Language of cookery 6: Capons and “quinces”

Later this month, I will be publishing a new cookery video showing you how I make the dish ‘Capouns in councy’ (pictured above), one of the recipes from King Richard II’s Forme of Cury (c.1390).

But before I reveal my chicken (substituted for capon) in a peppery and cumin sauce, decorated with hard-boiled egg yolks, I think I should explain to you what this dish has to do with quinces.

Well, it’s all about those egg yolks…

What’s in a name?

In addition to the Forme of Cury recipe, there are two other versions of the dish from the fourteenth century, though going by different names. Possibly the earliest of these two, by a few years, is from a manuscript that is dated to 1381 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, douce 257).

Quinces are aromatic fruits from the same family as apples and pears.

Click on the image to see the picture credit and licence information.

The recipe collection from this manuscript, today known as Diuersa servicia (‘Diverse services [of food]’), gives the name ‘Caponys in concys’. The ‘concys’ here is construed as a plural of something. But, to me, when I first looked at this, what exactly that something was didn’t seem immediately clear.

The other version is more helpful. It’s found in Liber utilis coquinario (‘Book of useful cookery’), part of the manuscript, London, British Library, Sloane 468, and likely produced around the same time as Forme of Cury (c.1390). It switches up the name, going for simply ‘Coynes’, which, you guessed it, means ‘quinces’ in Middle English.

However, there are no quinces in any of the versions of this dish!

Mock quinces

It was Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler who first observed, with regard to the Utilis coquinario version, that the ‘yolks would resemble quinces, “coynes”’ [Curye on Inglysch, Early English Text Society, 1985, p. 176].

When I recently posted my photo of the dish in Facebook and Twitter, asking for folks to guess its identify, it was quite satisfying to see that quite a number thought my little yellow ovals were quinces, or some other fruit.

If you haven’t yet realised, they are actually hard-boiled egg yolks studded with cloves. Medieval cooks and diners seemed to love the idea of creating illusions with food – and I did, too!

Returning to the two scholars: despite recognising the intended culinary illusion of egg yolks as quinces, they didn’t offer a linguistic connection between ‘coynes’ in the Utlis coquinario recipe and ‘councy’ and ‘consy’ in the other two, even though they also use egg yolks for decoration.

This got me thinking, though: could these other names, ‘consy’ and ‘councy’, have something to do with quinces, too?

Anglo-Norman quinces?

Click on image for picture credit and licencing information.

As I have explained in other posts, quite a number of the recipe names in Forme of Cury borrow from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French that was brought over to England (and exported to Wales, Scotland and Ireland) after the Norman Conquest (1066), and subsequently evolved there separately from the medieval French of the mainland.

So, I thought, it’s time to check out the Anglo-Norman Dictionary once more. As well as showing me how the modern word quince entered English from French, I learned specifically that quincis was its plural form in Anglo-Norman [Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND2 Online Edition), s.v., “coign1,”].

But how does that help?

Well, one possible pronunciation of quincis in Anglo-Norman at the time of Richard II would have sounded remarkably similar to councy: think modern French quin– (as in quinze) + see.

So I developed a theory that when the king’s scribe was listening to the King’s master cook recount this recipe for compiling into Forme of Cury, he approximated the spelling phonetically. He wrote down what he heard.

If my conjecture is sensible, then the name of the dish in Forme of Cury is ‘Capons in quinces’.

As for ‘consys’, I think it’s quite possible that this is what we might call a deformed reflection of the same Anglo-Norman word for ‘quinces’; in other words, that pluralised something I was looking for is indeed the quince.

Since we are given the very big clue from the name of the dish used in Utilis coquinario that quinces, mock though they be, are key to interpreting this dish, I think my theory has something going for it. But I’m more than happy to hear what you think.

There may be, however, a more satisfying solution.

‘Capons in quince sauce’?

Before I leave you with the text and translation of ‘Capouns in councy’, I should address the possibility that ‘in councy’ could mean ‘in quince sauce’.

I discussed the Forme of Cury‘s ‘Capouns in councy’ recipe with the very obliging Dr Geert de Wilde, Senior Researcher and Principal Investigator for the ongoing Anglo-Norman Dictionary project at Aberystwyth University.

He explained to me that the Middle English -y suffix of ‘councy’ suggests an Anglo-Norman counterpart ending of -é, and that in clulinary terminology there are several Anglo-Norman words where the -é ending means: ‘sauce or dish made with’; so we have, for example, cominee (‘cumin-flavoured sauce’), oignoné (‘onion sauce’), peveree (‘peppery sauce’), and saugee (‘sage sauce’).

The word ‘councy’ seems to belong to that group, Dr de Wilde suggested, in which case it has to be said his subsequent interpretation of ‘capons in quince sauce’ has a lot of merit.

Capouns in councy, recipe based on Forme of Cury, c.1390

In my adaptation of this dish, I’ve substituted chicken for capon (cockerel), following the lead of the contemporaneous Liber utilis coquinario, which states that either ‘capounes or hennes’ are cooked.

The sauce is spiced with powder fort (a pepper-based spice mix) and cumin. The choice of cumin is again based on the Utilis coquinario version.

The “quinces” are made from hard-boiled egg yolks studded with cloves. The egg white is chopped into the sauce.

I will be publishing a free video later this month showing you how to make this dish. Anyone joining my new subscription plan will get bonus video content and a recipe card with historical and culinary notes. Information on how to join will be provided once the video is published.

Image: © Christopher Monk 2021

Capouns in councy

Take capouns & rost hem ryȝt hote þat þey be not half ynowȝ and hewe hem to gobettes & cast hem in a pot; do þerto clene broth, seeþ hem þat þey be tendur; tak brede & þe self broth and drawe hit vp yfere; tak strong poudour & safroun & salt & cast þerto; tak ayroun & seeþ hem harde; tak out þe ȝolkes and hewe þe white; tak þe pot fro þe fyre & cast þe white þerinne; messe þe disches þerwith & lay þe ȝolkes aboue hole and floure hit with clowes, & serue hit forth.

Capons in “quinces”  (or, “quince” sauce)

Take capons and roast them at the right heat until they are not quite halfway cooked, and chop them into gobbets and cast them into a pot; add to this fresh broth, simmer them until they are tender; take bread and the same broth and blend it together; add to this strong powder and saffron and salt; take eggs and hard-boil them, take out the yolks and chop the whites; take the pot from the fire and add the whites to it; arrange this in the dishes and lay the whole yolks on top and flourish with cloves, and serve it forth.

Edited text and translation © Christopher Monk 2021. Middle English text is based directly on the manuscript: Manchester, John Ryland’s Library, MS English 7.


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Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

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