A Bengali Meal: 16th century

Today’s post is weirdly long and personal, so if you’d prefer to switch off now I won’t blame you. We always think people are more interested in our backstories than they actually are, and I’ve definitely fallen into that trap with this post. Go and watch the TV. Go outside and enjoy the sun. Hell, lie down and stare at the ceiling for 10 minutes – I can guarantee it will be a more interesting use of your time.

For hardcore fans (hi dad), or those too lazy to click off – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My grandad was born in India, in West Bengal in the 1930’s. Back then it wasn’t called West Bengal; it wasn’t until 1947 that Bengal was partitioned, with the Eastern section becoming part of the newly created Pakistan and the Western section, the part my grandad’s family lived in, remaining in India. Grandad used to say he remembered sitting on the roof of his parents’ house watching a seemingly never ending line of Hindu migrants – his family – who had found themselves on the “wrong” side of partition, walking down the road towards the house and wondering what on earth they were going to do. All these displaced aunts, uncles, cousins…where would they sleep? Would there be enough food? Would they be staying long?

Grandad aged 8 and getting ready for a festival. Have you ever seen a less excited child?

A few years later he moved to Britain to do post-grad research having already graduated from the University of Calcutta. The post-grad also allowed him to avoid the threat of an arranged marriage he didn’t want to be a part of. In Britain he worked as an inventor and sent sketches of his inventions to be turned into blueprints at the draft department of the company he worked for. After a year or so, one of the draughtswomen made a mistake with the measurements and he visited the department to help fix it. Six months later he was engaged – this time of his own volition – to the draughtswoman who had cocked up the measurements (though she maintained it was his dodgy drawing that was at fault.) The rest of his time was spent convincing his new mother in law that a mixed marriage wasn’t the end of the world and that yes, actually, people with darker skin and foreign names (the horror!) could be just as intelligent, funny and kind as the white people she met with to drink tea and judge others. In his case, more so. Great grandma came round to having “one of those Indians” in the family eventually…

Britain wasn’t always hugely accepting of immigrants in the 50’s. Or 60’s. Or 70’s. Or… you get the picture. I know there were some dark periods for grandad and so, to try and lessen the target on him and his family he Anglicized as much of himself as he could. He changed his name to one that sounded more English. He rarely spoke Bengali again and didn’t teach it to his children. He accepted jobs at engineering firms that required him to regularly relocate to new countries in order to “get rid” of him while still benefiting from his labour. He took it all in his stride and ironically ended up with a work history so rich and international that by today’s standards it would be akin to that of a successful global businessman.

By the time he retired he had become a public serving and well respected member of the community and he began to revisit his Bengali roots. When my sister and I visited as children he’d tell us folk stories from his own childhood, play old Indian records for us and we’d try on my aunt’s bindis and saris. We’d have brilliant but bizarre “fusion” dinners of samosas, dal and spag bol followed by rasmalai and apple crumble and there were always plates of Bengali sweets bought from the Asian market which he’d encourage us to wolf down before our parents came to collect us. At the time I thought this was the greatest thing ever but now I’ve had a child and can imagine the sugar-hyped car journey home, it seems like an unbelievably evil thing to do to my mum and dad.

Adorable but irresponsible actions aside, I only knew him as grandad. Sweetie junkie, “Big Giant”, king of farting and blaming it on the dog – this one’s for you. Miss you.

Medieval India…

…was not like medieval England, I have realised (give me my PhD now.) I admit, this might seem obvious to everyone given the thousands of miles between Britain and India – not to mention the size difference in land mass. But it’s more than that. Even the term “medieval India” is problematic because from a British-centred world view it implies conformity with Western dates, which isn’t necessarily the case. What’s called “medieval India” spans from roughly the 6th-18th centuries CE, with numerous and complex eras as part of this lengthy time period.

Whereas post-10th century medieval England was ruled over by one king and one king only, the same was not true for India, which maintained local and regional dynasties throughout this period. Some historians, such as Ram Sharan Sharma, have drawn comparisons with the European feudal system; local Indian rulers were given power and land in exchange for service and loyalty to the dynasty. These dynasties were shaped and developed by various cultural traditions, including agriculture, but also by religion. It’s impossible to overstate the complexity of the history of religion in India, but if you thought religion in medieval and Renaissance England was fraught and exhausting, you’re going to want to take a breather before seeing what was going on in India at the same time.

It won’t be a surprise to learn that the cuisine of 16th century India wasn’t unified either. As a vast country benefiting from lots of different climates, the people of Bengal – which I’m focusing on – would have had access to different ingredients than the people of, say, Punjab.

Early 11th century texts such as the Charyapadas describe Bengal as being a region of fishing, hunting and of growing rice – but make no reference to dal at all. In fact, it’s not until the 15th century that dal is mentioned as a dish. Chitrita Banerji commented that the abundance of fish in Bengal made dal unnecessary as a source of protein and that its introduction to Bengali cuisine in the 15th century coincided with the Bengali emergence of the Vasishnava Bhakti sect – a branch of Hinduism that promotes vegetarianism.

Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaves of the jute plant, and some hot milk on the side.

From the Bengali text Prakritapaingala, c. 1400

To this day Bengal remains a region devoted to rice, fish and sweets. There’s even a proverb: Machhe bhaate Bangali – a Bengali is made of rice and fish. Pre-colonial Bengali cuisine was also exceptional among other Indian cuisines because it evolved a set-course structure, with one dish being served after another, while other regions favoured serving dishes at the same time. A Bengali meal would generally start with Shukto: a bitter dish, followed by Shak: leafy veg, followed by Dal: pulses, followed by vegetable or meat dishes, followed by Chatni: chutney, before finishing with sweet dishes.

There are a few “medieval” Indian cookbooks – but most references to food and meals comes from literary works of the time such as the one I’m using today, the Chandimangal. The Chandimangal is a mangal kavya – a narrative poem about the deities as they established their cults on earth. The genre was hugely important to “medieval” Bengali literature and flourished during the 13th-18th centuries. In the Chandimangal there are literally hundreds of references to food – all described in vivid detail from the tantalising “jhasha fish in tamarind sauce” to the unappetizing “nasty porridge made from old rice-dust” to the downright confusing: “[Dhanapati] ate yogurt and treacle with a crunching noise.”

20th century painting of scenes in the Chandimangal by Ajit Chitrakar. Credit: V&A Museum.

It’s important to remember the foods of the Chandimangal represent the diet of the wealthy – the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of the Hindu caste system. Ordinary Hindus – Vaishyas and Shudras – wouldn’t have had everyday access to the wealth of meat, spices, fruit and sugar mentioned in the text (and the “untouchable” Dalits would never have had any access at all.) As is often the case in this time period, the voices of the poor have unfortunately been lost.

I really wanted to recreate some of the fish dishes but it was impossible to get hold of any of the fish mentioned in the Chandimangal in my area of the UK – I’m not even sure Heston Blumenthal has access to clownfish, which are lovely fried in mustard oil, apparently. In the end it was whittled down to seven dishes from the text – a 16th century Bengali feast in honour of my grandad.

Dal.

The first thing I wanted to get started was the dal. The Chandimangal recipe for red lentil dal was so simple I could have wept tears of joy. Red lentils, black gram, cardamom, cloves and a pinch of pepper. That was it!

When I make dal in ordinary circumstances I often add chopped onion but very early Indian texts don’t mention onions at all. Since 1500 BCE, onions, which had been introduced to India from South West Asia and Afghanistan, were seen as the food of hated rival tribal populations and foreigners and though they grew well in India, they weren’t mentioned in any of the Vedas at all. As Colleen Taylor Sen speculates, this may have been because they were associated with “despised indigenous people” or were seen as unclean because of their smell and eye watering properties. The avoidance of onions would continue well into the 16th century where they were used more often, but always with a whiff of taboo. A quick check of the Chandimangal showed me that onions were entirely absent in the text, so I knew it wasn’t a hidden ingredient to add at my discretion, but rather one which had been deliberately omitted.

I heated the spices in a little ghee to release the flavour while the lentils cooked in salted water. Once they were soft the whole lot was mixed and seasoned with a pinch of long pepper – a type of pepper native to India and which is sometimes called Bengal pepper; I took this as a pretty solid sign it would have been used in this dal. (Also I’d bought a tin of it for a previous experiment at a stupid price and wanted to prove to my husband that it hadn’t been “yet another expensive ingredient you’ll never use again.” I know he loves this hobby of mine really…)

Shukto.

Next it was the Shukto – the bitter dish usually served at the start of a meal. I heated asafoetida, fenugreek and cumin in ghee before frying broad beans and diced aubergine. The text also mentioned the addition of neem leaves, which I didn’t have, so I used curry leaves instead to mimic the appearance of neem leaves and moved on to the next dish. So far, so simple.

Mango Chutney.

After this it was time for mango chutney. All I had to go on in the text was that it was meant to be “yellow coloured”. “Well it’s just chutney,” I thought to myself. “How much could it have changed in the past 500 years, really?”

Turns out the answer is: a lot. Loads. There are over 28 million hits if you Google “mango chutney recipe”. I had to find a recipe that used only ingredients mentioned in the Chandimangal, or sort of make it up. I opted for a mix of both. After peeling and chopping two mangoes, I ground mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar until they were an oily mush, which I heated in a large frying pan. To this I added turmeric, fennel seeds and ginger that I’d pounded into a fibrous paste. Once it was heated through I added the mangoes, some salt and sugar and covered with a cup of water, leaving it to reduce for about an hour until it was a lovely thick golden yellow. This was the part of the meal I was looking forward to the most.

Liquid gold.

Shor Bhaja.

At least, it was the part I was looking forward to the most until I saw what I could make for pudding: Condensed. Milk. Sweets. These were mentioned numerous times and I got so excited when I saw them. People who know me for five minutes will know that I think of condensed milk as being a Very Positive – nay, an entirely necessary – part of life, but the milk sweets in the Chandimangal didn’t require any English condensed milk at all. It was a much more literal meaning – condensing a pan of milk down to cream by boiling the liquid off, exactly as shor bhaja are made today.

First I brought a litre of full fat milk to just simmering and as the cream floated to the surface I gently pushed it to the edge of the pan where it clung to the sides, drying. Once the creamy dregs stuck to the pan had dried out I scraped them out and onto a plate, where they sat like scrambled egg, congealing in a quiet and disgusting way. I couldn’t help notice that after twenty minutes I had the most minute scrapings on the plate and still a litre of milk to get through. Still, I was sure things would pick up soon.

Three and a half hours later I scraped off the last creamy dreg. My feet ached. My back ached. I hadn’t left the pan for longer than two minutes – it was 25 degrees out but in my little kitchen, with steam rising off the pan and a window that only half opened, it felt like 250 degrees. In the time it would have taken me to make eight trays of muffins (and eat them all), I had just enough cream solids to fit in my palm. What kind of sick culinary joke was this?

I angrily shaped the cream into a rectangle and cut out ten small squares, which were then dusted in rice flour and fried in ghee until golden brown. I ignored the alarming amounts of ghee seeping off the fried shor bhaja as they sat on sheets of kitchen paper, and got to work on the sugar syrup. As ancient Bengal had been famous for its superior quality of cane sugar, I mixed golden caster with water and added cardamom pods to flavour the syrup, which were mentioned in other sweets in the Chandimangal so may have been used here too.

Cream, fried in ghee, drowning in syrup. I do not see a problem with this.

Balls of coconut and molasses.

The next sweet dish mentioned was blessedly easy – coconut and molasses. To half a bag of desiccated coconut I added four teaspoons of molasses and rolled it into golf sized balls. I wasn’t sure whether they should be cooked or eaten raw so I tried one and winced at the pungent treacly flavour. I ended up baking them for 10 minutes or so to toast the coconut which I hoped would lessen the strength of the molasses.

