Saturday, December 5, 2009

I made a book!

As a cook, much of what I create is gone within a matter of hours. Nothing physical remains of my creative efforts - except perhaps for a few extra pounds that my friends and loved ones carry around for the rest of their lives. I do enjoy making things though, and I love books, so over the past year or so I've been looking into book binding. This summer at Pennsic I picked up some simple equipment for book binding, and I finally decided to go ahead and try it out.

The style of binding is sometimes referred to as a laced-on, limp cover. It appears to have been used for less expensive books in the late medieval period.

Because this was going to be my first try, I didn't want to waste good materials. I figured that I wasn't sure enough of what I was doing, and I have a certain distrust of my manual dexterity (which is scary considering how much time I spend working with sharp knives). Essentially because of this I handicapped myself - I set myself up to fail in a way. I used plain copy paper for the pages (textblock) and some leather strips where I should probably have used heavy twine, and the cover is heavy paper instead of vellum. I also used a cheap gluestick instead of proper glue or paste.

Really, I wasn't expecting to make a great work of art here. I just wanted to see how it was all supposed to go together. Much to my surprise, it went together really well. The leather strips were too thick and stiff for the paper cover - which ripped out almost immediately, but the shape is right and I think it'll be really cool when I try it again with the good stuff.

So with a bit of luck and free time, I'll be starting soon on my next (and first real) binding project - a cookbook for my apprentice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - December

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of December.

Rousseting, Leather-coat, Winter Reed, Chestnut Apple, Great-belly, the Go-no-further, or Cats-head, with some of the precedent Month.

The Squib-pear, Spindle-pear, Doyonere, Virgin, Goscogne-Bergomot, Scarlet-pear, Stopple-pear, white, red, and French Wardens, (to bake or roast) &c. the Deadmans Pear, excellent, &c.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Quiz - Question 2

A couple of weeks back I posted a 6 question quiz about medieval cooking. I had tried to phrase the questions so that there would be many possible answers that could be considered to be correct depending on viewpoint. Here are my thoughts on the second question.

2. Why did medieval Europeans use a lot of spices in their cooking?

The answer to this question really depends on how the phrase "a lot of spices" is interpreted. It could be understood to mean "a large quantity of spice per dish", implying that the prepared food had a strong flavor of spices. Alternately, it could be read as "a wide variety of spices", which could be meant to imply that each dish included many spices.

The first meaning - "a large quantity of spice" - usually appears in connection with the mistaken belief that medieval cooks used spices to cover the flavor of spoiled meat. I've discussed this myth and its possible origins elsewhere, so I won't go into it here. Suffice to say, if you want to see my head explode, tell someone it's a fact where I can overhear.

Did medieval cooks use large quantities of spices? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The only recipes we have come from the cookbooks of the wealthy, and almost all of those recipes completely lack measured amounts for ingredients, so there is really no way to know if they put in a lot or a little of any given spice. What's more, even if we did have measurements to work with, what would we use as a comparison? To some people anything more than a pinch of salt is too much. To others anything less than drowning in curry is too little.

Assuming they did use large quantities of spices, one possible reason for doing so presents itself: conspicuous consumption. Serving guests a meal obviously made with great amounts of expensive, imported spices shows the host to be wealthy and therefore influential. There is some evidence to support this in medieval accounts of banquets. Still, I sincerely doubt a host would be successful if he gave a banquet where the guests were served unpalatably spiced food, regardless of how expensive it was.

The second meaning - "a wide variety of spices" - is a bit easier to examine. The list of spices used in medieval European cuisine is surprisingly large and diverse, and a given dish may contain a half-dozen different spices or more. However, this doesn't seem very different from many cuisines around the world (e.g. Indian, Mediterranean, Chinese).

If we take the viewpoint that their use of multiple spices in a dish is exceptional, then is there any possible reason for doing so?

Again, conspicuous consumption is a possibility. A mix of spices though can be harder to identify, and it can still be overdone. If a cook has gone to the expense of putting in rare spices, it'd be a shame if no one wanted to eat the final product.

There has been some recent research that demonstrates how certain spices like cinnamon and cloves can inhibit microbial growth, but given the medieval beliefs about health and disease I doubt that this aspect had any bearing on medieval cuisine. Even medieval humoral theories don't seem to have substantially impacted how spices were used.

On the whole, I think the best answer that we can give for this question is: Because they liked the way it tasted.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - November

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of November.

The Belle-bonne, the William, Summer Pearmain, Lording-apple, Pear-apple, Cardinal, Winter Chestnut, Shortstart, &c. and some other of the former two last Months, &c.

Messire Jean, Lord-pear, long Bargamot, Warden (to bake) Burnt-cat, Sugar-pear, Lady-pear, Ice-pear, Dove-pear, Deadmans-pear, Winter Bargamot, Bell pear, &c.

