Look at any medieval recipe and you might be struck by a couple of things – the lack of clear instructions or bafflingly obscure titles for starters (‘Compost‘, anyone?) You may be surprised by the range of spices available to medieval Europeans, or the fact that numerous texts seemed to have a bizarre fondness for recipes involving scalded eel.
One thing that might initially pass you by while you’re wading through indefinite numbers of eel carcasses, though, is the sheer number of times almonds are mentioned. Specifically, almond milk.
Now, you might be partial to an oat milk latte. You might have strong feelings on whether sweetened or unsweetened soya milk is better over Cheerios, but believe me when I say this: your careful deliberations in the queue at Starbucks over which non-dairy alternative to add to your inevitably disappointing drink would be mocked by any Ye Olde Medieval Person standing in the queue behind you.
For medieval folk, only almond milk was the One True Milk Alternative. But why? After all, this was an age before veganism and concerns about arterial health. Until the 16th century, almonds didn’t even grow in England, yet in the 14th century English book Forme of Cury, almost 25% of the recipes use almond milk in some capacity. In the 15th century English work Liber Cure Cocorum, around 17% of the 130 or so recipes contain an almond milk base.
And it’s not like almond milk is being used for one specific reason. Oh no. The ways medieval cooks used this ingredient were varied. Sometimes it’s used as a possible main ingredient, such as in a recipe forDaryols where it is specified as an alternative to cow milk:
Take creme of cowe mylke oþ of alma(u)nd(es) do þ(es) to ayro(u)n wyth sug(ur). safro(u)n (and) salt medle hyt yfer(e) do hyt in a coffyn of two ynche depe. bake h(i)t wel (and) [serve it].
Take cream of cow milk or of almonds and add this to eggs with sugar, saffron and salt. Mix it well and put it in a pastry case two inches deep. Bake it well and [serve it].
Sometimes almond milk is used instead of water and mixed with starches to make a thick pottage, such as in the not at all distressingly titled ‘Rice of Flesh’. Equally, it is also used as a thickener itself, especially when mixed with breadcrumbs ( see the recipe ‘Mortrews of Fysshe’, which appears to be spiced fish pate spread over a paste of almond milk and bread.)
Occasionally it’s added almost as an afterthought or economy ingredient, as in the case of ‘Frumenty of Porpoise’, where the cook is instructed to boil wheat in ‘the secunde mylk of Almaundes’ – suggesting that the ground almonds used to make almond milk were recycled at least once to make a second (presumably weaker) almond solution.
So why does this modern sounding ingredient crop up so regularly, and in so many different ways? Religion.
Thou Shalt Not Eat Anything Good for 40 Days…
Lent required 40 days of fasting. That didn’t necessarily mean eating less but rather restricted what and when you could eat: no meat, dairy or eggs. Slightly madly, fish didn’t count as meat and neither did certain water-adjacent birds like barnacle geese. In fact, medieval cooks seem to have expanded the definition of ‘fish’ to mean anything that spent time most of its time in water, which is why beavers were also considered A-OK. For this reason Lenten fare is often titled ‘…on fish day’, even if the recipe didn’t include fish.
Almond milk – almonds steeped in water and strained – was a perfect milk substitute for these days where cooks could, to a limited extent, capture the creamy essence of a meal without compromising their immortal souls (although almond milk was also popular in non-fast recipes too.)
“40 days?”, I hear you say. “That’s not very much of the year. Certainly not enough to warrant a whole 25% of a cookbook, surely?”
And you’d be dead right. If fast days only occurred during Lent.
Not content with 40 days of scaled eel and nutty water, the medieval Church dictated that in addition to Lent, there were to be Ember days – four additional fast days of the year – and Rogation days which followed Easter Sunday and called for an extra four days of fasting in the lead up to the feast of Ascension day, followed by another fast before Pentecost and further fasts during Advent. Oh, and in addition to this there were fasts on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
In total, Allen Frantzen estimates that by the 12th century the average lay person would have spent a minimum of 150 days of the year fasting – or 41% of the year. The figure rises to a whopping 200 days for monks – or 54% of the year. When seen like this, you start to wonder whether a cookbook which dedicates 25% for dairy-alternative recipes is really doing enough…
Of course the big question is how far did ordinary people actually stick to this? Most extant documents are proclamations and church documents which lay out what they thought the ideal should be. Whether or not farmer Jim was religiously sticking to dishes of boiled beaver tail for almost half the year, or whether he actually spent most of Lent secretly sticking his face into cheese and bacon flans is anyone’s guess.
Actually, the fact that people did struggle to adhere to all the fast days is documented. A late 13th/early 14th century manuscript known as the the Harley Lyrics details the reasons people were expected to fast on Friday in particular. In the introduction the manuscript tellingly reveals that people should fast “more willingly on a Friday than any other day of the week…” which suggests that the Church was aware that some people begrudged fast days and possibly did not adhere to them as strictly as they ought. A fifteenth century schoolbook also shows that students, perennially preoccupied with their stomachs, did not enjoy fasting in the slightest (and reveals that some fish were considered more palatable than others, showing that even when fasting people still adjusted their food to maximise taste):
Thou wyll not beleve how wery I am off fysshe, and how moch I desir that flesch were cum in ageyn…
Wolde to gode I were on of the dwellers by the see syde, for ther see fysh be plentuse and I love them better then I do this fresh water fysh, but not I must ete freshe water fyshe whether I wyll or noo.
Interestingly (and it is interesting, thank you very much), certain people were exempt from fasting. The sick, young and old were not expected to fast and Christopher Dyer has suggested that records for the early 14th century show that harvest workers and labourers working on fast days were allowed to supplement their fish with cheese, which was otherwise banned during fast.
As I was reading through recipes in the FoC on a particularly fun and normal Saturday night, I was struck by references to almonds in three specific recipes: Creme of Almaundes, Grewel of Almaundes and Caudel of Almaunde Mylk*.
Creme of Almaundes
Take alma(u)nd(es) bla(u)nched. Grynd he(m) (and) drawe he(m) up thyke. Set he(m) ou(er) þe fyr(e) (and) boyle he(m). Set he(m) ado(u)n (and) spryng hem wiþ vyneg(er). Cast he(m) abrode uppo(n) a cloth (and) cast uppon he(m) sug(ur). When hit is colde gader hit togader (and) leshe hit i(n) disch(es) (and) sue it forth.
The three recipes are strikingly similar. They appear one after another and follow broadly similar methods: blanching almonds, grinding them and mixing them with liquid before boiling. Grewel of almaundes contains oatmeal whereas the other two have no other thickening agent.
So, why three versions of what is essentially the same thing?
One possibility is intended audience. While FoC was intended to be a working document for the royal kitchen, the introduction at the start of the John Rylands version makes clear that the recipes contained within it were intended to reflect “alle maner of States bothe hye and lowe”.
With this in mind we can start to rank the recipes in order of class, high to low. I’d argue that Caudel of Almaunde Mylk is the most expensive of the three as it contains both wine and saffron (the most expensive of all medieval spices.) By the same logic, second in the list would be Grewel of Almaundes followed by the lowly Creme of Almaundes, which contains no saffron, just sugar (and vinegar).
But is it as simple as this? I’ve always thought of gruel as bland slop served to Victorian orphans who knew better than to ask for more, but in this reading gruel is of a higher quality that creme, something that I would associate with luxury and wealth. Additionally, while oatmeal might have been relatively cheap, almonds were not, so the argument that Creme of Almaundes was written for ‘lowe’ persons doesn’t quite hold water…
It’s possible that Grewel of Almaunds and Creme of Almaundes were on a similar level; the instructions for Creme of Almaundes show that though some of the ingredients may have been cheaper, the necessary preparation was considerably more involved and skillful.
Another possibility, though it isn’t stated explicitly, is that these three recipes are a form of invalid cookery. Almonds were considered to have strong healing properties and were considered particularly good for brain development. The contemporaneous French text Le Viandier de Taillevent has a section called ‘Dishes for the sick’, in which a recipe very similar to Grewel of Almoundes appears.
FoC took a lot of inspiration from French texts like Viandier, however Viander only has one recipe for almond milk mush (for want of a better description): a recipe for ‘Lenten Slices’, which at first glance appears similar to Creme of Almaundes, but requires the addition of fruit.
What can we learn from all this? That the recipes were intended to be eaten during Lent is obvious. However, I think there’s an argument to be made that the three recipes represent an author showing off his skills and distinguishing himself from other cooks, specifically continental ones. I couldn’t find the same number of almond-milk-based recipes in other culinary texts as appear in FoC – the contemporaneous French text Viandier specifies the use of almond milk or almond broth in only approximately 13 out of 182 recipes (excluding nota style recipes). Likewise, the c.1430 German text Registrum Coquine uses almond milk in only 10 of its 75 recipes. In the c. 1400 text An Anonymous Tuscan Cookery Book, approx. 17 out of 184 recipes refer to almond milk.
What’s also interesting (and it is this time, I promise), is that An Anonymous Tuscan Cookbook has an entire section dedicated to the making of almond milk ‘for invalids’, a little like Viander, whereas FoC, as already mentioned, makes no mention of almond milk’s health-giving benefits.
Another possibility is that the use of almond milk, even in superficially very simple and economical dishes, was intended to highlight wealth. Almonds had to be imported to England – at great cost – from Arabic countries who supplied whole almonds to most of Europe via a network of trading routes. Could it be that countries in mainland Europe – that much closer to said trade networks and often interconnected to one another – had to pay less to import almonds than England did? And if so, did this mean that continental France or Italy saw almonds in a more utilitarian and less luxurious light?
There’s more to be said here about the politics of almond milk, I think, but even I would die of boredom at this point. Blog post 2 – where I make and compare each other three recipes above – may touch on it (or it may not – let’s keep you in anticipation, I know waiting to find out will be the highlight of your week…). In the meantime think of those 14th century cooks, grinding and soaking their almonds when you have your next non-dairy coffee, and thank God we have Alpro now…
Until next time!