Balls of syrup and fruit or nuts had been around for millennia and it’s likely that these coconut and molasses concoctions had been influenced by earlier dishes. From tablets dating to about 1750 BCE, we can see the existence of mersu – a popular ancient Babylonian dish of dates and nuts chopped up and rolled into balls. In 529 BCE the Achaemenid Persians took control of Babylon, formally ending the Babylonian empire. The Persians preferred to assimilate conquered civilisations into their empire rather than destroy them, so production of Babylonian food like mersu continued under early Achaemenid rule. As a form of taxation from the regions they conquered, Persian kings would insist on lavish banquets being laid out whenever they visited. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes demanded such lavish banquets wherever he went that if he stayed in one region for longer than a day he risked bankrupting the area (my kind of guy.) Herodotus also tells us that the Persians were excessive in their love of sweet food, so when Darius I invaded the Indus Valley in 518 BCE and incorporated parts of India into the Persian Empire, it’s likely he brought sweets like mersu with him, which may have been the inspiration for these coconut balls.

Though these were just coconut in sugar, somehow they still weren’t the sweetest thing on the table.

Sweet rice pancakes.

The final dish to be made was sweet rice pancakes. These were mentioned several times and it wasn’t always clear what their function was. Sometimes it seemed like they were being eaten as a dessert, sometimes as a snack and sometimes they were eaten with chutney. I decided to serve them with the other desserts, but they may have had multiple functions in a meal rather than just pudding.

Modern day Bengali rice flour pancakes are called patishapta and look a bit like crepes stuffed with coconut and thick milk filling. I’ve never tried one, but they sound delicious. The only thing stopping me making them for this experiment was that there was no mention of a pancake filling in the Chandimangal. In fact, from the references to being eaten with chutney it made me think that the pancake shouldn’t be too crepe-like, but more of a sturdy tool to scoop chutney and sauce up with.

The modern day malpua pancake seemed to fit this description and an early form of it called apūpa had been eaten by people since the Vedic period. Malpua are incredibly popular in West Bengal today and there are many variations of them. More importantly, malpua can be enjoyed with a variety of dishes, which fits in with the slightly ambiguous use of them in the Chandimangal.

In order to be as historically accurate as possible I mixed rice flour with a little barley flour, since barley and rice (not wheat) had been staple crops of Bengal since ancient times, then added milk, jaggery and fennel seeds and mixed it into a thick batter. After letting it rest for a couple of hours, I heated up yet more ghee in a deep frying pan until it was very hot and spooned a large dollop of malpua batter into the sizzling fat. Each side was fried for two minutes before being lifted out and left to drain on kitchen roll. Traditionally, malpua are served with syrup, but there wasn’t a reference to syrup being eaten with them in the Chandimangal, so I didn’t make one.

Delicious with or without chutney or syrup.

Going to tell us what it all tasted like?

I’ll try and wrap it up quickly.

It was all delicious.

Too quick?

Rather than serve the dishes one by one I chose to break Bengali tradition and served the savoury dishes all together, followed by the sweets. It just seemed easier and to be honest I’d chosen the hottest day of the year to spend in the kitchen over pans of boiling ghee and milk, so I didn’t have the energy to keep trotting back and forth with bowls of food.

Despite its moniker as “the bitter dish” the shukto wasn’t bitter at all. It was pleasant and aromatic, but bitter it certainly wasn’t. I wonder if aubergines of 16th century India were more strongly flavoured than they are today. Sprouts have famously been cultivated so that the bitter ones die out; could something similar have happened to aubergines? If anyone knows (or has any fancy theories), let me know.

The dal was glorious, as dals often are. I was worried it would be a bit bland but it wasn’t at all. Creamy, thick and rich with a lovely fragrant cardamom and clove heat to it, this was something we ended up eating cold the next day for lunch.

The mango chutney went particularly well with the dal. It was nothing like shop bought chutneys, which are often very sugary. This had a fruity sweetness to it and was much thicker than shop bought chutneys. It also packed a punch! There was a definite heat and firey aftertaste that built slowly at the back of the throat thanks to the mustard oil and a sprinkling of dried chili flakes. After making this it’s very obvious to me why chutney was served as a dish on its own; I could have eaten a whole bowl of it without needing anything extra.

A bowl of white rice with ghee made a good accompaniment to the meal and was mentioned numerous times in the Chandimangal. It’s unlikely the rice of 16th century Bengal would have been basmati rice, though, as basmati would struggle to grow in the Bengali climate, more likely it would have been boro or aman – neither of which were available to me.

So good I can’t even think of a funny thing to say.

Then it was time for the desserts.

The shor bhaja were obviously what I was most intrigued by – cream fried in butter with sugar syrup sauce? I made sure I had paramedics on speed dial for when the heart attack began, and took a bite. It was unlike any Western food I’d eaten. So hard to describe. Imagine taking the crust off clotted cream, then deep frying it (I know that’s already hard to imagine) so you get that buttery doughnut fried taste. Instead of rolling the shor bhaja in sugar like a doughnut, though, they were dipped into lightly cardamom spiced syrup which glazed each piece and oozed into every pore. Thank God the four hours’ work only yielded ten delicious pieces because these were literally lethal.

Baking the coconut and molasses balls had done little to alter the taste, but they were much drier than when raw. They weren’t unpleasant but were definitely an acquired taste, as treacle can be. I could only manage half a ball but my husband, who has invincible teeth, ate four in one go.

And finally: the rice flour malpua. These were a bit of a standout, actually. Faintly sweet but with a subtle anise-like flavour in the background, these pancakes were incredibly moreish. They were crisp and buttery on the outside but snapped open to reveal soft pillowy centres of sweet rice-y goodness. On their own they were delicious, but with mango chutney they were divine.

Heaven on two plates, at least.

So what would grandad have made of all this? Well, though he loved eating Bengali food, he wasn’t much good at cooking it himself. When my dad brought my mum home to meet his family for the first time, grandad said he’d cook a curry to mark the occasion. And he did – with a chicken and a jar of HP Curry Sauce.

Happy eating – I’m off to lie down for a week.

E x

Dal

320g red lentils
250g black lentils
7 or 8 cardamom pods
7 or 8 cloves
Ghee
Black pepper/Long pepper

  1. Cook the lentils in water until soft – about 20 – 25 minutes.
  2. While the lentils are cooking, heat the spices in a pan with the ghee to allow the flavours to mingle. Bash the cardamom pods a little to release the seeds.
  3. When the lentils are done and the spices have been heating gentle, add the lentils to the ghee. You may want to remove the spices from the ghee before hand to save you having to watch out for them during the meal.
  4. Sprinkle over a little pepper and serve.

Shukto

1 aubergine
500g broad beans (unpodded)
1 teaspoon asafoetida
1 teaspoon fenugreek
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Ghee

  1. Heat the spices in ghee to release the flavours.
  2. Dice the aubergine and pod the broad beans (but keep them whole.)
  3. When the spices are heated, add the aubergine and broad beans and fry for 7 or 8 minutes.

Mango Chutney

2 mangoes
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
Thumb’s worth of ginger
1 table spoon vegetable oil
Fennel seeds
Turmeric
30g sugar
Salt
Water

  1. Peel and chop the mango into slices and cover with a pinch of salt.
  2. Crush the mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar to form a paste. Add the paste to a pan with the vegetable oil and fennel seeds and heat.
  3. Pound the ginger to a fibrous paste and add it to the mustard oil. Heat for 2 or 3 minutes.
  4. Add the mangoes and turmeric and cook for 10 minutes on a low flame.
  5. Add just enough water to cover the mangoes and add the sugar.
  6. Cook until the water has reduced and the chutney is the desired consistency.

Shor bhaja

1 litre gold top milk
250g sugar
150g water
4 or 5 cardamom pods
Plain flour (a tablespoon or so)
Ghee for frying

  1. Make a sugar syrup by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods together until it reaches syrup consistency (about 110 degrees c). Set aside.
  2. Put the milk in a non stick pan and bring to just below simmering.
  3. As the cream rises to the top, gently push it to the sides of the pan so that it clings to the side and begins to dry out.
  4. Once dried, scrape the cream from the sides of the pan and transfer to a plate.
  5. Repeat the process until the milk has evaporated and you have a pile of cream solids. It will take approximately 3 – 4 hours. In between skimming the cream off and waiting for it to rise again, gently scrape a spoon along the bottom of the pan to help prevent milk from burning on the bottom.
  6. Once you have got all the cream solids, shape it into a rectangle and cut into small squares.
  7. Dust each square with a little flour.
  8. Heat ghee in a frying pan until very hot.
  9. Add the shor bhaja one at a time and fry on each side until golden brown.
  10. Transfer the cooked shor bhaja to a plate and drizzle over the sugar syrup.

Coconut and Molasses Balls

600g desiccated coconut
4 or 5 teaspoons molasses

  1. Preheat an oven to 150 degrees C.
  2. Combine coconut and molasses in a bowl and rub together using your hands. You may find using a rubbing motion with fingers and thumbs helpful, as when making crumble topping.
  3. When the mixture can be rolled into balls, roll out golf ball sized portions and bake in the oven for no more than 12 minutes until the coconut is toasted.

Rice Pancakes

180g rice flour
90g barley (or plain) flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
300ml milk
45g sugar
Ghee for frying

  1. Combine flour, sugar and fennel seeds in a bowl.
  2. Gradually add the milk and combine until a thick pancake batter is formed.
  3. Heat ghee until very hot.
  4. Drop one dessert spoon of batter into the ghee and spread it out to the size of a small saucer.
  5. Fry on each side for 2-3 minutes until golden brown.

Tartlettes: 1390

I’ve recently become aware that a lot of my latest posts have focused on sweet treats and desserts and that I’ve rather overlooked the savoury elements of history.

I would apologise for this except that I’ve yet to meet anyone who, when offered a choice between stuffed dormouse or honey cake would pick the former. For me, cakes and desserts are the pinnacle of a meal; the main course is something to get through in order to qualify for the good stuff at the end. I’m very aware that people who prefer savoury to sweet exist – they’re the sort of degenerates who pick a cheese board for pudding – but I refuse to have anything to do with them. The same goes for people who think fruit salad counts as a proper dessert too, by the way. I had an aunt who, having been placed on pudding duty for a family meal, brought along a bowl of fruit salad. We were all very polite at the time but I made sure she was crossed off the Christmas card list before the starters were even served.

That seems unnecessarily harsh. Hurry up and get to the point.

The point is this blog can’t just be about sweet things. Much as I would have loved if it people in the past partook purely of parfait and profiteroles, I do have to admit there was an abundance of savoury foods too – even if lots of these sounded sweet (looking at you, pease pudding) and I feel a duty to try some of these savoury items too.

Savoury items such as Tartlettes. When I imagined these I thought of mini quiches, maybe with some caramelised red onion and goats’ cheese: delicious. In fact, a better way to think of them was like meaty pasta shells served in broth. Still delicious, but a bit of a shift from what I’d imagined.

The recipe is from Forme of Cury, which I’ve spoken about a little before in previous posts, but was the cookbook of Richard II’s master cook. When cooking for the king only the finest ingredients could be used, both for reasons of taste and status – woe betide anyone trying to serve him penny sweets and supermarket own-brand crisps.

Richard II shortly after being served a sub-standard cheese toastie. Not impressed. Credit here.

I started with the Tartlettes filling first and boiled some diced pork leg until I was sure it was cooked through. It didn’t take too long and though it wasn’t the most appetising thing to watch lumps of pinky grey meat bubbling round in a pot, I did my best not to think about all the medieval puddings I could have been making instead.