Arbutus, Bullis, Medlars, Services.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Food Prices in Medieval Ireland

I was recently directed to the Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin (1337-1346) (thanks, Johnnae!). It's a book of household accounts for a monastery in medieval Ireland.

The neat thing about household accounts is that they contain a huge amount of information about what was needed for daily life. This particular book of accounts is in Latin, but (happily for me) also has an English translation. While browsing through it, I saw a decent number of food items listed, along with the priced paid for them. This led to the inevitable digging through data and taking notes.

Unfortunately, most of the entries specify what was purchased, the amount paid, and who the money was paid to, but not the actual quantity purchased. Still, there were some scattered about that included quantities. So below are the prices of select items for medieval Ireland, as per this manuscript.

capon, 2d/ea.
capon (cooked), 3d/ea.
chicken, 0.5d/ea.
duck, 1d/ea.
figs, 2d/lb.
fowl, 1d/ea.
fowl (cooked), 2d/ea.
goose, 3d/ea.
hen, 1.5d/ea.
lamb (cooked, whole), 4d/ea.
oats (for horses), 2d/peck
olive oil, 6d/qt.
pasties (fowl), 2d/ea.
pasties (salmon), 1d/ea.
pepper, 20d/lb.
piglet, 3d/ea.
salt, 3d/peck (approx. 0.12d/lb.)
wheat, 11.5d/peck
wine (by the tun), 1d/gal.
wine (red?), 5d/gal.
wine (white), 6d/gal.

There were also some records for amounts paid to laborers, which work out to have unskilled workers paid around 2d per day.

What I found really interesting is how a few of these compared to the prices listed in "Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe" by Prof. John H. Munro, University of Toronto. The prices for capons, red wine, and pepper were essentially the same - somewhat surprising given that we're comparing 14th century Dublin to 15h century London. The difference in the price of salt is also surprising - with London's price being roughly 5 times what it is in Dublin a hundred years earlier.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mystery Things?

I'm going to jump topics for a moment here, but I promise to get back to the discussion on the quiz posts soon.

I just came across a post on the blog "This is why you're fat" that caught my eye. It's an image of a dish from the Republic of Georgia - essentially a sort of custard or quiche cooked in a bread crust.

The reason I note this is that it looks an awful lot like some unidentifiable (to me) things in a Dutch painting from 1559 that I posted about some time ago (look in the lower right portion of the painting, on top of the basket of birds).

I don't know if they're in any way related to this dish, but I find the similarity of shapes interesting.

It's one more bit of information in the quest of the Mysterious Football-Shaped Things®.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Quiz - Question 1

On Monday I posted a 6 question quiz about medieval cooking. I had tried to phrase the questions so that there would be many possible answers that could be considered to be correct depending on viewpoint. Here are my thoughts on the first question.

1. What process would you use for converting a modern recipe into a medieval one?

One answer to this is to replace all ingredients not available in medieval Europe with similar ingredients that were available, and for an extra measure you could replace any modern cooking methods or equipment with medieval ones that achieve similar results. The problem is that this doesn't get you a medieval recipe. It gets you a variation of a modern recipe.

The classic example of this is the cheeseburger. In medieval Europe they had almost all the ingredients and equipment necessary to make a cheeseburger. They didn't have tomatoes or ketchup, but they did have mustard and even had what they needed to make mayonnaise. The problem is that they didn't make sandwiches, they don't seem to have served raw vegetables (lettuce, onion, pickles) with meats, and they didn't make mayonnaise.

So even if you grind the beef in a mortar, cook it on a grill over an open fire, put it on a home-made bun, top it with home made cheese and heirloom lettuce and onion slices and pickles, and use camaline sauce instead of ketchup, what you end up with is still a cheeseburger. It may be a very nice cheeseburger, but it's still not even remotely medieval.

In short, you can't convert a modern recipe into a medieval one. Imagine trying to convert a Mexican dish into a Thai one. The best you can hope for is something cooked in a Thai style.

Take a typical recipe for burritos, replace the cumin and garlic with ginger and lemongrass, serve it with soy sauce instead of salsa, and you've got a Thai-style burrito (beef or chicken - I don't think it'd work with a bean burrito). Is it a real Thai recipe? No, not really.

Of course your goal may not be to make a medieval dish. You might be trying to avoid new-world ingredients, or experiment with new flavors. But then it wouldn't be a question of converting a modern dish into a medieval one. It'd be more one of incorporating aspects of medieval cuisine into a modern recipe.

So if you want to make a medieval recipe, then start with a medieval recipe. If you want to be creative in the kitchen and create a new recipe, go right ahead. You can even combine the two - but the results aren't necessarily medieval cuisine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Quiz

I'm on several email lists related to medieval history (surprising, huh?), which means that I end up reading a lot of different viewpoints and approaches towards medieval re-creation. Often simple questions explode into long, rambling discussions that border on religious wars. So I thought I'd put together a short quiz made up of carefully worded questions. In some ways the answers could reveal far more about the person answering than they would about medieval cuisine.

