Category Archives: Mediaeval Age

Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.

Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.

It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the richer folk of society.

Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:

For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese & boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche & serue yt forþe.

This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm; the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.

I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!

The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger, cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’ foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.

Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.

The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.

The only thing I have done differently to the original recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out in the cooking process and flavour the dish.

1 L mediaeval almond milk flavoured with a few drops of almond extract

1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2 drumsticks, skin removed

3 tbs duck or goose fat

white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

1 ½ tsp salt

small handful slivered almonds

Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling

Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir just once more.

Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently for 25 minutes.

When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.

Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt and sugar sprinkled over.

There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict? Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then, cheerio!

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Medieval Rose Pudding (Rosee)

Last post I wrote about my little experiment making almond milk. With my batch I decided to make a mediaeval recipe from the first cook book in English, Forme of Cury. It was written around 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II; I’ve written about it and cooked up a few recipes from it before.

The one I chose is called Rosee, and it is like a pudding – in the American sense of the word – i.e. a thick custardy dessert. This one is thickened with rice flour instead of eggs like a regular custard and is flavoured with rose petals (“with flours of white rosis”) as well as some ginger and cinnamon. It’s not the right time of year for roses, so in lieu of the blooms, I used some rose water instead. It’s also flavoured with pine nuts and dates, which also adds a little texture. Sugar is the sweetener – which wasn’t refined to pure white in the 1400s, so I used soft light brown sugar to replicate this.

You don’t have to use mediaeval almond milk, you can buy it, or just use regular cows’ milk.

Here’s how it is written in Forme of Cury. It’s hard to decipher, but once you know the now defunct letter thorn (þ) is makes a th sound (so seþe is pronounced seethe), it makes it a lot easier.

Rose Pudding 1390:

Take thyk mylke; seþe it. Cast þerto sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes [pine nuts], dates ymynced, canel [cinnamon], & powdour ginger; and seeþ I, and alye [mix] it with flours of white rosis, and flour of rys. Cole it; salt it and mess it forth. If þou wilt in stede of almaunde mylke, take swete crem of kyne [cows].

Hopefully you get the gist – it takes a while to tune in!

I didn’t follow the method exactly – I used my own cook’s logic to the dish – but I made quite a delicious pudding, and it didn’t feel as though it was a vegan dessert. A knob of butter or a glug of cream, goes a long way with making food satisfying, but I genuinely didn’t miss them. It really goes to show that the King and his court did not go without during Lent!

Rose Pudding 2019:

Makes 4 to 6 puddings

25g rice flour or cornflour

¼ tsp each ground ginger and cinnamon

250 ml mediaeval almond milk, bought almond milk or full fat milk (or a mixture)

60 g soft light brown sugar

Pinch salt

50 g chopped dates, plus extra for decoration

25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for decoration

2 to 3 tbs rose water

Put the flour and spices in a small saucepan and whisk in the milk, starting by adding just a third of it at first to prevent lumps. When all of the milk has been added, put the pan on the heat and bring to a simmer, stirring well with a wooden spoon or small whisk as it begins to thicken. Add the sugar, salt, dates and nuts. Keep it simmering very gently for around 10 minutes to cook out the flour. If it looks like it will be too thick, add more liquid (it sets quite firm, so when it is hot, you’re looking for the consistency of thick double cream).

Remove from the heat and add the rose water – I like quite a lot, but it can be rather overpowering, so add enough that seems just right and then add a shake more. By doing this you are compensating for the fact it will be served cold, the flowery aroma less pungent.

Pour into serving cups – I went for small coffee cups – scatter with a few more dates and nuts and cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Pop them in the fridge until set.

Half an hour before you want to serve them, take them out of the fridge to take off the chill.

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Mediaeval Almond Milk

Over recent years, as we have become more aware of people’s food intolerances and allergies there has been a great rise in the amount of plant-based milks consumed in the western world. We’ve also realised that there are many benefits associated with the cutting down of animal products in our diets. One of these plant milks – almond milk – is actually having a Renaissance because it was a food that used to be consumed in abundance in mediaeval Europe. Indeed, if I was writing this 20 years ago, it would be appearing in my ‘Forgotten Foods’ series on the blog.

