Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre: c. 1300

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.

Not a real part of the tapestry but still a good excuse to post my favourite meme ever.

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 Viander of Taillevent, An Edition of All Extant Manuscripts. Edited by Terence Scully.

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.

From a 15th century version of Le Viandier. Credit here.

The recipe

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.

The method

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.

Left to right: grains of paradise, galangal paste, long pepper, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

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.

The verdict

Mmm…pungent offal broth.

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.

E x

*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

  1. Poach the egg yolks in the white wine.
  2. While the eggs are cooking, blend the liver and chestnuts together to form a paste.
  3. Once the egg yolks have almost cooked through, add them to the liver and chestnuts.
  4. Add some warm water to the mixture and blend together to form a smooth paste.
  5. 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.
  6. Push the mixture through a sieve to get a thin consistency and serve.

A Florentine of Flesh: 1591

Don’t worry; this is still just your everyday food history blog and not a recipe page by Hannibal Lecter.

Florentines. We’re all familiar with them, aren’t we? They’re the nutty, fruity, chocolatey biscuit that you can buy in packs of no more than 4 at the cost of a small house. The kind of biscuit we all go “ooh, lovely” at when we’re in the cake shop, before picking out a whopping great cream doughnut instead. The Queen probably gives them out at afternoon tea like I give out chocolate digestives – but I doubt she serves them alongside mugs of builder’s brew for dunking.

If that’s what florentines are to you then turn your computer off, go outside and revel in the paradise of your naive ignorance. How I wish I still could. Anyone who’s read any other posts on this blog, however, will know that things from history bearing the same names as things from today are rarely what we expect them to be. Sometimes that’s okay and the only differences are the addition of a few extra spices here or an eggless pastry crust there. In this case though, the Tudors took it a little bit further. You know that scene in the original Toy Story where all the broken toys come out from under the bed and they’re all monstrous, deformed lab experiments which frighten the normal toys? Well that’s the best analogy I could think of when comparing 16th century florentines to modern florentines.

I still have nightmares about Babyface. Credit here.

So, what was a Tudor florentine of flesh, really? The Oxford Companion to Food points out that, historically, the term “Florentine” meant small tarts or pastries stuffed with meat or fruit, which is exactly what I was dealing with today. The history of the chocolate florentine is hotly contested, but given that chocolate was enjoyed only as a drink in 16th century Europe, it’s likely the sweet version came into existence after the savoury one – so technically it’s the modern chocolate florentine that’s the scary spiderbaby creation.

Today’s recipe was found in the anonymously authored A Book of Cookrye. I couldn’t find a great deal of info about A Book of Cookrye, so had to piece a little of it together. The text states that the recipes within were “gathered” by “A.W.”, who remains nameless throughout. As far as I could work out, the purpose of the book seemed to be an instructional manual for rich households planning on entertaining guests, rather than a sort of everyday recipe book. Instead of recipes, the book actually begins with a five page plan of “the order how meats should be served to the table with their sauces”. This plan not only covered the sauces for each meat, but also specified which meats should be served at which meal and during which courses. There are impressive but relatively simple recipes for meat pottages, goose pie and roasted capon as well as more exotic offerings: peacock in wine sauce, stork in mustard and vinegar sauce and roasted porpoise in vinegar.

Fortunately I wasn’t dealing with something as illegal as porpoise for my fleshy florentines. Instead, the recipe called for veal kidneys chopped up with dates and currants and baked in a rich pastry “cake”. It seemed I was dealing with a steak and kidney pie without any of the steak but a lot more fruit.

A. W. seemed to be the only author to give this dish the unnecessarily metal name “A Florentine of Flesh”, but the actual meal seems to have been very common (there are two other florentine recipes in A Book of Cookrye itself), and English recipes for almost identical veal kidney dishes popped up frequently in my research, including one from 1596 just called “A Florentine“, and one from 1615 called “A Florentine of Veale“.

Veal has a bit of a chequered past – until 2007, most EU veal meat was obtained by force feeding calves and keeping them in crates to stop them exercising, thus keeping the meat tender. Critics of this practice pointed out that calves lacked much needed social interaction by being kept in individual crates and suffered abnormal growth from an inability to exercise and develop bone and muscle mass. More recently there has been an increase in “ethical veal” farming, which allows calves freedom to move around and suitably controls diets to ensure an appropriate amount of nutrients are provided to each animal. Advocates of ethical veal farming also point out that veal comes from male dairy calves who, unable to produce milk, become surplus to dairy farm requirements and are therefore frequently culled while still very young anyway. Using the meat from these calves ensures it isn’t wasted and also helps create a regulated industry which results in more humane conditions for the animals.

I don’t think wealthy Tudors had any such ethical qualms regarding veal and before I could decide what my own stance was, I realised nowhere near me was selling veal kidneys anyway. In fact, getting hold of any kidneys at all proved tricky and the only kidneys I could get were lamb kidneys, which wasn’t ideal in terms of comparable flavour to veal, but it was all I had to work with. This did mean that the recipe took yet another step further back from what a modern day diner might expect from a dish called “florentines”. Those broken toys from Toy Story? Yeah, think of my version of these florentines as the doubly-broken toys that they kept under their own beds. A frightening thought.

