“Sleeping with the anemone”: Aphrodisiacs through time

Have you ever felt like your love life could do with a little bit of a boost? Like you’re still banging on about that time in year 6 when the popular kid accidentally brushed their hand against yours? (Later, he said my fingers were “sort of wet, like slugs”; I’m still waiting for him to call.)

Well, fear no more you loveless lot! For today I’m delving into the world of aphrodisiacs: foods that can apparently increase a person’s ‘natural abilities’ in the bedroom.

How long did it take you to come up with that title?

A long time, alright?

The word ‘aphrodisiac’ wasn’t invented until the 17th century when people realised they couldn’t keep describing asparagus and chocolate as “sexy time food” because it sounded stupid and lo, the word ‘aphrodisiac’ was invented, named after Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, lust and all things sensual.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that there’s no evidence to suggest food can actually increase a person’s libido. Some people believe that alcohol might help, but – to quote Shakespeare – alcohol provokes desire but takes away performance. Hardly the sexiest of outcomes.

But a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t done anything as sensible as stop people believing in aphrodisiacs. It might be chocolate covered strawberries now, but people throughout history have tired all kinds of strange and wonderful foods to get them in the mood, and I’m going to look at (but not try, thanks very much) three of them today.

Ancient Greece: Humourous Veg (in more ways than one)

We’re starting with ancient Greece because their goddess Aphrodite so kindly lent her name to the concept of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodite’s origin story could be an entire topic in its own right; it’s got violence, incest and magic – it’s basically Game of Thrones for classicists.

“I swear to God, Brian, if you get that chord wrong one more time…”

Essentially, Aphrodite was created out of sea foam after Cronos, a divine giant with one hell of a grudge, cut off the genitals of his own father Uranus and absolutely booted them into the sea – as you do. In fairness to him, Uranus had eaten all his brothers and sisters in a sort of paranoid frenzy… but still – ouch.

Even detached, Uranus’ bits and bobs were still very powerful and they fizzed around in the ocean for a bit. Eventually from the sea foamy fizz Aphrodite arose – beautiful, divine and somehow completely untraumatized.

People in ancient Greece prayed to her about carnal matters and issues of love. There were many temples and sects dedicated to her and one at Paphos ordered new initiates to give the priest goddess money in exchange for some sea salt, a phallus and instructions “on the art of intercourse.”

I have no idea what was in the instructions, but it’s possible they contained recipes and remedies to help performance. This wasn’t a new concept – ancient civilisations had been experimenting with food in the bedroom for thousands of years and documenting their (presumably quite sticky) findings. One of the first documented records comes from a 2000 year old Hindu system of medicine called The Shushrata Samhita. It suggests taking remedies – called Vajikarana – such as sweet and refreshing fruit to restore a man’s virility.

The Greeks enjoyed a fruity pick me up as much as the next person but they also appreciated vegetables. Specifically onions, garlics and leeks which, when eaten raw, had a pretty potent kick to them but also apparently reminded people of certain body parts.

Just in case you don’t know what an onion looks like

But just being shaped in a funny way wasn’t enough. Bring a leek to bed and it’s a good time for everyone, but try and introduce a cucumber…?

And that’s because Greek aphrodisiacs weren’t just ideas they pulled out of thin air. They were based on the science of the time. Essentially, many Greeks believed in the 4 Humor Theory, a medical idea created by Hippocrates and developed, centuries later, by Galen. The 4 Humors were liquids that everybody had inside them: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. People’s mood and health was, supposedly, affected by how much of each liquid they had and it was believed that blood was especially important for carnal matters.

Any food that got the blood rushing or caused the skin to flush by creating a ‘hot’ feeling was therefore great for the bedroom. Foods that were very cold and wet, no matter how suggestively shaped (like a cucumber) were major party poopers and were tossed out faster than a god’s severed testicles.

Anything less smelly than an onion?

Sure – how about this recipe from the 3rd century Greek writer Metrodora:

Take the womb of a hare fried in a bronze frying pan, add 3 litrai of rose oil then mix with sweet perfume, fat, excrement of crocodile, sap of the plant scorpion, blood red sumach, honey…”

On the Diseases and Cures of Women, Metrodora

Certain herbs and flower were also symbolic of love. The red flower anemone carried significance, for example, because Greek mythology claimed its origins came about when Aphrodite’s lover Adonis died. Distraught, the goddess apparently sprinkled nectar onto Adonis’ blood and from this the flower was born.

