Pancakes through time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teganitai: 2nd century

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

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

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

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

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

Teganitai – because Splodgeroos doesn’t sound Greek enough

Crespes: 1393

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

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

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

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

The Goodman of Paris to his wife

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

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

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

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

Proper pancakes

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

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

Rice pancakes: 1755

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

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

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

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

The American Dream

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Teganitai

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

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

Crespes

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

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

Rice pancakes

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

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

‘Lasagne’: 1390

It was a bitterly cold and windy day when I decided to make the ultimate comfort food: lasagne. It had been a disappointing morning – every time the Met Office issues storm warnings I get my hopes up that Hurricane Santa might bring me a trampoline or part of someone else’s fence, but alas, yet again I hadn’t been good enough this year.

So, the lasagne was to cheer me up – proper comfort food, which I’ve been trying to avoid in an effort to be healthier. Something hot, cheesy and far too calorific to be good for me. I planned to eat it standing tear-stained at the window, brandishing a fork trailing strings of cheese and shouting “see what you’ve made me do, Santa?!’ angrily at the wind. As is his way, my husband gently suggested that the sight of a fully grown woman shouting cheesy nonsense at an invisible Santa two months after Christmas might give the neighbours cause for concern. He promised to look into whether adult trampolines were a thing, if I’d redirect my anger to something less overly dramatic.

Which is how I came across medieval lasagne, or Losyns, as Forme of Cury would have you spell it (click here for a bit more info on Forme of Cury when I made Caudle Ferry.) Cheese? Check. Pasta? Yes (after a fashion). Meat? Er…

Maggie Black, who translated and adapted this recipe in The Medieval Cookbook tells us that lasagne was thought by some to be considered an ideal dish to serve at a last course at a banquet. The heaviness of it would ‘seal in’ the copious amounts of alcohol imbibed during the dinner, at least for long enough until the guests got back to their own homes (although possibly not; most medieval hosts rich enough to throw banquets would also house their guests for several nights too.) There’s also some suggestion that lasagne would have been served to resting armies, being quick and easy to make and incredibly filling, as well as being a bit of a crowd pleaser.

The first thing I noticed about this dish was the pasta. There was a study done recently* that ranked homemade pasta as one of the best comfort foods there is – along with mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Having said that, I’m always a bit wary of people who have their own pasta machines because it does take a bit of effort and the sorts of people who make it regularly enough to need a machine always seem like the sorts of people who jog up mountains for fun, or think watching foreign art films without subtitles is a good date night. You know, people who just generally do well at all aspects of life in an effortless and supremely annoying way. My life always seems to be full of effort of one kind or another, so I have no time for that sort of smugness, and no time to make pasta regularly, so we don’t own a machine.

Medieval people must not have thought of pasta as the richly comforting food I do. The recipe I used said that the lasagne sheets should be made out of fine white flour, “paynedemayn” which had been mixed with water into a dough. No eggs, no seasoning, no nothing. With the dough made, I rolled it out into as “thynne foyles” as I could just using rolling pin and cut it into strips.

The worksurfaces were now covered in flour and sticky grey mush. Every time I make dough I think of the people we bought our house from: who excitedly told us that they’d updated the kitchen and put new worksurfaces in – their pride and joy. I had promised I’d take care of them. As I surveyed the mess of ground in dough, sticky stained wood and crevices turned ashy with flour no duster could reach, I hoped they had no idea this blog existed.

The recipe told me to dry the pasta, and back in the 14th century it would probably have been air dried over a number of days. Because I have to work in order to pay for the kitchen I promised I wouldn’t ruin, I didn’t have a couple of days to just do nothing waiting for this to air dry, so I laid the lasagne sheets out on a baking tray and dried them in a very low oven for 2 hours at 80 degrees until they were hard and brittle.

Bland and anaemic, just how comfort food should be

The lasagne sheets baking, I turned to the filling and was straight away struck by the next medieval twist. No meat. No filling, really, of any kind unless you just count cheese, which I did, so I cracked on with it.

Cheese was a very popular and common foodstuff of the middle ages, with many different varieties eaten throughout Britain. Since meat was expensive, pretty much every peasant household would make their own cheese as a vital source of protein and richer houses might buy more expensive or imported varieties from the continent. According to P. W. Hammond there were 4 main genres of cheese during the middle ages: hard cheese (like cheddar), soft cheese (like cream cheese), green cheese (a very young soft cheese) and the appealing ‘spermyse’ (cream cheese with herbs.)