Take the kidneies of veale and chop them very small with courance, dates, sinamon and ginger, sugar, salt, and the yolks of three egs, and mingle altogither, and make a fine paste with yolks of egges, and butter, and let there be butter in your dishe bottome, then drive them to small cakes, and put one in the dish bottom, and lay your meat in, they lay your other upon your meat, and close them togither, and cut the cover and it, when it is baked then strew sugar and serve it out.

“A Florentine of Flesh”, A Book of Cookrye

First I minced the lamb kidneys and mixed them with currants, dates, chopped ginger, spices and egg yolk. The mixture became worryingly liquidy and I was instantly filled with regret, but I continued on. I ignored the headache inducing spelling and grammar (standardised spelling wasn’t really a thing until the end of the 18th century) and tried to make sense of the pastry element of the dish. There was no recipe given – other than it should include eggs and butter – so I made a simple pastry of flour, eggs yolks and butter and kneaded it to a smooth paste.

Modern florentines are small and round, but the recipe here seemed to suggest that I should make one big pie with my pastry and filling rather than multiple ones. I rolled 3/4 of the pastry out and placed it into a well buttered pie dish. The very sloppy filling was poured into it. Part of me wanted to stop there, because I feared that putting a lid on it would mean it wouldn’t have a chance to solidify, but the recipe seemed insistent that a pie lid be added. The only hint I had that maybe, just maybe, the mixture was supposed to be quite runny was that the next instructions were to cut holes into the top, presumably to let moisture out. I cut three slashes, crossed my fingers and placed it in the oven.

I hadn’t told my husband what I was making because part of the fun of making these slightly odder creations is seeing the look on his face when he realises I expect him to eat them. I find that if I pre-warn him he has time to adjust his expectations and the pay-off isn’t so good, so I kept quiet until it was time to eat.

“Fancy a florentine?” I asked innocently.

His eyes lit up, as I knew they would. Ha.

Actually, I don’t think this would be improved with chocolate.

I can only describe the range of emotions that flickered across his face as he took his first bite as “mixed.” Later, he explained that his reaction was initially dismay at not being served a chocolatey treat, resignation that he was going to have to try the thing offered instead, and finally a rush of relief as it turned out to be somewhat palatable.

As expected from an enriched dough, the pastry was very buttery and pretty delicious in its own right. Amazingly, the moisture had evaporated and the filling held its shape when I cut into it rather than spill out like a gravy. The taste of the filling, however, was a singularly odd mixture of sweet and savoury that my modern Western palate wasn’t really accustomed to. It wasn’t totally unpleasant, but I definitely struggled to think of a modern equivalent. As well as the sweetness there was also a bit of a fiery hit from the chopped ginger which tasted fine but did nothing to help me categorise the dish.

Though the dates, currants and sugar in the florentine meant that it would be wrong to refer to this as a strictly savoury meal, the undeniable meaty offal taste stopped it fitting comfortably into the sweet category, too. It was a weird in-between recipe and I checked to see if The Book of Cookrye had anything to say about when these were florentines were meant to be served. It didn’t – at least, not specifically – but a glance through the order of service showed that A. W. advised veal dishes to be served towards the end of meals along with custard dishes – so the ambiguous sweet/savoury element of this dish sort of made sense in context, where the delicate flavour of the veal was probably a slightly subtler, sweeter taste than lamb alternative I used.

Overall, it may be that the Queen, who seems to be a bit of a stickler for tradition, has been serving slices of these original florentines at her afternoon teas all along and her guests are just too polite to comment on it, but both my husband and I agreed that this was one experiment when we’d much rather have the modern version. Intriguing as it was to make, it wasn’t a patch on a proper biscuit so Liz, if you’re reading this (and assuming there’s an invite for me in the post), let me bring the chocolate digestives and you just make the tea, okay?

E x

A Florentine of Flesh

360g kidney (any should do)
50g dates
50g currants
3 egg yolks
1/2 a thumbs worth of ginger, peeled.
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the pastry:
125g butter
250g plain flour
2 egg yolks

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  2. Mince the kidneys, dates and currants in a blender.
  3. Chop the ginger finely and add it to the mixture.
  4. Add the cinnamon, egg yolks, sugar and salt and mix well.
  5. Make the pastry by combining the egg yolks, butter, flour (and a little water if needed) and kneading into a smooth dough.
  6. Set aside 1/3 of the pastry for the lid, and roll out the other 2/3s.
  7. Butter a pie dish and lay the pastry in it.
  8. Pour the filling into the pie dish.
  9. Roll out the other half of the dough and cover the filling with it. Pinch along the edges to seal it shut, brush with melted butter or egg wash and pierce the top to let steam out during cooking.
  10. Cook for 45-50 minutes.