1. What process would you use for converting a modern recipe into a medieval one?

2. Why did medieval Europeans use a lot of spices in their cooking?

3. How did the primitive cooking equipment available in 15th century England affect the foods cooked?

4. How was the exorbitantly high cost of spices (e.g. saffron, pepper, ginger) reflected in their use in medieval England and France?

5. How was the primitive technology of the medieval period reflected in the quality of wheat flour, sugar, and salt?

6. To what degree have modern agricultural practices affected the size of poultry and eggs?

I'll give my own take on these in later posts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More Medieval Catering

On October 1-3 the Ohio State University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies hosted the 2009 conference for the Committee on Centers and Regional Associations. Having worked with them before, they asked if I'd be interested in cooking a medieval luncheon for their Friday session. I, of course, said "Yes!"

So on Friday morning I got in the car (along with my assistants, Kristen Sullivan and Jennifer Marshal-Craig) and made the two hour drive up to Columbus. Then there was just enough time to unpack, finish what cooking needed to be done, and get the buffet set out. Much of the food was prepared ahead of time, and a good thing too as the lone oven and cooktop in the building could only charitably be described as a "food warmer".

Here's what we served:

The setup looked great, but I was too busy to get any photos before the guests ate. I know their photographer managed to take a couple pictures though, so I might be able to get copies from her.

On the whole, things went well. The yellow pepper sauce didn't thicken up quite right due to the lack of heat from the burners, but it still tasted good. The real surprise for me was the blancmanger. I'd pre-cooked the chicken and decided to cook the rice when we got there. Again, as fortune would have it, I had brought a roaster which was perfect for this dish. We put the rice in to cook early on, and then added the chicken, almond milk, and spices. I kept worrying about it because it just seemed too easy. No problems with it though - I think it's my new favorite recipe (to cook at least).

The chardewardon was a bit of a show-stealer. I had Kristen serve it in individual cups, topped with snowe and a mint leaf garnish. They looked so elegant (even though the cups were plastic), and the combination of pear custard and cream is hard to beat.

It was while cleaning up afterwards that I noticed almost all the plates were completely empty. A good sign, as people don't usually polish off foods they don't like. I mentioned this to Kristen and Jen, and they said they saw people going back for seconds. All in all, I'd say this was a success.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - October

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of October.

Belle-et-Bonne, William, Costard, Lording, Parsley-apples, Pearmain, Pear-apple, Honey meal, Apis, &c.

The Caw-pear (baking) Greenbutter-pear, Thorn-pear, Clove-pear, Roussel-pear, Lombart-pear, Russet-pear, Saffron-pear, and some of the former Month, Violet-pear, Petwort-pear, otherwise called the Winter Windsor.

Bullis, and divers of the September Plums and Grapes, Pines, Arbutus, &c.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Forme of Cury Transcription

Photograph: University of Manchester John Rylands University Library

I've recently added a transcription of Forme of Cury to the website. This transcription (based on John Rylands University Library, English MS 7) is not really a huge contribution to the field of food history. After all, John Rylands University already has put the images of the manuscript online, and Pegge's edition of Forme of Cury is already available online as a PDF of the printed book, and as plain text.

Still, as I noted in an earlier post, there are some differences between this manuscript and the Pegge edition, so having the information in a form that's easy to work with should be beneficial to the serious medieval food geek.

I'll be indexing the text and adding it to the Medieval Cookbook Search soon, and in a week or so (with luck) will cross-reference the recipes with those in the Pegge edition.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - September

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of September.

The Belle-bonne, the Williams, Summer Pearmain, Lording Apple, Pear-apple, Quince-apple, Red-greening ribb'd, Bloody-Pepin Harvey, Violet-apple, &c.

Hamdens Bergamon (first ripe) Summer Bon Chrestien, Norwich, Black Worcester, (baking) Greenfield, Orange, Bergamot, the Queen Hedge-pear, Lewis-pear (to dry excellent) Frith-pear, Arundel-pear, (also to bake) Brunswick-pear, Winter Poppering, Bings-pear, Bishops-pear, (baking) Diego, Emperours-pear, Cluster-pear, Messire Jean, Rowling-pear, Balsam-pear, Bezy d'Hery, &c.

Peaches, &c.
Malacoton, and some others, if the year prove backwards, Almonds, &c.


Little Blew-grape, Muscadine-grape. Frontiniac, Parsly, great Blew-grape, the Verjuice-grape excellent for sauce, &c.

Berberries, &c.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gen Con and Pennsic

I'm still trying to recover from my week of Pennsic followed by 4 days of Gen Con (talk about culture shock), but I think I'm finally up to writing a bit here about how it all went.

For those who haven't heard of Pennsic, I've been describing it to my co-workers as a cross between Woodstock, A Renaissance faire, and a conference of academic historians.

