Hello everyone! Just wanted to share an update on my health.
It’s good news: I’m starting to feel significantly better, and I am working right now on a new recipe experiment which, all being well, will be posted about in the next few days.
I was diagnosed with an autoimmune blood disorder known as pernicious anaemia, which means I cannot absorb vitamin B12 through food. This is because I have an antibody that attacks the stomach and stops it producing Intrinsic Factor (IF). Everyone needs IF to process B12: when it’s not there your B12 levels gradually become depleted which in turn stops you producing enough red blood cells, so you become anaemic and also develop neurological problems.
So this condition sneaks up on you; it’s insidious. I started to notice problems at the beginning of the year. By early summer I was seriously fatigued, had muscle weakness (couldn’t climb the stairs without stopping) and other neurological problems (nerve pain and numbness in my hands and feet), chest pains and palpitations, and my cognitive abilities (concentration, thinking, coherent speaking) were, well, rapidly going south! Who would’ve thought a lack of vitamin B12 could be so debilitating?
I’ve now been having vitamin B12 injections every few days for about six weeks; it’s taken that long to rebuild my B12 levels and start to feel human again. I will be tapering off the regularity of the injections over the next couple of months, and long term the expectation is that I will only need to have one every two months. But I will need to have these injections for life.
I’m not perfectly back to normal, but I have started working again — research, writing, cooking — and even managed a couple of short swims this week. So, though plans for filming the video series have had to be rescheduled, I do hope to be back fully in the swing of things before too long.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you to think about the two new photos above and the video below and see whether you can guess what’s cooking. If you have an idea, leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you.
Just a short note to apologise for the lack of new material on my website in the last few weeks. Unfortunately, I have been unwell. I’ve just been diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency which has left me exhausted (and somewhat impaired cognitively!).
I hope to be back to experimenting with medieval food as soon as possible. I begin B12 injections today, so hopefully this will get me skipping about the kitchen very soon.
Back in March, I took the recipe sauge yfarced — literally, ‘stuffed sage’— from Forme of Cury (King Richard II’s 14th-century cookery book) and brought it to the development stage. The result was pretty scrumptious.
In essence this is my version of a medieval snack: spicy pork balls coated in fresh sage leaves and a light crispy batter, suitable for dipping in one of the Forme of Cury’s sauces, such as verde sauce, a spicy and herby garlic dressing. As things turned out, I tried mine with tomato ketchup. Not very medieval, I know!
When I posted about this on my Facebook page, a few people asked what was in the spice mix that in the original recipe is called poudour fort (‘strong powder’; scholars and commentators usually refer to it as either ‘powder fort’ or ‘poudre fort’).
The answer is not straight forward, as there does not exist an English medieval recipe for the mix; and, besides, most commentators feel it likely varied from kitchen to kitchen.
However, there does exist a contemporary Italian recipe for specie negre e forte per assay savore (‘black and strong spices for many sauces’); it is found in the work known as Libro di cucina(no. LXXV). The ingredients listed there are: cloves, pepper, long pepper, and nutmeg.
For my own experiment, I decided to go with these four spices. I ground 15g (½oz) black pepper corms, 15g (½oz) long peppers and ½ teaspoon of whole cloves, and combined all this with ¼ teaspoon of grated nutmeg. I used 3 teaspoons of the mix for the meat I obtained from a ham hock: just about right, I felt.
Incidentally, I don’t recommend using a pestle and mortar for grinding long peppers; it’s better to use a coffee grinder, otherwise you’ll still be grinding it the following day. Black pepper corms and cloves, however, do take well to a pestle and mortar.
My in-house powder fort certainly worked well with the pork of sauge yfarced. I will be filming the recipe as part of my Patreon video series, and I look forward to using it in other recipes, since it is commonly called for in Forme of Cury.
In the meantime, here is a picture of my dish, followed by the medieval recipe.