While the pork was boiling I read through the rest of the recipe. It’s a good job I did because it highlighted just how different medieval recipes were to modern ones and saved me a bit of headache later. After six months of running this blog I’d just about come to terms with the fact that a medieval recipe containing exact quantities and measurements was about as likely as Richard II himself supporting the peasants during the revolt of 1381. What I still hadn’t fully clocked was just how illogical medieval instructions could be. For instance, at the start of the the recipe the instructions said to grind the pork up with eggs and spices. But at the very end of the recipe, once all the ingredients had been used up, the author suddenly instructed the cook to take some leftover pork that hadn’t been mixed with eggs and spices and use it to make a broth, despite no indication that some of the pork needed to be set aside for said broth at the beginning of the recipe.

Anyway, because I’d checked ahead I set some boiled pork aside and began to blitz the rest of the pork with saffron, an egg and “raisons of couraunce” which several medieval cookery glossaries (online resources which I now spend more time on than Facebook) assured me were currants. To this I added powder forte, a very common medieval mixture of strong spices, for which there doesn’t appear to be a universal recipe. Dr Monk’s blog and this website offered a couple of versions of powder forte from Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco, a roughly contemporary European cookbook. I used black pepper, long pepper (which I had to order online), cloves and nutmeg to make my own powder forte and added it to the mixture.

Next, I made the dough. Maggie Black and other blogs I found which covered the same dish used filo pastry as their dough. While filo pastry was certainly around during the medieval era, I had my doubts that it was what the author intended; the recipe itself gave little indication that filo was the dough to use. For starters, filo pastry might not be super hard to make, but it does require a fair few steps: making the dough, portioning it out, rolling each portion to an incredibly thin sheet, coating each sheet in melted butter and placing each sheet on top of one another. The instructions didn’t mention any of these steps at all, apart from rolling out a (single) “foile of dowgh” and, while it’s true medieval pastry instructions were often vague, the author of Forme of Cury stands out as being concerned with making sure the recipes in their work were as clear as possible (for medieval standards). In short, despite Forme of Cury being a manuscript intended to highlight the wealth and lifestyle of the king, there does also appear to be a genuine effort made on the part of the author to make sure the recipes could be prepared and replicated in other wealthy households with care and accuracy. Surely if filo pastry was required, the author would have at least mentioned placing the sheets of dough on top of each other?

The second thing that made me doubt we were dealing with filo pastry was that the recipe for Tartlettes immediately followed a recipe for ‘Loseyns‘ – an early form of lasagne, which uses similar terminology (“thynne folyes”) when making dried pasta sheets. This was when I began to think I was dealing with a medieval stuffed pasta and I became convinced I was right after checking this website and seeing that the previously mentioned Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco cookbook had a very similar recipe (slightly off-puttingly called “Little tarts of Scabwort”) which, when translated, instructed a cook to take the prepared meat and egg paste and place it in “small tortelli in sheets of yellow pasta”. Tomayto, tomahto, tortelli, tortellini – right?

And finally, one hundred or so years after Tartlettes was written down in Forme of Cury, a recipe for ‘Ravioles‘ appeared in Recipes from John Crophill’s Commonplace Book which was near identical to the recipe for Tartlettes – mashed pork (with added capon this time), eggs and strong spices stuffed into a “paste” and served in broth – I mean, come on!

We get it – pasta not pastry. For goodness’ sake, move on.

Anyway, having not cut a long story short, I made pasta instead of filo pastry. I followed the same recipe in Forme of Cury for ‘Loseyns’, but added two egg yolks and some saffron because I figured if I was cooking for Richard II he’d want a richer pasta than just flour and water, and because the recipe in Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco talked about the pasta being yellow, which implied the addition of egg yolks and saffron.

I then attempted to stuff small teaspoon amounts of pork filling into the pasta and seal them closed. To start with I was aiming for nicely uniform circles but it quickly became apparent that I possessed neither the skills nor the patience for this and my pasta shells soon resembled a jumble of mismatched rejects from a ravioli factory. Though I’d tried very hard to roll my pasta out nice and thin, and not overstuff my shells, I ended up with more filling than pasta – so I froze what was left to use as stuffing mixture next time I do a roast. I’m sure my family will be delighted at the encroachment of my hobby into their everyday, non-history meals, or “safe-to-eat-meals” as they’ve started to call them.

Tartlettes made, I quickly whipped up the sauce using the leftover pork I’d so smugly put aside earlier. I call it sauce, but broth is far more accurate. It was made with a pint of homemade vegetable stock, a splash of white wine, some chopped herbs and the pork, which I diced. I then heated a pan of salted water until it was boiling, dropped the Tartlettes into the seething water and cooked them for 6 or 7 minutes. It was hard to tell when they were done but I followed the basic principle of cooking fresh pasta shells and figured they were cooked when they began to bob to the surface. I fished the Tartlettes out with a slotted spoon and dropped them into a bowl before being sprinkling them with powder douce and salt. A ladle or so of pork broth was poured over them and then they were ready to eat.

Soupy, porky, pasta goodness.

So, what did this taste like? In a word: heavenly. No, seriously – it was fantastic.

The Tartlettes themselves were slightly thicker than conventional pasta shells because of my poor rolling-out skills; we broke our rolling pin, I didn’t buy a new one and so had to use a wine bottle instead which wasn’t ideal. Despite the extra thickness, I don’t think they suffered for it. The pasta was rich and tasted pretty fragrant because of the saffron, so having a slightly thicker shell was no bad thing. Boiling them for 6 or 7 minutes was a good time because they weren’t rubbery or overdone either.

The pork filling was a mix of sweet and salty. It tasted very much like a sweeter version of Christmas stuffing – you know, the pork and apricot or pork and apple types. The currants gave it a sweet lift without any sugariness and the spices kept it grounded with just a little peppery heat. When you cut one open there was a surprisingly colourful effect from the saffron strands and ground currants. With the deep golden vegetable and pork broth the combination, both in terms of taste and aesthetics, was fabulous.

Little malformed dumplings, I’ll still love you even if the ravioli factory threw you out.

In fact, this was so good that once I’d finished my bowl my immediate thoughts were ones of disappointment that I hadn’t made more, rather than of anticipation at what was for pudding. Offer me a choice between a stuffed dormouse or a honey cake and I’ll still pick the honey cake. But offer me a choice between a stuffed Tartlette or a honey cake? Well now, that’s a tough one.

E x

Tartlettes

450g diced pork leg
30g currants
A good pinch of powder forte mixture (or a good few twists of black pepper, a couple of ground cloves and a little grating of nutmeg)
1 egg
Saffron
Salt

For the pasta:
200-250g white flour
2 egg yolks
Warm water
Saffron

For the broth:
1 pint of vegetable stock
Salt

  1. Boil the pork until cooked through. Depending on how large the chunks of meat are this might not take too long.
  2. Set aside about 1/3 of the pork to use for the broth later.
  3. Mince the remaining pork in a blender with the currants, saffron, salt, spices and egg until it forms a coarse paste.
  4. Begin on the pasta. Add the egg yolks to the flour and combine.
  5. Add the saffron to a little warm water until the colour seeps and then add the water, with the saffron strands, to the flour and eggs until a dry dough is formed. Knead the dough a little to ensure it is an even light yellow throughout. If you find the dough is too soft to roll out and cut easily you may need to add more flour.
  6. Roll the pasta out to as thin as you can – ideally no thicker than 2 or 3mm. If you have a pasta machine, use it – there’s no need to be a martyr here.
  7. Cut the sheet of pasta into rectangles – I made about 20 but the total number will depend on how thin you got your pasta, you might be able to make more.
  8. Place no more than a teaspoon of pork mixture onto one end of each pasta rectangle and seal it shut by pinching the edges. It’s really important it’s sealed all the way round otherwise the mixture will bubble out when you cook them.
  9. Begin on the broth. Add a pint of vegetable stock to a pan and simmer. Add a splash of white wine and some chopped herbs. I used parsley, thyme and sage.
  10. Dice the left over pork into small pieces and add to the simmering broth along with a good pinch of salt.
  11. Begin to cook the pasta. Heat a pan of well salted water until it’s bubbling. Add the pasta shells a few at a time for 6 or 7 minutes, or until they begin to bob up to the surface and have turned slightly more pale in colour.
  12. Remove cooked pasta shells from the pasta water with a slotted spoon and place in bowls. Sprinkle over a small pinch of salt and some powder douce and pour a ladle of the pork broth, with the diced pork, over the top.

Payn Ragoun: c.1390

It’s another medieval one! It’s another sweet one! It’s another one where I don’t really have much idea of what it is I’m supposed to be doing!

Right from the start I’m going to attribute at least half of today’s success to Dr. Christopher Monk – a man whose knowledge of medieval cuisine (particularly the cuisine in The Forme of Cury, from which this recipe is taken) is as impressive as his patience with over-enthusiastic amateurs contacting him with screen shots of recipes they don’t understand, begging for help. He could have said no. He could have done that thing where the message pops up in notifications but you ignore it forever because you don’t want to engage with such nonsense (don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about – we’ve all done it. My husband’s still waiting for my response to a photo of him trying on something he called “dress shorts” in Debenhams changing room in 2017. He didn’t buy them in the end, which I guess shows that actually this approach can work sometimes.)

To put it bluntly, he could have told me to find a hobby that didn’t so often require at least some basic understanding of Middle English and other “extinct” languages. And believe me for I speak from bitter experience – knowing all the spells in Harry Potter only gets you so far with Latin. But instead he shared his translation and notes on the recipe and offered advice and encouragement. I’ve called on his expertise before and I’m sure I will again (unless he has the commonsense to block me on Twitter), so I make no apologies for the first section of this entry basically being a big thank you to Dr. Monk.

Payn Ragoun is a mystery in itself to me. Entitled “Pine Nut Candy” in Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, there is much in the original that confused me. The word “ragoun”, for example. What did it mean? Was a ragoun a style of cooking or was it a way of serving food? I wondered if it was just a word that had become lost with in time that used to mean a particular dish, like a pie, and medieval tables once groaned under the weight of strawberry ragouns and apples ragouns as well as pine nut ragouns. I decided to do a little etymological investigation, which basically meant typing “Ragoun: what does it mean?!” into Google like a madwoman until I hit on something useful. Or rather, I hit on something that just directed me right back to where I started. The University of Michigan Library’s online Middle English Compendium (yep, that’s a thing) had this explanation for the word “ragoun”:

“The name of a dish made with honey, sugar and bread.”

The associated quotations took me directly back to the recipe I was looking at, which didn’t do too much to clarify what this dish was meant to be. The compendium told me that the word “ragoun” possibly came from the Old French word “regon” meaning a mixture of wheat and rye. So, though I still felt a little nonplussed by what a ragoun was supposed to actually look like, my confidence levels rose as I turned to my husband, who hadn’t asked at all, and triumphantly exclaimed “well, at least I know it’s got bread in it.”

Reader, it did not contain bread. Let me explain…

The second thing that had confused me was the word “thriddendele” in the translation of the recipe I had. Maggie Black had explained this was a “mystery ingredient” (she translated the word “thriddendele” as meaning an anonymous “third item”) which she had taken to mean breadcrumbs. This seemed completely logical and fit in with my tenuous understanding of “ragoun” and the word “payn” in the dish’s title (meaning bread, from the French pain.) But this was where my lack of understanding of Middle English – and to be honest, modern English – came in handy. I had misread Maggie Black’s entry and thought she had meant that the word “thriddendele” was the word for the mystery ingredient itself. I wasn’t happy with my lack of knowledge of this ingredient – if it was going to be the third item in this dish I damn well wanted to know for sure what it was. And so, with all the puffed up indignation of a woman who has no idea what she’s doing but already spent money on most of the ingredients, I messaged Dr. Monk for help.

