to describe what happened next. Needless to say, my husband ate a plate of wholewheat spaghetti on his own as for some reason I wasn’t too hungry anymore.

And that was the end of that. Until Monday evening, when my husband turned to me with gleaming anticipation in his eyes and told me how much he was looking forward to devouring the Haribo after he’d got through The Call in the morning. They were really helping him focus on the prep work, he said. He didn’t know what he’d do without them as a motivator, he said. If something, anything, should happen to them, he’d be utterly destroyed.

Okay, maybe not as dramatic as that. The point was, he was an earnest and very nervous man and I was a terrible wife.

Obviously I replaced the bag (I’m not a total monster), and The Call went well. But it got me thinking about how I could crowbar it into this blog and the answer came thusly: make some medieval sweets.

Yeah nice one, not a tenuous link at all.

In my defense, when reading through the recipe for these I was struck by how they might pass as a medieval version of gummy sweets. So not totally tenuous..?

Medieval people knew very well about the setting properties of gelatin: recipes in Forme of Cury describe the process of cooking pig’s feet, ears and snouts – along with calve’s feet – in a mixture of wine, water and vinegar to make an enticing dish called Gele of Flessh. What I couldn’t find any evidence of, however, was sweet jellies. And if there were no sweet jellies then it wasn’t too much to assume that gummy sweets were out of the question as well.

Forme of Cury, not telling me how to make jelly babies.

I knew that by the end of the 16th century marmalade was being made that resembled something akin to gummy sweets (rather than our modern version); Hugh Platt’s 1600 recipe for orange marmalade was supposed to be so thick it could be served in jellied lozenges. Likewise, the popular 17th century sweet quiddany – quince paste – was supposed to be so solid it could be set in moulds and turned out without losing its shape. But I couldn’t find much evidence of this type of solid-set jam being made in England during the middle ages. A medieval dish from Forme of Cury called Connate came close to these 17th century pastes, but it used lard and raw egg yolk to set it, rather than pectin alone.

What I did find was Leche Lumbarde. Thinking back to my year 9 Spanish lessons I was fairly confident, before reading the whole recipe, that this would include milk – so I almost didn’t bother, thinking it wouldn’t be anything like what I was searching for. In reality, the Leche Lumbarde I found contained no milk, but plenty of dates and sugar (or honey) cooked in wine and set into slices. Okay, it wasn’t a jelly baby or a fizzy cola bottle but it was about as close as I could get.

Other medieval recipes for Leche Lumbarde included meat, such as the 15th century version from Thomas Awkbarow’s Recipes which started off by boiling brawn to a pulp, and the Forme of Cury version, which involved ground pork. It may have been that the makers of Haribo tried an edition of brawn or pork flavour gummy worms, but the packet that my husband had been so looking forward to seemed to rely mostly on fruit flavours, so I skipped these versions in my search.

The recipe I used came from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016. Harlein MS. 279 seems to date from around 1430 and Harlein MS. 4016 dates from around 1450. The recipes within these manuscripts were heavily influenced by continental (especially French) cookery and many of the titles of the recipes have bastardised English names – the milk-based recipe Letlardes, for example, is clearly based off an earlier French one: Layt Lardé.

I still couldn’t shake the idea of the Spanish sounding name, though. And the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I was that I’d spent all that time in Spanish lessons only for history to deny that milk didn’t belong in recipes entitled “leche”. If many of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books were based on recipes from France, then surely it wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility that some Spanish influence had crept in too? There must be a connection, I thought – there must be an original, milk-based Spanish recipe for Leche Lumbarde that had somehow become muddled on its way to England.

A 13th century Spanish cookbook called The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook had a recipe for “A Sweet of Dates and Honey”, which was almost near identical to the recipe I had for Leche Lumbarde. Unfortunately, this recipe didn’t contain any milk, so wasn’t all that helpful in proving the milky origins of the dish. Furthermore, given that 13th century Andalucía wasn’t the region referred to as Andalucía today, but instead referred to all the regions in Spain under Arab Muslim control, it was likely that the original name of this dish (which had been lost) would have been Arabic, so unlikely to contain the Spanish word leche, anyway.