So it’s whatever you’d fancy from that, really – onions or some sort of crocodile dung mixture possibly decorated with flowers. Take your pick.

Medieval Europe: Womb for more?

If you know anything about the medieval Church you’ll know they were big on sin. Not committing sins, obviously (although lots of priests did) but getting very high and mighty about what ordinary folk could and couldn’t do. Sex, surely, would be up there on the list of things you weren’t supposed to enjoy?

Well… during a 200 year period up to around 1200, the population of Europe more than doubled. No one can be certain but by 1500 the population of London was around 50,000 having grown from around 25,000 in 1200.

And these babies weren’t just growing on trees were they? Clearly something was causing this increase. Part of the answer, weirdly, could have been down to the Church. Because although the Church liked it if you kept your hands (and other parts) to yourself if you weren’t married, it was fine – no, a duty – for a husband and wife to have children. But the population growth wasn’t just down to married couple alone, non married and extra marital affairs accounted for many new lives too.

Sex seemed something that people were obsessed with in medieval England. There is so much erotic artwork hidden in marginalia, a good smattering of lewd poetry (hello, Chaucer) and dirty jokes that it sometimes feels like medieval people did nothing but, er, bonk?

Medieval aphrodisiacs

Medieval medical texts are where we find most European aphrodisiacs, although they’re not called that.

Remember at this time in Europe anything medical or religious to do with sex tended to focus on the goal of procreation, rather than offering generic advice for a good time – so the description of aphrodisiacs is often pretty to the point, and presented in a way that suggests it will help with conception. The other thing it’s probably good to understand is that during the middle ages, it was believed by many that conception could only happen if both parties enjoyed themselves fully.

What that means is that when a text discusses what food to eat to conceive a baby, it’s partly because it thought these foods would help strengthen sperm, or prep the womb or whatever, but also because it was about getting both partners in the mood; if one of them wasn’t, then no baby.

You’d expect that these foods would be appetising then. Ha.

The 12th century Old English translation of Medicina De Quadrupedibus has a couple of very un-enticing recipes to try, one of which is this:

To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine.”

Medicina De Quadrupedibus

Not quite a chocolate covered strawberry, is it?

Another famous, albeit later, medieval medical text was the Trotula. It’s less explicit in its dealings with aphrodisiacs but follows a similar line of thought to Medicina De Quadrupedibus. According to Trotula, to conceive a boy a man should take the womb and vagina of a hare, dry them, crush them into a power and then drink in wine.

“Take my womb, would you? Bastard.”

I’m going to need some alternatives to rabbit womb, please.

Well if we look outside of Europe, then things get interesting.

Unlike the Europeans, who linked sex with procreation, there are hundreds of medieval Arabic sources which discuss food and herbs to increase desire without linking them to conception. These documents liken these mood boosting foods to medicines which can correct or enhance sexual function.

The 9th century Persian work The Book of Choice Sexual Stimulants and the Sultan’s Mixtures (which sounds both gross and intriguing) was a text dedicated solely to aphrodisiac-style medicine. Likewise, the 11th century Persian physician Avicenna, who wrote the Canon of Medicine, dedicated an entire section to aphrodisiac-like remedies and their uses and suggested medicines made from honey, almonds, fish, dates and herbs.

Avicenna had an enormous influence on European medicine and if you compare Trotula to his Canon you’ll find myriad comparisons. When it came to embracing performance enhancing drugs, though, European literature seems not to have embraced Islamic ideas as readily as they did others.


You know what’s really sexy? 18th century slimy raw fish.

To this day oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. I’ve never understood why. I mean, yes, I get the symbolism and I understand they’re supposed to resemble certain body parts, but I don’t understand why anyone would think having a phlegmy lump of mollusc slide down your throat would do anything but make you vomit on your lover’s pillow.

Yet here we are. Oysters have been written about extensively and in ancient Rome they were seen as luxury items, a little like they are today. There’s not a lot of evidence, however, that the Romans viewed them as aphrodisiacs. Actually, it’s not until the 16th century or so that there was a meaningful shift in how people thought of them.

In 1566 the French poet Alain Chartier wrote that “oysters provoke lechery” – apparently so much so that some brothels began serving them to their clients.

By the 17th century the word oyster had become a slang word for female genitalia and by the 18th century oyster sellers – women who stood on street corners selling baskets of oysters – found their job title had morphed into a byword for sex worker.