*A recipe for Jowtes in Almond Milk appears between Grewel of Almaundes and Caudel of Almaunde Mylk, but I disregarded it from this examination because in that recipe the almond milk simply acts as a base whereas the jowtes (herbs) are the main star. I’ve made Jowtes in Almond Milk before and the result was a vivid green soup as opposed to a thick paste like meal, which the three recipes listed above clearly are.
If the past two years have taught you to view new beginnings with suspicion rather than excitement, I hear you. If you’re entering 2022 with the battle-weary persona of a ye-olde-medieval video game character about to embark on his final quest, I hear you. And if you’d rather just pretend 2020/2021 didn’t happen and have muted all alerts for ‘variant’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘Joe Wicks’, I hear you (especially about Joe Wicks; nothing against the man but I just can’t trust anyone who looks like they enjoy HIIT that much.)
If, however, you’re feeling a bit more optimistic about this year then I might have something for you. (For those in the first category I can only recommend gin?)
My #positivevibesonly NY recipe is inspired by the Scottish Hogmanay tradition of first-footing.
The origins of first-footing – the belief that the first person who enters your home on New Year’s Day will bring good luck for the coming year – are vague. A 19th century article on the topic seemed to suggest it was a relatively modern practice, invented in the 17th or 18th centuries by young women of a, um, lustful nature who encouraged their sweethearts to visit them just after midnight on New Year’s Day. Following this first-footing visit, a marriage was usually made between the suitors on the subsequent New Year’s Day.
By the 19th century the tradition had become a bit of community fun. Generally a dark haired handsome man would knock on the door after midnight on the 1st January with a variety of specific gifts and bestow good fortune on the household. He would then be rewarded with food and drink and the general NY festivities would continue.
One gift often mentioned in the sources is shortbread, which has become absolutely synonymous with Scotland. The earliest recipes that we’d today call shortbread date back to the 16th century under the name ‘short cakes’, with the earliest one I could find appearing in Thomas Dawson’s 1594 The good Huswifes handmaide for the Kitchin.
But, and this is meant with no disrespect to the noble Scottish delicacy, shortbread can be a bit… basic. I couldn’t help think that the combination of the fundamental components of shortbread – wheat flour, sugar and fat – had to have been discovered before the 16th century.
I also couldn’t help thinking that we were due some frankly fantastic fortune after the past two years, and I wondered if that fortune would be more forthcoming if ushered in with extra special shortbread.
And so, having established the most tenuous of tenuous links between current events and today’s experiment, I present one of the earliest ‘shortbread’ recipes I could reasonably claim: Khushkananj.
To make Kushkanaj
It is that you take excellent samid flour and put three ounces of sesame oil on every [pound], and knead it hard, well. Leave it until it ferments, then make it into long cakes, and into the middle of each put its quantity of pounded almonds and sugar kneaded with spiced rose water. Then gather them as usual and bake in the brick oven and take them up.
This is shortbread in only the most technical of terms in that it is short (ie crumbly). I’m not here trying to attribute historic Scottish cuisine to the Middle East (although that’s actually not as far fetched as it might sound…), or slap European labels on non-European foods like an appropriation arsehole, Ok? Ok.
The recipe can be found in the 13th century Baghdadi work كتاب الطبيخKitāb al-Ṭabīkh (The Book of Dishes), compiled by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdādī. Originally it contained 160 recipes, with additional recipes being added over the centuries to account for changing tastes and techniques. Charles Perry – the editor/translator of the English version – has stated that the Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh was so influential that for centuries it was the Arabic cook-book of choice for Turkish sultans.
At some point after 1226 a further 260 recipes were added to book and the collection was renamed Kitāb Waṣf al-Aṭᶜima al-Muᶜtāda (which is a great title for exploring the rarely used symbols section in my Word). In the late 15th century the Turkish physician Mahmut Şirvâni added 82 extra recipes of his own and translated the rest into Turkish, thus compiling the first ‘original’ cookery book of the Ottoman Empire.
Today’s experiment appeared in a section basically titled ‘On making things mixed with flour’, which was a pretty underwhelming start for my new year of good fortune, but I continued.
The first thing that stood out to me was that the recipe contained quantities – actual recognisable quantities! What was more, they were helpful quantities that could be scaled down easily. Anyone who’s followed this blog for a bit now will know the biggest issue I have trying to recreate medieval (European) recipes is the lack of clear instructions. Yet here, on the first day of this auspicious year was a sign from the god of imperial units that good fortune was coming my way indeed. Sure, they were Perry’s interpretation of whatever the original unit was, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that they were there at all.
The next thing to contend with was the term samid flour. This has been translated by Perry and Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet, to be semolina.
The third thing I realised was that the semolina, once mixed with (untoasted) sesame oil, was supposed to be left to ferment – a definite move away from traditional shortbread. In all honesty, I gave it 24 hours with a bit of warm water to do its thing before I realised I was in serious danger of missing the New Year’s Day cut off for good luck, so I don’t know how fermented it really was in the end.
The rest of the instructions were reasonably straightforward. The dough felt and looked reasonably similar to shortbread dough in that it kept bloody crumbling up every time I tried to move it, and the rose water/almond additions filled the kitchen with a very appetising scent as it cooked.
Time to come clean: these were not very similar to shortbread at all. They were dry and crumbly, for sure, but they weren’t as sweet and they lacked that melt in the mouth feel because the semolina was much coarser than wheat flour and the sesame oil couldn’t match the butteriness of, well, butter.
Those aren’t all bad things; if anything the mild sweetness tempered with the perfumy rose notes was actually more nuanced than the high-pitched sugariness shortbread can sometimes have. I felt I had to work through each mouthful, in the same way one might work through a dry Weetabix, which made them weirdly satisfying.
In the end I had to be my own dark haired biscuit-bringer, but I hoped these very distant shortbread cousins shared some of the minimum required properties of New Year’s Day shortbread – enough to win me a year of good luck, at least.
Here’s to 2022!
To make 8 Kushkanaj
450g semolina 85g untoasted sesame oil 40g sugar 20g almonds Rose water Spices: I used ginger, cardamom, saffron
Knead the semolina with the oil and add enough warm water to form a relatively sticky dough that holds its form when you squeeze it.
Leave overnight somewhere warm or until it begins to ferment (you can skip this step if you want).
Roll the dough into 8 portions.
Grind the almonds, and add to the sugar.
Add the rose water and spices to the sugar and almond mixture.
Create an indent in each dough portion and spoon a little of the almond and sugar mixture into this. Close and seal.
Now it’s up to you: you can bake these in moulds as per the original instructions, or you can leave them as discs.
Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes or until turning golden brown.
If you’ve come here for upbeat positivity about how we can all make some decent resolutions and start new health kicks then I’ve got news for you: you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site.
For the rest of you who, like me, have no intention of starting a juice cleanse nor any plans to give up chocolate or alcohol this month (why would you?!), read on.
My family has a tradition of getting together on the evening of 5th January and having a Twelfth Night dinner. It’s nothing too fancy – just a stew and some spuds – but it’s a great way to draw a line under the festive period and gives us all something to look forward to during the first working week after the break.
What is Twelfth Night?
Put simply, it’s the evening of the final 12 days after Christmas. Put less simply (and depending on who you ask), Twelfth Night is either the 5th January or the 6th January – it basically comes down to whether or not you count Christmas Day as being the 1st of the 12 days.
The 6th January is the Epiphany – the day the 3 Magi supposedly reached the infant Jesus to bestow their very child friendly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on him. Traditionally it’s Epiphany that was the big party of the festive season and not Christmas, which was reserved for contemplation and prayer.
In medieval England, 6th January marked the beginning of eight days of celebrations called the Feast of Epiphany. This feast began on the 6th and lasted until 13th January and it was during this celebratory week-and-a-day that gifts were given and general merriment made.
Twelfth Night Cake
One of the merriments to be made was Twelfth Night cake. These were rich fruit cakes which eventually developed into our modern Christmas cake. They were often drenched in alcohol and, in subsequent years, were decorated with a thick layer of royal icing.
Twelfth Night cakes could be as highly decorated or as simple as the baker could afford. By the Georgian period, they’d become extremely elaborate affairs and were decorated with feathers, gold, and sugar paste models of increasing intricacy.
But the thing that seperated twelfth night cakes from your bog standard fruit cake was the bean inside it. And this is where all the fun came from.
A bean? In a cake?
The tradition goes like this: a dried bean would be placed inside the cake mixture before baking. When the cake was cut and shared out, whoever found the bean would be crowned king for the day and everyone else would have to do as they said.
There are hundreds of variants to the game: in 1676 Henry Teong, a British naval captain, described a slightly NSFW version:
We had a great cake made, in which was put a bean for the king, a pea for the queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold and a rag for the slut… which caused much laughter to see our Lieutenant prove the cuckold, and more to see us tumble over the other in the cabin, by reason of the rough weather.
“By reason of the rough weather” – nothing at all to do with the drinking and booze in the cake, then?
The French version of the game, according to 16th century writer Étienne Pasquier, included forcing the youngest child in the house to sit under the table and, as the master of the house cut the cake, shout out the names of the recipient of each slice. The idea was that the child (ignorant of the rank or age of the assembled diners and – importantly – unable to see which piece the bean was in) would call out the names of the guests in whichever order took their fancy. The result of this was that it was completely random who received the lucky slice.
The idea of putting a bean or counter into a cake in order to crown a ‘king’ seems to have been one that was shared across many European countries – not just Britain and France. It’s a tradition that maybe had roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a December-time feast in honour of the Roman god Saturn and as part of the celebrations a ‘ruler’ would be appointed by lot from each household to be the master for the day.
