When we think of the meat that was eaten at mediaeval feasts, we conjure up images of huge pieces of roast ox, venison or wild boar’s head. There was, in fact, a wide variety of meats, especially wild birds. One of these was the grey heron and its meat was regarded very highly, only fit to serve at the top tables of a banquet; the only other waterfowl with a higher status was the regal swan. According to the late, great Clarissa Dickson-Wright, heron tastes like swan too: “it was very fishy”, she tells us, “rather stringy and reminiscent of moorhen…” It’s quite odd to think they were eaten at all; they’re such a lanky things – all neck, legs and wings. There can’t be that much meat on one.
So how does one prepare and cook a heron fit for a top table? If we look in Forme of Cury – the earliest cookbook in the English language, dating from around 1400 – and it tells us: “Cranes and herouns shul be armed with lardes of swyne, and eaten with ginger.” The “lardes of swyne” are strips of backfat or fatty bacon that are threaded through the meat so that as the lean meat cooks, the fat melts and bastes it. That’s all we get though.
We can glean more information from another book, The Boke of Keruynge or, The Book of Carving, which was written in 1513 by the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde. He provides a long list of different animals, along with instructions on how to carve them for the table. Curiously, there are many words for carving – a specific word for each type of animal, so for a heron, you don’t just carve it, no, you “dysmembre” it:
“Dysmembre that heron.
Take an heron, and rayse his legges and his wynges as a crane, and sauce hym with vynegre, mustarde, poudre of ginger, and salte.”
(And to “Displaye” a crane, simply “unfolde his legges, and cut of his winges by the Joints.”)
So, we get am extra modicum of information: a piquant mustard sauce or glaze, but we still don’t know how it was cooked.
To get any detailed information, we need to go to 1660 and look at the classic tome The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and he had obviously read Mr de Worde’s book, because he uses the same words for carving:
“Dismember that Hern.
Take off both the legs, and lace it down to the breast with your knife on both sides, raise up the flesh, and take it clean off with the pinion; then stick the head in the breast, set the pinion on the contrary side of the carcase, and the leg on the other side, so that the bones ends may meet cross over the carcase, and the other wings cross over upon the top of the carcase.”
He also tells us that herons are not simply hunted and brought to the dinner table, but stolen from nests before they have fledged and kept in special barns
“…where there is many high cross beams for them to pearch on; then to have on the flour divers square boards with rings in them, and between every board which should be two yards square, to place round shallow tubs full of water… and be sure to keep the house sweet, and shift the water often, only the house must be made so, that it may rain in now and then, in which the hern will take much delight.”
In these sheds, the herons were not fed fish, as one might expect, but “livers, and the entrails of beasts, and such like cut in great gobbits [bite-sized pieces].” They were not just kept for the table either, many were kept for “Noblemens sports”, specifically for training their hawks. When raised for sport, they were instead fed on “great gobbits of dogs flesh, cut from the bones”
Why dogs’ flesh? Well, this was a time when Bubonic Plague was common, and at the time it was thought that dogs carried the disease, and so any strays would be routinely caught and killed. But why catch and kill an animal that you thought had plague and then feed it your own hawks? I would have thought they’d be taken to the edge of town and burned them or something, but that’s seventeenth century logic for you. CDW makes a further point: “It’s ironic when you consider that the dogs might very well have killed the rats whose fleas did carry the plague and therefore might have prevented it.”
May also provides us with some recipes. In general, they are boned and filled with a minced meat and suet stuffing, seasoned with spices and oysters, then poached. Sometimes they are baked in ovens.
Herons do seem to drop out of the cookbooks after that, but they were still being eaten. The most recent reference I could find is from the 1914 book Pot Luck; or The British home cookery book by May Byron and is for Heron Pudding. It uses chunks of meat taken off the bone, and the reason why is very interesting:
“Before cooking it must be ascertained that no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, make the whole bird taste of fish.”
This may explain CDW’s issue with roast waterfowl like swan and moorhen. I wonder if they boned before cooking and if that would make them taste better?
Byron goes on:
“This fluid however, should be always extracted from the bones, and kept in a medicine cupboard, for it is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts and cracks.”
You heard it here first folks.
Heron is no longer legal game and therefore no longer eaten – as far as I know. However, if you have any stories to prove me wrong, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.
The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May
The Boke of Keruynge (1513) by Wyknyn de Worde in Early English Meals and Manners (1868) edited by Frederick James Furnivall
Forme of Cury (c.1400) in Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (1985) edited by Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler
In this episode we look at the history of Lent: When was it enforced? What were the rules? That sort of thing. Neil looks at how the belief in the four humours shaped what we ate in Lent, and how they caused illness and changed our moods throughout the year.
This week – the first full week of fasting – is an Ember Week. There are four Ember Weeks throughout the year – one for each season – and this is the spring one.
Neil then goes to the beautiful John Ryland’s Library in Manchester to see an early manuscript of the Forme of Cury, the earliest cookbook written in the English language, to find and cook from it ‘a tart for Ember Day’ which he cooks for his friends Kate and Pete with mixed results (recipe below).
A huge thanks to the staff of the John Ryland’s Library, who were very helpful indeed, and to Kate and Pete for letting me assault their taste buds.
Most of all, thanks to you for listening – if you have anything to add about anything you hear, feel free to post a comment, tweet me (@neilbuttery) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please listen, like and subscribe.
Scroll down to see a list of photos and links all about the things discussed in this episode. See you next week!
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.
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!
25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for
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.
At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.
Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).
One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.
Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.
The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:
Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.
All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.
But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?
Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.
This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.
If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.
½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)
225 g Stilton cheese, grated
200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated
Pinch Cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly-milled black pepper
First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.
Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.
Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.
Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.
Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.
Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.
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.
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.
The Forme of Cury with stitching where a new piece of parchment was added to the scroll (British museum)
If you want to know more: this blog post complements this podcast episode.
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.
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.
Some 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 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.
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’.
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.
The 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!
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.
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.