This year was pretty good. The weather was reasonably cool and dry (soggy start and hot finish notwithstanding), and I didn't get sick at all this year. I spent lots of time taking classes and just hanging around with cool, geeky people.

The big focus for me this year was on book binding. I've been wanting to try making books for years, so I was thrilled to take classes on the subject and to talk with people who do it.

Best of all, I got to bring home some equipment for binding books! I suspect a new project will be coming along shortly.

Gen Con
As I have for the past few years, I sat on some of the Writers' Symposium panels, and I gave a two-hour seminar on medieval European cuisine.

The seminar was to a surprisingly large audience - they moved me from one room because we'd gone over the 100 person capacity. The audience was agreeable, interested, and in a good mood. They seemed to enjoy it, and I received a few compliments here and there, so as far as I can tell it went really well. I'll have to come up with a good topic for next year.

The Writers' Symposium panels were lots of fun, though surprisingly I did feel a bit out of my element on the panel about dragons.

Again, I spent a lot of my time hanging out with geeky people and learning cool (to me) stuff. I didn't buy as much stuff this year as I have in previous years - that's a good thing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - August

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of August.

The Ladies Longing, the Kirkham Apple, John Apple; the Seaming Apple, Cushion Apple, Spicing, May-flower, Sheeps snout.

Windsor, Sovereign, Orange, Bergamot, Slipper Pear, Red Catherine, King Catherine, Denny Pear, Prusia Pear, Summer Poppering, Sugar Pear, Lording Pear, &c.

Roman Peach, Man Peach, Quince Peach, Rambouillet, Musk Peach, Grand Carnation, Portugal Peach, Crown Peach, Bourdeaux Peach, Lavar Peach, the Peach Des Pot, Savoy Malacoton, which lasts till Michaelmas.

The Muroy Nectarine, Tawny, Red-Roman, little Green Nectarine, Cluster Nectarine, Yellow Nectarine.

Imperial, Blew, White Dates, Yellow Pear-plum, Black Pear-plum, White Nutmeg, late Pear-plum, Great Anthony, Turkey-Plum, the Jane Plum.

Other Fruit.
Cluster-grape, Muscadine, Corinths, Cornelians, Mulberries, Figs, Filberts, Melons, &c.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gen Con Seminar Schedule

In just over two weeks (and three days after I get home from Pennsic), I will be Participating in the Writer's Symposium seminars at Gen Con. I've gone to this convention for several years, and given talks on medieval cooking for the past three or four (I'm losing count).

On Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m. I'll be giving a 2 hour talk about medieval cooking ("Getting Medieval with Food"). This will be a sort of general overview, geared towards fantasy authors and game designers who want to make the food in their work more realistic. Here's the description from the Gen Con events catalog:

SEM0903050 - Getting Medieval with Food
Fantasy games and novels are commonly set in a society based on medieval Europe - except for the food, which is commonly way wrong. Learn how medieval English and French cuisine worked as a system. Topics will include medieval ingredients and preparation methods, the structure of medieval feasts, finding medieval recipes (or making them up), and common myths about medieval foods. 08/13/2009, 8:00 PM - Marriott : Indiana Bllrm D

I'm also very likely to ramble a bit, allow myself to be side-tracked by questions, and maybe even rant.

I'll also be part of the following panel discussions:

SEM0902995 - Food for Thought
A key ingredient to believable characters and stories is food. Heroes, villains, and the supporting cast have to eat from time to time. How can you enrich your writing by adding a dining experience or two? What does food say about the world you've crafted? 08/15/2009, 12:00 PM - Marriott : Lincoln
SEM0903002 - Hunting Dragons
Why has going after dragons been so popular in fiction? Our panelists discuss classic dragon hunters like Beowulf, Saint George, and Bilbo Baggins, in addition to how the hunt has changed over the years. Learn how to shape the classic story into something fresh and exciting. 08/15/2009, 3:00 PM - Marriott : Santa Fe
SEM0903003 - Stealing History
Why recreate the wheel each time you create a story, character, or world? Yes, you can build your knighthood or priesthood or religion or society from scratch, but taking what's historically known and warping it might fit the proverbial bill and depth and believability. Join our panelists for a discussion on how we can mine our own rich history for characters, backgrounds, worlds, cosmology, scenery, and more. 08/15/2009, 4:00 PM - Marriott : Santa Fe

On the whole, I expect it to be lots of fun.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What a Difference a Word Makes

I've been spending a good amount of time lately looking at the John Rylands University images of their copy of Forme of Cury (I know, what a surprise) and comparing it to other versions. There are lots of differences, but they're usually minor changes in spelling, with the occasional dropped or added word here and there. Sometimes those dropped words can have a huge impact on a recipe.

