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Favourite Cook Books no.3: The Forme of Cury, Part I

FC blanc mangeSome original text from the Form of Cury – a recipe for blank mang              (British Library)

The Forme of Cury (literally, A Method of Cookery) is Britain’s earliest known cook book, dating from around 1390. Regular readers will know, I am somewhat of a mediaevalist and so I have leafed through this ancient text many times, slowly soaking up the recipes just like a sop in potage.

The effort required to produce the food, prepare it an obtain the ingredients, the surroundings and equipment and the wonderment of a mediaeval feast are all there to see, but from one person’s perspective: the cook.

Angry cook Angry Cook and Waiters c. 1330

By cooking recipes from books like this, we get a glimpse of a bygone world, and with a bit of knowledge about the ingredients and methods used to prepare them, you get to experience history almost at first hand and really fires up the imagination. Anyone with as passing interest in history will love giving recipes like this as go, and I implore you to try, whether it be this book, or something more accessible like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Houshold Management, you won’t be disappointed.

Of course, for the Forme of Cury you have to brush up on your Middle English – this is the language of Chaucer – but with a good glossary and some persistence, you will tune in.

The Forme of Cury begins thus:

The Forme of Cury was compiled of the chef maister cooks of kyng Richard the Secunde king of Englond aftir the Conquest.

Richard II, the Dandy King, was flamboyant and ostentatious; he lived in grandeur and was considered to be a narcissistic, effeminate fop by many. Everything was done on a grand scale. His court and household were huge: 200 personal guards, 13 bishops, barons, knights, esquires plus many servants and other workers. In all, around 10 000 people worked under him.

Richard’s feasting and partying were also elaborate – one feast in 1383 cost 57 000 pounds plus an extra 10 000 pounds for napery and spices! If he were alive he’d be called a foodie for sure, his other gift to gastronomy aside from this book, being the napkin, prior to that the tablecloth doubled as one.

Richard was also obsessed with record-keeping, and because of this he commissioned this manuscript, and history is all the much richer for it.

richard II Richard II

Who wrote it?

The master cooks will not have written the recipes down themselves, it’s very likely that they were illerate, but they will have been dictated to by a scribe who sat behind the master cook taking notes. The cook himself sat in a raised chair in the centre of the huge kitchen, filled with industrious workers such as the bakers, the sauce cook, the spit-roaster, and the mincer; there was even a person in charge of salad! From his chair he was lord of all he surveyed, checking every dish before it was ‘served forth’.

The manuscripts

There are ten incomplete copies of the Forme of Cury in existence today, but the original 1390 document seems to be forever lost. The most complete copy is a six-metre long scroll of vellum parchment which is housed in the British Museum. No extant copy matches up exactly and all appear to contain errors or omissions (and in some cases additions). These differences are mainly due to human error by copying – some scribes were better than others it seems – but some are purposeful, new recipes unique to the commissioning household could be added, and some removed if disliked.

FC scrollThe Forme of Cury scroll (British Museum)

These manuscripts were transcribed and published as printed documents several centuries later many containing further errors, but they are invaluable because the text is easier to read, and many were written before some of the original copies degenerated, becoming unreadable. Some errors were mistranslations, for example ‘cast’ being swapped for ‘yeast’ (which was then spelt ȝast); other mistakes were made because non-cooks were doing the translating. In one case one transcriber recommends pouring boiling hot water over an intricately constructed pastry castle – not a good idea!

The recipes

Modern editions of the book start with a list of recipes, and such a breadth of dishes is represented. Some are homely, many are ostentatious, others mysterious. There are some familiar names and ingredients: blancmange, custard tart, soups and stews, gruel and frumenty and hippocras (spiced wine), all of which would go down well at a dinner party today. However, I’m not sure if porpoise in frumenty or piglets in sage sauce would be well-received.

20180810_115613 Excerpt from a modern transcription of the Forme of Cury

On feast days there was a type of dish called a sotielty (subtlety) which was not eaten, just looked at. Examples include the aforementioned pastry castle; the cokagrys, a half-pig, half-cock creation, and animals on pilgrimage, dressed in clothes and holding lamprey staffs.

The food that was eaten, however, was similarly painstaking to produce. To show of Richard’s great wealth there would be liberal use of spices and sugar (which was then considered a spice) as well as dried fruits such as currants, which had to have their seeds individually removed before they could be used – there was no such thing as seedless grapes in the 14th Century!

There were more fast days then feast days however, so there are many vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as recipes using freshwater fish and almonds or almond milk.

Some recipes are familiar and are delicious (they made great custard tarts), there are early recipes for rice pudding, bread sauce and meatballs. They even made pasta, which was most often rolled out thinly, cut into diamonds and dried. The pasta would be layered up with cooked mincemeat and a cheese sauce: in other words, a mediaeval English lasagne!

Food from The Forme of Cury has appeared on the blog before (see the Tartlettes post) and I made eel pie and hippocras for Alice Roberts on Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns. I’ve waffled on a bit so I’ll post some original recipes as well as my interpretations of them in the next few days.