Take pork and seeþ hit wel & grynd hit smal, & medle hit wiþ ayroun & brede ygrated; do þerto poudour fort & safroun wiþ pynes and salt; take & close litull balles in foyles of sauge; wete hit with a batour of ayroun & fry hit and serue hit forth.
Stuffed sage leaves:
Take pork and simmer it well and grind it finely, and mix it with eggs and grated bread; add to this powder fort and saffron along with pine nuts and salt; take and enclose little balls [of the mixture] within sage leaves; coat it with an egg batter and fry it and serve it forth.
Today, I’m talking about a lovely, light, poached chicken dish which I made recently, and particularly about the spicy magic that lifts the dish: powder douce.
Powder douce (poudre douce, powdour douce) is a spice mix that was used in many of the recipes of King Richard II’s household. ‘Cast thereon powder douce’, or something similar, is frequently used throughout Forme of Cury, the king’s official cookery book. I can imagine hearing it shouted by the master cook as the dishes were served forth. But what is powder douce?
There are no recipes for the mix found in medieval English cookery books, which is slightly annoying! Plenty of commentators have made various suggestions, including that it contained sugar as well as spices. Powder douce — that is, sweet powder — seems to have been taken very literally.
The fact, however, that in English recipes sugar is often given as an ingredient alongside powder douce tends to support the thesis that the spices themselves were judged to be ‘sweet’ in some sense, though we shouldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility of sugar being an element of the mix.
What might help us to identify the ‘sweet’ spices is a contemporaneous Italian cookery book known as Libro di Cucina. We know Italian cuisine influenced English food of the period; this is evident from the inclusion of a number of pasta dishes in Forme of Cury. So it makes sense to avail ourselves of the information in this Italian work, and it just so happens that it does have a recipe for ‘sweet spices’:
LXXIV. Specie dolce per assay cosse bone e fine:
Le meior specie dolze fine che tu fay se vuoi per lampreda in crosta e per altri boni pessi d’aque dolze che se faga in crosto e per fare bono brodetto e bon savore. Toi uno quarto de garofali e una onza de bon zenzevro e toy un onza de cinamo leto e toy arquanto folio e tute queste specie fay pestare insiema caxa como te piaxe, e se ne vo’ fare piú, toy le cosse a questa medessima raxone et ė meravigliosamente bona.
74. Sweet spices, enough for many good and fine things:
The best fine sweet spices that you can make, for lamprey pie or for other good fresh water fish that one makes in a pie, and for good broths and sauces. Take a quarter [of an ounce] of cloves, an ounce of good ginger, an ounce of soft [or, sweet] cinnamon, and take a quantity of Indian bay leaves* and grind all these spices together how you please. And if you don’t want to do more, take these things [spices] in the same ration [without grinding] and they will be marvellously good.
* The glossary at the end of the Arnaldo Forni edition of this book indicates that ‘folio’ in this recipe refers to malabathrum or Cinnamomum tamala, also known as Indian bay leaf.
You can imagine that I was very pleased to come across this in my research, for it gave me an authentic base for creating my own powder douce.
As an aside, though still pertinent, the mention of lamprey (a kind of eel) in this Italian recipe prompted me to check two lamprey recipes mentioned in Forme of Cury.
One was a fish pie in which lamprey was one of the fish options: it uses both powder douce and powder fort (see my post on powder fort here).
The other, Lampreys in Galentine Sauce, doesn’t mention powder douce but does use three of the four spices from the Italian spice mix, namely powder of ginger, flour of cinnamon, and powder of cloves, with the addition of powder of galangal (of the ginger family).
So, to my recipe for powder douce. And to how I used it to spice up the chicken dish mentioned at the outset.
This gives you approximately half the quantity of the medieval Italian recipe.
1 rounded tablespoon ground Indian bay leaf** (made from a good handful of leaves)
*It’s best to use Ceylon (‘true’) cinnamon rather than cassia bark (often sold as cinnamon); this is what seems to be alluded to by ‘soft cinnamon’ in the Italian recipe; the bark of Ceylon cinnamon is indeed softer and easier to break than cassia.