The original recipe calls for grated “ruayn”, which is a cheese that no longer exists in its original form. Some people think it could refer to cheese made with rowan grass from the second harvest of crop season and so was only made at certain times of the year, whilst others suggest it may have been a variant of ruen cheese, which just meant cheese made with rennet. Either way, if I didn’t have time to air dry pasta I definitely didn’t have time to wait until the end of harvesting season to make some obscure long lost cheese. In 1170 Henry II bought 10,240 lbs of cheddar and so since it was definitely available by 1390, I couldn’t see too much harm in substituting ruayn for a mild Cathedral City, especially not one that was 50% off.

Once the lasagne sheets had dried, I boiled them in chicken stock until they were soft again (why?!) and then laid a layer of them in a rectangular dish. I sprinkled on a handful of grated cheddar and then a pinch of “powdour douce” – a curious medieval seasoning that appears in lots of recipes and for which no definitive recipe seems to exist (surprise, surprise). I knew from previous research (which quickly taught me to spell ‘douce’ correctly) that powder douce was meant to be a combination of sweet spices, such as cinnamon possibly with some sugar mixed in, and was the lighter alternative to the other popular medieval seasoning “powdour forte” which was seen as a stronger collection of spices containing black pepper. In the end I used Dr. Christopher Monk’s recipe, which also gave a very full account of the history and preparation of this enigmatic spice cocktail.

And so I built the cheesiest lasagne man has ever known: a layer of cheese, a dusting of powder douce, a layer of lasagne sheets, and so on until I had used up all the pasta. Into the oven it went for 20 minutes or so until the cheese was bubbling and the air smelt and felt odd – hot and spicy, but also greasy. My idea of comfort food heaven.

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

I’ll admit that when it was done even I was a little bit alarmed at the amount of melted cheese. I mean, it was literally just a dish of cheese with a few brittle bits of dough languishing in the middle. Luckily I pulled myself together and cut a slice to make your eyes water.

Initial thoughts were that the cloves in the powder douce ruined it slightly. Not liking cloves in any form, I imagine my initial dislike was down to personal taste, but as they were one of the most widely used spices in medieval England and a key component of the seasoning, I had to add them. The general flavouring was a peculiar mixture of cheese and cloves and one that I wasn’t used to, but wasn’t 100% unpleasant. This is something I’ve found is true for lots of the things I’ve cooked so far – often the combination of flavours is a bit jarring to modern palates, but aren’t necessarily horrible.

The lasagne sheets were quite flavourless but the texture was robust and very similar to pasta cooked al dente (MasterChef here I come…) It was clear their role was to add bulk and fill diners up, which it did well, rather than to be a complementary flavour to the cheese and spices.

So. Much. Cheese

Would I make it again? Yes, with tweaks: I’d cut out the spices for a start and include more salt. I’d use eggs in the pasta and I think the whole meal would work well with the addition of some sort of minced meat, possibly in a tomato sauce, added in with the cheese. Actually, as that sounds bloody delicious, I’m off to patent it.

E x

*A study done by me. It was delicious.

Lasagne

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

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

Anglo-Saxon Bread: 1047

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

Probably not the most promising anecdote to start with, but when you read on you’ll see why I was reminded of my sticky, doughy gluey childhood experiment…

Inspired by Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, I had decided to try something Anglo-Saxon. The show relies heavily on what I’m calling the 3 F’s: fighting, feeding, and, (*checks thesaurus*) fornicating.

Within the ‘feeding’ sections of the show there’s a lot of talk of meat from the Vikings, and a lot of talk about the lack of meat but unfortunate abundance of gruel from Alfred the Great, but not that much talk about bread. I’ve worked out this could be for a few reasons:

  1. The producers were trying to create a great TV drama that would grip an audience. Lengthy discussions on the nuances of bread probably weren’t considered sexy, and perhaps didn’t lead as naturally into the fornicating scenes as having yet another shirtless shot of Uhtred showing off his muscles and beautifully conditioned hair like a macho Barbie.
  2. The script writer was a coeliac with a grudge.
  3. There wasn’t really a universally accepted Anglo-Saxon term for ‘bread’ – at least not in any way that we’d use it today.
Hnnnngh.
Credit: Radio Times

The importance of research.

