How did they make it in medieval England?
When I was a teenager studying cookery at high school, there was always one thing I could depend on: my short crust pastry! My meringues might have cracked and wept, and my ‘fatless’ sponges often were in need of a little elevation, but my pastry was to die for. Just the right melt-in-your-mouth, biscuity moreishness.
Even now, nearly forty years later, and despite a self-imposed hiatus of several years due to the discovery of my gluten intolerance, I still make a mean pastry. I’ve had to adapt, of course, but I have to say, a little immodestly, that my gluten-free version is now close to rivalling the very best of the pastry of my younger years.
Be that as it may, I’m just beginning to realise that my decades of experience making pies and tarts might not amount to much when it comes to recreating medieval pastry. Why’s that, you ask. Well, to put it pointedly: they didn't leave us a proper recipe!
King Richard II's Cookery Book
Forme of Cury (‘Method of Cookery’), compiled and written down sometime during Richard II’s reign (1377-1399), is not far off useless when it comes to informing us about pastry making methods. I exaggerate a little, but make a crust in a trape (‘make a pastry crust in a dish’) and make a coffyn (‘make a pastry case’) is about the extent of this cookery book’s pastry methodology.
However, there is one of its recipes that does throw a dusting of light onto the pastry board. And it provides me with a point of reference from where I can roll out my reconstructed medieval pastry techniques. Let's take a look:
The recipe, above, Petit Parnant – a pastry dish with ginger-spiced marrow and dried fruits – contains the only mention in Forme of Cury of using egg yolks in pastry dough:
... loke þat þou make þy past wiþ ȝolkes of ayroun and þat no watur come þerto, and fourme þy coffyn and make up þy past.
What seems pretty clear to me is that the instruction to ‘make sure’ that egg yolks, and no water, are used is a directive not to make pastry in the standard manner, which evidently was to use just water; though one other recipe in Forme of Cury does give 'eggs', presumably whole eggs, in its list of ingredients for pastry.
If you’ve made pastry with egg yolks (or whole eggs) you know that this gives a richer taste to the pastry. That seems the intent here. As one contemporary Norman poet puts it, 'If you want to make your pastry tasty have eggs put in the pastry' ('Se tu veulx que du pasté taste | Fay mettre des oeufs en la paste').
But still, this recipe from Forme of Cury doesn’t exactly provide us with a fulsome method, does it? I'm sure the pastry cooks among us, as well as wondering why there is no mention of quantities (I'm afraid this is something you have to get used to in medieval recipes), are all probably screaming right now: where’s the fat – the butter, or lard? You need fat to make pastry!
Well, the news is that there is no evidence from English cookery texts that medieval cooks typically made pastry with fat – other than the fat in egg yolks, of course. Those recipes that do actually specify ingredients for the pastry (and the vast majority give no ingredients) refer to flour and water; flour and almond milk; flour and eggs; and flour and egg yolks. Salt, sugar, and saffron are also given, depending on the recipe.
As for non-English contexts, I haven't yet read any of the medieval Latin culinary texts that we have, so I cannot comment there, but I have looked at some medieval Italian and French texts (in translation, mostly), and so far, there, I have not come across a single mention of pastry made with fat. 
Was it really pastry?
So, what's going on here? Were medieval cooks really making pastry as we know it?
It might help us to understand that the Middle English word for 'pastry', that is, paste (with the variants past and paiste; compare Anglo-Norman French paste and Middle French pâte) is typically used to mean the uncooked dough, though it is, just occasionally, used to refer to a pie or pastry; and is also the same word used for bread dough.
So we need to stop thinking about the tasty finished goodies we put in our mouths, and think first about the basic dough. Indeed, in medieval England, when the cook is instructed to 'make paste' (the pastry dough) the meaning is different from 'make a crust' (Middle English cruste), which is referring to the finished cooked pastry case, or pie crust (as it's called in the USA).