After hours of research I still couldn’t find anything. And then, in desperation, I stopped pushing the very limited Spanish and access to medieval Spanish cookbooks I had beyond their extremes and banged “leche” into the online Middle English Compendium to see if it could point me in the direction of anything I’d overlooked.

Leche” it sang back to me. “Of lesche, laiche, leske ‘a thin strip, a slice’. Cook. (a) A strip, slice; (b) any of a number of jellylike dishes prepared from various ingredients and usually cut into strips or slices.”

Oh.

I’d spent an afternoon chasing the belief that I was about to unearth the global transformation of a dish from its milky Spanish origins to a milk-less English sweet – a discovery that as far as I could see, no one else had made. For good reason, it turned out, because it didn’t bloody exist.

In this particular context, “leche” was truly nothing to do with milk at all. If I’d paid attention to the other, meaty versions of Leche Lumbarde I’d have seen that they too avoided milk. “Leche Lumbarde” was just another way of saying “sweet slices in the Lombardy fashion”. What the original Lombardy recipe that had inspired the 15th century English version looked like was anyone’s guess; I was too crushed to begin that particular treasure hunt and already on the way to the shop to buy yet more, consolatory, Haribo.*

What a fantastic waste of time. Are you going to cook now?

It was all turning into a bit of a disaster; I’d spent so much time chasing a misguided hunch that I had very little accurate history to talk about. In fact, I was at risk of having to include my dead-end research in lieu of proper information about the dish…

But onto the actual cooking. Milk or no milk, Leche Lumbarde was pleasingly easy to whip up and contained relatively few ingredients: dates, sugar, white wine and spices. Though the original recipe made it seem like there were lots of steps involved, in reality the last few sentences were guidance for what to do if the dish didn’t set properly; mine did, so I didn’t need to follow the end points.

Leche lumbarde. Take Dates, and do awey the stones; and seth hem in swete wyne; and take hem vppe, and grinde hem in a morter, and drawe hem thorgh a streynour with a litull swete wyne and sugur; and caste hem in a potte, and lete boyle til it be stiff; and then take hem vppe, and ley hem vp apon a borde; and then take pouder ginger, Canell, and wyn, and melle al togidre in thi honde, and make it so stiff that hit woll be leched; And if hit be not stiff ynowe, take hard yolkes of eyren and creme thereon, or elles grated brede, and make it thik ynogh; take Clarey, and caste thereto in maner of sirippe, whan thou shall serue hit forthe.

Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks

First I heated dates in a pan of white wine – I chose a Pinot Grigio as the recipe specified “sweet” (though I’m not a big wine drinker and in reality it all tastes very similar to me; sorry!) The dates simmered for a couple of minutes until they were softened and just starting to fall apart. I added them – without the wine – to a blender and blitzed.

Why couldn’t it have been milk instead of wine?!

Once suitably pulverized, I added a spoonful of the now syrupy wine back to the dates, poured most of rest of the wine away (I set a couple of spoons aside for the final part of the recipe), and returned the dates to the pan. The recipe called for sugar to be added at this point but, like all medieval recipes, didn’t specify how much. I ended up settling for just under half the weight of the dates, aware that this was meant to be a sweet and should therefore be, well, sweet.

The date and sugar mixture was stirred into a thick paste and then heated until it bubbled. Though there was no indication of what temperature to cook it for other than until it was “stiff”, I checked with a food thermometer and took it off the heat at about 106 degrees C, to be sure it had at least passed the setting point of jam. In all honesty, it looked pretty thick and stiff before it reached this temperature but I wanted to make sure.

Once it was off the heat, I added a pinch of powdered ginger and a pinch of cinnamon, stirred it through and turned the whole lot out onto a covered board. It was still boiling hot, so rather than use my hands, as suggested, and risk melting the skin on my palms, I patted it into a rectangle with the flat side of a spatula.