Firstly, he clarified, the dish seemed to be a type of soft toffee with pine nuts and ginger mixed in. There was a reference in the recipe to “take up a drop thereof with thy finger and put it in a little water and look if it hangs together” which indicated a method similar to the confectioner’s technique of checking when sugar has reached the “soft ball” stage for fudge.

Secondly, “thriddendele” wasn’t the name of an ingredient in its own right (as Maggie Black had also pointed out but I’d been too dense to realise) – it was from an Old English word meaning “third deal” as in part or portion. The instructions in my book may have translated “thriddendele” as an instruction to add breadcrumbs as the third part of the recipe because of how the original sentence was structured: “add thereto pine[nuts] the thriddendele (third part) & powdour gyngeuer.” However, word order wasn’t fixed in Old English, like it is today (this is also the case in Latin; Wand, Accio! would work just as well as Accio, Wand! by the way. As would Leviosa Wingardium, it just sounds a bit rubbish and means Hermione couldn’t do the special voice.) The shifting word order means that though the recipe was written “add thereto pine[nuts] the thriddendele (third part)” it could just as well read “add thereto the thriddendele (third part) pine[nuts].” Which actually makes much more sense as a cook – especially when you fall down the etymological rabbit hole and see that “thriddendele” can also mean one third of a whole – meaning, in this case, the word “thriddendele” sort of acts as two instructions; to add a final third ingredient (pine nuts) in a particular quantity (equal thirds to honey and sugar.)

Just in case you were wondering what would happen if you searched “thriddendele” in Google images.

The absence of bread and presence of pine nuts as the “thriddendele” becomes even more compelling after a quick analysis of modern understandings of the word “bread” versus medieval understandings of the word “bread”. To go back to the Middle English compendium, the word “payn” could mean a literal loaf of bread as we would recognise it today. But there was a secondary use of “payn” which just meant something of a breadlike consistency, such as pastry. Even more interestingly – that wasn’t a yawn, was it? – the compendium links this “breadlike consistency” use of the word “payn” back to the word “ragoun” as an example of a dish that matches this description. Payn Ragoun therefore wasn’t a dish made with bread; it was a dish that mimicked the consistency of bread, or bread dough.

I though this was meant to be a food blog, not an English blog?

Right. And before we move on – if there are any academics out there, or even just anyone who knows their stuff about words and… well, stuff, I guess, and thinks I’ve gone off on a huge incorrect tangent in my non-academic analysis, please let me know (nicely!) and I’ll correct it. If I can be bothered, that is, and if I can do it in a way that makes me look like I’ve grown to have the intellectual prowess of both Stephens combined (Hawking and Fry, FYI).

So, I knew I was working with equal parts honey, sugar and pine nuts. The question was how much was equal? “Thriddendele” could often mean one third of a gallon, which was about 1.5l. This was an obviously unacceptable amount for anybody who valued not having cavities in their teeth, so I scaled it down a bit and decided to switch to measurements in grams rather than ml which made everything a lot simpler.

I melted 250g of honey with 250g of sugar. This bit caused me some problems too, if I’m honest, as the recipe called for “Cyprus sugar”. This was the best quality available at the time, made in Cyprus, which had a thriving sugar industry during the 14th and 15th centuries and was considered the cream of the crop in England thanks to the many stages the cane went though to extract the molasses. The Forme of Cury was written by Richard II’s master cooks and though it was intended to be used as an instructional book for everyday dishes, it was also supposed to show off the king’s fabulous wealth and the skill of his cooks. Dishes such as “common pottages” were all well and good for the merely well off, but any dish requiring one third of a gallon of Cyprus sugar was firmly in the realm of the rich, thank you very much.

I was faced with a problem: did I stay true to the taste of the recipe – even if that meant using a non-regal unrefined sugar in an effort match the levels of refinement at the time – or did I try to copy the intent of the recipe and use the most highly processed white sugar I could? In the end I settled for an unrefined golden sugar made from 100% cane (not sugar beet). In all honesty, it was pretty much all the Co-op had on the shelf anyway, other than a packet of “Schwartz Hot Chilli Con Carne Mix” which I’m fairly sure had just been put in the wrong place.

Sugar and honey bubbling away, it was soon time to test the mixture. The author of the recipe had, presumably, a very dark sense of humour and advised dipping a finger into the seething mix of melted sugar to “take up a drop…in a little water” and see if it held its shape. I can imagine him laughing wickedly at the idea of trainee cooks taking his advice and screeching in pain as their flesh melded with molten syrup. In case you want to recreate this recipe yourself and it’s not obvious enough: do not touch boiling sugar with your fingers. Or hands. Or, (and I really shouldn’t have to spell this out), any part of your body at all, you absolute weirdo. I used a sugar thermometer – not technically authentic but far more likely not to land me in A&E and continued to boil the honey and sugar together until it reached the “soft ball” stage and registered 112 degrees C. I was a bit put out not to reach the vastly more amusing “soft crack” and “hard crack” stage but I think Richard II’s cooks were less immature than I am.

Once I’d reached the correct temperature, 250g of pinenuts were added, along with a good pinch of ginger, and stirred in. (I’m aware that is a hugely expensive amount and the fact I used a mixture of pine nuts from old open bags we had in already and a bag of specially bought ones might have skewed my perception on the overall cost of this dish, but it would still work with any similar cheaper hard nut.) The whole mixture was poured out onto a greaseproof paper lined baking tin and allowed to cool for a few hours.

I know, I was excited about this too.

The author of the recipe suggested serving this alongside “fryed meat, on flessh days or on fisshe days”, showing the medieval tradition of serving sweet foods alongside savoury, but we just decided to cut it into fudge like rectangles and eat it as it was instead.

My first thought were that it wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected. Obviously it was sweet, but it wasn’t that tooth-aching sweet you can get from fudge. It was quite woody because of the pine nuts, and very mellow. A bit like nougat is, but less smooth. The ginger was warm rather than overpowering and spicy, which worked really well. However, my results will be different from any others because a lot of the actual flavour came from the honey, which is dependent on local flowers and the nectar the bees use. Using a locally produced honey, my Payn Ragoun wasn’t overly floral or perfumed, but I can imagine that certain honeys would yield different results. Thyme honey, for example, would have a much stronger aromatic flavour.

I also think I should have cooked it for slightly longer. It held its shape when cut into rectangles, but in an oozy way. It would only take a hot afternoon to transform this back into liquid stickiness so cooking it to a “firm ball” stage (118-120 degrees C) might help a little more with that.

One for me and one for you…and one more for me.

In fact, I was sure this would be brilliant as a brittle. The instructions were vague at best about how long the mixture should boil for and, though the reference to testing a ball of mixture in water seems to correlate to the soft ball stage, there’s nothing to indicate it had to be that. It’s not outside of the realms of possibility that a cook got distracted (or had to go and plunge his hand into a bucket of cold water after trying the medieval soft ball method) and let the mixture bubble a bit longer. Furthermore, some of the recipes in Forme of Cury are similar to those found in the 14th century French/Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina, which had links to Arabic cooking. Why does that matter? Because centuries earlier Arabic cooks had been busy experimenting with sugar and were among the first to develop hard candy. By the 12th century there were clear signs of hard candy in some European recipes. While hard candy might not have been common in England by 1390, surely it would have been something the cooks of Richard II, who must have been reading other contemporary Arabic influenced works such as Liber de Coquina, would have known about? So I saved a bit of the mixture over and let it cook longer – to the hard crack (teehee) stage.

As expected, the brittle version of Payn Ragoun was even better than the fudge version. I love brittle, so didn’t mind that I was still chewing on a small piece of it two hours after I’d started, or that with each bite I could feel my teeth loosening from my gums. The brittle version seemed less sugary but more honeyed than the fudge version too, so if you prefer less sweet sweets, let your mixture boil for longer.

Just glorious.

Overall, this was a great sweet treat to make. It was surprisingly quick and easy to rustle up, if you don’t panic over melted sugar, and tasted very, very good. If you have honey and sugar in you should definitely try this – add pine nuts for a medieval version or experiment with other nuts – hazelnuts were used in medieval England too – or bits of fruit added at the last minute (just avoid super soft fruits like banana – though why would you add banana to anything anyway?!). I could even see a slab of this plain with flakes of sea salt scattered over the top of it as it cools working well too. I’d recommend the brittle version over the fudge, but it’s so easy to make you could just do two versions anyway.

Enjoy. And please, for the love of God, don’t stick your fingers in melted sugar. Just… don’t.

E x

Payn Ragoun

250g honey
250g golden caster sugar
250g pine nuts (or a combination of similar hard nuts such as almond
Pinch of ground ginger

  1. Line a small baking tray (I chose 28cm x 18cm) with greaseproof paper.
  2. Measure out all the ingredients before you start.
  3. Heat the honey and sugar in a pan over a low flame, swirling it occasionally to stop it clumping. Using a thermometer, or the cold water test, cook the sugar to 118 degrees C. If you want to make brittle keep cooking it until a thermometer reaches 146-1154 degrees C.
  4. When the sugar has reached the right temperature, take it off the heat and stir the pine nuts and ginger in until fully mixed. You will want to be a bit quick in doing this to stop the sugar and honey solidifying too soon.
  5. Pour the honey, sugar and pine nut mixture into the lined baking tray and leave to set somewhere cool, like a cupboard (not a fridge).
  6. After it is set, cut it into chunks with a sharp knife and enjoy. You should store it in greaseproof paper in an airtight container for lasting freshness.

Doucetes: 15th century

We were all in need of something that wasn’t chocolate this morning. Don’t get me wrong – no one loves the stuff more than me, but our cupboards were beginning to look like we were an accredited wholesaler to the Easter Bunny and when my daughter picked up a large mud covered pebble from our garden path and tried to eat it shouting “Egg!” I knew things had gone too far.

So – what to make that was 100% chocolate-free but was still as indulgent and delightful as a Dairy Milk bar you’d forgotten was in the bottom of an Easter Egg? Egg custard tarts, obviously!

Today’s treat is from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books. These cookery books were first published in 1888 by Thomas Austin who, along with others, had prepared two sexily entitled manuscripts: Harleian MS. 279 and Harleian MS. 4016 (archivists aren’t big on marketing and PR, it would appear) and published them together to create one historical cookery book. In 1964 the texts were republished by the equally excitingly named Early English Text Society and a little more light was shed on their origins.

Harleian MS. 279 dates from about 1430 while Harleian MS. 4016 dates from about 1450. As was standard for cookbooks of the period, there are instructions in each not only for individual recipes but also feasts and table designs – a bit of a how to manual for cooks of rich households.

Not from the Harleian MS, but a good reminder that fine medieval dining required epilepsy inducing backdrops.

Some of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books appear alarming: Cinnamon Soup, Fried Brawn, Swan Neck Pudding. I quickly shifted my laptop as my husband asked hopefully what treat I was making.

“Oh…something, haven’t decided yet.”

“Just as long as it doesn’t have anything too weird in it!”

I glanced down at the screen, my eyes resting on a recipe for something called Meat Custard.

“Nope. Nothing weird here.”

Luckily this time I was able to stick to my word.

Medieval egg custard tarts

Yep – this is exactly what Doucetes turned out to be. I don’t know the etymology of the word (if anyone does please let me know!) but they were delicious and very easy to bake. Seriously, if you’re a fan of eggy puddings but not of sugary saccharine stuff, then this is the thing for you.