**Indian bay leaf appears to be implied by the Italian folio (‘leaf’); I haven’t been able to locate a copy of the edition of Libro de cucina that contains the glossary where it is identified as such, so I am trusting the translator’s note on this.
For grinding, a useful tip: use a coffee grinder for cinnamon, ginger root and Indian bay leaves, but DO NOT use a coffee grinder for cloves as the oil from the cloves will stick to and stain any plastic part of the grinder (you may be fine if you have a complete stainless steel grinder). Instead, use a mortar and pestle for the cloves. Or, if you want that authentic feeling of medieval labour, use a mortar and pestle for all the spices.
Grind each spice individually until a fine powder; sieve out any lumpy debris. Then mix the spices well and give one last grind and sieve. Store in an airtight jar. You can, of course, make more mix up than this, but spices do lose their freshness and intensity after grinding, so I think it is better to grind a relatively small amount.
Now for the medieval dish in which I used my powder douce. It goes by the Middle English name of Chykens in hocche, ‘chicken in hodge-podge’:
Chykens in hocche:
Tak chykens & scald hem, take persel, & sauge withouten eny oþer erbes, tak garlek & grapes & stap þe chykens ful & seeþ hem in gode broth, so þat þey may esely be boyled þer inne, messe hem & cast þerto poudour douce.
Chickens in hodge-podge:
Take chickens and scald them; take parsley and sage, but no other herbs; take garlic and grapes and fully stuff the chickens and simmer them in good broth so that they may be slowly cooked; dish them up and cast thereto powder douce.
I still wish to develop this dish further before releasing a definitive recipe, but here’s essentially what I did:
I took a bunch of fresh parsley and a handful of fresh sage leaves, salt and pepper, chopped garlic, and grapes and stuffed them into the cavity of an organic free-range chicken.
I placed the chicken into a large pot with organic chicken stock (I normally make my own, but for this I bought two cartons), a few Indian bay leaves, and a little more salt and pepper.
I brought this slowly to simmering point, put the lid on the pan, and then turned the temperature down to maintain a very gentle simmer (barely a bubble), cooking it for approximately an hour (my chicken was medium sized).
Once the chicken was cooked, I removed it to a carving plate and then added some powder douce (about 4 heaped teaspoons) to the stock and turned off the heat. (Do check your temperatures: recommended temperatures vary for chicken; I cooked mine so that the chicken breast at its thickest point reached 77°C (170°F); there should be no pink or red juices in evidence.)
I strained the stock and reserved some for the final dishing up (the rest was used for making a risotto). I carved the chicken breasts, put this along with the reserved stock into a serving dish and sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of powder douce directly onto the chicken breast.
I served some of the grapes and garlic from the stuffing alongside the chicken with a bowl of rice and some asparagus. I really enjoyed it. Very light and delicately spicy.
As I said, above, I am going to develop this recipe further before filming it for my video series. I think I would like to boost the spice quotient, so I will probably add whole spices to the broth as the chicken poaches: a cinnamon stick or two, a few cloves, a few slices of ginger root, and a handful of Indian bay leaves. I may also put the herbs into the broth, rather than stuff them into the chicken cavity.
So please stay tuned, and do let me know if you have a go yourself!
Please note: a version of this post appeared earlier on the previous blog of my other website.
I’ve been putting theory into practice, experimenting with different recipes for making medieval ‘paste’, the stuff which medieval cooks used for making pastries, from baked tarts and pies to fried crispels and fritters.
In this post, I report back on my experiments to make authentic medieval pastry, using both egg yolk paste and whole egg paste.
Medieval paste recipes do not list any other fat besides that found in eggs, so it seems quite evident that butter or lard, for example, were not used. You can read more about this, in my first post about pastry, here.
Egg yolk paste
I experimented first with egg yolk paste. I needed 9 medium egg yolks for 200g of flour (I mistakenly say 100g of flour in the video, below). For those of you who use ounces, that’s just over 7oz of flour. The flour I used was organic stoneground white flour. If you’re in the UK, you can buy it here.
