Language of Cookery 2: Ground beans?

In the second of my short language notes I take a look at a culinary essential of Richard II’s cookery book

Website header photo
Forme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7 (c.1390), folios 11 verso–12 recto. Photo by Christopher Monk © 2020. By permission of the University of Manchester.

For to make grounden benes. 

Take benes & drye hem in an ovene & hulle hem wel and wyndowe out the hulkes & waysche hem clene & do hem to seeþ in god broth & ete hem wiþ bacon.

Take beans and dry them in an oven and hull them well and winnow out the husks and wash them clean and simmer them in good broth and eat them with bacon.

Edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2020. All rights reserved.

The image above shows, on the right-hand folio, the opening recipe to Richard II’s famous cookery book, Forme of Cury. Immediately following the red text, or rubric, which is written in Latin (‘Incipit forma’ = ‘[Here] begins the method’), we can see the Middle English title for this first dish: ‘For to make grounden benes’.

Now, we would be forgiven for thinking this means, ‘How to make ground beans’, since the Middle English word grounden is indeed the past participle of the verb grinden ‘to grind’, and so does indeed mean ‘ground’.

However, the sense from the instructions is that these beans are prepared in order to be suitable for grinding. This recipe is, in effect, the essential how-to for all bean recipes that follow, whether they use ground or unground beans — essential for the medieval cook, I should add.

As we can see, the beans in this recipe are not actually ground up. Rather, they are dried in an oven so that they can be hulled; that is, their husks, or outer skins, are removed; and then these husks are winnowed out, leaving just the beans, which are then washed.

The final product of this whole process is actually what we today call split beans. The variety of bean used back in the fourteenth century is essentially the same as today’s fava bean (also know to Brits as the broad bean). When they were prepared as the recipe directs, the beans would have naturally split into two.

The modern process for creating split beans is rather different, as a heat-drying method to loosen the outer skins is not used. Instead, fully mature fava beans, which actually dry in the pod, are harvested by combine, which removes them from their pods, before they then go into a grain store in which they receive some light drying, provided by forcing air through the store’s ventilated floor. Once this is done, the husks or skins are removed by mechanical abrasion, which results in the bean splitting into its two halves.*

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Tuinboon_voor_zaad.jpg
Mature fava beans in the pod. Image credit: Rasbak [CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

In the Forme of Cury‘s opening recipe, the beans are simply cooked in a good broth and eaten with bacon. They are not ground up. In a later recipe, however, known as Makke, the cook is told to take ‘grounden benes’ and cook them in water, before casting them into a mortar in order to ‘grynde hem al to doust tyl þey be white as eny mylke’ — ‘grind them all to dust until they are as white as any milk’. A little heated red wine is added to form a purée and the dish is garnished with browned onions. I think it is screaming out for garlic!

A final observation on the medieval method of drying ‘grounden benes’: I attempted to replicate this in my own oven; and though I found I could, with a dregree of grumpy resentment, crack and remove the husks from my oven-dried favas, I was left in no doubt that life really is far too short to be making my own split beans. So I heartily recommend the shortcut of purchasing ready split ones!

Split beans
Split beans or, as medieval cooks called them, ‘grounden benes’. Photo by Christopher Monk © 2020. All rights reserved.

*My thanks to Nick Saltmarsh, Managing Director at Hodmedod, for passing on his knowledge about split fava bean production.

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

8 thoughts on “Language of Cookery 2: Ground beans?

    1. No, I won’t be splitting my beans again. I’m not that much of a purist! Garlic is used a fair bit in the Forme of Cury. Makke seems to derive from an ancient Scicillian dish, today called Maccu. I believe it has plenty of garlic. I made the medieval recipe — with added garlic — then discovered that large quantities of fava beans made me rather ill! “Poisoning” oneself is something to look forward to in experimental historical cookery. 🙂

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  1. Thank you for posting this! And, thank you for that wonderful picture of MS English 7. Why OH why isn’t that manuscript digitized and available online?

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    1. Thank you for leaving a comment. Yes, it’s a lovely wee manuscript — not much bigger than my hand. It has been digitised and is normally available online. Today I used my usual link saved on my computer but the link had broken. I tried to Google search for it but the Rylands’ manuscript collection seemed difficult to find. I will try again tomorrow.

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