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.
… make sure that you make your pastry dough with egg yolks without any water; and form your pastry case and make up your pastry.
Edited text and translation by Christopher Monk © 2019 All rights reserved.
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. [See note 1]
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, 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 [see note 2].
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:
Tak gode broth & do in an erþen pot; tak flour of payndemayn & make þerof past with watur and make þerof thynne foyles as paper wiþ a roller, drye hyt hard & seeþ hit in broth; tak chese ruayne grated & lay it in disches wiþ poudour douce & lay þeron loseyns ysode as hole as þou myȝt; aboue poudour & chese & so twyes or þyres & serue hit forth.
Take good broth and add it to an earthenware pot; take flour of pandemain and with water make a dough, and with a rolling pin make from it leaves as thin as paper; dry it hard and simmer it in broth; take grated rowen cheese and place it in dishes along with powder douce; and layer the cooked lasagne, as whole as possible; [layer] atop [more] powder and cheese; and so [repeat] two or three [times], and serve it forth.
Edited text and translation by Christopher Monk © 2019 All rights reserved.
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:
Cruste rolle: Take fayre smal Flowre of whete; nym Eyroun & breke þer-to, & coloure þe past with Safroun; rolle it on a borde also þinne as parchement, rounde a-bowte as an oblye; frye hem, & serue forth.
Pastry wheel(s): Take fine flour of wheat; take eggs and break them into this and colour the dough with saffron; roll it on a board as thin as parchment, round as an oblée [a small wafer like that used in communion]; fry them and serve forth.
Edited text based on: Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, Early English Text Society, Original Series, No. 91. Translation by Christopher Monk © 2019 All rights reserved.
How well my own medieval pastry performs, I am about to find out. I will be experimenting over the next few weeks 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 later blogs how I get on.
P.S. I won’t be tasting the pastry myself, because of my gluten intolerance; but I do have a guinea pig 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.
 There are variant spellings in Middle English, including past and paiste; compare Anglo-Norman French paste and Middle French pâte.
A version of this post appeared in the previous blog on my other website.
One thought on “The problem with pastry”