As with anything like this, it’s impossible to say for sure that the Twelfth Night game developed from the games played during Saturnalia, but its popularity across multiple European countries and the vagueness of its origins suggests there may be some links.
Whatever the origins may be, my family prefers the French version to the ‘sluts and cuckolds’ version. This is partly because it’s a lot less awkward to see your dad crowned a ‘king’ than a ‘slut’, but also because it allows us to (lovingly) berate my younger sister and shout at her to “get under the table and stay there, you ignorant child!”
She is 26 years old.
Galette des Rois or Fry Blaunched?
There’s another reason my family prefers the French version of Twelfth Night cake to the English one. We’re usually too full of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake by Twelfth Night to feel excited about another fruitcake, but the French version – called a Galette des Rois – is nothing like that. Traditional Galette des Rois are puff pastry discs filled with frangipane. They are quick, simple and utterly delicious.
The trouble was I couldn’t find an original recipe for Galette des Rois. They must exist, but my modern French is bad enough, and my Middle French is non-existent.
What I did find was something that I though might capture an essence of them. It was in Forme of Cury, a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master cooks of Richard II. Many English recipes at this time took inspiration from French recipes and in fact quite a few recipes in F.o.C. share similarities with recipes in a contemporaneous French work, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Just to be clear, though, I’m not at all saying the experiment I tried today was a precursor to modern Galette des Rois.
Fry Blaunched Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile. close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith
Take blanched almonds and grind them to powder and place them on a [thin sheet of pastry]. Close it therein and fry it in oil. Add clarified honey and wine and bake it therewith.
It seemed I was dealing with a fried, almond ravioli thing. Not quite the same as light puff pastry with a frangipane filling, but I was willing to try it.
Like all good medieval recipes (and if you’ve read any other of my medieval posts you can join in with this bit): there were no instructions. No details on how to make the pastry, or what ingredients to use, or even just a hint at any measurements.
Medieval pastry contained no fat. They didn’t use butter, suet or lard like we might today – most pastries were a simple mix of water and flour.
There were some additions, though. Egg was sometimes used instead of water to form a richer pastry and spices like saffron might be used to give a deeper colour. Because we were, after all, celebrating Twelfth Night I decided to really splash out and used a flour, egg and saffron mixture. I know, I know; such decadence so soon after Christmas!
I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could; the word “foile” in the recipe actually meant as thin as a sheet of paper. Then I blitzed blanched almonds in a blender (you could use a mortar and pestle for a true medieval experience if you want but honestly, who has the time?) and cut the dough into neat ribbons.
I calculated I could fit a small teaspoon of filling into each pastry parcel without it spilling out the edges during the cooking. Once my ravioli-esque Frys were complete, I fried them in hot oil for a couple of minutes on both sides.
In the oil they puffed up nicely and looked like mini Galette des Rois, which I was really pleased about. I had to push a couple of them down with the back of a spoon as the sheets of pastry kept separating, threatening to spill the crushed almonds into the pan.
Once they were nice and crisp – but not brown – I laid them in a baking dish and poured over a mixture of honey and white wine that I’d warmed together in my very authentically medieval microwave, before cooked them in the oven for 15 minutes.
They smelled lovely – of warm honey and fruit (because of the wine). They looked pretty appetising too; the blast in the oven had transformed them into golden brown crisps, shining in their sweet glaze.
And, truth be told, they still looked fairly similar to Galette des Rois. It was true they were smaller, but because the pastry was so thin to start with and because the frying process had caused it to puff up, it actually wasn’t too far off looking like puff pastry.
I was excited to try one and I wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was pretty pleasant: crisp, fairly rich and because it had been sitting in the pool of honey and wine during baking, also quite sweet.
Unlike Galette des Rois, the insides of Fry Blaunched didn’t taste of frangipane. They were pretty dry and a bit plain – just almond, really – without any sweetness. But that didn’t make the overall dish unpleasant. In fact, when an open pastry was dipped in the sticky honey and wine sauce, the almond mixture soaked it up which made for a sweet and nutty flavour.
Galette des Rois they might not have been (and they sure as hell weren’t Twelfth Night cakes) but as there won’t be any proper Twelfth Night celebrations this year (my family will have to shout at my sister via Zoom instead), perhaps they’ll be a good alternative.
Happy New Year!
50g or 2 ounces blanched almonds 1 medium egg 85g or 3 ounces plain white flour 20ml or 2 tablespoons runny honey 20ml or 2 tablespoons white wine Oil for frying (any will do; I used olive)
Set the oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F.
Blitz your almonds until they are completely ground.
Combine the egg and flour in a bowl and knead into a dough.
Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to as thin as you can. It should be no thicker than 2mm.
Cut the dough into strips, and then cut into squares – about 6cmx6cm.
Put a small teaspoon of the ground almonds onto half of the pastry squares.
Place the other half of the pastry squares over the squares with almonds on. Seal the sides shut – you will need to push them very tightly together or they will pop open during frying!
Heat a shallow frying pan with oil and wait until a small piece of dough bubbles at the edges when dropped in.
Fry no more than 2 at a time, turning over with a slotted spoon after a couple of minutes to cook on both sides. The pastry should puff up and go hard.
When all your pastries are fried, lay them in a roasting tin or lipped baking tray.
Heat the honey and wine together in a microwave or a pan until the honey has dissolved.
Pour the honey and wine mixture over the pastries and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastries are a golden brown all over.
Yesterday was the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which was fought on 14th October 1066. But of course you knew that already, didn’t you? I bet you spent the whole day wishing everyone a Merry Battle of Hastings and couldn’t wait to see what William had left under the tree. Personally I think Battle of Hastings Day gets more and more commercialised every year, but my daughter loves it so we carry on with the tradition.
Fun fact: as well as being a hell of a year, 1066 is also the code to every school gate everywhere in the world. Okay, maybe not every school gate, but most of them. Two of them, at least. My sister used to play county badminton and would spend every weekend competing in school sports halls around the country. Usually these halls were opened before the athletes arrived but one day my dad and sister pulled up to find a gaggle of kids and parents standing forlornly outside the hall, locked out. The lights were on and inside there were the sounds of people warming up (competitors who had locked their competition out in an effort to forfeit the match?) but no one could get the door open.
My dad, a teacher himself and never one to let common sense or law stop him, marched through the crowd and stood in front of the locked door. He paused and then punched in the code 1-0-6-6. The lock clicked open and a surge of tracksuited kids rushed past him, followed by their parents – all of them ignoring the legality of what had just happened in favour of a styrofoam cup of instant coffee.
I know how this sounds, but it’s completely true. It was like a scene from an action movie, only the hero was a frazzled middle-aged man who just wanted to get in and sit down, and the adoring crowds watching him were mostly kids who needed a wee. Still, I think he probably had some sort of epic soundtrack playing in his head when the door swung open.
Once mum had forced him to explain himself and call the caretaker to suggest they update their security, he told us it was because his school used the same code and he thought it “might be worth a try.”*
Back to the battle?
You all know the story, let’s not pretend here – Bayeux Tapestry, arrow in the eye (or was it?) yada yada.
In an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, you can find out here why most of the stuff you think you know about the Battle of Hastings is wrong. In short – Harold might not have been killed with an arrow and the Bayeux Tapestry uses a huge amount of artistic license with many of the events of the battle.
Once Harold had been suitably dispatched (be it by arrow, sword or death squad), William sat on the battlefield and had his first meal as Conqueror. Accounts tell us it was roasted meat, possibly mutton or beef, which he ate among the bodies of the dead and dying, having left the English soldiers to rot on the battlefield. Not quite what you’d call fine dining.
William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Apparently the crowd cheered so loudly during his coronation that the Norman guards outside Westminster Abbey thought a fight had broken out, and set fire to Anglo Saxon houses in retaliation. It set an appropriate tone for William’s early years as king, and he wasted no time in enforcing his will over his new kingdom.
As the current Norman England GCSE spec will tell you, Norman lords replaced most of the Anglo Saxon nobility, the language of the rich became French, and motte and bailey castles were erected in most major towns as a both an enduring symbol of Norman power and a method of ensuring the English population behaved themselves. But though these changes had huge and long term effects on the country as a whole, day to day life for the average peasant didn’t change that much. There was still ploughing to be done and animals to be fed, it was just that now their local lords were all called Jean or Henri and there was a faint whiff of smoke in the air as William’s (or should that be Guillaume’s) soldiers burned rebellious towns to the ground in an effort to maintain Norman control.
Food in Norman England
It might be easy to think that, almost 1000 years later, we English are finally free of Norman influences. Sure, we might still visit the odd castle when we need to check our eyesight, but the everyday effects of William’s conquest have long gone, right?
Well, not quite. Not when it comes to food at least.
One popular theory for why we have words such as ‘pork’ today is that the French equivalent ‘porc’ was brought over to England after 1066 and used at the dining tables of the rich (who were usually French themselves, or otherwise Anglo Saxons trying to curry favour with their continental counterparts.) As time went on these Norman words filtered down the social classes to become part of everyday language, even in people who could not usually afford to eat meat regularly. There’s been a lot written about this theory online but I couldn’t find definitive ‘proof’ of it, so if anyone knows anything more about this etymological aspect of history please let me know!
What I did find evidence of was that consumption of pork increased in England in the years following 1066. A recent study concluded that though the Anglo Saxon diet of vegetables, cereals and meat such as beef and mutton remained largely intact, and that cooking methods among the poor remained virtually unchanged, certain foods such as pork and chicken rose in prominence.
It was this discovery that spurred me on to find a medieval French pork recipe in honour of 1066, the Battle of Hastings and our Norman overlords – and it was typing that last sentence that made me realise what a suck up I am; if I’d been around in 1066 I reckon I’d have been waiting at Pevensey Bay for William to arrive, holding a banner saying “WELCOME TO ENGLAND, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF!”