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Two Easy Pickle Recipes

My previous post on pickling went on a bit, so I’ve added these two simple recipes as a separate one. The methods are not particularly comprehensive, so if you haven’t pickled before read the previous post for hints and tips.

Pickled Red Cabbage

As with many recipes for preserving, it’s difficult to come up with precise amounts. It all depends upon how much produce you have and the size and shape of your jars . A certain amount of guesswork is required. If you don’t make enough pickling liquor, you can quickly make more, and if you make too much, keep it in a sterilised jar; you can always use it pickle something else, or use it in salad dressings.

It is a good example of a system rather than of a recipe, but I reckon a good-sized red cabbage will need a litre of liquor. Oh and it’s a two-day affair, so don’t start this the day before a fortnight’s holiday or something:

 

Day 1:

1 red cabbage, sliced thinly, centre removed

Sea or rock salt

Scatter your sliced cabbage into a colander placed on a deep plate or large bowl and strew with plenty of salt. Cover with a tea towel and leave overnight for the water to drain.

 

Day 2:

1 litre of cider, wine or distilled vinegar

1 tsp peppercorns

1 chilli

1 tsp Allspice berries

50 g sugar

1 star anise

1 tsp Mustard seeds

Boil the vinegar with the spices and sugar, simmering for 5 minutes. Rinse the salt from the cabbage and pack into sterilised jars. Strain the hot vinegar and fill the jars with the piping hot liquor. Pop the chilli and star anise into the jars and a few of the seeds and berries (for prettiness). Put on lids and leave to mature for four weeks.

  1. Cover cabbage with salt for 24 hours.
  2. Next day, rinse away the salt and pack into sterilised jars.
  3. Boil up the remaining ingredients. Simmer 5 minutes and pour over the cabbage.

 

Delia Smith’s Quick Pickled Onions

from her Complete Cookery Course, 1982

“I’m afraid I have neither the strength nor the patience of endure long pickling sessions…so I always use the method below” says Delia.

No faffing about with this one: onions usually need brining or dry-salting. Delia skips this stage, but be warned: they don’t keep as long as regular pickled onions as the excess water isn’t drawn out by the salting process. They’ll keep 4 months maximum.

In her recipe, Delia asks for pickling spice, which you can buy already blended, but have a go at making your own; a keen cook will probably have most of the spices needed anyway! See the previous post for an example.

2 kg pickling onions [or shallots]

1.75 l of malt vinegar (Sarson’s is best)

25 g pickling spice

The first task is to peel the onions. Put them in a bowl and cover with boiling water straight from the kettle, drain and get peeling. The skins should now be relatively loose from their hot water treatment.

Half-fill your jars with onions – 4 1-litre jars will be enough – and share out half of the pickling spices between them, scattering nicely. Top up with the remainder of the onions, and then the rest of the spices. Pour the vinegar in (no need to heat it) and screw the lids on tightly. Leave the onions 8 weeks before eating them.

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‘British Food: A History’ gets a Liebster!

I’ve only gone and been given a Liebster Award!

Many, many thanks to Sharon and Vinny Grette  at Cook up a Story for giving me it. I am extremely flattered and pleased that someone out there not only reads my wafflings but also thinks them actually quite good.

If you are unaware of what the Liebster Award is (as I was until yesterday), it is simply a way for bloggers to show off the talent of other bloggers, especially those with new blogs. The idea is to nominate five blogs and pass it on to them so The origin is not known for sure, but it believed to come from Germany.

So thanks again to Sharon and Vinny Grette – they themselves hugely entertaining bloggers and food writers; they definitely deserved a Liebster and no mistake.

Now that I have been handed the baton, I need to list five blogs that I think worthy of the award in no particular order, I wouldn’t be so cheeky to nominate my other blog though:

First up is Eatvolution, a newly-hatched blog that manages to combine food with science. Being a scientist myself in my day job, I really appreciate that it isn’t just the obvious food science or molecular gastronomy stuff that is doled out though, oh no, all branches are covered here. Like any good scientist, they’ve even the references at the end of each post.

Come Step Back in Time is a history blog that is both well-written and detailed but without the waffle and boredom! Posts on here have given me inspiration for my own blog articles, which is just how the blogosphere should work I reckon.

I have been following the food blog Scallionrap for a while now and love the range of subjects and styles of writing in there; from the long and detailed posts to the whimsically brief. Whether displaying brevity or meticulousness, each post is well crafted and entertaining to read.

I originally came across Austinonly when Googling a blog entry a few months ago and I remember thinking that this one is far too specific. After a little reading I realised how wrong I was. Austinonly manages to show a rich and complex part of our not-too-distant history that is such a world away from modern life.

Last up (but by no means least) is Granny Robertson’s Cookbook a food-history blog that essentially does the same job as my own. Happily we don’t seem to tread on one another’s toes, even when we write on the same subject matter. The reason for this I think is that we have very different styles, but aim to be both fun and accurate at the same time; a trick not so easy to pull off.

So they are the five I have chosen ad I hope you check them all out follow their writings…

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