So who’s driving up the demand for oysters in the 18th century?

Who else? Casasnova.


His name has become synonymous with philanderer, womanizer, seducer. He wasn’t shy about it either. In his memoirs he recounts over 100 encounters – some consensual, others less so – with women and men. But aside from his peacocking, he also mentions food. A lot.

Casanova holds food and women up as two things he celebrates more than all else:

I have always liked highly seasoned food…as for women I have always found the one I was in love with smelled good.”

The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, trans. Arthur Machen.

There you go ladies – ditch the perfume and just douse yourself in peri peri sauce.

Casanova loved many types of food. He wrote a ten stanza poem about macaroni to gain access to some sort of elite poetry society and then, once in, ate so much of the stuff that they nicknamed him the prince of macaroni.

But the thing that Casanova seems to eat more than all else is oysters. He supposedly consumed 50 of them every morning. Oysters weren’t just a food to him, but a means to an end and they often crop up in foreplay.

He plays a game with rich women which he literally calls the “oyster game”. The game consists of him persuading women to let him feed them oysters which he then “accidentally” drops down their tops. Or bodices. Or whatever, I’m not an expert in 18th century clothing. As they say, hilarity (and sex) often ensues.

“LOL so funny Bernard, but if you drop one more of those things down my top I’ll punch your eyes out, OK?”

Casanova never explicitly calls oysters an aphrodisiac. At one point he suggests that a meal of oysters shared between himself and one of his paramours “had their natural effect” and later on he refers to them as “an aid”. Similarly, one woman who attempts to rebuff him says she will “pick up no more oysters” as she fears the effect they’ll have on her.

Unfortunately for Casanova, it may have all been in his head. Not that it seemed to stop him, but though oysters are high in zinc, which has in some studies been shown to boost testosterone, it’s not present in high enough levels to have any sort of meaningful effect on libido.

Does it matter, in the end?

Probably not.

Whether aphrodisiacs work or not almost certainly comes down to your mindset. The action of taking an aphrodisiac, be it a bumper bag of onions, a dried rabbit womb or a plate of oysters could prime a person to expect it to work, which might lead to increased confidence and thus success with any lovers.

What your partner thinks of your breath after eating all that? Well, that’s probably the thing that decides if you get lucky or not.

E x

“You want me to put WHAT on top?!” Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes: 1929-1933

The swamp of one-term presidents – specifically presidents who failed to be reelected – is not a deep one to drain.

The reasons an incumbent president loses reelection are numerous and nuanced, but fall into a couple of broad categories. Either they are completely incompetent in the face of global or national crisis(es), or they have deep personal and/or moral failings. It is rare that one president manages to fulfil both categories so equally.

Despite not living in America, the election has dominated headlines here in the UK since November. Until quite recently there was still a dedicated ‘US election’ tab on the BBC website for anyone looking for a quick and cheap way to dramatically increase their blood pressure.

On this historic day I wanted to look back on another one-term Republican president: Herbert Hoover. He was president from 1929 to 1933 and is remembered mainly as the president during the Great Depression.

Guided by a belief that federal government should not have a direct role in bolstering the economy (but rather it was down to local authorities to support local businesses), Hoover ended up reacting to the early days of the Depression by downplaying it somewhat, believing it would be a short-lived economic blip.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a blip. Over the next few years, millions of people lost their livelihoods and homes. Tens of thousands of these people ended up living in shanty towns made of cardboard and whatever else could be scavenged, begging for food and work and queuing outside free soup kitchens for hours each day. Out of damning criticism of Hoover’s perceived incompetence, these places were nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’.

By the time of the next election in 1932, Hoover’s popularity was at an all time low – there were even assassination attempts made against him. Unsurprisingly, he lost both the popular and electoral vote by a landslide. This paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the first Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson’s term ended in 1921.

None of this has got anything to do with food…

Well, no. And yes.

When Roosevelt took over in March 1933, his wife Eleanor was reportedly horrified to find cockroaches in the White House kitchen. Later her housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt wrote:

I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worn wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.

The White House Diary, Henrietta Nesbitt


Yet despite the supposed state of the kitchen, Hoover apparently liked his food. He would eat pretty much anything, wolfing down plates of pie, baked hams and soups with such speed that his kitchen staff used to keep bets on how quickly he would finish a meal. His own cook, Mary Rattley commented that “Mr. Hoover is the easiest man in the world to please.”