Subtle English Brouet
Soutil brouet d’Angleterre. Prené chastaingnez cuitez et pelés, et moiaux de eufs cuis et ung pou de foie de porc; broier tout ensemble, destrampés d’un pou de eaue tiede, coulez; affinez gingembre, canelle, garingal, poivre long, graine, de saffren; fetez boullir ensemble.
Subtle English brouet. Grind together chestnuts that have been cooked and peeled, egg yolks cooked in wine, and a little pork liver, moisten this with a little warm water and strain it. Grind ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, grains of paradise, galingale, spikenard, and saffron for colour, and boil everything together.
The recipe comes from the early 14th century French work Le Viandier de Taillevent, which exists in four surviving manuscripts. It is generally attributed to Guillaume Tirel, master cook to Charles V of France, but the earliest version of the manuscript dates to around 10 years before Tirel’s birth, calling into question the true authorship.
There are a few pork recipes in Le Viandier and I pondered over which one to pick. Should I go for something simple, like roasted pork in a verjuice sauce or something a bit more ‘out there’, like boiled pork tripe? I know – it was a tough one.
A quick scan of the pork tripe recipe ensured my curiosity was cut short when I read that, once cooked, it would “smell of dung”. But another recipe underneath caught my eye: subtle English brouet.
It seemed fitting for the context: a French recipe with a possible English connection (incidentally, if anyone knows what the connection actually is, I’d be grateful if you could let me know!)
In this case the word ‘subtle’ didn’t relate to any complexity of the dish, but instead was intended to highlight how easy the dish was to digest. During this time the theory of the 4 humours was prevalent, (the belief that the body contained four liquids which, when imbalanced, caused illness), and foods were described as subtle to tell the reader they were not likely to cause a humoural imbalance. Could it have been that this dish was intended for invalids or those considered particularly vulnerable to illness? A medieval French dish to stave off sickness made on the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings during a global pandemic – surely there had never been a more timely meal?!
Terence Scully went on to explain that the composition of the dish, with its finely ground and blended ingredients, would ensure a fairly homogeneous result. This might also account for the term ‘subtle’ – to distinguish it from other brouets which had chunks of meat or bread in them.
So what was a brouet? There are several brouet recipes in Le Viandier alone. The Middle English Compendium describes brouet as a meat or fish broth, sauce or stew. The addition of saffron in this particular recipe suggested I was looking to end up with a fairly smooth yellow soup.
I began by poaching two egg yolks in white wine. While they were cooking, I blitzed some pork liver with some cooked and peeled chestnuts. When the eggs had cooked almost all the way through, I added them to the mixture.
I have to say that it did not look pleasant or fill me with hope. A combination of liver, eggs and nuts may have been considered subtle 700 years ago, but it seemed pretty bloody outrageous to my modern sensibilities. Nevertheless I persevered.
The whole mixture was tipped into a pan and I added a bit of water to loosen everything up – after all, this was meant to be some sort of broth. To this I added ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, ground grains of paradise, galangal paste, and saffron. The only thing I couldn’t get hold of in the original recipe was spikenard (no, I had no idea either), which seemed to be sold only as an “essential oil” on dubious websites, and since I didn’t fancy poisoning myself I decided to skip it. I left the lot to boil and hoped it would mellow out.
It seemed very stodgy in the pan, no matter how much water I added. I read through the recipe again and saw I was supposed to strain the liver mixture to ensure a very smooth, thin soup. So, once it was cooked, I dutifully mashed the lot through a sieve, which led to a thin broth collecting in the bowl alongside an amount of very smooth meat paste. The paste and broth were mixed together and I called my unsuspecting husband to lunch.
Let’s face it: this dish wasn’t exactly a looker. In its favour, though, was the fact it did both smell and look like a broth for invalids – in that it was the sort of thing no well person would ever want to try.
“It’s very…medieval”, my husband said, pinching his nose.
I tried it. Despite its somewhat lacklustre appearance it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d been expecting. I’m not an offal fan at all, but I found the taste of this quite bearable. The meat flavour was less intense and much sweeter than I’d expected, possibly because it was being masked by the chestnuts. It was still obviously offal, but in a relatively inoffensive way. The consistency was thin and smooth, but grainy – a bit like homemade pea and ham soup.
The second taste I noticed were the spices as a mixture of warming pepper and ginger gave way to saffron and cloves. Having such warming spices in the dish would have been a deliberate choice by the cook; in the 4 humour theory, pork was considered a cold and wet food, and spices such as ginger and pepper were hot and dry. Therefore the two ingredients were needed to balance each other out and ensure no one type of humour became corrupted – and therefore cause illness – once the dish was eaten.
Weirdly I think I liked this more than my husband did. That’s not to say I was slurping ladlefuls of the stuff, just that I could see how it would have been a warming and even comforting dish for the 14th century. My empathy only got me so far, though – after a few spoons I was done, and I don’t think I’d make it again in a hurry. Pungent offal broth, no matter how surprisingly sweet and spicy, just isn’t on my list of favoured foods.
And so another Battle of Hastings Day drew to a close. The decorations were returned to the attic for another year, the costumes were hung up at the back of the wardrobe. My daughter played with her new bow and arrow set, aiming for our eyes as we swung at her with swords and later we all settled down to look at pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry together. Classic.
*This was a few years ago so the codes should have been updated now. Hopefully. It’ll be on someone’s To Do list at least.
Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre
2 egg yolks 150g cooked and peeled chestnuts 200g pork liver White wine for poaching Ground ginger Ground cinnamon Ground cloves Ground long pepper Ground grains of paradise Ground galangal Few strands of saffron
Poach the egg yolks in the white wine.
While the eggs are cooking, blend the liver and chestnuts together to form a paste.
Once the egg yolks have almost cooked through, add them to the liver and chestnuts.
Add some warm water to the mixture and blend together to form a smooth paste.
Add the mixture to a pan and add the spices. Cook for 5-8 minutes or so, until the mixture is bubbling and hot throughout. Add more water if you think it’s getting too thick.
Push the mixture through a sieve to get a thin consistency and serve.
Sometimes you just have to try things even though you already know they won’t end well, don’t you?
Today’s experiment is from the medieval stalwart Forme of Cury – the cookbook of Richard II’s own cooks. Designed to be a comprehensive instruction manual, the work contains no fewer than 196 recipes ranging from the simple (common pottage) to the alarming (porpoise frumenty.)
Despite it’s off-putting name, Compost isn’t inherently dreadful and sits comfortably in the centre of the simple/alarming scale. The word “compost” in a medieval sense meant a stew, or preserved mixture of cooked fruit or veg. It was probably meant to be an accompaniment to main dishes, rather than a dish on its own.
The recipe in Forme of Cury is only one of about half a dozen medieval recipes for Compost, and no two versions are the same. Whilst Forme of Cury‘s version is clearly savoury, others aren’t. This suggests the title denotes a type of dish, rather than a set meal – a bit like how modern “crumble” can be apple, or blackberry, or rhubarb. A fifteenth century recipe for “Perys en Composte“, for example, instructs cooks to boil wine, cinnamon and sugar together before adding sliced dates and pears and stewing them in the mixture. Actually, that one sounds a bit nicer than the one I did…
Some useful context for why my husband isn’t currently talking to me.
We’re in the process of trying to sell our house. I haven’t eaten breakfast for days because no-one knows where the cereal’s kept now. We can’t move from room to room without knocking over half a dozen vases of flowers on the way. All of my daughter’s neon plastic tat has been shoved under the bed tidied away so that when people come round they will think she only plays with demure grey wooden blocks and that we are a demure grey wooden family, or something. Everything we’ve done has been to give off the impression of sophistication and elegance in the hopes that people will fall over themselves to buy our house.
Do you know what doesn’t give off the impression of sophistication and elegance? The smell of pickled turnip. I haven’t seen the form that estate agents ask viewers to fill in when giving feedback on a property, but after today I would expect to see “smelled of vinegar” high up on the list of negatives.
Compost in Forme of Cury.
Take rote of parsel & pasternak of rasenns. Scrape hem waisthe hem clene. Take rapes & caboches ypared and icorne. Take an erthen panne with clene water & set it on the fire. Cast all þise þerinne. Whan þey buth boiled cast þerto peeres & parboile hem wel. Take þise thynges up & lat it kele on a fair cloth, do þerto salt whan it is colde in a vessel take vineger & powdour & safroun & do þerto & lat alle þise thinges lye þerin al nyzt oþer al day. Take wyne greke and hony clarified togider lumbarde mustard & raisouns corance al hool & grynde powdour of canel powdour douce & aneys hole & fenell seed. Take alle þise thynges & cast togyder in a pot of erthe and take þerof whan þou wilt & serue forth.
Take parsley root and parsnips [or carrots]. Peel them and wash them. Take turnip [or radish] and cabbage and carve into pieces. Take an earthen pot, fill with water and set it over the fire. Cast all these therein. When they have boiled, cast thereto [chopped] pears and parboil them. Take these things up and let it cool on a cloth and thereto add salt when it is cold. In a vessel, take vinegar, powder and saffron and add thereto and let all the things lie therein all night (over a day). Take Greek wine and clarified honey together with French mustard and whole currants and powdered cinnamon, powder douce and whole anise and fennel seeds. Take all these things and cast together in an earthen pot and take thereof when you will and serve forth.
Forme of Cury. Translation is my own attempt.
The word “pasternak” gave me some confusion as others seemed to believe it meant a carrot whilst the online Middle English dictionary translated it as “parsnip”. The carrot museum (a thing, apparently) cleared up my confusion: “[The 17th century botanist John Gerard] gives daucus as a name for carrot in Galen, but notes that many Roman writers called it pastinaca or other names. [Parsnips and carrots] were not confused on purpose, but since we have in many cases only the written word, if the Medieval writer referred to “pastinaca”, it is impossible to know if they were carrots or parsnips.”