As you may know, mediaeval Christians fasted a lot. There were two great fasting episodes: Advent and Lent. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays was a fast day, meaning that around half of the days of the year were spent fasting. No meat or animal produce was allowed to be eaten, except for fish which was considered cool and calming and so appropriate for these days of solemnity.

The nutrition contained within almond milk. Notice the added ingredients.

Just like the people do today, mediaeval folk tried to make alternative products that could fill the same satisfying gastronomical niche as the real thing. Almond milk was one of those products.

Almonds were imported (as they are now) and very expensive. Households were expected to make almost all their own food and drinks and almond milk was no exception. The expense and effort required to make it made it a fasting ingredient reserved only for the rich, and they consumed a lot of it. King Edward I went through a startling 40 000 pounds of almonds in just two years!

I must admit I quite enjoy modern almond milk as a drink or in porridge but find it otherwise a little insipid, so I was interested in finding out how mediaeval people went about making it and what it was like. From my reading, it seems to be thicker and more substantial than todays, where it was refined into a thick almond cream or curdled to make a kind of almond curd cheese. I’m not sure if this would be possible using the almond milk of today!

On the other hand, modern almond milk may be more nutritious. When people moved from cow’s milk to plant-based milks, many didn’t realise there would be a massive drop in their consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This led to concerns that people would become deficient, and so modern manufacturers fortify almond milk with extra nutrients to help people to achieve their recommended nutritional allowances for the day.

Making Mediaeval Almond Milk

The basic method was acquired from the Arabs who were supplying much of the almonds themselves via the vast network of trade routes that stretched out through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The begin almonds would be pounded very fine, sometimes with a little spring water or rose water to stop them oiling;  they didn’t want to make almond nut butter by accident! After this initial exhausting task, the almonds would be soaked in spring water (though I have found references to soaking them in barley water too). After soaking, it was passed through a strainer and seasoned with salt and some honey or sugar. Cream could be made by boiling the milk down until very thick or made into curds by adding vinegar before straining. I came across this recipe for an almond cheese so thick, you could slice it:

Take almond milk, and boil it, and when it is boiled take it from the fire, and sprinkle on a little vinegar. Then spread it on a cloth, and cast sugar on it, and when it is cold gather it together, and leche it [slice it] in dishes, and serve it forth.

So how does mediaeval almond milk compare to compare to todays, and how is it to use as an ingredient?

I updated the mediaeval approach to making almond milk, but the ingredients essentially remain the same.

100g ground almonds

2 tsp rose or orange-flower water (optional)

1 tsp sugar or honey

A good pinch of salt400 ml boiling water

60 ml white wine (optional)

The first task is to get those ground almonds super-fine. Put them in a blender (a Nutri-bullet style blender is perfect) with the rose water and about 50 ml of the hot water and blitz in pulses until very smooth. Add the rest of the boiling water and leave to stand and soak for around 20 minutes.

Give the milk a good swish around and pass it through a sieve to remove any large pieces of ground almond. Sweeten with the sugar or honey, add the wine if using and allow to cool.

The mediaeval almond milk is now ready to use.

The Verdict

Well I must say, I was quite impressed with the end result. It was more substantial than bought almond milk in both texture (it was creamy) and taste (the honey, salt and rose water). It wasn’t chalky or gritty either like I expected. I don’t recommend adding the wine however; it put the flavours out of kilter for me, but each to their own I suppose.

I heartily recommend making some. I made a rose-flavoured pudding (see next post) and I even tried making the cheese with the left-over almond milk.

I was rather odd in flavour, I added soft dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar, let it stand for a few hours and then passed it through a scalded tea towel sat in a sieve. It could make an interesting mediaeval version of a Yorkshire Curd Tart I think.