As with all good medieval recipes, there were no instructions. Well, none that would have been helpful – quantities, measurements, baking times. It was all a bit of a guessing game. The only thing I felt confident about was that I was making several small tarts rather than one big one – thanks to the references to ‘cofyns’ which were medieval pastry cases. Big ones for morbid imagery, medieval cooks.

Medieval pastry was sometimes little more than flour and water because it wasn’t always intended to be eaten but instead was just a vessel for the filling. Stuffing meat into a pastry case was a good way to ensure the food could be baked without fear of burning or going dry (and could also provide a laugh – when serving chicken pie, cooks might leave the legs of the chicken dangling out of the top of the case. How those long winter evenings in manor house kitchens must have flown by.) For that reason some cooks didn’t want to waste precious ingredients on pastry that would end up being thrown to the dogs. However, other cooks took a more modern approach to pastry making, recognising that a good pastry crust was as much a part of a meal as the filling it protected.

The recipe for Doucetes didn’t give instructions about which sort of pastry I was dealing with so I allowed myself some creative freedom and decided that I’d treat my family to Paest Royall – an early version of shortcrust pastry that required eggs and butter. True, it was from A Proper New Booke of Cookery which was about 100 years after my Doucetes recipe, but who was going to stop me?

Pastry made and shaped into tart cases thanks to a very un-medieval muffin tin, I blind baked it and turned to the filling.

First I mixed cream, milk and three egg yolks together to form a thin custard. I expected to have to heat this mixture, but the original recipe didn’t call for it. To this I added sugar and saffron for colouring and that was the custard done. It couldn’t have been easier. Thanks to previous historical experiments I knew that something always goes wrong, it’s something of an unspoken code, a game between modern cook and historical cook – part of the fun is trying to spot what it will be before it happens. I began to get very suspicious indeed.

Once the pastry had blind baked for 15 minutes, I poured my silky smooth custard into the cases and popped them back in the oven for 20 minutes. Surely here was when the monstrous reality of the dish would rear its ugly head? Would the saffron react with the egg in the heat? Would the medieval pastry twist out of shape and the custard burst forth, creating an eggy mess I would quietly and without explanation leave for my husband to clear up later? I awaited with a mounting sense of excitement and foreboding.

But…nothing. It was almost disappointing.

After 20 minutes or so the tarts were a pleasing golden colour. The custard had set without issue with a suggestive, almost scandalous, wobble. Apart from the couple that seemed to have developed major cellulite during baking, they looked very appealing. Even the little runty one (you know the one – the scrag end of the pastry where you’re trying to gather all the scraps together to force one last case) was standing proud. They were really rather splendid.

Glorious eggy, cellulite-y tarts. Mmm!

I tentatively brought them to my husband and daughter.

“No chocolate?” she asked me incredulously.

No chocolate indeed. I couldn’t imagine anything could improve these further. The anonymous author of MS. 279 knew what he was talking about – they smelled and tasted bloody delicious.

The pastry was rich and buttery, exactly as pastry should be. My daughter treated her first tart as though the pastry case was just a vessel and scooped the filling out, leaving the pastry behind. Fool. I ate the empty pastry shell before she could realise her mistake.

The filling was divine. Creamy and rich – there was nothing stingy about it at all. I had worried that it would end up a bit like scrambled egg, or that egg would be an overwhelming flavour, but there was nothing of the sort. If anything cream with saffron were the main flavours – a sort of milky richness with an earthiness to it that made these tarts incredibly moreish. In fact, they were brought out of the oven at 11:00am and were all gone by 11:30 (and 10 minutes of that was spent fighting my daughter off them as I tried to get a decent photo.)

Had to pin my daughter to the floor to get this picture.

It was then that I realised what had gone wrong with this particular dish, as I knew something must. It was me. Wary of ending up with hundreds of burned scrambled egg tarts I had made a conservative number of them – eight small ones. I should have made more – these were easily one of the best things I’ve made so far. I have doubled the quantities I used for the recipe below to yield 16 small cases.

If you’re looking for something indulgent but not too sweet, give these a go. I know I’ll be making them again and will continue making them until my daughter begins picking up things from our garden path shouting “Doucete!”

E x

Doucete (makes about 16 small tarts)

For the pastry:
225g plain flour
100g butter
2 egg yolks

For the filling:
6 egg yolks
350ml double cream
125ml milk
65g white sugar
Saffron strands

  1. Make the pastry: Rub butter and flour together until combined to a sand like consistency.
  2. Add egg yolks to flour and butter and combine to form a dough. Add water if needed.
  3. Roll pastry out and cut into discs. Push each disc into a well of a muffin tin to form the pastry cases (you might need to do some re-shaping!)
  4. Using baking beans or weights, blind bake the pastry cases for 15 minutes at 200 degrees.
  5. Remove the weights and continue baking at 160 degrees for 5 minutes.
  6. Begin on the filling: Beat egg yolks in a bowl.
  7. Mix in cream, milk, sugar and saffron and combine well to form a thin custard.
  8. Pour custard into pastry cases and return to oven, baking at 160 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden and filling is wobbly but set.

Jowtes In Almond Milk: 14th century

It’s easy to joke about lockdown, I think. A month ago if you’d told me I would soon be spending work days lying on the sofa wearing what I’m now calling my ‘work pyjamas’ and that my most difficult day to day decision would be deciding whether to crack open the custard creams or the bourbons first, I’d probably have thought you were some sort of genie. And I’d have been right – because everyone knows genies are awful manipulative bastards who give with one hand and take away a whole lot more with the other.

It also seems especially cruel of this Coronavirus genie to coincide everyone’s house arrest with what is likely to be our designated 5 days of summer before we return to grey drizzle and mud.

But don’t despair, my woefully imprisoned wretches, for I have a recipe to bring you joy in these days of pestilence. I can guarantee that at least one of the following accolades is true: it is a meal that is unapologetically bold in colour, powerfully flavourful, and guaranteed to be enjoyed by the whole family. The very definition of comfort food for these trying times.

Jowtes. In. Almond. Milk.

I know, I know. “Jowtes in almond milk?” you’re all thinking. “Does she think we come here for something as mundane as that? Who hasn’t tried jowtes before?!”

It’s embarrassing to admit this but I didn’t have a clue what a jowte was. At first glance I thought it sounded meaty, but not in a good way. I envisioned left over cuts from the jowls and jaws of unspecified animals boiled together in Alpro’s finest. Hardly an uplifting image. The recipe I used, from Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, stated that jowtes were basically herbs cut up fine and cooked in a soup or pottage. So, jowtes in almond milk wasn’t meaty at all.

But I was still quite unclear why herbs were called jowtes – was it a specific herb? Was it a method of cooking? I didn’t have time to find out myself because I had to make a very important work decision about whether to allow my daughter to watch yet another episode of Peppa Pig, or whether to usher her out into the garden for some Government Approved Fresh Air. I will also admit that I lacked the intelligence, skills and patience to find out, so I asked someone far cleverer than myself who is an absolute whizz at this sort of thing, Dr Christopher Monk.

He confirmed that a jowte wasn’t a specific ingredient, per se, but was just a word lost to history that referred to a stew, soup, pottage or dish itself of chopped up herbs and vegetables:

‘Joute’ is a borrowed word from Anglo-Norman (spelt variously: ‘jute’, ‘jote’, ‘joute’) where it is used both in singular and plural form to mean a soup or pottage made using vegetables or herbs. Ultimately, the derivation is medieval Latin (not classical Latin), where ‘juta’ means a soup/stew.

But Dr Monk also had an interesting theory of his own about the origins of the dish’s name – and it’s based on what the finished meal may have looked like. He speculated that since the medieval Latin word ‘jota’ meant ‘a pot herb’, there could be a link between the Latin ‘jota’ and the Greek word ‘iota’ (meaning ‘the least part’) possibly giving rise to the word ‘joute’ (spelled in my recipe ‘jowte’) as a description of the meal: “could the herbs, chopped up so fine as they are, allude to ‘iotas’…of vegetation floating in one’s pottage…?”

Dr Monk reiterated that this idea was purely his own speculation and needed more research into any possible connections but I feel qualified to state, as someone with no knowledge of etymology at all, that it sounds very plausible to me! (I warned you he was clever!)

So: what I was dealing with was a meatless soup where the herbs were chopped so fine that they appeared like dots floating around in the milk. Admittedly, it wasn’t an image I would have chosen when asked to describe the ultimate comfort food in the face of a pandemic, but it was something that now at least I understood.

Maggie Black described the soup as filling and speculated that, because of its meat free content, it probably made an ideal meal for monks during Lent. Perfect for monks and those adhering to a Lenten diet? Definitely not my idea of comfort food…

As per my post last week, I’m trying to only cook with things I have in. This suits me just fine; as someone who prefers to limit my time outdoors and with other people anyway, I’m secretly delighted to have a ready made reason not to go out, and it means I can save my go-to excuse of blaming last minute cancellations on my daughter’s imaginary illnesses for another time.

I used leeks, spinach and chives for the soup – all already in and slowly rotting in the bottom of the fridge; the remnants of good intentions past. I also had half a bag of ground almonds from a flourless cake experiment a month or two ago which suited the purposes of almond milk just fine. Technically I should have used whole almonds, blanching and pulverising them myself for a truly authentic experience, but sod that. I don’t think going to get a single bag of whole almonds would count as an essential trip to the supermarket anyway.

First, I made my almond milk – a medieval staple when a base was needed for a meal that contained no dairy, meat or egg. This sounds very grand, but basically involved tipping the bag of ground almonds into a pan of water and heating it slowly for 15 minutes until it thickened. Almonds were an essential ingredient in much medieval cooking, apart from meals for the very poor, and during the 14th century water could be used to create almond milk but wine or broth may also have been added to create a richer flavour. I thought back to the Lenten monks, abstemiously chanting in vegetarian tones in my imaginary monastery and thought that if I was going to do this properly it was probably best to use water. Besides, I’m currently trapped indoors with a toddler; I’m going to need all the wine in my house to remain in a completely unadulterated state, thank you very much.

Okay, so at this point it doesn’t live up to any of the three promises mentioned earlier, but just you wait…

Once it was thick and bubbling I strained the mixture and got rid of the boiled almond mush, leaving a grainy milk behind. It tasted not unpleasant, but wasn’t as strongly almond-y as I’d thought it would be. Perhaps using fresh whole almonds would give a better depth of flavour?

While the milk was thickening, I’d used my time to prepare the vegetables: two leeks chopped finely, 300g of shredded spinach and two tablespoons of chives. I added the vegetables to the finished milk and boiled them together until the mixture turned a faintly green colour. I wasn’t convinced that I’d chopped them small enough to be worthy of the ‘iota’ theory, so I ended up using a hand held blender (the first one was invented around 1350, by the way) to finish the job for me.

It went violently green.

Soup that resembles alien slime: I don’t understand how this couldn’t be considered comforting.

Yes, I know what it looks like. It wasn’t my idea of comfort food either. I was beginning to see why many monasteries made their monks take a vow of silence – imagine the protests and unionising abbots would face if monks were allowed to speak after being served this day after day. However, after one spoonful I was converted to the Way of the Jowte.

In the bowl, steam rising off it, it smelled very earthy and wholesome. It was also, as my husband put it, very green tasting. By which he meant that the first flavour was a sharp and unmistakable allium tang. It was refreshing and even zingy.

I had expected a watery-ness to this soup. Once the taste of the leek and chive had subsided, I thought I’d be left with a broth like texture and thin flavour but that wasn’t the case at all. Thanks to the almond milk the soup was very creamy and rich. It was a subtle flavour and I don’t think I would have guessed that the veg had been cooked specificially in almond milk if I’d not known already, but I didn’t find it watery.