Similarly, the M.E. dictionary suggested the word “rapes” could mean turnip or radish. Feeling generous, I added both.
I began on Thursday evening by preparing a variety of root vegetables and herbs: parsley, turnip, parsnip, radish and pear, which I boiled together. At this point my husband commented that it smelled – fittingly, for its name – “a bit vegetable-y” in the kitchen. “Will it have gone by the time the people look round tomorrow?” has asked anxiously.
I promised him it would.
Once the vegetables had boiled for a while, I strained them and lay them out on a sheet of greaseproof paper to cool. To the cooled vegetables I then added salt and spices and white wine vinegar. As with all good medieval recipes there were no specific measurements. However, given that the dish was meant to be pickled, I kept adding vinegar until a small pool of it had formed under the veg, unaware that with each shake of the bottle I was slowly but surely devaluing my house.
The tray of vinegar veg sat uncovered in a cold oven overnight. The next morning I was alarmed to find a layer of condensation on the oven door. I tried to wipe it off; it didn’t budge. I realised the droplets were on the inside and that the vinegar veg must have been releasing moisture all night.
Trapped inside, with no ventilation, the smell had run rampant. A mist of vinegar condensation lined not only the door, but the walls of the oven too. My eyes began to water and an acidic taste filled my throat with each breath that made me splutter.
I had four hours to clear the smell. Every window in the house was flung open, every candle was lit. The candles were quickly blown out when we realised the only thing worse than an overpowering scent of vinegar was an overpowering scent of vinegar mixed with knock-off Yankee “vanilla latte”.
While my husband fumed for Britain, I carried on to the bitter end by draining most of the vinegar off the veg. Then, I boiled white wine and honey in a pan, along with mustard, star anise and fennel seeds. Once this had heated and the spices had infused a little, I tipped the pickled veg into the wine mixture and stirred. The Compost was done. Well, technically the phrase “cast in an earthen pot and take thereof what you will” implies it was meant to be left to preserve further, like a pickle or chutney today, but we tucked in straight away.
By now, the house smelled less awful. Still very much like we lived downwind of Branston, but less vinegary and more spicy. It was a scent I was familiar with, coming from a family who spent every autumn pickling and preserving anything that stood still for long enough. I was confident that whilst it might not be the traditional freshly baked bread smell that viewers would expect, it also wouldn’t strip them of their nostril hair anymore, which was about as much of an improvement from last night as I could expect.
We tried a small bowl of it, my husband somewhat begrudgingly. In terms of taste, it was pretty decent. Because I’d drained the vinegar off the veg earlier, the taste of it wasn’t overpowering. In fact, it worked well with the sweetness of the honey wine mixture.
Admittedly the veggies had lost most of their individual subtle flavours and instead had developed overall tastes – the pears just tasted slightly sweet, the radishes were a bit spicy, for example. But this wasn’t a bad thing, because it meant that the qualities of each one altered the flavour of the pickling liquid they sat in, so each mouthful was slightly different.
As the vinegar/veg/honey flavours died away, the aftertaste was of saffron and spices – actually quite pleasant. Though you wouldn’t want to eat a whole bowl of this on its own (not that the original would have been eaten alone anyway), with a jacket potato or bit of bread and cheese this would work very, very well.
But did they buy the house in the end?
Ha, no. Of course they bloody didn’t!
Though my husband’s adamant it’s because of the vinegar smell, I’m not so sure. Maybe it was because I’d forgotten to take down the joke sign I’d stuck on the oven that said “WARNING: FUMIGATION NEEDED!” Or perhaps it was because when the estate agent opened a cupboard up to demonstrate how much storage there was, everyone was suddenly engulfed in a tsunami of cereal, flowers and neon plastic toys.
A large handful of parsley 3 turnips 2 parsnips 7 or 8 radishes A small white cabbage 3 pears 3 tablespoons of salt A pinch of saffron A teaspoon powder forte 400ml white wine vinegar 40g currants 500ml sweet white wine 4 tablespoons honey 1 teaspoon dijon mustard 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon powder douce 1 star anise 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
Peel and chop the vegetables.
Bring a pan of water to boil, then add all the veg apart from the pears. Boil until just turning soft.
Add the chopped pears and boil for a further 3 or 4 minutes.
Drain the water and tip the veg out onto a lined baking tray.
Pour the vinegar over the veg.
Add the salt, powder forte and saffron to the veg and leave overnight, or for 12 hours.
Drain the veg, leaving no more than a tablespoon of vinegar. Put the vegetables in a bowl.
In a pan, heat the wine and honey.
When the honey has dissolved, add the mustard, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon and powder douce. Heat on low for about 15 minutes. You can leave the mixture to steep for longer if you prefer a stronger taste.
Pour the wine mixture over the vegetables and serve.
Ever wondered what it would be like to have dinner and dessert at the same time? Don’t lie, of course you have – what child hasn’t?
What about instead of just serving the two courses at the same time, you served both of them in the same bowl?
What if the bowl was actually a four turreted, freestanding pastry castle?
What if the castle was on fire?
I imagine these are just some of the questions that went through the head of Richard II’s master chef when he designed Chastletes and committed this frankly bizarre but brilliant dish to the pages of Forme of Cury. Settle in because this post is a long one…
According the the British Library, Chastletes translates as “little castles”. Essentially, it was a recipe for an open-top pork filled pie, with battlements cut along the edge, and four open-top pies surrounding it, each filled with a different filling: almond cream, ginger marzipan, fruit puree and egg custard. What was slightly confusing was the term “little”; Forme of Cury seemed to suggest that the pastry be rolled out to a foot in length and width before being shaped into castles, which didn’t scream “little” to me.
By the way, if you use incorrect terminology when discussing castles you’ll give a lot of nerds terrible migraines.
And as I’m vying to become Queen of the Nerds I can’t have that, so here’s a crash course.
Put incredibly simply: the earliest form of castle in Britain was the motte and bailey, for which we have the Norman invasion of 1066 to thank. You may remember this type of castle from school when your mum built a model of one for your homework and it sat at the back of the classroom for two terms before mysteriously vanishing, never to be seen again.
These castles were simple, quick to build wooden towers (the keep) which were constructed on the top of man-made hills (the motte). Mottes provided an excellent vantage point to spot approaching enemies and gave an elevated position for the keep to sit on; an enduring symbol of Norman oppression over the Anglo-Saxon population. A wooden fence (the palisade) ran around the bottom of the motte, forming a courtyard (the bailey), which was often big enough to house several small buildings in which soldiers, provisions, animals – anything, really – could be kept.
After a few years, castle builders realised that though wooden keeps were relatively cheap and quick to build, they had several major flaws: they rotted over time, they were susceptible to arson (or just wayward candles), and they couldn’t be build too large. From the 12th century aristocrats began to update their wooden castles and replaced them with stone ones (known as stone keep castles). These were an improvement in defense, thanks to the incredibly thick, inflammable walls.
By the start of the 13th century, those with stone keep castles realised that, yes, things were generally less aflame since they’d upgraded, but there was still work to be done. The motte, for example, provided invading forces with ample opportunity to tunnel under and up, thus undermining the keep’s foundations. The palisade, even if upgraded to stone, was often a weak, easily breached structure. A new defensive strategy slowly took over, moving the focus from the keep to gatehouses and fortified walls, sometimes more than one.
From the 14th and 15th centuries onwards, as the threat of invasion diminished, new castles became less about fortification and more about comfort for the families who owned them. Palace-fortresses, as they became known, were the epitome of luxury for anyone who could afford the astronomical renovation bills. Whatever you kitchen extension cost – triple it, easily. New quadrangular castles had no keeps – the buildings and rooms were built into towers at the four corners that connected the curtain walls and enclosed a central courtyard. These castles were predominantly for show – their owners rarely anticipated invasion or siege, and as such made use of features such as large windows to bring in more light.
According to Professor Chris Woolgar, given its castle shape and brightly coloured fillings, Chastletes fits in with a type of dish called an entrement: a dish that arrived at a banquet table in between courses and was designed to entertain and delight guests. The entrement was a status dish; usually highly decorated and coloured, it could only be eaten by certain social classes and was intended to highlight wealth and show off the skill of the cook. By the end of the 13th century some entrements had become set pieces that conveyed certain messages. One apparently popular entrement depicted a knight (a grilled capon) with a paper helmet and lance sitting astride a roast piglet. I don’t know exactly what message that one was meant to convey, but I bet it was both hilarious and thought-provoking if you were a medieval lord.
Anyway – the design of Chastletes seemed to be a mash up of a quadrangular castle – thanks to the four towers at the corners – with an additional stone keep. This also fits in with the time frame; Forme of Cury was compiled around 1390 – right on the cusp of the 15th century when quadrangular castles were at their most popular. The recipe is very vague and open to interpretation, though, so it’s possible that multiple versions existed.
Take and make a foyle of gode past with a rollere of a foot brode, & lynge by cumpas, make IIII coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rollere þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn arme, of VI ynche depnesse, make þe grettust in þe myddell, fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde, & fasten þee oþere foure in euoury syde, kerue out keyntlyche kyrnels aboue in þe maner of batelyng, and drye hem harde in an ovene, oþer in þe sunne.
Take and make a sheet of good pastry, using a rolling pin, one foot wide and long by computation, make four coffins of the same pastry upon the rolling pin, the size of your wrist and six inches deep. Put the greatest in the middle, fasten the sheet in the mouth upwards, and fasten the other four on each side. Carefully carve out the battlements above in the manner of parapets and dry them hard in an oven or in the sun.
Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.
I couldn’t find much evidence online for what my version of Chastletes should look like for sure. The kitchen gurus at Hampton Court Palace recreated a version of the recipe for Chastletes in 2016, but they opted for circular towers throughout in a nod to the Henrician Device Forts – 16th century stone circular castles built during the reign of Henry VIII.
