Jowtes In Almond Milk: 14th century

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

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

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

Jowtes. In. Almond. Milk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It went violently green.

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Jowtes in almond milk

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

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