As you see, it looks and feels like something between pastry and pasta dough. I only gently kneaded this before rolling it out to make a pastry case, or ‘crust’, as medieval cooks would have called it. It needed cooking for about 30 minutes (I was cooking it fully), at 180°C/350°F in a fan oven (= 200°C/400°F in a standard electric oven; gas mark 6).
The crust was robust, held its shape well, and was easy to remove from the ceramic dish I used to bake it in. It bore some resemblance to modern short-crust pastry, though noticeably less fragile, and was quite crisp. It would be ideal for using to make most of the tart and pie recipes in Forme of Cury (‘Method of Cookery’), Richard II’s cookery book.
I will probably use the egg yolk paste for Sambocade, the elderflower curd tart I experimented with a few weeks ago. At the time, I used my own gluten-free pastry — so that I could eat it — but it will be interesting to test it, on some willing participants, with this more authentic crust. I will be filming the Sambocade recipe for the Patreon video series, so please look out for that.
I next used the egg yolk paste to make crispels. The recipe in Forme of Cury is as follows:
Take & make a foyle of good past as thynne as paper, kerue hit out and fry hit in oyle oþer in grece, & þe remnaunt take hony claryfyed & flamme hem þer wiþ, alay hem vp and serue hit forth.
Take and make a leaf of good pastry as thin as paper; cut it out and fry it in oil or in fat; and for the rest, take clarified honey and glaze them therewith; layer them up and serve it forth.
I cut the paste into small circles and fried them in hot oil. I used peanut oil, not very medieval, I know, but nevertheless a good frying oil. (I will be posting about medieval oils and fats in a later post.)
The crispels took just seconds to fry to a golden colour. I glazed them with warmed honey. They were very delicate and crispy, and apparently tasted pretty good.
I did have enough paste left to make pasta, so I kneaded the remnant a few minutes, rolled it out very thinly, and formed a raviola, filling it with what I had to hand: cheese and homemade chutney!
The guinea pig, Ray (Camera, Lights, Action! man for the video series), said the edges were a bit rubbery, but essentially the rest tasted fine and seemed rather like modern fresh pasta.
Whole egg paste
The whole egg paste was very interesting. I used 3 large eggs to 250g of flour (the same flour as before) — that’s almost 9oz. This took a lot of kneading to get rid of the stickiness, just as it would if you were making pasta dough.
I again used the paste to make both a pastry crust and crispels. The results were intriguing.
The crust needed even longer in the oven to bake than the yolk paste version, about 40 minutes at 180°C/350°F in a fan oven (= 200°C/400°F in a standard electric oven; gas mark 6).
I wouldn’t go as far as to say the crust was indestructable, but it was very resilient! I didn’t really like it as a tart crust because the sides lost their initial height. Just like pasta dough, the paste was quite elastic and tended to shrink back.
I may have to experiment further to see if I can find a better ingredient combination, probably a ratio of less egg to flour.
The crispels on the other hand were wonderful:
I made them a little larger than the yolk paste versions, rolling out the dough as thinly as possible. I fried them until golden brown in hot, but not too hot, oil: they puffed up and grew in size, rather like poppadoms do. I drizzled them in warmed honey. These were a big hit with Ray. These crispels will likely find their way into the video series.
I still have yet to experiment with flour-and-water and flour-and-almond-milk paste recipes. Once I do, I will get back to you all on the results.
I am going to attempt a gluten-free version, too. It’s only fair!
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P.S. Thank you to Kay, one of my readers, for asking what the second pastry crust was like. Was it edible, she asked. It was. Despite it looking very tough, the texture was not detrimental to my human guinea pig’s teeth. Here, in this short video, you get an idea of how it has the snap of a British biscuit:
When I was a teenager studying cookery at high school, there was always one thing I could depend on: my short crust pastry! My meringues might have cracked and wept, and my ‘fatless’ sponges often were in need of a little elevation, but my pastry was to die for. Just the right melt-in-your-mouth, biscuity moreishness.