Easy or not, Hoover had a particular fondness for sweets, which is where today’s experiment comes in. Taken from The Presidents’ Own Whitehouse Cookbook, Herbert Hoover’s sweet potato (emphasis on the word ‘sweet’) seemed a timely recipe.

The recipe.

The instructions read like simple mashed sweet potato at first. I dutifully peeled and boiled two large potatoes before mashing them with butter, nutmeg and cream. The next step was to add some ground walnuts, which seemed more unusual but quite promising. Then things got…strange.

“Dot the top with marshmallows” the recipe instructed, “and brown as if for a meringue.”

Marshmallows – was this a savoury dish or a sweet one? A quick Google informed me that sweet potato with marshmallows is a fairly common dish in America (not so much in the UK), so maybe I was about to have all my culinary preconceptions challenged by this.

I covered the still-hot mashed sweet potato with mini marshmallows and baked it for a few minutes until they were just starting to brown.

I do not think this is the official Presidential design.

The verdict.

It looked and smelled fairly appetising, I have to say.

I like marshmallows and I love sweet potato, so there was nothing inherently dreadful to me about the recipe, but I still found the concept a bit unnerving. With the marshmallows oozing small pools of melted sugar over the potato, I dolloped a spoon into my bowl and dug in.

My first thought was that the combination was a little jarring. The sweet potato tasted exactly as I’d expected – with a slightly nuttier aftertaste because of the walnuts – but it was a pretty earthy, naturally sweet flavour. In comparison, the marshmallows tasted quite synthetic and I found the mix a but off putting in all honesty.

It wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected, though. Being baked had leant a toastiness to the marshmallows which I think tempered some of their sugariness. The walnuts – which I’d ground to a coarse dust – gave the sweet potato additional texture and worked really well with the creaminess of it all.

Family friendly version.

Would I make it again? Perhaps, with fewer marshmallows. I really liked the walnut addition to the sweet potato, so would definitely incorporate that into future cooking.

Ultimately this was a very American dish which made it perfect for today of all days, and as the USA enters a new era and administration of hope and unity I wish all my American readers the best.

E x

Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes

2 large sweet potatoes
60 ml (or 1/4 cup) cream
60g (or 1/4 cup) ground walnuts
1 table spoon butter
Mini marshmallows

  1. Peel and boil the sweet potato until soft.
  2. Mash the sweet potato with the cream, butter, salt and nutmeg until completely smooth.
  3. Stir in the ground walnuts.
  4. Dot the top with mini marshmallows and heat in the oven at 190 degrees C (375 F) for a couple of minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.

The ‘food masquerading as other things’ spectrum: A Dyschefull of Snowe, 16th century

Every day the weather app promises me snow. And every day, without fail: no snow. I’d almost given up hope until last Friday when I woke to see the long-awaited drifts and the less long-awaited sight of next door’s cat, pissing in them.

Either I overestimated how much snow there was, or Stanley’s urine contains antifreeze, because by lunchtime it had all melted away. All of it. Gone.

Needless to say I was pretty disappointed; I’d hoped for sugar dusted foliage and undulating mounds of the stuff to spend the day messing around in. A pile of yellow slush does not a snowman make, no matter how many times you get your toddler to hold it in place.

For today’s experiment, then, I needed something that would cheer me up and bring back the wintry weather I’d hoped for. Written half way through the 16th century in A Proper Newe Boke of Cokerye, ‘A Dyschefull of Snowe‘ seemed perfect.

To make a dyschefull of Snowe. Take a pottell of swete thycke creame and the whytes of eyghte egges, and beate them altogether wyth a spone, then putte them in youre creame and a saucerfull of Rosewater, and a dyshe full of Suger wyth all, then take a stycke and make it cleane, and than cutte it in the ende foure square, and therwith beate all the aforesayde thynges together, and ever as it ryseth take it of and put it into a Collaunder, this done take one apple and set it in the myddes of it, and a thicke bushe of Rosemary, and set it in the myddes of the platter, then cast your Snowe uppon the Rosemarye and fyll your platter therwith. And yf you have wafers caste some in wyth all and thus serve them forthe.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye

A dishful of what now?

Basically this experiment is a plate of whipped cream, reinforced with beaten egg whites. It sounds as if it should be a topping on a cake rather than a dessert, but it would have been served as a dish in its own right during the 16th century.