By the 14th century, entrements were known as subtleties (this term would later refer exclusively to sugar paste models). Though the medieval term subtlety meant clever or surprising rather than understated, I still couldn’t help but snort when I read this; there was nothing subtle about Chastletes.
To start with, it was over a foot long and tall. In a slightly foreboding jolt of realisation, I realised I’d made a subtlety in the shape of a building before – when I attempted a marzipan model of old St Paul’s. It hadn’t quite gone to plan and rather than a towering sugar cathedral I’d ended up with a model of what St Paul’s might have looked like if bulldozers had existed in the 17th century.
In order to avoid a repeat of the marzipan fiasco, and as it would be just me and my family sampling this dish, and not the worthy guests at a king’s banquet, I scaled it down a little and started by making the main keep. As usual, there were no instructions in the recipe for pastry making, other than it should be “good”. The use of pastry in medieval England is quite complex. Traditionally, it’s believed that the pastry crusts on medieval pies were nothing more than flour and water and weren’t intended to be eaten, instead just acting as vessels for meat and gravy, but recently that theory has been challenged as some recipes for pastry used ingredients designed to enrich the dough, like eggs, which implies the mixture should be edible. Medieval pastries didn’t use fat, such as butter or lard, however, so getting a lovely flaky melt-in-your-mouth pie crust was unlikely for this experiment.
For this “good” pastry I chose to use flour and egg yolk, which yielded a strong dough that was robust enough to hold its shape well and baked into a hard structure – ideal for holding the fillings – as well as being something that could be eaten without too much complaint.
I used a mould to create the main keep. When I say “mould”, I don’t mean I had a handy castle-shaped frame to push the dough into (although I’ve literally just caught sight of my daughter’s bucket and spade in the garden…), I mean I draped the dough over a small upturned lasagne dish. It probably wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was the only way I could ensure straight, even edges. Once shaped and any excess dough trimmed, I cut out squares from the top edge for the battlements. I moved the keep to a sunny area of the garden to dry out a bit before baking, and got on with the turrets.
In all honesty, these were the bits I was most daunted by. How was I going to ensure I created four equally sized turrets? How were they going to support themselves? How could I ensure they were watertight for when the various mixtures were poured into them? Designs like these turrets have contributed to a belief that medieval pastry, especially when it had to be freestanding, was incredibly thick, but some argue that the idea of medieval pastry being inches thick comes from 18th century pie making techniques and perceptions of the medieval world as being unrefined.
If the turrets, which were smaller than the main keep, were supposed to be filled with stuffings and custards then it seemed to me that cooks wouldn’t want what little space they had to fill them taken up with thick pastry. Given how robust the keep had turned out, I was confident I could create a reasonably thin – certainly thinner than an inch – pastry wall, thus maximising the amount of space inside to pour the fillings into.
I began to experiment first by freestyling the turret and shaping it by hand. Though this worked to an extent, the turrets weren’t very uniform and looked a little like they’d been designed by Gaudi. Amazing architect though he was, he wasn’t in business during the 14th century so I rolled them up and started again.
This time I had the idea to shape them round something, which is actually what Forme of Cury seemed to suggest, if I’d bothered to double check. The rolling pin proved a bit cumbersome and it was difficult to achieve flat bottoms on the turrets, but then I hit on a solution: spice jars. They were almost the perfect width and height – the only issue was how to get the jar out its pastry casing before baking. I buttered the jars and wrapped them in greaseproof paper and wrapped the pastry round them. It seemed to work, and by leaving a little tuft of greaseproof paper exposed I could fairly easily pull the jar out of its pastry casing, leaving a hollow space behind.
“Why is there butter all over the cinnamon? And the nutmeg? And the ginger?” my husband asked later.
“It was for the pastry turrets, obviously.” I told him.
It’s a testament both to his patience and how resigned my family has become to this hobby of mine that he didn’t ask any further questions.
With four turrets completed and the keep nicely dried out it was time to blind bake the castle in the oven for twenty minutes or so, just to help it set. At this point I realised that the keep could have done with being a couple of inches taller to make the proportions more even, but by this point it was too late. A tip for next time perhaps (as if!)
Once the pastry was baked and cooling, I began work on the fillings:
In þe myddel coffyn do a fars of pork with gode powdour & and ayroun raw with salt & colour hit with safroun, and do þi a noþer creme of almaundes, and held in anoþer creme of cowe mylke with ayroun, colour hyt with saundres. In a noþur manere: fars of fyges, of raysouns, of apples, of peres & holde hit broune. In a noþer manere, do fars as to frytours blaunche, and colour hyt grene, put þis in þe ovene & bake hyt wel & serue hit forth with ew ardaunt.
In the middle coffin put a forcemeat of pork, made with good powder and raw egg and salt, and colour it with saffron; and do thee another with almond cream; and put in another a cream [custard] of cow’s milk with eggs; colour it with sanders. In another, differently: a forcemeat of figs, raisins, apples and pears; and colour it brown. In another, differently: put a forcemeat like that for frytour blaunched, and colour it green; put this in the oven and bake well and serve it forth with brandy.
Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.
Forcemeat of figs
This was by far the easiest of the fillings to recreate: figs, apples, raisins and pears went into a blender and were blitzed until they resembled something akin to baby food. Or rather, something akin to what my daughter left for me in her nappy after eating baby food. Not pleasant. Thankfully, however, it smelled nothing like baby food (pre or post digestion) and tasted perfectly pleasant. There were no spices to be added so it wasn’t out-of-this-world, game-changingly tasty, but it made a pretty decent palate cleanser. Although the easiest to make, it was also possibly the hardest to recreate accurately, given that I was unable to get hold of any of the original varieties of apple or pears that grew in England in the 14th century. Descriptions of apples from this time period use the word “sweet” a lot, so I opted for a Royal Gala apple to try and emulate the original flavours.
What was this? Cream mixed with almonds? I checked elsewhere in Forme of Cury and found a recipe for créme of almaundes that said that, yes, essentially it was. Okay, it didn’t specify cream per se, just that the almonds should be blaunched and then ground to form a thick paste. In order to create an extra creamy version of these, I blitzed some whole almonds and added them to warm whole milk – just enough to form a thick pap. The recipe then said to add a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar so I added the tiniest amount of vinegar – less than half a teaspoon – and a teaspoon or so of sugar and stirred.
Forcemeat of frytour blaunched
Frytour blaunched appears in Forme of Cury as small pastries fried in honey and wine, stuffed with an almond, ginger and sugar paste – like a spiced marzipan. This sounded lovely, and I dutifully prepared the filling that would go into the third tower. Slightly less lovely, however, was the instruction to “colour it green”. The vibrant colour would have delighted guests and might have been procured from crushed parsley or other green plants. Professor Woolgar highlights that though medieval people rarely mixed colours to achieve the necessary shade, green was a bit of an exception; it was discovered that if saffron was mixed with, say, parsley, a much brighter shade could be produced. The English called this “gaudy green” and it helps go someway to disproving the notion that colours were muted affairs in medieval cooking. I tried making my own green shade out of spinach leaves and though it was partially successful, I worried that adding too much would alter the flavour of the marzipan so, choosing style over substance (which, given the essence of the dish wasn’t a totally anachronistic choice to make), I added a few drops of green dye to help the mixture along.
Creme of cowe milk
Custard, to you and me. Again, this was pretty straightforward despite not having a comprehensive recipe to work from, other than it should contain egg yolk. I added three yolks to double cream and whisked over a low heat. A spoon of sugar was added, to enhance the flavours and provide a little sweetness. Once it was beginning to thicken, I coloured it red (again, using a combination of beetroot juice and a drop of food dye) and poured it into the first turret…
…where it promptly seeped out of the bottom.
In a panic, I poured it from the first turret into a second one, hoping this wasn’t going to be a recurring problem. Success! This time the custard stayed put and the pastry walls remained unbreached. The other three turrets were slowly filled and then the whole structure was popped back into the oven to resume baking for another half an hour or so until the pastry was cooked and the fillings had baked.
Meanwhile I began work on the main pork stuffing. This was a fairly straightforward recipe of pork mince, powder fort, saffron and salt. There seemed to be nothing else, but I remembered from making Tartlettes – another Forme of Cury recipe that used a forcemeat of pork, salt and saffron – how well currants had worked in the mixture, so I chucked in a handful, confident they’d complement the various fruit and nut elements of the dish. The pork mixture was coloured yellow and then, once it had fried for a while, was added to the keep and baked along with the rest of the fillings.
And that was that – after a full day’s cooking I had a recognisable castle filled with five different coloured fillings ready to serve to my family.
That little two word phrase right at the end of the recipe: “ew ardaunt.” What did it mean? The answer came back: probably that the whole thing, having been lovingly and painstakingly created over several hours, should now be doused in brandy and set alight. I felt my blood pressure rise as I recalled how, a few hours earlier, I’d fashioned thirty six individual tin foil hats to protect the pastry battlements from burning in the oven. And now I was expected to set them on fire on purpose?
Having never flambéed anything before, I was advised to watch a few videos on YouTube of Christmas puddings being set alight in preparation. The blurb for one – that I shouldn’t try this at home and that the demonstrator was a “combustion physicist” – didn’t fill me with confidence, but I was sure I’d seen my dad (very much not a combustion physicist) do a flaming pud before, so I invited my parents round for dinner on the understanding he’d do the pyrotechnics.
The scene was set, half a bottle of brandy was heating in a pan, mum was standing by with a huge jug of water: it was time. The pan of brandy lit up beautifully and was dutifully poured over the castle, but the pork stuffing sucked it up like a sponge, meaning that the overall effect was of an underwhelming year 7 chemistry experiment rather than a glorious towering inferno. I managed to capture the first few seconds of the torching, but have had to turn the sound off to block out my dad’s voice repeatedly ordering us to “stand back!” followed by muttered disappointed obscenities when he saw the limited extent of the blaze.