A perfect example is the recipe for Payne ragoun. The Rylands manuscript has the following:

Tak hony suger cypres & clarifye it to gider & boyle it with esye fyre & kepe it wel from brennyng & whan hit hath y boyled a whyle tak up a drope ther of with thy fynger & do hit in a litul water & loke yf it hong to gider & tak hit fro the fyre & do therto pynes the thryddendel & poudour ginger, & stere it to gyder tyl hit bigyne to thyk and cast it on a wete table, lesche hit & serve hit forth with fryed mete, on flesch day or on fysch dayes.

Compare this to the version transcribed by Samuel Pegge in 1780:

Take hony suger and clarifie it togydre. and boile it with esy fyre, and kepe it wel fro brennyng and whan it hath yboiled a while; take up a drope therof with thy fyngur and do it in a litel water and loke if it hong togydre. and take it fro the fyre and do therto the thriddendele an powdour gyngener and stere it togyder til it bigynne to thik and cast it on a wete table. lesh it and serue it forth with fryed mete on flessh dayes or on fysshe dayes.

Weird spelling and ampersands aside, there's not a huge amount of difference between the two ... except for one word. The Pegge edition leaves out the word "pynes". The omission of this one word turns the recipe from pine-nut brittle into spice candy, and hides any connection to similar recipes for "Pynade" in both Forme of Cury and Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books.

Interestingly, the word "pynes" is included in the edition of Forme of Cury that appears in Hieatt & Butler's Curye on Inglish (I haven't had a chance to check which manuscript that transcription was based upon), so a correct version of this recipe has been available for quite some time. Still, I'd hazard a guess that the Pegge edition is the one most often consulted (because it is available online for free).

So what's it all mean in the grand scheme of things? Probably that one should always check multiple sources whenever possible.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - July

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of July.

Deux-ans, Pepins, Winter Russeting, Andrew Apples, Cinnamon Apple, red and white Juneting, the Margaret Apple, &c.

The Primat, Russet Pears, Summer Pears, green Chesil Pears, Pearl Pear, &c.

Carnations, Morella, Great-bearer, Morocco Cherry, the Egriot, Bigarreaux, &c.

Nutmeg, Isabella, Persian, Newington, Violet muscat, Rambouilet.

Plums, &c.
Primordial, Myrobalan, the red, blew, and amber Violet, Damasc. Denny Damasc. Pear-Plum, Damasc. Violet, or Cheson-Plum, Abricot-plum, Cinnamon-plum, the King's-plum, Spanish, Morocco-plum, Lady Eliz. plum, Tawny, Damascene, &c.

Rasberries, Gooseberries, Corinths, Strawberries, Melons, &c.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Even More on "Forme of Cury"

On Monday I griped a bit about the lack of a way to link directly to the John Rylands University Library images of "Forme of Cury". There are some things that I can't just leave alone, and seeing as I'm somewhat of a web geek, I did what I could to correct the situation.

I put together a web page of links to the manuscript images. That way others can have some place to link to that provides clear and simple access. Note that the images are still hosted on the John Rylands University Library's servers (I'm not violating their copyright). This means that they could easily fiddle with their servers or add some kind of authorization process that would break the links, so I don't know how long this page will be useful.

Monday, June 22, 2009

More on "Forme of Cury"

So the latest big news in medieval cuisine is that the John Rylands University Library in Manchester has made images of their copy of "Forme of Cury" online.

One oddity though about the BBC news story on this event is that there is no link provided to the images. There is a link in the sidebar to John Rylands University Library (and their "Medieval Collection") though, so perhaps it's there.


The images are indeed there, and can be viewed free of charge - so I guess I really shouldn't complain - but the university has them (and all their images of other beautiful manuscripts) tucked away behind some clunky code. There is no clear and simple way to link directly to them (it apparently can be done - folio 4, verso - but it's not clear and simple). Instead you need to go to the Rylands Medieval Collection website, click on the link for the Insight Browser (the page says you can use the username 'uman' password 'est1824'), and then find the manuscript (it's reference number English MS 7). Then you can look at each page, one by one.

Really, I'm very happy that they've gone to the effort of digitizing this manuscript and putting it online with FREE access. What keeps echoing in my mind though is the bit from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the demolition orders were on display in the cellar in the back of an unmarked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What's wrong with this Picture?

Ok, take a good look at the image below ...

Now let's think about how people really use refrigerators - assuming of course that we're talking about people who cook rather than those who open and heat. No, I'm not talking about how freakin' empty this fridge is, or how clean it is, or even the lack of mysterious containers of food leftover from some forgotten meal in a previous decade. What really stinks my cheese here is how the clueless engineers intended the fridge to be used.

Let me give you a hint. You're going to make beef stroganoff, or maybe grill steaks, or Thai curried chicken, or whatever, so you get the meat out of the freezer to thaw overnight in the fridge. Where do you put it?

Do you see the problem now?

