I hope you like details. I know when it comes to the subject of medieval cookery, I wish there were more details than are offered in the contemporary sources. I also know that sometimes all we want is an overview of a subject, not a full-blown history of the origins of medieval English parsley or an archaeological survey of medieval fava beans!
However, sometimes it is fun, not to say informative, to dig up some nugget of detail about something that seems familiar but may have been different back then: sugar, thickener, pastry all come to mind. And, of course, sometimes we are left completely dumfounded by medieval things, and we need someone to explain it all. What the heck’s a posnet when it’s at home?
With all this in mind, I made an early decision when I began writing my book about Richard II’s Fourme of Cury (still writing it folks!) that I wanted there to be a fairly detailed and comprehensive glossary of all the ingredients, equipment and cookery terms appearing in this fourteenth-century cookery book.
Now, I’ve decided that it would be good to start sharing with you selected entries, as they currently stand in my working script. Today, I’m going to begin with one of my medium-sized entries: alkanet.
alkanet alkanet. A borage-like herb alkanna tinctoria, known as the dyer’s alkanet, the roots of which are used as a red dye and were used in medieval cookery as a food colourant. Alkanet is not soluble in water and the colour must be extracted in oil or fat or alcohol. It is not safe to consume alkanet as it is known to be toxic to the liver, may be carcinogenic and may cause birth defects: see Alkanna: Health Benefits, Side Effects, Uses, Dose & Precautions (rxlist.com). Despite this, in some countries (though not in the UK or countries of the EU), it is permitted as a food colouring; in Indian food it goes by the name ratan jot. As an alternative, you may wish to try beetroot powder or sanders. On preparing alkanet, see Renfrew and Fleming, The Colorful Cook, p. 10.
It just so happens that I wrote a short blog post about alkanet, written a couple of years ago now, which provides a few more tidbits of information.
Next time, bullaces.
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Information for the image at the top of page:
Alkanna tinctoria, alkanet. Also known as dyer’s alkanet and dyers’ bugloss.
Photo: © Jean Tosti 2005. Licensed via Wikimedia Commons; click here for further details.