Once the fire had abated I carved the castle up. I was delighted to see that the fillings of the turrets had all set, even the custard, and held their shape nicely. The egg custard was a clear favourite and tasted just like a slightly less-sweet custard tart from today, despite it’s vaguely alarming pinky hue.
The next favourite was the green marzipan, which had a subtle gingery kick to it. Less smooth and sweet that modern marzipan, it was everyone’s second favourite filling and being baked gave the whole thing a nicely toasted taste.
The almond cream had set into a fairly firm, sliceable mixture after cooking. It was creamy but not sweet, and slightly gritty. I could imagine it going well with a stronger flavour – maybe drizzled over coffee ice cream, for example – but on its own it was a little bland and uninspiring.
Baking had done little to improve the forcemeat of figs’ overall appearance, apart from solidify it into a more meaty looking mass. In fact when I served this, everyone expected it to be some sort of sausagemeat stuffing. The consistency was still very smooth, like purée, and wasn’t as sweet as you might expect a dish of just fruit to be.
Obviously what everyone was most intrigued by was pork stuffing which took pride of place in the centre keep. Despite being a fairly impressive golden yellow, it was, unfortunately a little under seasoned and therefore slightly bland. This was my fault – the recipe had made it clear that salt should be added, but I’d been too restrained in my interpretation of how much. The flavours of the powder fort were present such as cloves and nutmeg, for example, but not overwhelming and more of an aftertaste at the back of the throat. Given the rate at which the forcemeat had sucked up the flaming alcohol, one of the initial flavours was, unsurprisingly, brandy – which maybe explained why my husband went back for seconds!
In the end there were several elements of this dish that wouldn’t be out of place on modern dining tables; the lurid colours were reminiscent of brightly decorated cakes and the presentation of it was on par with the showmanship of Crêpes Suzette being served tableside. The castle shape might be a quintessentially medieval design but the idea of shaping food into quirky designs is still popular today; it’s only been a few decades since the rise of the cheese and pineapple hedgehog, for example.
Having said that, there was much that was very medieval about this dish. The flavour combinations – sweet and savoury in the same dish – were jarring to my modern palate. Certain spices were dominant throughout – ginger, saffron, cloves – in a way that they aren’t perhaps in food today. And the pastry, though perfectly edible, wouldn’t fare well in a competition against modern flaky or shortcrust.
“It’s an odd little thing,” my dad, ever the philosopher, declared at the end. I’m not sure Richard II would have appreciated this opinion but I had to agree; “odd” was a fitting description. My daughter, who was offered some non-alcoholic parts of the leftovers, had a much blunter judgement: “Yuck. Can I have a yoghurt?” Clearly the subtleties of this particular subtletywere lost on my family, but I still felt a sense of achievement for trying it anyway.
Overall, if anyone’s looking for a medieval themed challenge then Chastletes, with its five differently coloured fillings, freestanding shape and serving suggestion: “on fire”, is the dish for you. Just make sure you’ve roped someone else into helping you clean the kitchen after.
P.S. My neverending thanks go once again to Dr. Chris Monk for introducing me to Chastletes, sharing his notes with me, and giving up his free time without complaint to offer expert advice and patient reassurance every time I contacted him with queries. An absolute legend.
For the castle: 700g plain flour 6 egg yolks Water
For the pork forcemeat: 500g pork mincemeat Powder fort Saffron 30g currants Salt (Yellow food dye if needed)
For the fig forcemeat 4 figs 1 sweet apple (I used Royal Gala) 1 pear 30g raisins
For the almond cream 100g ground almonds 2 or 3 tablespoons of whole milk 1/2 teaspoon of white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon of sugar
For the frytour blaunched 100g blanched whole almonds 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger 2 teaspoons of sugar A splash of water Greed food dye (or spinach water)
For the creme of cowes milk 3 egg yolks 175ml of double cream 2 teaspoons of sugar Red food dye (or beetroot juice)
Combine the pastry ingredients and knead into a stiff dough. Using 400g of the dough, roll it out into a large sheet and drape over an upturned rectangular dish, approx. 20cm x 12cm in measurement.
Trim off excess dough and carve out small battlements along what will be the top of the pastry case. Place somewhere warm and dry to firm up.
Divide the remaining dough into quarters and shape each one into a tower. I did this by rolling the dough out, wrapping an standard spice jar in greaseproof paper and rolling the dough around this, before closing the bottom off to create a watertight well. The jar can then be removed from the dough by pulling the greaseproof paper up and out of the pastry case, leaving a deep indentation in the dough.
Make sure all seams are pinched tightly closed and carve out battlements in the towers.
Flip the rectangular structure over so that the battlements are pointing upwards. Without removing the rectangular dish, place the structure on a non-stick baking tray and attach the towers to each edge – try to get it so the seams of the towers are pressed against the corners of the keep and therefore hidden.
Blind bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 180 degrees C until solid.
Begin on the fig forcemeat. Combine the fruit in a blender and blitz until a purée forms. Pour this mixture into the first tower once it is out of the oven and slightly cooled.
Begin on the almond cream. In a pan, combine almonds and milk until a thick paste, the consistency of wall paper paste, forms. Stir in the vinegar and sugar and add to the second tower.
Begin on the frytour blaunched. In a blender combine almonds, ginger and sugar. Blitz until a marzipan like consistency is reached (you can add a few spoons of water if needed). Add the food dye and spoon into the third turret (make sure to press this one down.)
Begin on the creme of cowes milk. Combine egg yolks, cream and sugar in a pan and heat slowly until the mixture just starts to thicken. Colour it red and pour the mixture into the final turret (cross fingers it doesn’t leak!)
Place the castle, with the filled towers, back in the oven at 180 degrees C and bake for about 30 – 40 minutes, or until the custard seems set. You may want to place tin foil over the battlements to stop them from burning in the heat.
Begin the pork forcemeat. In a blender, combine pork, powder fort, salt and currants and blitz until the consistency of sausagemeat. Fry this in a pan and add a few strands of saffron that have soaked in a little water to release the colour. If the colour doesn’t turn a deep enough yellow, add a few drops of food dye. Once the pork is almost cooked through, add it to the centre of the castle in the oven to finish off cooking with the rest of the fillings.
When the fillings are all cooked, remove from the oven and set aside. In a pan, heat a few tablespoons of brandy until very hot in a metal saucepan or metal ladle.
Once the brandy is hot, set fire to it while still in the pan or ladle and pour over the main section of the castle.
My husband had an important work call to make on Tuesday morning. You know the kind – the ones you have to put in your calendar so you absolutely do not forget about them. The kind people ask “are you all ready for it? Let me know if you need anything.” The kind that you spend weeks worrying about and might, just might, treat yourself to some sort of calorie laden confection as congratulations for getting through it once it’s over.
In my husband’s case, this was an extra large bag of Haribo. He’d bought it a week or so ago in anticipation of The Call and lovingly stashed it at the back of the cupboard behind the beans and spaghetti hoops where it waited patiently for its time to come.
Unfortunately, that time actually came three days too early when, in a fit of sudden dinnertime anxiety about our terrible eating habits, I raided the cupboard looking for rice, wholewheat pasta or lentils to make something wholesome and disappointing with. As I pushed aside a jar of alarmingly red tikka sauce I saw the Haribo bag lurking in the shadows, hoarding its gummy bears, fizzy cola bottles and sour cherries.
It wouldn’t be decent to describe what happened next. Needless to say, my husband ate a plate of wholewheat spaghetti on his own as for some reason I wasn’t too hungry anymore.
And that was the end of that. Until Monday evening, when my husband turned to me with gleaming anticipation in his eyes and told me how much he was looking forward to devouring the Haribo after he’d got through The Call in the morning. They were really helping him focus on the prep work, he said. He didn’t know what he’d do without them as a motivator, he said. If something, anything, should happen to them, he’d be utterly destroyed.
Okay, maybe not as dramatic as that. The point was, he was an earnest and very nervous man and I was a terrible wife.
Obviously I replaced the bag (I’m not a total monster), and The Call went well. But it got me thinking about how I could crowbar it into this blog and the answer came thusly: make some medieval sweets.
Yeah nice one, not a tenuous link at all.
In my defense, when reading through the recipe for these I was struck by how they might pass as a medieval version of gummy sweets. So not totally tenuous..?
Medieval people knew very well about the setting properties of gelatin: recipes in Forme of Cury describe the process of cooking pig’s feet, ears and snouts – along with calve’s feet – in a mixture of wine, water and vinegar to make an enticing dish called Gele of Flessh. What I couldn’t find any evidence of, however, was sweet jellies. And if there were no sweet jellies then it wasn’t too much to assume that gummy sweets were out of the question as well.
I knew that by the end of the 16th century marmalade was being made that resembled something akin to gummy sweets (rather than our modern version); Hugh Platt’s 1600 recipe for orange marmalade was supposed to be so thick it could be served in jellied lozenges. Likewise, the popular 17th century sweet quiddany – quince paste – was supposed to be so solid it could be set in moulds and turned out without losing its shape. But I couldn’t find much evidence of this type of solid-set jam being made in England during the middle ages. A medieval dish from Forme of Cury called Connate came close to these 17th century pastes, but it used lard and raw egg yolk to set it, rather than pectin alone.
What I did find was Leche Lumbarde. Thinking back to my year 9 Spanish lessons I was fairly confident, before reading the whole recipe, that this would include milk – so I almost didn’t bother, thinking it wouldn’t be anything like what I was searching for. In reality, the Leche Lumbarde I found contained no milk, but plenty of dates and sugar (or honey) cooked in wine and set into slices. Okay, it wasn’t a jelly baby or a fizzy cola bottle but it was about as close as I could get.
