Prepare your teeth (or dentures) for a medieval confection that undoubtedly must have exercised the jaws of its fourteenth-century consumers.
Payne ragoun, which I tentatively translate as ‘queenly bread’ (more on this later), is a kind of toffee, made using sugar and honey, filled with pine nuts and spiced with ginger. It requires the initial bite force measurement of a pit bull but then morphs into a chewy chewy CHEWY mass of sweet nuttiness. Addictive.
In adapting the original recipe from Richard II’s cookery treatise Fourme of Cury, compiled around 1390, I have to say that the first thing that came to my mind, by way of comparison, was peanut brittle.
Now peanut brittle was a huge holiday treat for me and my siblings. I can still see myself in a big sweet shop in Skegness, shelves full of giant jars of sweeties. My eye would always zone in on peanut brittle.
But I digress.
So, before I go into a little history and a brief linguistic analysis of the name, here is the original recipe of payn ragoun, with my translation, followed by my own redacted recipe.
Tak hony, sugur cypre & clarifye it togider & boyle it with esye fyre & kepe it wel fram brennyng; & whan hit hath yboyled a while tak vp a drope þerof with þy fynger & do hit in a litul water & loke yf it hong togider; & tak hit fro þe fyre & do þerto pynes þe þryddendel & poudour gynger & stere it togyder tyl hit bigynne to thyk; and cast it on a wete table; lesche hit & serue hit forth with fryed mete, on flesche day or on fysche dayes.
Queenly bread (pine nut bread)
Take honey, Cyprus sugar and clarify together; and boil it over a low fire and carefully keep it from burning; and when it has boiled a while, take a drop of this with your finger – after putting it into a little water – and see if it holds together; and take it from the fire and to it add pine nuts – the third part – and ginger powder, and stir it together until it begins to thicken; then cast it on a wet table; slice it and serve it forth with fried food, on a flesh day or on fish days.Middle English text from John Rylands Library version of Fourme of Cury; translation my own.
100g light honey
100g golden caster sugar
100g pine nuts
1 teaspoon ginger powder
This is my first experimental recipe and so I describe below what I actually did. I don’t think I would change much, perhaps add a little more ginger. I was happy with the texture. I would add that if you don’t like or can’t eat pine nuts then substitute something like pistachios or almonds.
I placed the honey and sugar into a pan on a medium heat. Once the sugar had dissolved into the honey, I began to stir it continuously. The mixture bubbled up quite a bit so I was careful to keep the temperature at a moderate, though not low, setting.
I heated the mixture for about 7 minutes, measuring the temperature using my old sugar thermometer. I took it to 220°F (=104°C), the ‘thread stage’, and then with a teaspoon took a small amount of the mixture and put it into a bowl of cold water.
I did not literally follow the medieval directive to ‘take a drop of this with your finger’ for obviously I would have seriously burnt my digit. To explain this curiously careless instruction I’ll just say that there is a terrible habit in Fourme of Cury (and other cookery texts of the period) of writing “afterthoughts”. It’s as if the cook is narrating the recipe to the scribe: “Oh, by the way, you put the boiling stuff in water, did I not say that?” I have adapted the original grammar in my translation in an attempt to reflect this.
The honey-sugar mixture immediately set on the spoon, and between finger and thumb I was able to form a stiff, but malleable, little mass of toffee. If I had been using just sugar, I would have needed to heat it to a slightly higher temperature, but the honey in the mix means that a ‘soft ball’ stage is reached a little earlier. Honey, by the way, doesn’t take too kindly to being heated to very high temperatures; it goes bitter quicker than sugar.
Once there with the right consistency, I took the pan off the heat and added the ginger powder, stirring it in evenly, and then the pine nuts. This was given a really thorough mixing.
Then came the fun bit:
Having decided that I wanted to experience the medieval way, I took a marble pastry board and threw some water onto it: not a bucket-full but enough to create a shallow pooling of water. You can do this on your counter top if you don’t have a marble slab.
The water acts to stop the honey-sugar mixture sticking to the surface. Those medievals knew what they were doing, and this is far less messy than greasing the marble with butter, which is how I have made medieval toffee in the past.
So, I dolloped the pan’s contents onto the marble board and, using a palette knife, I began shaping it into an oblong, like a small, flattish loaf. The mixture initially wanted to spread its girth (rather like my belly) but as it cooled it became firmer until it held its form. Then, using a heavy cook’s knife, I portioned my ‘bread’ into six fingers.
The payn ragoun fingers were still malleable enough to mould and so I smoothed them into relatively uniform slices. To present them in a way that would make them easy to eat, I decided it made sense to put each finger inside a cup-cake paper which I pulled into a long, narrower shape. Ta dah!
I’ll start the history and linguistics part of my post by making another comparison, though this time a medieval one, and so it doesn’t involve peanuts.