Remember that dishes were served all together rather than one after the other at banquets, so a plate of whipped cream wouldn’t have been too odd when served alongside plates of chopped fruit and nuts.

What makes A Dyschefull of Snowe unusual isn’t the ingredients, but the presentation. Essentially this dish was intended to be decorative as well as edible and fits somewhere on the ‘food masquerading as other things’ spectrum the Tudors loved so much (see my post ‘marchpane‘ for another example.) Once completed, this dish should look like a tree (an apple with rosemary in it) surrounded by thick drifts of new fallen snow.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye wasn’t the only cookbook with recipes for snow. I found at least three other almost identical versions; a French one from 1604 that omitted the apple but included “a branch of rosemary”, a 16th century German version “to make Snow” and another English recipe from 1591 that seemed to be an exact copy.

A 500 year old Proper Newe Booke

The easiest recipe ever?

When I read this, the thing that struck me most was how simple it was. One reason for this may be the intended audience. A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye was one of the first cookbooks to be aimed at a general reader, rather than just professionals. Previously, most cookbooks were aimed at cooks within royal – or at least rich – households and were designed to showcase wealth and skill.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye straddled these two types of book. One the one hand, recipes for peacock harked back to the old ways of cooking. But the inclusion of instructions for when to serve each dish and what are essentially menu suggestions also points to a newer, more inexperienced audience. This is where ‘Snowe’ fits in – a dish that was accomplishable and straightforward while still retaining some of the old style ‘wow’ factor of cookery.

The method.

So I suppose it’s time to address the elephant in the room. With a recipe as simple as this, did I cut corners and use a food processor to beat the egg whites or did I attempt the 16th century way: cutting the end of a twig into four and using it as a whisk?

Look, I tried, I really tried. I didn’t go so far as to cut my own twig, but did attempt to use a manual whisk. I gave it a really good go for a full 30 seconds before thinking “sod this”, and plugging my electric one in. Life’s too short, people!

Once the egg whites had risen to form peaks, I slowly added my cream, sugar and rosewater (beating all the time) and continued to whisk until the whole mass held its shape.

I selected my fanciest glass plate to compensate for the simplicity of the recipe and placed an apple in the centre. The rosemary fit nicely into the hole around the stalk and I began to pile my snow in heaps around it.

Is this not the most convincing thing you’ve ever seen?

The verdict.

This was one of the oddest looking things I’d made. The apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it looked, well, exactly like an apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it. I couldn’t really see the resemblance to a tree that others had suggested, but I don’t know – maybe 16th century trees just looked different to modern ones?! One though I had afterwards was that I was supposed to bury the apple under the snow so that only the rosemary was visible, but it was too late by that point.

The snow itself was very pleasant. It wasn’t too sweet because I hadn’t added a huge amount of sugar. Because of the addition of egg whites this was a little lighter than standard whipped cream – and in fact it took longer to whip up – but there wasn’t much difference beyond that that I could tell. Really the only thing that made me think this was something historical was the perfumed flavour of rosewater. It wasn’t overpowering (I’d learnt my lesson from last time), but just added a subtle fragrance to the cream.

The original recipe seemed to suggest eating this on wafers, but I hadn’t made any. We ate ours on pancakes instead, and it worked just as well.

In the end this wasn’t the kind of snow you could pelt at anyone. You couldn’t make a snowman out of it and there wasn’t enough for a snow angel either. But as I looked resentfully at my damp and drizzly cat-piss drenched garden, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this type was a bit better anyway.

E x

A Dyschefull of Snowe

2 egg whites
200ml (or 6.5 fl oz) double cream (or heavy cream if you can’t get double cream)
1 teaspoon rosewater
50g caster sugar

  1. Whip the egg whites up until they form stiff peaks.
  2. Add the sugar and rose water to the cream and stir to dissolve.
  3. While still beating the egg whites, add the cream slowly and continue to whip until the mixture stiffens. It will take several minutes.
  4. Once the mixture has formed soft peaks, stop beating. Set it to one side.
  5. Take an apple and stick as many stalks of rosemary in the top of it as will fit. Place the apple on a plate.
  6. Spoon the beaten cream around the apple, spreading some of the cream on the rosemary tufts to make it look like they are covered in snow.

“Get under the table you ignorant child!” Fry Blaunched, 1390

It is January.

If you’ve come here for upbeat positivity about how we can all make some decent resolutions and start new health kicks then I’ve got news for you: you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site.