It used up ingredients which meant I didn’t have to go out to buy anything ridiculous and frivolous, it was actually delicious with a bit of cheese sprinkled on top (sorry, fasting monks) and it was a healthy alternative to the steady diet of toast, biscuits and weetabix we’d all been living on for the past couple of days. When *all this* is over, I’d even make it again.

But for now, once during lockdown is enough. Nutritious and surprisingly tasty as it was, it wasn’t proper comfort food. Someone pass me the bourbons.

E x

Jowtes in almond milk

300g spinach
2 large leeks
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1.2 litres water
125g ground almonds

  1. Boil the water and almonds together until the mixture thickens (about 15 minutes).
  2. Chop the leeks, spinach and chives up finely.
  3. When the water and almonds have thickened, strain the almonds from the milk. Place the chopped vegetables into the almond milk and cook on a low heat with a lid on until the leeks are tender.
  4. Add more water if you prefer a thinner soup, and blitz in a food processor to get a finer consistency.
  5. Serve with grated cheese and crusty bread. Or don’t, if you’re a monk.

Pancakes through time

I know – I’m late to the party. It seems the world and its wife have been posting about pancakes and their histories recently but work has been busy and I missed the chance to cook them all yesterday, so I hope you’re ready for another Pancake Opinion Piece today instead.

Let’s be honest right from the start – there are two types of people in the world: those that like their pancakes thin with sugar and lemon, and those that are wrong. You were all thinking it (and if you weren’t you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror.)

Oh, pancake fads may come and go – and yes, I’m counting Nutella in this, deal with it – but the eternal Queen of pancakes is a paper thin lacy crepe absolutely drowning in fresh lemon juice and rapidly dissolving mountains of sugar. I have known people who swear by abominations such as fresh fruit and cream or melted chocolate with a glug of Baileys or Cointreau and have even met truly twisted souls who say they enjoy a ham and cheese pancake (it’s pancake day not galette day!) Since I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense in my life I try to spend as little time with these people as possible and will deny all friendship with them if directly asked. Sorry, mum, but some of us have standards.

I didn’t want to add to the mountain of information about why we celebrate pancake day – Shrove Tuesday – as there’s really only a limited amount to say about it but you know the drill: last day before Lent to use up all the food you actually want to eat before embarking on a miserable 40 days of hiding in the pantry secretly stuffing crisps in your mouth when you should be fasting instead. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that all this is in preparation for gorging on chocolate at Easter as a celebration of the time Jesus returned from the dead as a man-sized bunny and performed the miracle of handing out candy eggs to children who happened to be visiting Golgotha that day on a school trip. Or something like that.

Shrove Tuesday may be a distinctly Christian celebration but it has roots that are much, much older. There’s evidence to suggest that before Christianity arrived in Britain, pagans enjoyed pancakes at the start of spring (because the round shape symbolised the returning sun) in a celebration a bit like the Eastern Slavic tradition of Maslenitsa. Before that, pancakes were enjoyed by Ancient Roman soldiers as they ate their breakfast before returning to their station to keep guard over the portions of Britain they’d conquered. And before that too, high up in the Italian Alps the 5,300 year old Stone Age man Otzi enjoyed pancakes as part of his last meal – traces of charcoal in the grain found in his mummified stomach indicate that he cooked and ate something that may have resembled a pancake before he died.

Go on – find another pancake blog that would lead with an image of a mummified corpse

So you’d think that this foodstuff – which spans millennia, religions, countries and customs – would have undergone some pretty radical changes. The pancake Otzi munched on as he hunkered down from the snow and tried to dodge skiers must have looked unrecognisable to the one my daughter kindly left festering on the floor under the table, right?

And yet, not so. Okay there may be some differences in thickness and the laciness so evidently required for a pancake to be truly worthy of its title, and some of the basic elements may have become more refined over the years, but the fundamental principle of what a pancake is doesn’t seem to have changed: flour and liquid (and sometimes eggs) mixed together and fried in a pan in fat.

For this pancake day I had planned to do something spectacular – attempt the original Crepe Suzette. Despite having no previous experience of flambéing or the ability to speak French beyond ‘le weekend, je vais à la piscine’ (a phrase I haven’t needed to use as much as my French book made me think I would) I did not immediately foresee a problem with this. No, it was only when it became apparent that there was no definitive first Crepe Suzette that I began to question whether it was possible.

One of the most popular origin stories of Crepe Suzette relates to a teenage waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895. The story goes that whilst working at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Cafe de Paris, he was called upon to prepare a dish of pancakes for the Prince of Wales and his entourage. As he sensibly mixed the alcohol together next to a naked flame, it accidentally caught fire and he thought the dessert was ruined. Fearing the loss of his job, he tasted it in the hope it could be salvaged and to his delight found it was “the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted.” The Prince thought so too, and when he asked what it was called the suck-up Charpentier told him that in honour of His Royal Highness he had named it Crepe Princesse (because like chairs, police stations and socks, all French pancakes are apparently girls.) The Prince asked that since there was a lady present in his entourage, could Charpentier rename the dessert after her – and so Crepe Suzette was born. Soon after Charpentier published this tale in his autobiography, the Maitre restaurant released a vehement response calling his version of accounts a lie because, given his young age at the time, there was no way he’d be let loose as the waiter to royalty. Other less self-aggrandizing stories tend to give versions that link Crepe Suzette to the French actress Suzanne Reichenberg, or the chef Monsieur Joseph’s desire to wow his diners and keep the food warm at the same time.

Whatever the truth was, it was clear that I was going to struggle with this one. Actually, it’s probably good that I didn’t attempt it as one restaurant critic wrote that the flames reached heights of 4 foot – and that was in the hands of an expert. So instead I decided to look at pancakes from three distinct time periods: Ancient, Medieval and Georgian.

Teganitai: 2nd century

Our first pancake comes courtesy of Galen, a man who’s well known as a 2nd century physician and philosopher in the Roman Empire but who somehow manages to escape the well-deserved title of ‘twit who helped halt medical advancement for a thousand years’ thanks to his promotion of the 4 Humours. History is full of twits like this so to be fair it’s not solely Galen’s fault that for years people thought that if someone was really sickly draining them of their blood would somehow cure them, but he definitely had key role in the tenacity of this belief.

When he wasn’t inadvertently contributing to humanity’s demise, Galen liked to write his thoughts down. He liked it a lot. In fact, he wrote so much down that even though an estimated two thirds of his works have been lost, the surviving texts we do have account for almost half of all the extant works of ancient Greece. One of these texts is called On the Properties of Foodstuffs and is a sort of treatise on various foods and their perceived attributes and abilities to cure or cause illness. For example, Galen advised boiling lentils once and seasoning with garlic to give a laxative effect (known as ‘purging’ in Humoural Theory) and that onions should be eaten by people with colds to thin the phlegm and restore the balance of the Humours.

On the Properties of Foodstuffs also contains one of the earliest written pancake recipes which Galen calls ‘teganitai’. It’s a very simple dish of wheat flour and water mixed into a paste the consistency of thick cream and then fried in olive oil. Galen mentions that there are two main flavourings that people added to the mixture – sea salt and honey. So, once my daughter had hoovered up her pancakes and set a new world record for stickiest toddler, I set about making my own teganitai.

Having just eaten binned my daughter’s rejected floor pancakes (as well as being deeply disappointed that the two flavourings weren’t lemon and sugar), I only made enough to make one of each type of teganitai. The batter was a doddle to mix up and heating the oil wasn’t exactly a minefield either. It’s interesting, then, that Galen writes about the production of these as if it were intricate surgery, going so far as to give detailed instructions on how to flip the pancake once it was cooked: “…the cook turns it, putting the visible side under the oil, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or three times till they think it is all equally cooked…” I mean I know I complain about a lack of detail in older recipes but that was too much.

After my basic kitchen competency had been sufficiently challenged, I tasted them. They. Were. Delicious. I take back everything I said before about Galen being a twit – who cares that his party piece was performing live dissections on squealing pigs? – the man knew how to make a pancake. I had been a bit wary of frying them in olive oil because I thought, given how few ingredients there were, that fried oil would become the dominant flavour and they would be limp and greasy but they weren’t at all. They were very reminiscent of doughnuts in that they were soft on the inside but crunchy outside but because of their smaller and flatter size they weren’t as greasy or heavy. Because they had been fried all over they weren’t soft and flexible, and of the two I preferred the honey pancake (the sea salt one was a little bland) because I naturally associate pancakes with sweeter tastes. The sea salt pancake cooked quicker and easier than the honey one because the batter was thicker whereas I found the honey one dripped a bit when I first flipped it (thus bringing the sufficiently fried side, which had been underneath at first, up to the top – cheers for the tip, Galen.) Although they cooked for the same amount of time, the honey one came out a couple of shades darker than the sea salt one, but it didn’t affect the flavour; I would genuinely make them again.

Teganitai – because Splodgeroos doesn’t sound Greek enough

Crespes: 1393

And so on to the medieval pancakes. Or should that be crepes?

I still really wanted to pay homage to my original idea of Crepe Suzette, but I also wanted to keep my eyebrows in tact. It was then that I was struck by the pancake gods of inspiration – why not make the first documented version of French crepe instead?

Enter the Goodman of Paris – a man who needs to thank his lucky stars he’s been dead several hundred years because the #MeToo movement would definitely want to have words with him. Written in 1393, Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Parisian Household Book’) was written by an anonymous 60 year old man for his very new and very young bride – an anonymous 15 year old girl. The central purpose of the book is to instruct the young girl on how to run a household and perform her wifely duties (gross) and, surprise, surprise, it comes off exactly as nobbish and pervy as you’d expect.

“Each night, or from day to day, in our chamber [I would] remind you of the unseemly or foolish things done in the day or days past, and chastise you, if it pleased me, and then you would strive to amend yourself according to my teaching and corrections, and to serve my will in all things, as you said.”

The Goodman of Paris to his wife

Dodgy relationships aside, one of the things the Goodman of Paris is concerned with is making sure his wife knows how to supervise and instruct her cooks in the correct preparation of fine food. Being a woman of some means (no, actually, a girl of some means – again: he is sixty years old, she is fifteen), she wasn’t expected to cook the food herself but should ensure her cooks knew how to. One of the many things her cooks should be able to prepare was ‘crespes’ and it appears that this is the first recorded recipe of something resembling modern day crepes.

This recipe was a step up from Galen in that it contained eggs and wine, but the general method was still the same: mix flour and liquids together and fry in sizzling butter. The difference was that this mixture was clearly meant to have higher quantities of liquid to flour, given that the Goodman says the mixture should “run around the pan”.

In an uncharacteristic bit of forward planning, I checked the recipe before I went out for the morning. I had to take my daughter to the dentist and figured that I could stop off at the shops beforehand to pick up anything I needed. Unfortunately it turned out the only thing I needed for this was white wine. No matter, I thought, I think I can style this out. Let me tell you now – I couldn’t. There can be little that’s more awkward than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room at 9:30 in the morning clutching a single bottle of Sauvignon blanc in one arm and a wriggling, shouty toddler in the other; I’m pretty sure that the receptionist called social services when we left.

In spite of the slight embarrassment, the wine was necessary because the recipe didn’t use any milk and only called for enough water to ‘moisten’ the egg and flour mix if it got too thick. I measured 150ml out and added it to the flour and eggs, which had been beaten into a smooth paste. The consistency was exactly the same as modern crepe batter and it cooked exactly like a crepe too, in a blob of butter. I felt delighted at the prospect of getting some real pancakes after all! Maybe, like his name implied, the Goodman of Paris wasn’t so bad after all?