Payn ragoun bears more than a passing resemblance to the filling that is used in the early-fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman recipe Pynetee, which was soon thereafter translated into English and appears as Pynite. [Hieatt & Jones, pp. 867 and 878; Hieatt & Butler, p. 47]
In this recipe, as well as sugar, honey, pine nuts and ginger, wine is incorporated (which I think makes it softer), and ‘gingerbread’ is melted into it, too – this was a pre-made, possibly imported, ginger-spiced toffee. Two further spices, clove powder and saffron, are added, giving a little more complexity and colour.
It’s also worth noting that the Anglo-Norman original suggests pistachios (‘festikes’) as a substitute for the pine nuts, though the English translation doesn’t pick up on this. I would really like to try pistachios.
The filling is put into pastry cases made from chestnut flour. To see me making these pine nut toffee tarts check out one of my very first YouTube videos:
Payn Ragoun may also have a culinary connection to certain Arabic confections, though this is something I need to explore more thoroughly. But one example, translated by the recipe’s editor as ‘taffy’, probably dates back to the thirteenth century, if not earlier, and is found in a Syrian collection.
This ‘chewy’ confection is prepared by boiling sugar and rosewater, then is turned onto ‘a smooth stone tile’ where it is kneaded with either ‘crushed peeled almonds or pistachios’. Alternative fillings are ‘hazelnuts and bejewelled [meaning toasted] chickpeas’. [Perry, p. 167]
Third course fare
As you may have noticed in the original English recipe, we are told with what payn ragoun should be served, namely, ‘with fried food’ (‘fryed mete‘ does not mean fried meat, by the way; in Middle English mete = ‘food’).
This direction points us to the third and final course in a feast, the part of the meal in which fried foods appeared. The typical fried foods served were fritters, as can be seen from examining surviving menus for feasts at which Richard II was entertained. [Hieatt & Butler, p. 39; Austin, p. 68]
I’ll be making fritters later this year, just so you know.
It would seem then that payn ragoun was one of the more elevated, ‘ingenious dishes for the highest states’ (‘curyoes metes for hyȝest astates’) mentioned in Fourme of Cury’s introduction, and so very likely passed the royal gourmand’s lips.
Payn ragoun, then, was one of the dainties of the third course, likely to be consumed only by those at the king’s table [see Woolgar, p. 159 and Hieatt, pp. 189]. This, I believe, may shed some light on the meaning of ‘ragoun’ in the dish’s name.
Though a firm conclusion seems tantalisingly out of reach, ‘ragoun’ may be a corruption, in effect a mishearing, of Anglo-Norman regin(e), meaning ‘royal, pertaining to a queen’, hence my translation of ‘payn ragoun’ as ‘queenly bread’.
If you want the technical stuff on this:
The Anglo-Norman Dictionary cites a thirteenth-century glossing of the Latin ‘regilla’ (a feminine substantive meaning ‘royal clothing’) by Anglo-Norman ‘mauntel regine‘ (‘royal [feminine] mantel’).
The context of the gloss relates to women’s garments, of course, not pine nut confectionery, but the use of the adjective ‘regine’ (feminine form) to designate something royal does offer us the grounds for postulating ‘ragoun’ as ‘queenly’, since the two words do sound similar when pronounced.
As I’ve intimated already, the syntax of recipes in Fourme of Cury at times bears witness to some level of oral transmission, as if the royal scribes that would have actually penned the book were listening to the cooks who, we are told in the introduction, compiled it.
As with other recipe titles I’ve explored in this blog, this title, as it is written, seems to represent either the master cook’s slight mis-remembering of the Anglo-Norman name of a long-cherished recipe or the royal scribe misheard ‘regine’ as ‘ragoun’. Since there is no reason to believe the scribe had any particular expertise in recipe names, he may have simply written down whatever seemed to approximate the sound.
If my suggestion is accurate, then it leads me to imagine Richard’s beloved queen, Anne of Bohemia (consort 1382-1394) partaking of this sweet delight. Once she is served her slice of payn ragoun, say at the high table at Christmas, she turns to her dearest Richard, daintily smiles and… chomps right into it. They laugh. The end.
I should write a novel.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work by ‘buying me a coffee’. Thank you.
Finally, as a postscript, I just want to share these wonderful details, below, from a seventeenth-century Spanish painting in which we see the Spanish version of payne ragoun. Just delightful! My thanks to both Elise Fleming, who told me about the painting, and Johnna Holloway who located the open access online facsimile.
Constance B. Hieatt, An Ordinance of Pottage (Prospect Books, 1988).
Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler (ed.), Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Early English Text Society/Oxford University Press, 1985).
Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones, ‘Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii’, Speculum 61.4 (1986), pp. 859-882.
Charles Perry (ed. and trans.), Scents and Flavours: A Syrian Cookbook (New York University Press, 2017).
C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England (Yale University Press, 1999).