Food safety guidelines have stated for the past million years that raw meats should NEVER be stored above ready-to-eat foods. Yet the bottom of the fridge is specifically set up with bins for fruit and vegetables (my fridge at home helpfully has the bins labeled, with a special little sliding lever to switch from "Fruits" to "Vegetables" - one's vented, the other isn't, I can't remember which is which though). So the frozen meat is set on the lowest open shelf where it can drip bacteria-laden grossness all over those nice grapes or apples or salad greens (my fridge at home helpfully has that little sliding lever and vent to allow the meat juice better access to the produce). I suppose you could rinse the produce with bleach before consuming, but that doesn't sound like a very safe idea either.

Here's a model from a different manufacturer:

This isn't an isolated thing. I can't remember ever having a fridge that didn't have produce drawers at the bottom. Are the people who design these things completely clueless, or do they just not think? Maybe they're all vegetarians?

As to the cause of this rant, suffice it to say that I had to sanitize the bottom of my fridge and pitch all sorts of leftovers that I'd been saving for the next nuclear apocalypse. Time to re-organize, re-purpose, and re-label.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Medieval Catering

So here's the fun news: on Tuesday I cooked for the OSU Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

They did an interview with me last year for their newsletter (Nouvelles/Nouvelles) and I'd been in contact with them off and on.

So when they asked if I could prepare some medieval dishes for their end of year get-together I was thrilled. I planned out a menu that would have a good number of dishes so they'd be able to get a sense of medieval French and English cuisine. Here's what I selected:

Kristen was kind enough to make some of the dishes (the bread, wafers, and breny) and also take a day off from work to go to Columbus with me and serve. Things wouldn't have gone nearly as smoothly without her help (especially as my dishwasher died on Sunday in the middle of preparations). She drove down to Cincinnati in the morning, and we loaded up the van and left just after noon for Columbus. It's a two hour drive, with nothing but flat farmland on both sides, ending in a twisting route through OSU's campus. We found the building where the party was going to be held about 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Then it was unload, park, and get to work. We were just getting the last dishes plated and out onto the buffet table when the guests started showing up.

The food was very well received, with a couple of surprises. The stuffed eggs always do well, as do the pumpes, but I'm not used to people being that excited about the compost. The average American just doesn't seem to go for pickled root vegetables. Maybe academics have more adventurous palates than lesser mortals. Maybe the vegetarian students were really hungry. Whatever the reason, they ate more of it than I expected.

Oddly, the big winner was the hypocras. I'd never worked up a proper recipe for it before (don't ask me why), but they'd requested some kind of medieval beverage, and hypocras was the easiest of the alternatives. Because the party was held on campus, I had to make it a non-alcoholic version - essentially grape juice and powder douce with a little vinegar added to make it taste more like wine.

The only glitch in the whole thing was that there was waaay too much food, which made it all cost more than it should. This was due to a combination of things, including an overestimate of the number of guests (50 instead of the 30 that showed up) and my typical tendency to overfeed people. Got to watch that for future events.

And there's the good news: the CMRS director, Richard Firth Green, seemed very happy with how things turned out and asked if I'd be willing to do similar events in the future. I, of course, said "Yes!"

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - June

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of June.

Sow Lettuce, Chervil, Radish, &c. to have young and tender Salleting.

About the midst of June you may inoculate Peaches, Abricots, Cherries, Plums, Apples, Pears, &c.

You may now also (or in May before) cleanse Vines or exuberant Branches and Tendrels, cropping (not cutting) and stopping the second Joynt immediately before the Fruit, and some of the under branches which bear no fruit; especially in young Vineyards when they first begin to bear, and thence forwards; binding up the rest to Props.

Gather Herbs in the Full to keep dry; they keep and retain their vertue and sweet smell, better dryed in the shade than Sun, whatever some pretend.

Now is your season to distill Aromatic Plants, &c.

Water lately planted Trees, and put moist and half rotten Fearn, &c. about the foot of their stems, having first clear'd them of weeds and a little stirred the earth.

Look to your Bees for Swarms and Casts; and begin to destroy Insects with Hoofs, Canes, and tempting Baits, &c. Gather Snails after Rain, &c.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

Monday, June 1, 2009

NOT The Medieval Diet™

Got a lot I'm up to (more on that later this week) so I haven't posted much lately, but a friend just sent pointed out a website that I must comment on.

I've talked about the Medieval Diet™ before. It's a very rich and complex topic, and there's a lot we can learn from medieval Europe about healthy eating. This site however has nothing to do with medieval Europe.

Apparently the site was designed (if you can call it that) by one of those sad individuals who think that liberally sprinkling words like "ye" and "verily" through a text make it sound more medieval. There are no medieval recipes in their medieval diet and no information on what was eaten in medieval Europe. I'm surprised they didn't spell it "mid-evil".