Other medieval recipes for Leche Lumbarde included meat, such as the 15th century version from Thomas Awkbarow’s Recipes which started off by boiling brawn to a pulp, and the Forme of Cury version, which involved ground pork. It may have been that the makers of Haribo tried an edition of brawn or pork flavour gummy worms, but the packet that my husband had been so looking forward to seemed to rely mostly on fruit flavours, so I skipped these versions in my search.
The recipe I used came from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016. Harlein MS. 279 seems to date from around 1430 and Harlein MS. 4016 dates from around 1450. The recipes within these manuscripts were heavily influenced by continental (especially French) cookery and many of the titles of the recipes have bastardised English names – the milk-based recipe Letlardes, for example, is clearly based off an earlier French one: Layt Lardé.
I still couldn’t shake the idea of the Spanish sounding name, though. And the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I was that I’d spent all that time in Spanish lessons only for history to deny that milk didn’t belong in recipes entitled “leche”. If many of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books were based on recipes from France, then surely it wasn’t outside of the realms of possibility that some Spanish influence had crept in too? There must be a connection, I thought – there must be an original, milk-based Spanish recipe for Leche Lumbarde that had somehow become muddled on its way to England.
A 13th century Spanish cookbook called TheAnonymous Andalusian Cookbook had a recipe for “A Sweet of Dates and Honey”, which was almost near identical to the recipe I had for Leche Lumbarde. Unfortunately, this recipe didn’t contain any milk, so wasn’t all that helpful in proving the milky origins of the dish. Furthermore, given that 13th century Andalucía wasn’t the region referred to as Andalucía today, but instead referred to all the regions in Spain under Arab Muslim control, it was likely that the original name of this dish (which had been lost) would have been Arabic, so unlikely to contain the Spanish word leche, anyway.
After hours of research I still couldn’t find anything. And then, in desperation, I stopped pushing the very limited Spanish and access to medieval Spanish cookbooks I had beyond their extremes and banged “leche” into the online Middle English Compendium to see if it could point me in the direction of anything I’d overlooked.
“Leche” it sang back to me. “Of lesche, laiche, leske ‘a thin strip, a slice’. Cook. (a) A strip, slice; (b) any of a number of jellylike dishes prepared from various ingredients and usually cut into strips or slices.”
I’d spent an afternoon chasing the belief that I was about to unearth the global transformation of a dish from its milky Spanish origins to a milk-less English sweet – a discovery that as far as I could see, no one else had made. For good reason, it turned out, because it didn’t bloody exist.
In this particular context, “leche” was truly nothing to do with milk at all. If I’d paid attention to the other, meaty versions of Leche Lumbarde I’d have seen that they too avoided milk. “Leche Lumbarde” was just another way of saying “sweet slices in the Lombardy fashion”. What the original Lombardy recipe that had inspired the 15th century English version looked like was anyone’s guess; I was too crushed to begin that particular treasure hunt and already on the way to the shop to buy yet more, consolatory, Haribo.*
What a fantastic waste of time. Are you going to cook now?
It was all turning into a bit of a disaster; I’d spent so much time chasing a misguided hunch that I had very little accurate history to talk about. In fact, I was at risk of having to include my dead-end research in lieu of proper information about the dish…
But onto the actual cooking. Milk or no milk, Leche Lumbarde was pleasingly easy to whip up and contained relatively few ingredients: dates, sugar, white wine and spices. Though the original recipe made it seem like there were lots of steps involved, in reality the last few sentences were guidance for what to do if the dish didn’t set properly; mine did, so I didn’t need to follow the end points.
Leche lumbarde. Take Dates, and do awey the stones; and seth hem in swete wyne; and take hem vppe, and grinde hem in a morter, and drawe hem thorgh a streynour with a litull swete wyne and sugur; and caste hem in a potte, and lete boyle til it be stiff; and then take hem vppe, and ley hem vp apon a borde; and then take pouder ginger, Canell, and wyn, and melle al togidre in thi honde, and make it so stiff that hit woll be leched; And if hit be not stiff ynowe, take hard yolkes of eyren and creme thereon, or elles grated brede, and make it thik ynogh; take Clarey, and caste thereto in maner of sirippe, whan thou shall serue hit forthe.
Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks
First I heated dates in a pan of white wine – I chose a Pinot Grigio as the recipe specified “sweet” (though I’m not a big wine drinker and in reality it all tastes very similar to me; sorry!) The dates simmered for a couple of minutes until they were softened and just starting to fall apart. I added them – without the wine – to a blender and blitzed.
Once suitably pulverized, I added a spoonful of the now syrupy wine back to the dates, poured most of rest of the wine away (I set a couple of spoons aside for the final part of the recipe), and returned the dates to the pan. The recipe called for sugar to be added at this point but, like all medieval recipes, didn’t specify how much. I ended up settling for just under half the weight of the dates, aware that this was meant to be a sweet and should therefore be, well, sweet.
The date and sugar mixture was stirred into a thick paste and then heated until it bubbled. Though there was no indication of what temperature to cook it for other than until it was “stiff”, I checked with a food thermometer and took it off the heat at about 106 degrees C, to be sure it had at least passed the setting point of jam. In all honesty, it looked pretty thick and stiff before it reached this temperature but I wanted to make sure.
Once it was off the heat, I added a pinch of powdered ginger and a pinch of cinnamon, stirred it through and turned the whole lot out onto a covered board. It was still boiling hot, so rather than use my hands, as suggested, and risk melting the skin on my palms, I patted it into a rectangle with the flat side of a spatula.
It seemed like it was already thick enough to slice but if it wasn’t the recipe provided some strikingly helpful pointers, by medieval standards. To thicken up the mixture, it suggested, one could crumble in hard egg yolk or grated bread which would provide some additional setting qualities. As it was I only had to cool mine an hour before cutting it into slices (and shaping it into cola bottles).
The final part of the recipe called for clarey – a type of spiced wine sweetened with honey – to be drizzled over the finished slices like a syrup. I added a spoon of honey to what was left of the date-infused wine I’d set aside earlier, added a little ginger and heated it. Once the honey had dissolved I let it cool a bit so it didn’t melt the sweets and drizzled a couple of teaspoons over the slices.
Did these taste like Haribo? No, not at all. Did they feel like Haribo? Also no. They were much stickier and softer than gummy sweets, so fans of very chewy sweets would be disappointed. In terms of taste, they were sweet but not painfully so; most of the flavour came from the dates, so it was a very sticky, jammy type of sweetness. It almost felt like eating the inside of a fig roll.
The wine made them richer and somehow smoother, but there was no discernible alcoholic taste. Similarly, the spices – ginger especially – gave each piece a kick, but it was a subtle heat rather than a strong flavour.
In the end I’d made a relatively small batch, enough for four medium/large slices (or leches, I guess.) It turned out that this size was right – pleasant as these date sweets were, they weren’t an acceptable replacement for real gummy bears or cola bottles and we found it hard to finish them in a way we’d never struggled with before with Haribo. I guess, if anything, this experiment taught me that replications, no matter how interesting, can never replace the authentic thing.
Oh – and that unless you have half a day to waste shouting at Google Translate and listening to the Spanish national anthem “to get into the right mindset”, it’s best to leave the proper research up to the experts.
* If it turns out that I’ve made yet another mistake and that “Lumbarde” doesn’t, in fact, mean “in the Lombardy fashion” please be sure to highlight this by writing me a letter and popping it straight in the bin. Or, if you must let me know, email email@example.com along with a subscription to a years supply of Haribo.
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?
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.
…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.
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.”
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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. Fromtablets 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.
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.
Going to tell us what it all tasted like?
I’ll try and wrap it up quickly.
It was all delicious.
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.
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.
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.
320g red lentils 250g black lentils 7 or 8 cardamom pods 7 or 8 cloves Ghee Black pepper/Long pepper
Cook the lentils in water until soft – about 20 – 25 minutes.
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.
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.
Dice the aubergine and pod the broad beans (but keep them whole.)
When the spices are heated, add the aubergine and broad beans and fry for 7 or 8 minutes.
2 mangoes 2 teaspoons mustard seeds Thumb’s worth of ginger 1 table spoon vegetable oil Fennel seeds Turmeric 30g sugar Salt Water
Peel and chop the mango into slices and cover with a pinch of salt.
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.
Pound the ginger to a fibrous paste and add it to the mustard oil. Heat for 2 or 3 minutes.
Add the mangoes and turmeric and cook for 10 minutes on a low flame.
Add just enough water to cover the mangoes and add the sugar.
Cook until the water has reduced and the chutney is the desired consistency.
1 litre gold top milk 250g sugar 150g water 4 or 5 cardamom pods Plain flour (a tablespoon or so) Ghee for frying
Make a sugar syrup by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods together until it reaches syrup consistency (about 110 degrees c). Set aside.
Put the milk in a non stick pan and bring to just below simmering.
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.
Once dried, scrape the cream from the sides of the pan and transfer to a plate.
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.
Once you have got all the cream solids, shape it into a rectangle and cut into small squares.
Dust each square with a little flour.
Heat ghee in a frying pan until very hot.
Add the shor bhaja one at a time and fry on each side until golden brown.
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
Preheat an oven to 150 degrees C.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Boil the pork until cooked through. Depending on how large the chunks of meat are this might not take too long.
Set aside about 1/3 of the pork to use for the broth later.
Mince the remaining pork in a blender with the currants, saffron, salt, spices and egg until it forms a coarse paste.
Begin on the pasta. Add the egg yolks to the flour and combine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dice the left over pork into small pieces and add to the simmering broth along with a good pinch of salt.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
250g honey 250g golden caster sugar 250g pine nuts (or a combination of similar hard nuts such as almond Pinch of ground ginger
Line a small baking tray (I chose 28cm x 18cm) with greaseproof paper.
Measure out all the ingredients before you start.
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.
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.
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).
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.