What is also very clear from studying the English recipe books, is that paste is also used to refer to the dough used for making pasta dishes. Let’s have a look at this recipe from Forme of Cury to illustrate:
It's clear, here, that pasta – dried lasagne sheets, in fact – is being described. And thus what we recognise is that there is no differentiation made between the word for 'pastry' and the word for 'pasta'; it is the context that makes clear which is being referred to, and hence how a translator, like me, should translate paste.
Moreover, it should be noted that in some recipes for, what we would understand as, pasties (sealed pastries with meat or fruit fillings, not open pies, or tarts), the option is sometimes given to fry as well as bake them in an oven. If lard or butter were used in such pastry, it would, I suggest, create rather a mess when fried, for the fat would likely leach out into the cooking fat/oil; whereas, a flour and water based pastry (a pasta dough, in effect) would be ideal for frying.
When it comes to attempting an authentic medieval 'pastry', what we need to do, I would suggest, is put aside our modern understanding of pastry; read what is actually there in the texts; and, at least initially, resist the temptation to revert to modern methods.
Admittedly, in practice, it may be rather difficult to work out exactly the quantities of ingredients needed to recreate medieval pastry, or, indeed, fathom the actual method. When we look at what is probably the most informative 'recipe' in Middle English, I'm sure we can all appreciate the problem we have with medieval pastry:
How well my own medieval pastry performs, I am about to find out. I will be experimenting this weekend with various pastries: flour and water; flour and eggs; flour and egg yolks; and, if I have time, flour and homemade almond milk. I'll let you all know in a later blog how I get on. See you then!
P.S. I won't be tasting the pastry myself, because of my gluten intolerance; but I do have a victim organised.
 In the French text, Le Menagier de Paris (c.1392-94), a passage on cooking wood pigeons refers to lard and pastry: 'ou qui en veult garder, soient mis en pasté lardés'. The last two words have been translated by Janet Hinson as 'larded pastry' (you need to scroll down on this link, I'm afraid: look for 'WOOD PIGEONS') and this may be wrongly understood to mean pastry made with lard. A more accurate translation of the clause, which recognises that 'lardés' is plural and is qualifying the wood pigeons, not the pastry (which is singular), is given by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose : 'Or if you want to store them, put them, larded, in pastry.' (The Good Wife's Guide: Le Ménagier de Paris, a Medieval Household Book, trans. by Greco and Rose, Cornell University Press, 2009; Kindle Edition, section 2.5 Recipes, item 154.) The term 'larded' seems here to refer to one of two culinary techniques: covering the pigeon meat in fat bacon or inserting small amounts of lard into the flesh; see also ‘Lardé’ in Cotgrave's 1611 French-English dictionary.
Hello medieval-minded food lovers. Today, I'm talking about a lovely, light poached chicken dish I made just last night, and particularly about the spicy magic that lifts the dish, also known as powder douce.
Powder douce (poudre douce, powdour douce) is a spice mix that was used in many of the recipes of King Richard II's household. 'Cast thereon powder douce', or something similar, is a phrase that is used frequently throughout Forme of Cury, the king's official cookery book. I can imagine hearing it shouted by the master cook as the dishes were served forth.
But what is powder douce?
There are no recipes for the mix found in medieval English cookery books, which is slightly annoying! Lots of commentators have made suggestions, including that it contained sugar as well as spices. Powder douce, that is 'sweet powder', seems to have been taken quite literally.
What I will say, now that I have completed a working edition and translation of Forme of Cury (based on the John Rylands Library copy, which is the earliest and best complete version of the text), is that there is no good evidence that powder douce contained sugar in Richard II's kitchen.
The fact that sugar is often given as an ingredient alongside powder douce, though it doesn't rule out the possibility of sugar being an element of the mix, does tend to support the thesis that it was the spices in the mix that were judged to be 'sweet' in some sense.