For the rest of you who, like me, have no intention of starting a juice cleanse nor any plans to give up chocolate or alcohol this month (why would you?!), read on.

My family has a tradition of getting together on the evening of 5th January and having a Twelfth Night dinner. It’s nothing too fancy – just a stew and some spuds – but it’s a great way to draw a line under the festive period and gives us all something to look forward to during the first working week after the break.

What is Twelfth Night?

Put simply, it’s the evening of the final 12 days after Christmas. Put less simply (and depending on who you ask), Twelfth Night is either the 5th January or the 6th January – it basically comes down to whether or not you count Christmas Day as being the 1st of the 12 days.

The 6th January is the Epiphany – the day the 3 Magi supposedly reached the infant Jesus to bestow their very child friendly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on him. Traditionally it’s Epiphany that was the big party of the festive season and not Christmas, which was reserved for contemplation and prayer.

In medieval England, 6th January marked the beginning of eight days of celebrations called the Feast of Epiphany. This feast began on the 6th and lasted until 13th January and it was during this celebratory week-and-a-day that gifts were given and general merriment made.

Twelfth Night Cake

One of the merriments to be made was Twelfth Night cake. These were rich fruit cakes which eventually developed into our modern Christmas cake. They were often drenched in alcohol and, in subsequent years, were decorated with a thick layer of royal icing.

Twelfth Night cakes could be as highly decorated or as simple as the baker could afford. By the Georgian period, they’d become extremely elaborate affairs and were decorated with feathers, gold, and sugar paste models of increasing intricacy.

“The Regency Twelfth Cake Not Cut Up” by James Sayers, 1789. The man on the right looks sad because he’s just started his January diet. Credit here.

But the thing that seperated twelfth night cakes from your bog standard fruit cake was the bean inside it. And this is where all the fun came from.

A bean? In a cake?

The tradition goes like this: a dried bean would be placed inside the cake mixture before baking. When the cake was cut and shared out, whoever found the bean would be crowned king for the day and everyone else would have to do as they said.

There are hundreds of variants to the game: in 1676 Henry Teong, a British naval captain, described a slightly NSFW version:

We had a great cake made, in which was put a bean for the king, a pea for the queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold and a rag for the slut… which caused much laughter to see our Lieutenant prove the cuckold, and more to see us tumble over the other in the cabin, by reason of the rough weather.

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson

“By reason of the rough weather” – nothing at all to do with the drinking and booze in the cake, then?

The French version of the game, according to 16th century writer Étienne Pasquier, included forcing the youngest child in the house to sit under the table and, as the master of the house cut the cake, shout out the names of the recipient of each slice. The idea was that the child (ignorant of the rank or age of the assembled diners and – importantly – unable to see which piece the bean was in) would call out the names of the guests in whichever order took their fancy. The result of this was that it was completely random who received the lucky slice.

The idea of putting a bean or counter into a cake in order to crown a ‘king’ seems to have been one that was shared across many European countries – not just Britain and France. It’s a tradition that maybe had roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a December-time feast in honour of the Roman god Saturn and as part of the celebrations a ‘ruler’ would be appointed by lot from each household to be the master for the day.

As with anything like this, it’s impossible to say for sure that the Twelfth Night game developed from the games played during Saturnalia, but its popularity across multiple European countries and the vagueness of its origins suggests there may be some links.

Whatever the origins may be, my family prefers the French version to the ‘sluts and cuckolds’ version. This is partly because it’s a lot less awkward to see your dad crowned a ‘king’ than a ‘slut’, but also because it allows us to (lovingly) berate my younger sister and shout at her to “get under the table and stay there, you ignorant child!”

She is 26 years old.

Galette des Rois or Fry Blaunched?

There’s another reason my family prefers the French version of Twelfth Night cake to the English one. We’re usually too full of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake by Twelfth Night to feel excited about another fruitcake, but the French version – called a Galette des Rois – is nothing like that. Traditional Galette des Rois are puff pastry discs filled with frangipane. They are quick, simple and utterly delicious.

The trouble was I couldn’t find an original recipe for Galette des Rois. They must exist, but my modern French is bad enough, and my Middle French is non-existent.

What I did find was something that I though might capture an essence of them. It was in Forme of Cury, a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master cooks of Richard II. Many English recipes at this time took inspiration from French recipes and in fact quite a few recipes in F.o.C. share similarities with recipes in a contemporaneous French work, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Just to be clear, though, I’m not at all saying the experiment I tried today was a precursor to modern Galette des Rois.

