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 for Daryols 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].Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f84v/f85r
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.British Museum, el 249
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.Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f43v/f44r
Grewel of Almaundes
Take ammau(u)nd(es) ybla(u)nched. Bray he(m) wiþ otemele. Drawe he(m) up wiþ watur (and) cast þ(er)on safro(u)n (and) salt.Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f44r
Caudel of Almaunde Mylk
Take almau(n)d(es) bla(u)nched and drawe he(m) up wiþ wyne. Do þ(er)to poudo(ur) (of ginger) (and) sug(ur) (and) colo(ur) hit w(it)h safro(u)n. Boyle hyt (and) sue hit forth.Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f44v
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.