Oh, and from what I can tell the advice given isn't all that good from a dietary viewpoint either. Sad. Just plain sad.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Modern Mystery

I've got all sorts of medieval things in the works ... but none of them are ready for the light of day. So as a diversion, I present you with a modern mystery object.

unknown thing

I really don't know what this thing is - my best (and obviously inaccurate) guess is that it's a cow-lip-stretcher.

unknown thing

It's about 6" long, appears to be cast stainless steel, and was manufactured in the early-to-mid 1900s. It has no identifying markings. It may have been farm-related (our family had a farm in the distant past, and I think that's where my dad got it).

unknown thing

My brother thinks it was used for skinning animals. I like the cow-lip-stretcher idea better.

unknown thing

My apologies for the poor quality of the images - I took them with my cell phone camera in poor light.

unknown thing

Anyone out there seen one of these before?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hitting the Sauce Again

Yesterday evening I put the recipe for Sauce for Stekys on the website. This was the indirect result of a puff-piece in the New York Times about "new" cuts of beef.

The Times article essentially talked about a marketing push by the US beef industry to sell inexpensive cuts of beef. While most (all?) of these cuts have been around for a while, they were rarely used in the US. So the beef industry renamed them and is presenting them as the next new thing.

Marketing antics aside, money is tight nowadays, so a cheap but still decent cut of beef sounds like a good idea to me. That's why when I was shopping for groceries last week, and came across a "Flatiron Steak" (sometimes referred to as a "butler's steak" in Europe), I went ahead and bought the thing without any idea of what I'd do with it.

According to the instructions on the package, it was suitable for broiling or grilling, and then should be cut across the grain. No problem. I decided to brush on some olive oil, salt, and pepper and broil it, and serve it with asparagus and herbed pasta.

Of course I can't leave it at that. I worked out any new recipes in a while, so how about a nice medieval English sauce to go with it? A quick search of recipes in "Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books" had me settled on this recipe:

xxxj - To make Stekys of venson or bef. Take Venyson or Bef, and leche and gredyl it vp broun; then take Vynegre and a litel verious, and a lytil Wyne, and putte pouder perpir ther-on y-now, and pouder Gyngere; and atte the dressoure straw on pouder Canelle y-now, that the stekys be al y-helid ther-wyth, and but a litel Sawce; and than serue it forth.

Wine, vinegar, verjuice and spices - nice and straightforward. No verjuice on hand, so I'd have to use a little lemon juice. Hmm. Likely to be runny too - there's nothing in the recipe that acts as a thickener, and cinnamon in unthickened sauces sometimes makes them turn out kind of strange - almost stringy. Ok, so I'll thicken it. I could use wheat starch or rice flour or even eggs as a thickener, but my favorite medieval thickening method is to use bread.

This has to be the coolest trick in the medieval cook's repertoire. You soak the bread in a liquid like broth or wine for a while, strain out the solids, and then cook the liquid with the desired spices until it thickens. Need it to be thicker? Use more bread. The neat part is that while flour or starch thickeners can cause lumps, and eggs can cause the sauce to curdle if overcooked, using bread like this is amazingly tolerant of adverse cooking situations (like cooking in a large pot over a fire with no temperature control). It simply doesn't make lumps or curdle.

So that's what I did. The flatiron steak turned out perfectly, with a convenient gradation of doneness from medium-rare to medium-well. It wasn't as nice as a fillet mignon, but it was certainly better than some cheap steaks I've had. The Steky Sauce? Cindy proclaimed it to be "Yummy" and the kids both liked it. I'd call that a win.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - May

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of May.

Sow sweet marjoram, Basil, Thyme, hot and Aromatic Herbs and Plants which are the most tender.

Sow Purslan, to have young: Lettuce, large-sided Cabbage, painted Beans, &c.

Look carefully to your Melons; and towards the end of this Month forbear to cover them any longer on Ridges wither with Straw or Matrasses, &c.

Ply the Laboratory, and distill Plants for Waters, Spirits, &c.

Continue Weeding before they run to Seeds.

Now set your Bees at full liberty, look out often, and expect Swarms, &c.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Food Related Painting of the Week

January: A Kitchen
Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555 - 1630)

January: A Kitchen
(from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

It's been a while since I babbled on about a painting, so it's about time for another.

A few days ago, someone (thanks, Johnnae!) posted a link to this etching to one of the mailing lists I follow. There was a brief discussion about the items and equipment being used and the thread died down. Basically it centered around the spigots at the sink on the left, and the women nearby apparently plucking poultry. Those aren't what first caught my interest in this image.

The first thing I saw was the stark division of the kitchen.

The table in the center splits the kitchen in half, and separates the functions of cooking and service. It also serves to keep servers, dishwashers, and other non-cooks out of the way of the cooks (and vice-versa). This is surprisingly similar to my preferred setup for cooking medieval feasts (and how many - most? - modern restaurant kitchens work as well).

The second thing I saw was that the dining setup wasn't what I expected.

I'm used to seeing either a U-shaped arrangement of tables with the feasters sitting around the outside, or (in smaller or less formal settings) a single table with the feasters sitting around it. Here the tables are set out as one very long table, and it's hard to be sure but I think the feasters are seated only on the side at the far right. On the left side, opposite the table, is what I believe to be a side-board. It has big serving platters on display, and would probably also have an array of sweets or the like set out during the feast.