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King Alfred Burns the Cakes

It’s a story familiar to most of us:

King Alfred, exhausted and lost in the woods after beating the Danes in a vicious pitched battle, stumbles, bedraggled, upon a herdsman’s hut. The huntsman’s wife invites him in, and not recognising him, just assumes he is merely a soldier of Wessex, not the King! She kindly offers him rest and nourishment, as she has just put some cakes in the embers of her fire to bake.

Alfred burns the cakes

Alfred is chastised for burning the cakes

The housewife pops out to collect some more firewood, and instructs the soldier to keep an eye on the cakes whilst she is away lest they burn, but almost as soon as she is leaves, poor Alfred falls asleep. A few minutes later the housewife returns, greeted by the smell of burning cakes and a sleeping soldier:

“What sort of careless man are you, who neglects to attend to burning bread? Never have I seen so negligent a man – one who doesn’t even know how to turn ash-baked bread – and yet when it is put in front of you, you’ll no doubt rush to eat it!”

Well that’s him told!

It is assumed that this story is apocryphal, the earliest written example doesn’t appear until 300 years after the event, but I’m not so sure, it sounds like a story that would be passed down as gossip about the king. If it was made up years after the event, it would be a strange story to select; it’s not tale of derring-do, nor is it a tale of any religious significance. Is it supposed to tell us all how humble a man Alfred the Great was? What’s the moral – don’t bake cakes after pitched battle? It’s a lack of these elements, which usually appear in fantastical stories of early monarchs, that makes me think that it may be true.

Well whatever the source of the tale and the reasons for its retelling, it is a story that is almost taken for granted, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the food in this story – what were these cakes, and how were they made?

As with all food history, one needs to understand the broader historical context behind, serving as a backdrop to the food itself, setting the scene.

Alfred statue

The Statue of Alfred the Great in London (bbc.co.uk)

King Alfred – who he?

King Alfred was a late 8th Century Anglo-Saxon king, he wasn’t king of England, because England was not yet joined into one united cohesive country, Alfred was king of Wessex. The other kingdoms in England – Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia and all been occupied and taken by the Danes, or if you prefer, the Vikings!

The security of  theKingdom of Wessex and its King sat on a knife edge, and pressure from the Danes moving into the kingdom had forced Alfred and his household to hide in the marshes of the Somerset Downs. An alternative version of the story of the cakes, says that Alfred, who so lost in thought and worry about his kingdom that he wandered into woods, got rather lost and happened upon the herdsman’s hut.

Alfred plotted and planned and managed to communicate with his allies well enough to form an army. In the year 878 he fought the Danes at Edington, which he eventually won. It was in the aftermath of this battle that he discovered the herdsman’s hut. The Battle of Edington is one of the most important events in Anglo-Saxon history, because in the months afterwards, Alfred made a peace treaty with the Danes and forced them to convert to Christianity.

Alfred had reclaimed Wessex and the Danes began to settle and assimilate with the Anglo-Saxons, making England a more cohesive place, indeed Alfred’s nephew Athelstan was the first King of all the Kingdom within England, uniting the kingdoms until his death.

9th century britain

The British Isles in the late 9th Century (britroyals.com)

Ash-Baked Cakes – what they?

For folk in mediaeval times, a home-baked loaf of bread was usually out of reach, most homes lacked a suitable oven and so relied on the oven (and skills) of local bakers. For those that lived in the futher fringes of the towns – such as herdsmen – it simply wasn’t viable to make the long trek into town, it was much easier to bake cakes on their fire.

Cast iron equipment such as griddles or waffle irons, were expensive, so many had to bake little cakes of ground cereal grain (wheat, rye or oats) directly into the embers of their fires.

Baking these cakes required both an eagle eye and excellent judgement – the outside needed to be just scorched, and the inside fluffy and warm. I must admit that I am not one for making fires or having barbeques, so I’ve not had the chance to have a go at making these devilishly difficult ember cakes. However, as soon as the opportunity arises I will, and I’ll report straight back to you guys!

