In the post below I describe the medieval dish Let lardes/Larded milk as fried, compressed custard; however, it is probably more accurate to use egg and milk curds (or just curds) rather than custard.
The various medieval recipes use the same ingredients as a custard, i.e., milk and eggs; and, indeed, the dish has been described elsewhere as ‘milk and egg custard’ (Hieatt and Butler, Curye in Inglysch, p. 198); but really the key process is curdling which one avoids at all costs when making a custard!
It’s only after experimenting with the various recipes that I came to this understanding, which shows the value there is in doing the recipes as well as translating them.
Last week I was writing a chapter for my book on Forme of Cury (How to Cook in the Fourteenth-Century), and was revisiting one of the most fascinating recipes in Richard II’s official cookery book: Let lardes (from Old French and meaning something like: ‘Larded milk’).
It’s a dish of fried slices of multi-coloured, compressed custard. Yes, you heard that correctly, fried custard!
I do intend to recreate this dish for my YouTube channel (you’re going to love it, he says, without a hint of delusion), but in the meantime I thought we could look closely at one of its ingredients. Lard.
That white stuff which my mum used to make pastry with?
When I first read the recipe in Middle English, I immediately assumed this dish was an egg and milk custard blended with rendered pork fat, you know, that block of solidified white grease wrapped in unadorned waxy paper, lurking embarrassingly among the various incarnations of its more elevated fat cousin, butter, and being sniffed at by the jars of duck and goose fat.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lard fan. I confess to switching from the basic supermarket version to some rather posh stuff from an organic farm I support – I think it’s what’s called leaf lard – but, also, I’m from a generation that remembers their mums frying chips in lard and making all-lard pastry for their apple pies. Delicious!
In fact, when I studied cookery at school, back in the late 70s and early 80s, we always used 50% lard in all the pastries we made (the other 50% was cooking margarine). No all-butter pastry for me back then. How things have changed.
The idea, then, of custard with lard – even fancy organic stuff – didn’t quite grab me. But was I understanding the recipe correctly?
The Middle English text
The opening instruction for Let lardes in the Forme of Cury recipe is:
Tak persel & grynd it vp wiþ a litul cow mylk; medle hit with ayroun & lard ydyced; take mylk aftur þat þou hast to done & mynge þerwith & make þerof dyuerse colours. T
Take parsley and grind it up with a little cow’s milk; blend it with eggs and diced lard; after you have done this, take [more] milk and mix with it, and make from it, various colours.My own edition and translation, from Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 37r.
The recipe continues with instructions on how to make five further coloured custard mixes – yellow, white, red, purple, and black – and then tells us to cook any four of our choice over a fire, before layering them in a cloth and pressing them to remove any liquid.
‘Whan hit is al cold’, it adds, ‘lesche it þynne [slice it thinly], put hit inne a panne & frye hit wel’.
Something didn’t quite sit well with me. Why would you melt lard into an egg custard mix?
Then I happened to remember that just a couple of weeks earlier, when writing my chapter on baked pastries, I had come across another mention of lard where it evidently did not mean our white rendered pork fat.
Rasyols: rissoles in pastry
This dish, which is essentially, what we Brits call, faggots (not to be confused with the highly offensive term used in the USA) set in pastry, contains a number of ingredients for its spiced, offal-rich meat balls (i.e., the faggots).
After directing the cook to take pork livers, grated bread and beaten egg yolks, the recipe continues:
& do þerto a litul of lard caruoun lyche a dee, chese ygrated & whyte grece
and add to this a little lard carved like a dice, grated cheese and white fatMy own edition and translation, from Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 71r.
Notice that white fat, literally ‘white grease’, is an ingredient in addition to lard. It’s used numerous times in Forme of Cury and refers to the equivalent of our modern day lard, i.e., rendered pork fat. The Middle English Dictionary supports this, giving for whit grese: ‘lard’.
This means that the Middle English word lard must be something other than the white fat we today call lard. It wouldn’t make sense to list the same ingredient twice but with different names.
Importantly, this ‘lard’, unlike the ‘white fat’, is to be carved, or cut up, ‘like a dice’ – i.e., diced – just as the recipe for Let lardes has its ‘lard’ diced (‘ydyced’). Now we’re getting somewhere.