It seemed like it was already thick enough to slice but if it wasn’t the recipe provided some strikingly helpful pointers, by medieval standards. To thicken up the mixture, it suggested, one could crumble in hard egg yolk or grated bread which would provide some additional setting qualities. As it was I only had to cool mine an hour before cutting it into slices (and shaping it into cola bottles).

So similar it’s like “Where’s Wally?” but with Haribo.

The final part of the recipe called for clarey – a type of spiced wine sweetened with honey – to be drizzled over the finished slices like a syrup. I added a spoon of honey to what was left of the date-infused wine I’d set aside earlier, added a little ginger and heated it. Once the honey had dissolved I let it cool a bit so it didn’t melt the sweets and drizzled a couple of teaspoons over the slices.

Did these taste like Haribo? No, not at all. Did they feel like Haribo? Also no. They were much stickier and softer than gummy sweets, so fans of very chewy sweets would be disappointed. In terms of taste, they were sweet but not painfully so; most of the flavour came from the dates, so it was a very sticky, jammy type of sweetness. It almost felt like eating the inside of a fig roll.

The wine made them richer and somehow smoother, but there was no discernible alcoholic taste. Similarly, the spices – ginger especially – gave each piece a kick, but it was a subtle heat rather than a strong flavour.

In the end I’d made a relatively small batch, enough for four medium/large slices (or leches, I guess.) It turned out that this size was right – pleasant as these date sweets were, they weren’t an acceptable replacement for real gummy bears or cola bottles and we found it hard to finish them in a way we’d never struggled with before with Haribo. I guess, if anything, this experiment taught me that replications, no matter how interesting, can never replace the authentic thing.

Oh – and that unless you have half a day to waste shouting at Google Translate and listening to the Spanish national anthem “to get into the right mindset”, it’s best to leave the proper research up to the experts.

E x

* If it turns out that I’ve made yet another mistake and that “Lumbarde” doesn’t, in fact, mean “in the Lombardy fashion” please be sure to highlight this by writing me a letter and popping it straight in the bin. Or, if you must let me know, email theforeignpantry@gmail.com along with a subscription to a years supply of Haribo.

Leche Lumbarde

100g pitted dates
200ml white wine
40g caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
(optional: tablespoon honey)
(optional: breadcrumbs or egg yolk)

  1. Heat the dates in simmering wine until they are soft.
  2. Remove dates from the wine and blend to a pulp. Set aside 3 tablespoons of wine and pour the rest away.
  3. Place dates back into the pan and add 1 tablespoon of the wine. Add the sugar and stir until all incorporated.
  4. Heat the date and sugar until it is thick and bubbling and can hold its own shape (about 105 degrees C.)
  5. Remove from heat and stir in the spices.
  6. If you don’t think the mixture is thick enough to cut when cooled, add in 50g of breadcrumbs or one hard boiled egg yolk, crumbled, and mix in thoroughly.
  7. Tip mixture onto a non stick surface and shape into a rectangle a couple of cm thick. Allow to cool entirely.
  8. Slice and, if adding the sauce, heat the remaining tablespoons of wine with a tablespoon of honey. Add a pinch of ground ginger and then drizzle over the slices.

9 thoughts on “Leche Lumbarde: 15th century

  1. Love this! Really very interesting seeing how it turned out. I been planning to do some sweet medieval stuff myself and this is extra motivation.

    And I love the backstory 😂.

    1. Thank you!

      I can’t believe I spent so long chasing a wrong idea. I should have just asked you from the start! 😂

      (please tell me I was right about lumbarde=in the lombardy fashion!)

  2. Yes, essentially, that’s what it means. There is a recipe in Forme of Cury for Lombardy mustard, too, if my memory serves me right. I think there are other medieval dishes that use it too.

    I’ve spent hours thinking I’m on to something and then realising a certain word is a false friend. Everyone does it.

    1. Phew!! Thank you.
      I’ll tell you a secret – even though I was wrong in the end, I actually really enjoyed trying to track down my elusive Spanish recipe (which, now I’m thinking straight, I can see was a hopeless task what with my rubbish research and language skills anyway!) I can imagine it’s frustrating for professionals to lose hours of research time, but for the (very) amateur with nothing riding on it, it was quite fun!

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