Fry Blaunched
Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile. close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith

Take blanched almonds and grind them to powder and place them on a [thin sheet of pastry]. Close it therein and fry it in oil. Add clarified honey and wine and bake it therewith.

Forme of Cury. (Attempted) translation my own.

A word on pastry.

It seemed I was dealing with a fried, almond ravioli thing. Not quite the same as light puff pastry with a frangipane filling, but I was willing to try it.

Like all good medieval recipes (and if you’ve read any other of my medieval posts you can join in with this bit): there were no instructions. No details on how to make the pastry, or what ingredients to use, or even just a hint at any measurements.

Medieval pastry contained no fat. They didn’t use butter, suet or lard like we might today – most pastries were a simple mix of water and flour.

There were some additions, though. Egg was sometimes used instead of water to form a richer pastry and spices like saffron might be used to give a deeper colour. Because we were, after all, celebrating Twelfth Night I decided to really splash out and used a flour, egg and saffron mixture. I know, I know; such decadence so soon after Christmas!

The Method.

I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could; the word “foile” in the recipe actually meant as thin as a sheet of paper. Then I blitzed blanched almonds in a blender (you could use a mortar and pestle for a true medieval experience if you want but honestly, who has the time?) and cut the dough into neat ribbons.

I calculated I could fit a small teaspoon of filling into each pastry parcel without it spilling out the edges during the cooking. Once my ravioli-esque Frys were complete, I fried them in hot oil for a couple of minutes on both sides.

In the oil they puffed up nicely and looked like mini Galette des Rois, which I was really pleased about. I had to push a couple of them down with the back of a spoon as the sheets of pastry kept separating, threatening to spill the crushed almonds into the pan.

Once they were nice and crisp – but not brown – I laid them in a baking dish and poured over a mixture of honey and white wine that I’d warmed together in my very authentically medieval microwave, before cooked them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Not a Galette des Rois, but still delicious.

The Verdict.

They smelled lovely – of warm honey and fruit (because of the wine). They looked pretty appetising too; the blast in the oven had transformed them into golden brown crisps, shining in their sweet glaze.

And, truth be told, they still looked fairly similar to Galette des Rois. It was true they were smaller, but because the pastry was so thin to start with and because the frying process had caused it to puff up, it actually wasn’t too far off looking like puff pastry.

I was excited to try one and I wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was pretty pleasant: crisp, fairly rich and because it had been sitting in the pool of honey and wine during baking, also quite sweet.

Unlike Galette des Rois, the insides of Fry Blaunched didn’t taste of frangipane. They were pretty dry and a bit plain – just almond, really – without any sweetness. But that didn’t make the overall dish unpleasant. In fact, when an open pastry was dipped in the sticky honey and wine sauce, the almond mixture soaked it up which made for a sweet and nutty flavour.

Galette des Rois they might not have been (and they sure as hell weren’t Twelfth Night cakes) but as there won’t be any proper Twelfth Night celebrations this year (my family will have to shout at my sister via Zoom instead), perhaps they’ll be a good alternative.

Happy New Year!

E x

Fry Blaunched

50g or 2 ounces blanched almonds
1 medium egg
85g or 3 ounces plain white flour
20ml or 2 tablespoons runny honey
20ml or 2 tablespoons white wine
Oil for frying (any will do; I used olive)

  1. Set the oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F.
  2. Blitz your almonds until they are completely ground.
  3. Combine the egg and flour in a bowl and knead into a dough.
  4. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to as thin as you can. It should be no thicker than 2mm.
  5. Cut the dough into strips, and then cut into squares – about 6cmx6cm.
  6. Put a small teaspoon of the ground almonds onto half of the pastry squares.
  7. Place the other half of the pastry squares over the squares with almonds on. Seal the sides shut – you will need to push them very tightly together or they will pop open during frying!
  8. Heat a shallow frying pan with oil and wait until a small piece of dough bubbles at the edges when dropped in.
  9. Fry no more than 2 at a time, turning over with a slotted spoon after a couple of minutes to cook on both sides. The pastry should puff up and go hard.
  10. When all your pastries are fried, lay them in a roasting tin or lipped baking tray.
  11. Heat the honey and wine together in a microwave or a pan until the honey has dissolved.
  12. Pour the honey and wine mixture over the pastries and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastries are a golden brown all over.