Proper pancakes

These were also lovely. I could definitely tell there was alcohol in them but because they were so thin it was a background flavour rather than a key element. They had the texture of modern crepes and were just as satisfying. The only disappointment was that the Goodman served his with powdered sugar and made no mention of going one step further to add lemon juice, without which they were slightly dry.

I’d like to imagine that after a couple of years of putting up with him his young wife wrote her own version of Le Menagier de Paris filled with amendments and notes for him to improve on, but I suspect she didn’t. Maybe she just spat into his batter occasionally.

Rice pancakes: 1755

Someone who would have dished out criticism to the Goodman of Paris with the same relish as my daughter eating pancakes, was the English writer Hannah Glasse (of Curry ‘the Indian Way’ fame.) Hannah Glasse does not seem to have suffered fools gladly and wrote against French cooks specifically for being (as she saw it) wasteful and pretentious in their cooking: “I have heard of a [French] cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when everybody knows…that half a pound is full enough, or more than need to be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age [people] would rather [use] a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!” Yikes. Also, what were 18th century French cooks getting up to in their kitchens?!

Glasse first published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy with the modest tagline ‘which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published’ in 1747. It sold quickly and went on to run to over 40 editions, each with new recipes in it. Lots of these recipes were plagiarised, but Glasse was on to a good thing and simply swiped criticism away with a well manicured hand.

The 1755 version of The Art of Cookery contains several recipes for pancakes ranging from “a fine pancake” which contained an insane 18 eggs and which Hannah ensures us “will not be crisp, but very good” to an equally decadent pancake containing orange blossom water and sherry. The one that caught my eye, however was rice pancakes.

I’d never cooked with rice flour before but expected these to be very gelantinous and imagined they’d be reminiscent of scotch pancakes in their thickness and size. Hannah implied they should too as she described the mixture as being the consistency “of pap” and just as appetising. A quick analysis of the pap batter in more depth shows that it’s based on exactly the same principle as the previous two pancakes – the main ingredients are flour and a liquid (eggs and cream or milk in this case) fried on a pan. The one difference with this recipe is that the fat is incorporated into the batter before frying.

The American Dream

Okay – these do look like the quintessential fluffy American pancakes – all that’s missing is a blob of butter and syrup. I admit they’re the most photogenic of all three pancakes and are probably what most people incorrectly think of when they think of pancakes. However, they were a pain to cook.

The recipe started off well enough and smelled lovely, kind of creamy and semolina-ish, thanks to the rice flour. As someone who loves a milk pudding, I was all over the idea of them at this point. I also found the rice flour really pleasant to work with, it just sort of dissolved into the milk as I stirred – unlike its temperamental plain flour cousin who always throws a hissy fit and clumps if I take my eye off it for even a second.

The trouble came when it was time to cook them. I don’t know if the measurements were off slightly, but it was hard to flip these. They kept disintegrating, so what you see in the photo is actually only about two thirds of the total, the rest ended up in fluffy piles in the corner or shovelled into my daughter’s mouth who now thinks it’s pancake day every day.

Taste wise, they were also the most disappointing of the three. Because I’d only put in a little sugar and Hannah doesn’t suggest serving them with any accompaniments they were a bit bland and underwhelming. Very fluffy and light, but just a bit…meh. Unlike American ones, these rice pancakes wouldn’t hold up against maple syrup – the liquid would just make them disintegrate even more. Amazingly and against all my natural instincts, I found myself thinking that would would really work would be melted chocolate and fruit, so I guess that in that respect they were a success.

Overall, it’s easy to see why the basic recipe for pancakes is so unchanged – they’re easy and quick and can be adapted to be as classic or as flamboyant as needed. I may not quite have achieved pancake nirvana in any of these recipes, but I’m glad they paved the way for my beloved lemon and sugar variety – and to anyone reading who still thinks there’s a better topping: flip off.

E x

Teganitai

120g plain flour
225ml of water
2 tablespoons of honey or a pinch of sea salt
Olive oil for frying

  1. Heat enough oil to cover the base of a pan
  2. While the oil is heating, mix flour and water together. Add either honey or sea salt.
  3. Spoon two tablespoons of mixture into the oil at a time, or until you have a pancake the size of your palm. Fry on one side for 1 minute.
  4. Flip the pancake and fry on the other side for 1 minute.
  5. Continue flipping over until evenly cooked.

Crespes

3 dessert spoons of plain flour
2 eggs
150ml of white wine
Dessert spoon of water
Butter to fry the pancakes

  1. Mix flour and eggs together.
  2. Mix water and wine and gradually add to the flour and egg mix.
  3. Melt butter in a pan and when it is bubbling, add enough batter to the pan, making sure it thinly covers the entire base.
  4. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes and flip the crepe over.
  5. Cook for 1 minute and then serve. Makes 5 or 6.

Rice pancakes

500ml whole milk
5 dessert spoons of rice flour
125g butter
Grated nutmeg
Sugar to taste
2 eggs

  1. Slowly heat the milk and 4 spoons of flour together until the mixture has thickened completely.
  2. Stir in the butter and let it melt.
  3. Grate the nutmeg into the mixture.
  4. Beat the eggs.
  5. Leave the mixture to cool a little before stirring in another spoon of flour and the beaten eggs and enough sugar to suit your taste.
  6. Cook in thick dollops on a hot frying pan for a couple of minutes on either side, turning when bubbles form and pop on the surface.

‘Lasagne’: 1390

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.

Bland and anaemic, just how comfort food should be

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.

It contained no white sauce, no meat, no tomato and pseudo-pasta but it did at least look like a lasagne

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.

So. Much. Cheese

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.

E x

*A study done by me. It was delicious.

Lasagne

9 or 10 lasagne sheets
3 pints chicken stock
Powder Douce
175g cheddar cheese (more if you’d prefer your coronary to come earlier)

  1. Cook the lasagne sheets in a pan of boiling chicken stock until soft and malleable.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, lay a base of grated cheese in a rectangular lasagne dish. Sprinkle over a pinch of powder douce.
  3. Cover the grated cheese with 3 sheets of cooked lasagne.
  4. Repeat the pattern two more times: cheese, powder douce, lasagne until you have used up all the lasagne
  5. Sprinkle cheese over the top and bake in an oven at 160 degrees until cheese is melted and pasta is cooked through.

Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

When I was 6 or 7 we did an experiment at school mixing water and flour together and using the glue created to stick bits of lovingly beglittered tat to other bits of beglittered tat to take home as a ‘gift’ for our parents. My mum kept all our artwork stuck to the kitchen door but now that I think of it I’m not sure I remember my handmade glue creation making the cut, which seems really unfair when you consider that a Father Christmas made by my sister out of a toilet roll tube and some glued on cotton wool enjoyed pride of place on our tree every bloody year. It wasn’t even homemade glue she used either.

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with but one that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout this week’s experiment, for reasons that I imagine are already apparent.

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. On the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and lack of meat and unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not as much talk of bread as you might expect, given that it’s a universal foodstuff. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were fully aware that there was an original plot they were trying to remain faithful to whilst also creating TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the merits and nuances of bread probably weren’t considered as sexy or compelling as having yet another scene where Uhtred had to show off his muscles and improbably conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.

To really understand why there was no clear word for bread in Anglo-Saxon England you have to understand the special kind of jiggery pokery that is the evolution of the English language. I don’t. Luckily, Dr Irina Yanushkevich seems to so I’ve taken a lot of my info and processes this week from her paper ‘The Domain of Bread in Anglo-Saxon Culture’.

To cut a long story short(ish) (and hide the fact that I don’t really understand it all), the Anglo-Saxons had many words relating to different types of bread, or bread like substances, or specific ingredients used to make bread, or the tools needed to prepare bread, or the physical action of making the bread, or the times of year which you could start making bread, or the types of people who might make bread, or the sacrificial role of the bread in religious ceremonies, or how much someone wants to eat the bread or how they will pay for the bread.

Truly, if I were an Anglo-Saxon baker I’d be getting restraining orders against most of the village, so obsessed people appeared to be with bread. If I learned anything from this experiment it’s that when compared to the Anglo-Saxons, even the nation’s own self aggrandising bread whisperer Paul Hollywood pales into insignificance in terms of preoccupation with the stuff.

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people, with fine white wheat being used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley, (both very common bread varieties for the Anglo-Saxons), so breads made out of it cost much more, hence why in the later middle ages wheat became known as a cash crop.

According to Dr. Yanushkevich, the word bread may derive from the Gothic word broe, which was related to brewing or fermenting, as baking and brewing went hand in hand at this time. The Anglo-Saxons possibly used broe to describe bread leavened with barm from fermenting beer and the word hlāf to describe bread that was unleavened. So far, so simple. The trouble is that hlāf could also be used to mean ‘food’ in general and, later, breads that were only used in religious contexts.

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast or even serve as plates, known as trenchers, once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it (yeah, yeah, I know it’s not good history to apply modern systems to different eras but whatever.)

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor passed the Bread Purity Law after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that was Definitely Not Proper Bread as he and his entourage travelled to London. In the Bread Purity Law he made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just “fine flour, water, barm and salt” bread. Bad news for artisan food markets everywhere.

Unfortunately the Hovis baker’s boy had to be executed after yet again breaching the terms of the Bread Law
Image credit: Dmitry Makeev

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm, which was the froth on top of fermenting beer and which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent. What I made was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal, rather than to be shown off to your rich guests as the world’s most underwhelming showstopper. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days and placate an upset child with a dab of honey on it.

In the same way we wouldn’t write a recipe on how to boil a pan of water, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered this type of bread to be so simple and ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it either. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

First, I mixed 160g of as unadulterated white wheat flour as I could find with a pinch of salt before adding 5 or 6 tablespoons of water and stirring until it was the consistency of a standard bread dough. Now, it’s unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons making this basic type of bread would have used wheat flour; more likely they’d have used a barley or rye mixture but not only did Sainsbury’s flour aisle not stretch to those good honest grains (too much shelf space taken up failing to flog the tomato and pesto bread mix, apparently) but I also felt that in a recipe as sparse as this one, I might as well treat myself to a better quality of flour.

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, with pans placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. Resisting the urge to use the dough to fix our faulty cupboard door handle back on, I scraped two ladle’s worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a couple of minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning, which I was sure would only add to the complexity of flavours in this recipe, so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another couple of minutes. Then they were done.

Not a cartoon filter, just a combination of plate patina, odd lighting and blinding photographic talent

These were genuinely decent. I would actually rather make these again than buy pitta bread, they were that easy and cheap to make. I’m not going to talk about the flavour because it was a plain white piece of bread and everyone already knows what that tastes like (and if you don’t then you need to re-examine how you’re living your life.) Accompaniment wise, though, I could see this working with anything; my husband had managed to whack a great slab of cheddar on top of his with alarming speed while I opted for a far more dignified scraping of chocolate spread. Both worked well. What I would say is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was really quite chewy and hard work. To a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much, but modern day standards have thankfully improved.

I might not be a great Anglo-Saxon warrior or a Viking warlord, and yes, I’ve written the word bread so many times that it doesn’t actually look right or mean anything to me anymore, but spending an hour making this has made me feel a little bit closer to the history which inspired The Last Kingdom, and to Uhtred’s impossible hair, which is a huge benefit however you look at it.

E x

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour, water

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a dough.

2. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan and place a little oil or butter to melt on it.

3. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of dough onto pan (or however much you want depending on how big you want your bread.) Make sure it doesn’t come up too much by flattening and spreading it with the back of a spoon.

4. Cook for 5 minutes before flipping and cooking on the other side for another 5 minutes. If dough is still pale and soft then return to pan and cook for longer.