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Favourite Cook Books no. 3: The Forme of Cury, part 2 – recipes

FC scroll The vellum scroll rolled up (British Museum)

As promised in my previous post, a few recipes from the Forme of Cury. I have translated them into modern English, so you can follow them a bit easier. For the hippocras drink, I have given you my interpretation of the recipe as there are some hard-to-find ingredients. All the recipes are easy to make and taste delicious.

Cabbage Soup

A very simple dish – not everything Richard II ate was ostentatious. This is a very simple recipe with ingredients we use today. The addition of the saffron give it an interesting earthy flavour. Powder douce was a mixture of sweet spices – the spices we would associate with desserts like apple pie – shop-bought mixed spice is good substitute. The base of the soup is broth or stock, use any you like, though I think chicken is the best for this soup.

Caboches in Potage. Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns yminced and the whyte of Lekes yslyt and ycorue smale. And do þerto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.

Cabbage Soup. Take cabbages and quarter them and seethe (simmer) them in good broth with chopped onions and the white of leeks, slit and diced small. Add saffron and salt, and season it with powder douce.

forme of cury stitchesThe Forme of Cury with stitching where a new piece of parchment was added to the scroll (British museum)

Rabbit or Kid in a Sweet and Sour Sauce

Any kind of meat can be used here really, chicken legs or diced lamb are the best substitutes. Sweet and sour sauce was called egurdouce; -douce meaning sweet and egur- meaning sour, e.g. vin-egur was sour wine, in other words vinegar! The meat is browned in lard, removed, so the onions and dried fruit can be fried, the meat is replaced with the liquid ingredients and spices and simmered just like a modern casserole or stew.

Egurdouce. Take connynges or kydde, and smyte hem on pecys rawe, and fry hem in white grece. Take raysouns of coraunce and fry hem. Take oynouns, perboile hem and hewe them small and fry them. Take rede wyne and a lytel vynegur, sugur with powdour of pepr, of ginger, of canel, salt; and cast þerto, and lat it seeþ with a gode quantite of white grece, & serue it forth.

Take young rabbits or kid and cut them into pieces and fry them in lard. Take currants and fry them. Take onions, parboil them, and chop them small and fry them. Take red wine and red wine vinegar, sugar and powdered pepper, ginger, cinnamon, salt and add them, let it simmer gently in a good quantity of lard and serve it forth.

Hippocras

hippocras MS Straining hippograss through a bag

This is a really excellent recipe for spiced wine; mulled drinks were drunk throughout the year and could be served hot or cold. There are some tricky to get hold of spices, but I’ve added alternatives where appropriate. If you have to omit a spice or two, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.

Pur fait ypocras. Troys vnces de canell & iii vneces de gyngeuer; spykenard de Spayn, le pays dun denerer; garyngale, clowes gylofre, poeure long, noieȝ mugadeȝ, maȝioȝame, cardemonii, de chescun dm. vnce; de toutes soit fsait powdour &c.

To make hippocras. Three ounces of cinnamon and three ounces of ginger, spikenard of Spain, a pennysworth; galingale, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, cardamom, of each a quarter of an ounce; grain of paradise, flour of cinnamon, of each half an ounce; of all, powder is to be made etc.

There are a couple of tricky spices in the list: long pepper and grains of paradise are available to buy online quite easily, but are very expensive, so you can get away with regular black pepper as a substitute. Galangal is easier to find fresh than dried these days, as it is used extensively in Thai cuisine as part of their delicious red and green curries, however, seek and ye shall find the dried variety.

Spikenard of Spain is the extract of the root of a valerian plant and was used in the church as an anointing oil, it also appears very commonly in recipes. I’ve never had the opportunity to taste it.