Fried custard was very popular, in one form or another, across Europe during the medieval period. It appears in both The Viandier of Taillevent and Le Ménagier de Paris, both Old French works, and in several English cookery texts, including Diuersa servicia, which seems to have been written about a decade before Forme of Cury.
Possibly the earliest version, however, is found in a northern European collection of recipes, Libellus de arte coquinaria (‘The Little book on culinary art’), the recipes of which are thought originally to date back to at least the thirteenth century. The collection was probably first written in Middle Low German but now survives only in later, though still medieval, Danish and Icelandic translations and is also embedded in a fifteenth-century Low German manuscript.
One of the Danish manuscript versions of this collection (the manuscript is fourteenth-century) has a recipe called ‘larded milk’ [‘spæckæt mialk’]. It says: ‘One should take fresh milk, and add to it beaten eggs, and add pork meat [‘flæsk’] cut into dice […]’ (Grewe & Hieatt, p. 47).
The Low German manuscript has for the same recipe [‘ghespeckede melk’]: ‘Next one should take fresh milk, and add to it beaten eggs and bacon [‘speck’], cut into small particles […]’ (Grewe & Hieatt, p. 71).
The commentary in the modern edition and translation of Libellus de arte coquinaria makes this point: ‘The pork called for in this recipe is no doubt salt pork’ (Grewe & Hieatt, p. 95).
Salt pork is salt-cured pork prepared from belly pork (as in Italian pancetta, French poitrine fumée and British streaky bacon), or sometimes from fatback (as in the Italian speciality lardo).
This use in the Libellus of salt pork – fatty bacon – points us in the right direction for correctly interpreting the diced lard which goes into the Forme of Cury’s Let lardes recipe (and, of course, the Rasyols recipe).
It is not the rendered fat of a pig – our modern lard – which of course would melt into the custard mix when cooked over the fire, but rather salt-cured pork, which would not melt but remain as pieces of fatty bacon, when being boiled, pressed and fried.
Other medieval versions of the dish support this understanding. For example, in the fourteenth-century Le Ménagier de Paris, ‘bits of diced bacon’ (Greco & Rose, p. 318) are added to the milk before eggs are then combined into the mix.
In the fifteenth-century additions to the fourteenth-century Viandier of Taillevent, the direction is given: ‘prenez lardons et les couppez en deux ou trois morceaulx et gectez avec le lait boullir’, ‘take rashers of bacon, cut them into two or three pieces and put them with the milk to boil’ (text and translation from Scully 1988). Lardon is defined in the Old French–English Dictionary as ‘rasher of bacon; piece of bacon fat’.
All of the foregoing made me decide that I should translate the ‘lard ydyced’ of Let lardes as either ‘diced salt pork’ or, drawing on the Old French, ‘lardons’. I rather like the latter, for in its simplicity it captures both the sense of fatty bacon and the sense of being diced.
One final point of interest came from chatting about the Danish version of ‘larded milk’ with my Danish Facebook friend, author and curator/historian at Odense City Museums, Anette Guldager Boye; she told me that the word flæsk, the modern cognate of the same medieval Danish word used in the northern European collection, means a particular part of pork meat, not just pork generally: ‘a bit like bacon, just more fat’, she said. Flæsk, too, is made of pork belly, and thus is from the same porky family as British streaky bacon and Italian pancetta.
This realisation has left me with a sense of culinary relief and a desire to actually make this curious dish. Rather than some overly greasy custard-and-lard mess, then, I will have a go at creating thin slices of stripey, compressed custard with crispy bacon bits within.
It’s still not going to be easy, but it sounds a whole lot more enjoyable.
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Selected printed works consulted:
Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (trans.), The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book (Cornell University Press, 2009).
Rudolf Grewe and Constance B. Hieatt (ed. and trans.), Libellus de arte coquinaria: An Early Northern Cookery Book (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001).
Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler (ed.), Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (including The Forme of Cury), Early English Text Society SS.8 (Oxford University Press, 1985).
Terence Scully (ed.), The Viandier of Taillevent (University of Ottawa Press, 1988).