Caudle Ferry: 1390

Right. I have a confession to make and it’s not one of the cool ones like ‘I was once on a game show in the ’90’s’ or ‘my whole life as you know it is a lie because I’m actually hiding from the mafia and my name is really Julianna’. This confession is probably quite boring to lots of people and also not really much of a confession to anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with the middle ages.

Anything at all will do it for me – crumbly ruins on the side of a motorway? Excuse me while I leave my child unattended on the hard shoulder to go exploring for an hour. Recently discovered plague pit? Sounds like a fantastic family holiday destination. Year 7 National Curriculum guidelines on the Norman Conquest? Make it a Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 mandatory subject. (Actually, I could write an entire post about how medieval history has been infantalised in our education system and is often seen as an ‘easier’ time period to study, helping transition 11 year olds from primary school to secondary. As far as I’m concerned, if my year 7’s aren’t leaving class weeping quietly but with a full comprehension of the many and varied differences between villeins and freemen then I haven’t done my job properly.)

This recipe was therefore something I was really looking forward to: medieval, sweet and seemed pretty straightforward. The collection of recipes this dish is from, the 14th century Forme of Cury, have also been extensively researched, so plenty of reading for me to get stuck into.

Forme of Cury is the oldest cookery book written in English and the original seems to have been written by the master cooks of Richard II, who reigned from 1377 – 1399. During the course of the middle ages, the recipes were updated, edited and copied meaning that there are actually numerous versions. The book contains about 196 recipes designed to instruct the cooks of great households on how to emulate the dishes enjoyed by King Richard for their own masters. Interestingly, despite being written by the king’s cooks, not every recipe in the text is a frenzied opportunity to show off wealth or skill; some of them are for everyday foods such as “common pottages”. It appears that what the authors were really concerned with was making an instructional manual to ensure that cooks knew how to prepare their meals, whatever they were, properly and with care.

1420’s version of the Forme of Cury. From the British Library, Add MS 5016
I’m no expert, but I reckon those spatters could be BBQ sauce

The version I’m using is an 18th century copy of an original 14th century text. It would appear that during the 1700’s, the English naturalist, (not naturist, as I realised I’d written on my 3rd read though), Gustavus Brander, asked his friend Samuel Pegge, an antiquarian and all round nerd, to transcribe an original copy of The Forme of Cury he just had casually lying around into a book. Proving that people have been half-arsing their homework for centuries, Pegge returned it and the book to Brander with a note apologising that he had not been able to complete a full transcript of the text because of his lack of ability, but that he hoped what he had completed would be good enough. History is silent on whether Brander accepted this excuse or if he made Pegge redo it in lunchtime detention.

Caudle Ferry was an odd one to recreate because I wasn’t sure what the modern day equivalent was and, frankly, the medieval version didn’t seem to know what it was meant to be either. Some people suggested that it should be like a thick drink and others stated it should be more like a dough which could be sliced. From what I can gather it started out as a warming drink and over time developed to become more of a food through the addition of breadcrumbs to the recipe. The only thing that was clear to me was that it was definitely meant to be sweet.

With literally no idea what this should look like and, in true medieval style, with no sodding measurements or times stated in the recipe, I called my sister for help. I lured her in with the promise of cake and that I would mention her in this post, despite the fact I’m fairly sure only she and my husband read this blog.

First of all I mixed 2 dessert spoons of white flour with 185ml of white wine. I chose Sauvignon Blanc because of its intoxicating and heady notes of frugality which were created by being 50% off in Sainsbury’s. To this, I added “a grete quantite” of clarified honey and a few strands of saffron. Thanks to my last foray into medieval cooking, I knew that I didn’t need to waste time clarifying my honey, so I took the step of declaring that “a grete quantite” converted into 3 dessert spoons and stirred it all round. The honey sank to the bottom of the mix and, as my sister said, certainly sat there looking like it was a great quantity, so I left it at that.

I then cooked it on a low heat for 6 or 7 minutes, stirring it continuously because I didn’t want the flour to go lumpy. When it had thickened, I added two egg yolks and a pinch of salt and continued to stir over a low heat. Still with no idea of what this was meant to be like, I could only describe the texture and appearance as being like the love child of custard and wallpaper paste. My sister, whose kitchen specialty is eclairs, told me I’d basically made choux pastry, which is a much more appetising way of describing it.

After I was confident the yolks had been fully incorporated and cooked, I scraped it all into a bowl and sprinkled on 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Ever the gracious hostess, I dared let my sister try it first.

“I have created a new dish for your majesty, inspired by the work of the palace decorators currently re-papering your room”

Thanks to my diligent stirring the texture was very smooth. It was also very, very thick and sticky and not as creamy as it looks. The wine was a prominent flavour, but was nicely balanced by the great quantity of honey, which I’d absolutely nailed. Overall it was like a mildly sweet, slightly alcoholic goo. Both of us agreed that a few spoons was plenty and we weren’t able to finish it all. During the middle ages this dish may have been served along with many others, with guests taking a spoonful or so of each, so to eat an entire bowl may have been overly ambitious. Regardless, the first spoon we tried became one of those situations where you’re waiting for the other one to give their opinion first so you know whether you can admit to actually quite liking something, or whether you’re just a total weirdo.

It seemed a shame to waste what was left so, inspired by my sister’s comment about choux pastry, I scraped the remaining mixture out into little profiteroles onto a baking sheet and baked at 180 degrees for 15 minutes. Unfortunately it would appear that my sister has sold her soul to the devil of baking because after following her instructions and fantasising about the boozy filling I could make to go with them, my profiteroles looked like this:

No, I didn’t try to eat it

Even though I still don’t really know what Caudle Ferry is, I guess sometimes the old adage ‘if it ain’t totally inedible, don’t piss around trying to be clever’ really is true.

E x

Medieval gingerbread? (hold the ginger…): 1430’s

I’m back to work on Monday having enjoyed an entire 2 weeks of Christmas holiday (perks of being a teacher!) and, well, I’m not sure I’ll be going back. No real reason, it’s just I’ve become so used to only wearing pyjamas and eating chocolate for every meal that I don’t think I can remember how to be a functioning adult, let alone a functioning adult in charge of the future generations of this country. I’ve also had a cold all Christmas and I am pretty sure that if part of your holiday is spent lying on the sofa being poorly instead of lying on the sofa drunk on mulled wine, then you’re allowed to redo the whole thing. I mean, I need to double check it, but I’m fairly certain the law is on my side with this one.

Anyway, in an effort to prolong the festivities I decided to make some gingerbread. This is actually something I’ve wanted to do for ages and every year I tell myself that I’ll make one of those gingerbread houses and decorate it with smarties and jelly tots just like a Hansel and Gretel fever dream. And yet every year I never get round to it. Eggnog always seems to happen instead. So I thought my first dip into the pantry of history could be one that fulfils my wish for a biscuit house and gets post number 1 done in one go!

Except… it turns out that 15th century medieval cooks didn’t quite go in for candy cane picket fences and soft snap biscuit walls. In fact, their whole concept of gingerbread was totally different to ours. For a start: no ginger was needed. In gingerbread. Gingerbread. I actually did some research into this recipe and from what I can gather it was either left out because the other ingredients were believed to fulfil the job of the ginger (more on that in a second) or because the author just forgot to add it in. He had one job! Either way, we aren’t sure why a recipe daring to call itself ‘Gyngerbrede’ would so boldly flout the trade descriptions act, but there we go.

The actual ingredients are honey, powdered pepper, saffron, cinnamon and bread. Always helpful, the author of this recipe didn’t really specify any quantities other than a ‘quart of hony’ which is roughly equivalent to a modern day litre. This is absolutely outrageous decadence for a recipe written at a time of famine, war and plague, so this recipe must have been aspirational and only for the rich (as if the presence of spices hadn’t given that away). I substituted a quart for 250ml instead.

First, I had to take my honey and boil until a scum formed, then skim this scum off. This was pretty easy and smelled quite good. There was minimal scum to get rid of because I guess modern day honey manufacturing methods have taken out a lot of the impurities for us, but I sort of swirled a spoon around the pan for the spirit of the thing.

Then I added powdered pepper, (which I hand ground in a pestle and mortar that I found in the cupboard that neither myself or my husband bought but which I’ve learnt is one of those things that all kitchens must generate themselves, like cinnamon sticks and batteries) and stirred it. This was a bit trickier because there were no quantities given in the recipe so I just put in a teaspoon of ground peppercorns and hoped for the best. Then I added a few strands of saffron (did you know that saffron was so highly prized that in 15th century Germany, merchants who cheated their customers by adulterating their stock could be arrested and executed?) and gave it all a quick stir.

So far, so good. I think Dulux would call this colour ‘Moderate Dehydration’

Next I risked my marriage by grating a quarter of a loaf of white bread all over the kitchen counter less than 15 minutes after my husband had lovingly tidied and wiped down all the surfaces and swept the floor. I suppose if I was doing this properly I would have made my own medieval loaf, but as it was I couldn’t be arsed and my toddler was now very curious about the pan of bubbling honey, so I just used a plain wheat loaf instead. Ordinary medieval peasants would only have access to rougher grains for their breads, for example rye, as wheat was a ‘cash crop’ and usually only for the wealthy. However, given that I’d already established this recipe was written by a lunatic who presumably had enough cash to sink a litre of honey and saffron in one go, I assumed using a simple shop bought cottage white loaf would be close enough to the fine wheat bread of the wealthy medieval classes. I grated the bread into as fine breadcrumbs as I could using a cheese grater because the curious and slightly insomniatic (is this a word?) toddler was now in bed in the room above the kitchen so using the food processor to make breadcrumbs was out of the question, and tipped the mass into the honey mix.

It all began to smell very medieval. Sort of ferment-y and sweet and musty. I stirred it all together until it was basically a thick paste and tipped it into a dish to squidge down. It had a grainy texture, like homemade fudge. At this point the recipe suggested adding sandalwood for a red colour, and I can see why; once I had patted it into all the edges and smoothed it down it resembled less cookie-cutter house of dreams and more regurgitated cat food. The author must have thought the same because he practically begged me to add evergreen leaves and cloves for disguise decoration.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat this?

Realised at this point that I’d forgotten to add the cinnamon, which by medieval standards would have been a big no-no. Remember I mentioned earlier that one possible reason for the lack of ginger in this recipe was because it was believed the other ingredients would have done ginger’s job for it? Medieval people believed in the theory of the 4 humours – that the human body was made up of 4 essential liquids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Illness was caused when the humours became corrupted or misaligned and because each humour shared attributes with the 4 elements (hot, cold, wet, dry) a sick person could have their humours realigned by taking a medicine with elements in it which would generate more of the humour they were lacking, or cause them to purge some of the humour they had too much of. Ginger, with its spicy kick, was associated with the element of heat and therefore would have been seen as a medicinal ingredient for those whose illness was caused by a lack of bile and who needed to create more by warming up their insides. Other ingredients with similarly spicy qualities, such as cinnamon, did the same, which is why a medieval person using this recipe as more of a medieval version of a chakra cleanse rather than a sweet treat might have been distraught by my forgetfulness. Although the teaspoon of pepper, another spicy addition to the recipe, may have made up for it. Either way, whoever the author was they must have really been lacking in yellow bile…

After a couple of hours in the fridge I cut it into slices and sprinkled on some of the forgotten cinnamon. It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would! It’s not as painfully sweet as I expected but is very sticky and kind of nougat like. I had chilled mine in the fridge before cutting it because I’m a sucker for an anachronism, and I think that made it more palatable. A teaspoon of pepper is maybe too much as it definitely had a kick to it, although that may also have been overeager cinnamonning at the end. All in all I definitely wouldn’t call this gingerbread, but I can see why someone who had the misfortune to live before chocolate and gummy bears were invented might think it was a decent treat.

E x