Even now, nearly forty years later, and despite a self-imposed hiatus of several years due to the discovery of my gluten intolerance, I still make a mean pastry. I’ve had to adapt, of course, but I have to say, a little immodestly, that my gluten-free version is now close to rivalling the very best of the pastry of my younger years.
Be that as it may, I’m just beginning to realise that my decades of experience making pies and tarts might not amount to much when it comes to recreating medieval pastry. Why’s that, you ask. Well, to put it pointedly: they didn’t leave us a proper recipe!
King Richard II’s cookery book
Forme of Cury (‘Method of Cookery’), compiled and written down sometime during Richard II’s reign (1377-1399), is not far off useless when it comes to informing us about pastry making methods. I exaggerate a little, but make a crust in a trape (‘make a pastry crust in a dish’) and make a coffyn (‘make a pastry case’) is about the extent of this cookery book’s pastry methodology.
However, there is one of its recipes that does throw a dusting of light onto the pastry board. And it provides me with a point of reference from where I can roll out my reconstructed medieval pastry techniques. Let’s take a look:
The recipe, above, Petit Parnant – a pastry dish with ginger-spiced marrow and dried fruits – contains the only mention in Forme of Cury of using egg yolks in pastry dough:
… loke þat þou make þy past wiþ ȝolkes of ayroun and þat no watur come þerto, and fourme þy coffyn and make up þy past.
… make sure that you make your pastry dough with egg yolks without any water; and form your pastry case and make up your pastry.
What seems pretty clear to me is that the instruction to ‘make sure’ that egg yolks, and no water, are used is a directive not to make pastry in the standard manner, which evidently was to use just water; though one other recipe in Forme of Cury does give ‘eggs’, presumably whole eggs, in its list of ingredients for pastry.
If you’ve made pastry with egg yolks (or whole eggs) you know that this gives a richer taste to the pastry. That seems the intent here. As one contemporary Norman poet puts it, ‘If you want to make your pastry tasty have eggs put in the pastry’ (‘Se tu veulx que du pasté taste | Fay mettre des oeufs en la paste’).
But still, this recipe from Forme of Cury doesn’t exactly provide us with a fulsome method, does it? I’m sure the pastry cooks among us, as well as wondering why there is no mention of quantities (I’m afraid this is something you have to get used to in medieval recipes), are all probably screaming right now: where’s the fat – the butter, or lard? You need fat to make pastry!
Well, the news is that there is no evidence from English cookery texts that medieval cooks typically made pastry with fat – other than the fat in egg yolks, of course. Those recipes that do actually specify ingredients for the pastry (and the vast majority give no ingredients) refer to flour and water; flour and almond milk; flour and eggs; and flour and egg yolks. Salt, sugar, and saffron are also given, depending on the recipe.
As for non-English contexts, I haven’t yet read any of the medieval Latin culinary texts that we have, so I cannot comment there, but I have looked at some medieval Italian and French texts (in translation, mostly), and so far, there, I have not come across a single mention of pastry made with fat. [See note 1]
Was it really pastry?
So, what’s going on here? Were medieval cooks really making pastry as we know it?
It might help us to understand that the Middle English word for ‘pastry’, that is, paste, is typically used to mean the uncooked dough, though it is, just occasionally, used to refer to a pie or pastry; and is also the same word used for bread dough [see note 2].
So we need to stop thinking about the tasty finished goodies we put in our mouths, and think first about the basic dough. Indeed, in medieval England, when the cook is instructed to ‘make paste’ (the pastry dough) the meaning is different from ‘make a crust’ (Middle English cruste), which is referring to the finished cooked pastry case, or pie crust (as it’s called in the USA).
