Red as… alkanet

Yesterday, I was making a few revisions to one of the chapters in the book I’m writing, which at the moment has a working title of Sugar and Spice: The Cookery of Richard II.

Whilst changing the font and the layout of the commentary sections – fiddling really – I came to the dish with which I experimented a few months ago, Pynnonade, and was reminded that it was meant to be coloured red.

& colour it with alkenet a litull.

Pynnonade, Forme of Cury (c.1390)

Alkanna tinctoria, alkanet. Also known as dyer’s alkanet and dyers’ bugloss.

Photo: © Jean Tosti 2005. Licensed via Wikimedia Commons; click on image for further details.

I rather liked my pynnonade – very moreish in fact. But as you see, below, red it was not. But before you chastise me for my dreadful disregard for authenticity, let me explain.

Pynnonade, ‘version 2’: a kind of thick savoury custard with sweetened and spiced pine nuts. Quite delicious… but not red!

Photo: © Christopher Monk 2019

At the time, I didn’t fancy using the ingredient in the recipe: alkanet. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be bothered to find it; it’s easy enough to buy online; but, rather, in the UK it is not licensed for food use. If I were dyeing clothes or making soaps, well maybe I would avail myself of some alkanet – though red really isn’t my colour.

So what exactly is alkanet? It is a herb in the borage family; its Latin name is alkanna tinctoria, and it is also known as Dyer’s bugloss or Dyer’s alkanet, and several other names besides. It is native to the Mediterranean, so it is perhaps unlikely to have been grown in English gardens of the fourteenth century.

It is the root of alkanet that provides the red colour Richard II’s cooks – and presumably the king himself – admired so much, and it would have been imported dried along with other ‘spices’, including sanders (a variety of sandalwood), which was also used to colour food red. They did like other colours for their food besides red, but that’s for another post.

Just to finish off my snippet of research, I’ll leave you with the full list of dishes in Forme of Cury, Richard II’s cookery book, that alkanet appears in. And, if you like, you can tell me (in the comments here or on Facebook) which appeals the most to you and, who knows, I may experiment with the recipe in the next few weeks or so. But I won’t be using alkanet: it’s beetroot powder for me.

The dishes of Forme of Cury coloured with alkanet:

Brewet of Almayn (Broth of Germany): a stew of rabbit or kid meat with spices and thickened with rice flour.

Pynnonade (Pine nut custard): a thick, savoury almond milk and egg yolk custard with sweetened and spiced pine nuts. [I could always make this again!]

Fonnell: a rich, cinnamon-spiced stew of roast lamb, stuffed ‘small birds’ (think blackbird, starling, thrush, cuckoo or lark!), decorated with cinnamon-coated hard-boiled eggs.

Sauce sarȝyne (Sauce Saracen): a spicy rosehip sauce, made with almonds, rosehips, ‘good red wine’, and adorned with pomegranate seeds; ideal on ‘flesh days’ with shredded capon.

Vyaund cypre of samoun: essentially the very best salmon, poached and pulverised, with spices.

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

12 thoughts on “Red as… alkanet

  1. Fabulous post! Very interesting – probably wise not to use it if it’s not authorised for food though 😂

    Were beetroots around in England in 1390? Was it possible people who couldn’t access alkanet substituted it for beetroot (like your beetroot powder) instead?

    I think you should make the pynonnade (again) and the vyaund cypre of samoun next!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes ‘betes’ appear in Forme of Cury. I think in the dish called Salad. So I’d be authentic (just a 5 point deduction? 😂) if I used beetroot powder.

      I didn’t admit it, but I did first try toasting the pine nuts in mulberry syrup. Mulberries were used at the time so I thought I was being authenticish, but what a disgusting mess!

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      1. Yep, I think minus 5 points is right for alterations to a recipe if those alterations were available at the time. I’ll have to check the rule book to make sure though!

        I’ve never even tried mulberries before…I imagine they’re quite sour? But I don’t know why I think that. So much of what I try ends up a disgusting mess – it’s good to know I’m not alone 😂

        And yes – mashed salmon dyed red is exactly what we want! It might be like a pate? Or a mousse? Give the people what they want! (Even if the risks of a second disgusting mess are high) 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I vote for Brewet of Almayn. Kid (“chivo” as I learned and ate it in the mountains of Mexico) is delicious. I cannot see the point of eating small birds (and that would be illegal here in the States anyway), but if you could maybe use a Cornish hen or something instead, Fonnell would be fun to hear about. Of course, Pynnonade sounds absolutely fabulous, alkanet or no alkanet. Yum! You’ve reminded me that it’s almost lunchtime here….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like goat. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten kid; I think the goat I’ve eaten was equivalent to mutton: from an older animal.

      I wouldn’t dream of eating my garden birds! But the ones I mention were all par for the course (or pot) back in medieval elite households… or at least when feasting.

      I would probably cook Fonnell with quail.

      Have a nice lunch.

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  3. Sauce sarȝyne sounds good. Cochineal must have been introduced after the crusades, I suppose. Is madder worth investigating? It’s a root; isn’t it related to goose-grass. Perhaps not “There is even a mention of feeding madder plants to sheep to dye their wool.” See http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will have to take a look at madder; like alkanet, I’ve only associated it with dyeing fabric. I wondered about cochineal, too. I think there’s some more research to do. 😊 Thank you for your comment.

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  4. I’ve died with alkanet, madder and cochineal. If you’ve consumed cranberry juice, you’ve consumed cochineal. I know they use it in certain makeups as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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