What might help us here, in identifying the possible spices, is to consider a contemporaneous Italian cookery book, known as Libro di Cucina. That Italian cuisine influenced English food of the period is evident from the inclusion of a number of pasta dishes in Forme of Cury. So it makes sense to avail ourselves of the information in this Italian work, and it just so happens that it does have a recipe for 'sweet spices':
LXXIV. Specie dolce per assay cosse bone e fine.
LXXIV Sweet spices, enough for many good and fine things.
You can imagine that I was very pleased to come across this in my research, for it gave me an authentic base for creating my own powder douce, or sweet powder mix.
Interestingly, the mention of lamprey (a kind of eel) in this Italian recipe prompted me to check two lamprey recipes mentioned in Forme of Cury: one, a fish pie in which lamprey was one of the fish options, uses both powder douce and powder fort (see my post on powder fort here); the other, Lampreys in Galentine Sauce, doesn't mention powder douce but does use three of the four spices from the Italian spice mix, namely powder of ginger, flour of cinnamon, and powder of cloves, with the addition of powder of galangal (of the ginger family).
So to my recipe for powder douce... and to how I used it to spice up the chicken dish mentioned at the outset.
15g (½ oz) Ceylon cinnamon bark* (about 2-3 sticks, depending on their size)
15g (½ oz) dried ginger root (whole or pieces)
4g (⅛ oz) whole cloves (about 40-45 individual cloves)
1 rounded tablespoon ground Indian bay leaf# (made from a good handful of leaves)
This gives you approximately half the quantity of the medieval Italian recipe.
*It's best to use Ceylon ('true') cinnamon rather than cassia bark (often sold as cinnamon); this is what seems to be alluded to by 'soft cinnamon' in the Italian recipe; the bark of Ceylon cinnamon is indeed softer and easier to break than cassia. #Indian bay leaf appears to be implied by the Italian folio ('leaf'); I haven't been able to locate a copy of the edition of Libro de cucina that contains the glossary where it is identified as such, so I am trusting the translator's note on this.
For grinding, a useful tip: use a coffee grinder for cinnamon, ginger root and Indian bay leaves, but DO NOT use a coffee grinder for cloves as the oil sticks to and stains any plastic part of the grinder (you may be fine if you have a complete stainless steel grinder); use a pestle and mortar for cloves instead, or indeed use pestle and mortar for all the spices.
Grind each spice individually until a fine powder; sieve out any lumpy debris. Then mix the spices well and give one last grind and sieve. Store in an airtight jar. You can, of course, make more mix up than this, but spices do lose their freshness and intensity after grinding, so I think it is better to grind a relatively small amount.
Now for the medieval dish in which I used my powder douce. It goes by the Middle English name of Chykens in hocche, 'chicken in hodge-podge':
The stuffing in
I still wish to develop this dish further before releasing a definitive recipe, but here's essentially what I did:
I placed the chicken into a large pot with organic chicken stock (I normally make my own, but for this I bought two cartons), a few Indian bay leaves, and a little more salt and pepper. I brought this slowly to simmering point, put the lid on the pan, and then turned the temperature down to maintain a very gentle simmer (barely a bubble), cooking it for approximately an hour (my chicken was medium sized).
Once the chicken was cooked (do check your temperatures: recommended temperatures vary; I cooked mine so that the chicken breast at its thickest point reached 77ºC (170ºF); there should be no red or pink juices in evidence), I removed it to a carving plate and then added some powder douce (about 4 heaped teaspoons) to the stock and turned off the heat.
I strained the stock and reserved some for the final dishing up (the rest will get used in making a risotto). I carved the chicken breasts, put this along with the reserved stock into a serving dish and sprinkled a generous teaspoon of powder douce directly onto the chicken breast.
I served some of the grapes and garlic from the stuffing alongside the chicken with a bowl of rice and some asparagus. And don't worry, I did share it, and we did eat the leg meat too.
Verdict: lovely, sweet tender chicken, and a really light, delicately spicy broth. The addition of the spice on the chicken meat itself is definitely recommended: it really lifted it.