 

Here’s my version of the recipe:

1 bottle of red wine

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger

¼ tsp each ground galingale, ground black pepper, ground nutmeg, dried marjoram, ground cardamom

honey to taste

 

Pour the wine into a saucepan with all of the spices and bring slowly to a scalding temperature. Don’t let the wine boil as there’ll be no alcohol left in it! Let the spices steep in the hot wine for around 10 minutes.

Meanwhile spread a piece of muslin, or any other suitable cloth, over a sieve and pour the spiced wine through it into another pan or serving jug. Add honey to sweeten. Serve hot or cold.

 

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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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Forgotten Foods #7: Openarses

I’m continuing my mediaeval-themed posts with a somewhat infamous forgotten fruit: the openarse.

This unusual fruit is a member of the Rosaceae family which contains within its members familiar apples and pears as well as the less familiar, such as quinces, rosehips and sorbs; and like many of the cultivated varieties within this group, they made their way over here from Asia Minor. They quickly nestled themselves into the English mediaeval orchard, becoming an essential fruit crop.

The openarse looks superficially like a russet apple’s withered twin; all squat, rough and green-brown. Turn it over and you’ll see how it gained its name. The calyces, usually small and tightly puckered on the underside of an apple or pear, are very large and lobular, protruding somewhat, giving it a definite rusty sheriff badge appearance. They also sometimes called grannies’ arses. Nice.

According to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book, the ‘English name openarse, gradually and politely, …was superceded by the French-derived medlar.’ That said, the French also call them dogs’ arses. Trust them to be more vulgar us!

During the mediaeval period, medlars were widely cultivated in England, reaching peak production in the 1600s. They were a useful fruit because they store well, ripening up quite a while after picking. At first, however, they are rock hard, sour and terribly astringent. Picked in late autumn (some say to wait after the first frost) and stored in a cool, dark place, they begin to soften and sweeten. This controlled decay – called bletting – converts starch to the fruit sugar fructose and reduces the acid and tannin levels dramatically. It’s quite nice to see the fruits bletting at different rates and times; some blet on the tree, some take weeks post picking. You can see how this steady supply of ripening fruit would have been extremely important to mediaeval people during winter (see this post on mediaeval feast and famine for more information).


A bletted medlar

The traditional way to eat the fruit is to squeeze your openarse between your fingers so that the pulp can be either picked or sucked out. The medlar was considered very good for digestion and so would be taken after a meal with port (science is revisiting these ideas and has provided some experimental evidence that it is indeed the case). The taste is pleasant, lying somewhere between tart apple and sweet prune. Because the medlar was generally eaten in this way, recipes don’t tend to appear in old cook books; the only common recipe is for medlar jelly (which will be the subject of the next post). However, I did find one for a medlar tart in Thomas Dawson’s 1596 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel:

To Make a Tart of Medlars

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling it till it be somewhat thick. Then season them sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Thomas Dawson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and an openarse can be found in a Shakespeare passage. From Romeo and Juliet:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,

And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit

As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!

A pop’rin pear, by the way, looks rather like a cock and balls. O! the camp bawdiness of it! I’m going to have to lie down.

Amusingly, the prudish Victorians replaced ‘openarse’ with ‘et cetera’, which – if you didn’t know of the replacement – makes no sense at all and, more importantly, spoils the joke.

FYI: Chaucer mentions openarses in the Canterbury Tales, and the earliest known use of the word goes right back to the 10th Century!

Colour plate from unknown source

Sourcing Medlars

After reading this, I expect you are simply dying to get your hands on some openarse yourself. This will be tricky; they are no longer grown commercially, so you’ll either have to plant one yourself or find a feral tree. If you live in the south of England this may not be an impossible task as many villages grew them in public spaces.

They are lovely trees – they grow untamed, sprawling in any direction they choose. They grow slowly, but still produce quite a large crop, so even a small tree would provide you with a decent glut of openarse. This is definitely the fruit tree for the lazy gardener.

As for me, I know the whereabouts of an ignored medlar tree in Manchester, but I’m keeping quiet about it; I don’t want all and sundry picking at my openarses now do I!?

I’ll stop now.

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