What is also very clear from studying the English recipe books, is that paste is also used to refer to the dough used for making pasta dishes. Let’s have a look at this recipe from Forme of Cury to illustrate:
Tak gode broth & do in an erþen pot; tak flour of payndemayn & make þerof past with watur and make þerof thynne foyles as paper wiþ a roller, drye hyt hard & seeþ hit in broth; tak chese ruayne grated & lay it in disches wiþ poudour douce & lay þeron loseyns ysode as hole as þou myȝt; aboue poudour & chese & so twyes or þyres & serue hit forth.
Take good broth and add it to an earthenware pot; take flour of pandemain and with water make a dough, and with a rolling pin make from it leaves as thin as paper; dry it hard and simmer it in broth; take grated rowen cheese and place it in dishes along with powder douce; and layer the cooked lasagne, as whole as possible; [layer] atop [more] powder and cheese; and so [repeat] two or three [times], and serve it forth.
It’s clear, here, that pasta – dried lasagne sheets, in fact – is being described. And thus what we recognise is that there is no differentiation made between the word for ‘pastry’ and the word for ‘pasta’; it is the context that makes clear which is being referred to, and hence how a translator, like me, should translate paste.
Moreover, it should be noted that in some recipes for, what we would understand as, pasties (sealed pastries with meat or fruit fillings, not open pies, or tarts), the option is sometimes given to fry as well as bake them in an oven. If lard or butter were used in such pastry, it would, I suggest, create rather a mess when fried, for the fat would likely leach out into the cooking fat/oil; whereas, a flour and water based pastry (a pasta dough, in effect) would be ideal for frying.
When it comes to attempting an authentic medieval pastry, what we need to do, I would suggest, is put aside our modern understanding of pastry; read what is actually there in the texts; and, at least initially, resist the temptation to revert to modern methods.
Admittedly, in practice, it may be rather difficult to work out exactly the quantities of ingredients needed to recreate medieval pastry, or, indeed, fathom the actual method. When we look at what is probably the most informative ‘recipe’ in Middle English, I’m sure we can all appreciate the problem we have with medieval pastry:
Cruste rolle: Take fayre smal Flowre of whete; nym Eyroun & breke þer-to, & coloure þe past with Safroun; rolle it on a borde also þinne as parchement, rounde a-bowte as an oblye; frye hem, & serue forth.
Pastry wheel(s): Take fine flour of wheat; take eggs and break them into this and colour the dough with saffron; roll it on a board as thin as parchment, round as an oblée [a small wafer like that used in communion]; fry them and serve forth.
How well my own medieval pastry performs, I am about to find out. I will be experimenting over the next few weeks with various pastries: flour and water; flour and eggs; flour and egg yolks; and, if I have time, flour and homemade almond milk. I’ll let you all know in later blogs how I get on.
P.S. I won’t be tasting the pastry myself, because of my gluten intolerance; but I do have a guinea pig organised.
 In the French text, Le Menagier de Paris (c.1392-94), a passage on cooking wood pigeons refers to lard and pastry: ‘ou qui en veult garder, soient mis en pasté lardés’. The last two words have been translated by Janet Hinson as ‘larded pastry’ (you need to scroll down on this link, I’m afraid: look for ‘WOOD PIGEONS’) and this may be wrongly understood to mean pastry made with lard. A more accurate translation of the clause, which recognises that ‘lardés’ is plural and is qualifying the wood pigeons, not the pastry (which is singular), is given by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose : ‘Or if you want to store them, put them, larded, in pastry.’ (The Good Wife’s Guide: Le Ménagier de Paris, a Medieval Household Book, trans. by Greco and Rose, Cornell University Press, 2009; Kindle Edition, section 2.5 Recipes, item 154.) The term ‘larded’ seems here to refer to one of two culinary techniques: covering the pigeon meat in fat bacon or inserting small amounts of lard into the flesh; see also ‘Lardé’ in Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary.
 There are variant spellings in Middle English, including past and paiste; compare Anglo-Norman French paste and Middle French pâte.
A version of this post appeared in the previous blog on my other website.