As I said, above, I am going to develop this recipe further before filming it for my video series. I think I want to boost the spice quotient, so I will probably add whole spices to the broth as the chicken poaches: a cinnamon stick or two, a few cloves, a few slices of ginger root, and a handful of Indian bay leaves. I may also put the herbs into the broth, rather than stuff them into the chicken cavity.
So please stay tuned, and do let me know if you have a go yourself!
Tak cruddes and wryng out þe wheyȝe & drawe thorow a straynour.
The passage above is from recipe 169 in Forme of Cury, the cookery book produced by the master cooks of King Richard II (r. 1377-1399). The recipe goes by the name Sambocade, which derives ultimately from Latin sambucus, meaning 'elder tree'. It is for an elderflower curd tart (or cheescake, if you like).
I first attempted to recreate this recipe about 10 days ago. For ‘curds’ I used a really nice organic cottage cheese, which is a curd cheese, but found it just a hint too salty for a sweet dish.
So yesterday I decided to make my own, unsalted, curds, which is what the cooks in Richard II’s kitchen would have done. How did I do this? It was really not that difficult.
If you wish to try making curds yourself, you will need two ingredients: non-homogenised whole milk (which likely means you will need to look for organic milk, though some organic milk is homogenised) and something acidic like lemon juice or wine vinegar. I used white wine vinegar because lemons were not readily available in fourteenth-century England, and I'm trying to be as authentic as possible in terms of ingredients.
You will also need some cheesecloth (muslin) with which to drain and squeeze the curds once they're formed.
For about 300g (10½ oz) of curds, you will need a 4 pint carton of whole milk (equivalent to 2.27 litres and 4.8 US pints). Heat this in a large pan until just about to boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer. Be careful – milk quickly goes from steaming and frothing to spilling all over your hob (as I found out!).
Next, gradually add the wine vinegar. I used 50ml (1.75 fl oz), but you may need to add more; but don’t keep adding more once the curds form. What you are looking for is for the curds to separate from the whey; this happens within a minute or two. In the picture below you may be able to see it just starting to happen. The acid in the vinegar causes the milk proteins (caseins) to separate from the watery whey, forming clumps of curds.
Once this happens, you need to strain the curds through cheesecloth. I prepared the cheesecloth ahead of time by pouring boiling water over it (to sterilise it) and then, when cool enough, I used it to line a colander, which I stood within a large bowl.
Then you need to tie the cheesecloth in order to squeeze out the whey. The easiest way to do this is to first rinse the curds in cold tap water; this not only cools the curds so that you can handle them but importantly removes the vinegar taint. I decided also, just to be sure of removing the last vestiges of vinegar, to soak the bundle of curds in cold water for 5 minutes or so, before giving it a final squeeze.
Since you are not making cheese, there is no need to press the curds in any way (you would do this if you were making something like paneer). So at this stage you just need to strain the curds, in order to make the clumps much finer.
The medieval recipe calls for a straynour, which may have been something similar to a modern sieve. However, I would suggest using a modern potato ricer (pictured below, top right), as it really is too much like hard work passing homemade curds through a sieve (though easy enough if you’re using cottage cheese). Alternatively, you might choose to whizz the curds up in a food processor, but as I haven’t yet tried this myself, I’m not sure what the results would be.
The result of using homemade curds rather than cottage cheese was to give a more neutral flavour, far better for a sweet dish.
To make up the ‘cheesecake’ mixture, I added a few finely ground breadcrumbs, a little cream (not in the medieval recipe but still medieval), sugar, egg whites, elderflower cordial (again not in the medieval recipe but an adaptation that works when the elderflowers themselves are not in season), and a tiny amount of rosewater. Baked inside a rich butter shortcrust pastry, it really was delicious.
I will be filming a recreation of the curd tart in due course and posting at a later date the full recipe. In the meantime, here’s the recipe in the original Middle English alongside my own translation. (Please note both edited text and translation are copyrighted, so please don’t simply cut and paste the information in order to share, but rather share the whole blog post.)