I did a lot of research trying to work out which of the three reasons it was – hours and hours, in fact, of rewatching selected scenes with meticulous focus and attention to detail.

Eventually I decided the reason bread doesn’t get much of a mention in the show is probably because of reason 1, but the historian in me still wanted to delve into reason 3 a little more.

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

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

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

But where does the word bread come from?

I’m so glad you asked.

Anglo-Saxons had different breads for different people. Fine white wheat was used for the most expensive types and pea or bean flour used for the poorest. This lowly bread was also known as horsebread, and was considered fit only for animals or in times of famine. On the other hand, wheat was a labour intensive crop to grow, and riskier for farmers as it was comparatively more susceptible to damage compared to its hardier counterparts rye and barley. Breads made out of wheat therefore cost much more, eventually becoming known as a ‘cash crop’.

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

Still with me? Ok. Whatever you called it, bread was a pretty big deal to the Anglo-Saxons. It could be spread with butter for a quick snack after a hard day’s work of fleeing from the Vikings bravely defending England, or used to mop up sauces at a feast. Bread could even serve as plates – known as trenchers – once it had gone too hard and stale to eat (though this use was more prevalent during the later middle ages.) Therefore, the leaders of England did what all good capitalist overlords do: regulated the production and sale of it to keep the wealthy wealthy and the poor, well, poor.

Despite its obvious importance, it appears the Anglo-Saxons considered bread to be so ingrained into people’s lives that they didn’t write any recipes for it. All we have are references to the laws and customs of the time to work out how to make it.

In 1047 King Edward the Confessor enacted the Bread Purity Law. This was after his delicate royal palate had been offended by something masquerading as bread but that according to his royal highness was Definitely Not Proper Bread. The Bread Purity Law made it a crime to call anything that contained anything other than just fine flour, water, barm and salt, bread.

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

But you’re not using barm…

Technically, then, I should be fined 30 shillings (it being my first bread related offence) under Edward’s law as my bread didn’t contain any barm: the froth on top of fermenting beer which the Anglo-Saxons skimmed off and added as a rising agent.

The bread I made today was something that would have been an everyday quick fix to go with a main meal. This was the bread shown fleetingly in scenes of The Last Kingdom; bread that would quickly and easily feed an army, fill a belly that hadn’t eaten meat in days, and temporarily quieten an upset child.

The method.

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

Unleavened Anglo-Saxon bread was baked on flat stones or griddles placed on embers, sometimes with pans or lids placed over them to encourage steam to help them rise just a little bit. I scraped two spoons worth of it onto my griddle and put a very authentic Anglo-Saxon wok over the top to create some moisture.

After only a few minutes I was overjoyed to smell burning so I quickly whipped my wok off (not rude) and flipped the breads over for another few minutes. Then they were done.

Anglo-Saxons preferred brie with their bread, but would eat Red Leicester if they had to.

The verdict.

These were genuinely decent. More than decent, in fact – these were pretty damn good.

They tasted ever so slightly charred and a bit salty but other than that, just like bread. Pitta bread, in fact. The insides were quite fluffy despite the density of the mixture and the overall size of the bread – about the size of my palm – was just right for a snack.

I ate mine with a hunk of cheese, but I could see this working with anything really – the salt content could be altered depending on whether the breads are served with savoury or sweet accompaniments.

One thing worth mentioning is that this bread was much, much better eaten hot than it was after an hour or so. After it had cooled it was quite chewy and hard work, although to a battle-weary Anglo-Saxon that might not have mattered so much.

All in all, this experiment was a great success ending in a quick, cheap and adaptable bread recipe and a couple of day’s worth of watching The Last Kingdom on repeat for Very Important Research Reasons. Roll on series 5!

E x

Update: it has come to my attention that the Bread Purity Law may have been an internet joke, and not a true law after all. We all love a good joke, don’t we…?

Anyway, joke or not, later medieval Assizes of Bread did pretty much the same thing: attempted to regulate the sale of bread and ensure ingredients were up to scratch.

Anglo-Saxon Bread

160g plain flour
Water
Salt
Olive oil or butter (optional)

1. Combine flour and water and mix into a fairly we dough. It should be easier to spoon than knead.

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

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

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

Caudle Ferry: 1390

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I didn’t try to eat it

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

E x

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x