After these I started looking at smaller details.

Various pots and pans are being stored on high shelves over the sink. Presumably this would help keep them clean and out of the way. Similarly, there are a couple of cooking implements being stored on the hood over the fire.

The food on the plates (bowls? they look kind of deep to be plates) about to be served is covered with another plate. Is it to keep stuff from falling into the food? I don't think so, because the food on the flatter plates isn't similarly covered. Perhaps it's to keep wetter foods from sloshing, or maybe to help keep the food warm until it reaches the feasters.

I initially thought that the things sticking out of the meats being roasted over the fire were the small skewers that help keep the meat from sliding around and to turn when the spit turns, but it looks like they're still on the meat that the cook is putting onto the table to be served. So I suspect those are pieces of fat inserted into the meat to help keep it moist (a process called larding).

Finally, an odd little detail: on the table in the lower right corner of the image is a small round thing that looks like a drawer knob. Is that really a drawer? I don't think I've seen drawers in medieval artwork before, but then again that's not something I've been paying attention to - up until now.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It Must Be Spring!

Looking out the kitchen window this morning, I noticed something looked odd with my quince tree.

Quince Blossom

Yes, those beautiful pink blossoms are blooming! (Ok, so the picture above is one I took last year - I didn't have enough time this morning to take a new one. I'll try to take some new ones soon).

There are a lot more blossoms this year than last - which only makes sense given that the tree is about two feet taller than it was last spring. Hopefully I'll have better luck and actually get a couple quince from it this year.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More Thoughts on "The Medieval Diet"™

It's been far too long since I posted last. Things got a bit nuts for a while there - a royalty lunch to cook, a feast to help with, taxes, vacation, minor illness, yadda yadda yadda. It's amazing how life can get in the way of the important things in life. Anyways, I thought I'd give a short update on this dietary experiment I've been toying with.

A while back I posted about the similarities between the diet in medieval Europe, the "Flexitarian" diet, and the advice of modern nutritionists. For the past couple of months I've had my family eating roughly according to the following guidelines.

  1. No meat (other than fish) on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
  2. Lunch is the main meal, dinner is smaller
  3. Meat portions are small (~4 oz.) with the bulk of the caloric intake coming from other foods
  4. Seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables
  5. Carbohydrates from a variety of grains and tubers
  6. Reduced intake of sugars

Note that I used the word "roughly" above. There were occasions where we swapped the menus for a couple days of the week - usually due to having stuff in the fridge that needed to be cooked before it spoiled. However overall we had more meatless days than the required 3 out of 7 per week (vacationing on the Carolina coast was a bonus - it was more like 5 out of 7 days without meat).

The seasonal vegetables part has actually been kind of fun. I end up buying what's cheaper and having to be a bit creative with it to keep things from getting dull. Of course every now and then I need to resort to frozen veggies out of expediency. Mind you, it's spring. Living on seasonal produce will likely be much harder in the winter.

Was the produce locally grown? Probably not. I just don't have time to go to the farmers markets and such, which leaves me with what's available at the grocery. It probably was all trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

The biggest problem of course is having lunch be the main meal of the day. This has been a total failure so far. The kids are in school and I'm working a traditional 9-5, so we can't get together for a big, home cooked dinner in the middle of the day. I suppose I could pack a larger lunch and go light on supper, but somehow that just doesn't click with me.

Still, we're eating a better balance of foods overall with less red meat, and I'm losing weight (veeeery sloooowly). I guess it's one of those cases of incremental improvement, so I'll keep working at it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - April

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of April.

Sow sweet Marjoram, Hyssop, Basil, Thyme, Winter Savory, Scurvey-grass2, and all fine and tender Seeds that require the Hot-bed.

Sow also Lettice, Purslian, Caully-flower, Raddish, &c.

Plant Artichoke-slips, &c.

Set French Beans, &c. And sow Turneps to have them early.

You may yet slip Lavender, Thyme, Peneroyal, Sage, Rosemary, &c.

Towards the middle of this Month begin to plant forth your Melons and Cucumbers, and so to the later end; your Ridges well prepared.

Gather up Worms and Snails, after evening showers; continue this after all Summer rains.

Open now your Bee-hives, for now they hatch; look carefully to them, and prepare your Hives, &c.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - Scurvey-grass: Cochlearia species; a.k.a. Scurvy grass, Scurvygrass, or Spoonwort.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Searching through the Searches

Apparently I need to be more clear on the functionality of the Medieval Cookbook Search.

Every now and then I like to look through the various log files generated by my web hosts. This allows me to find out if someone like the BBC recently linked to the site, or if some recipe is surprisingly popular, or if there's something wrong with the HTML code, etc.

I've recently become aware that a number of people are entering things into the Medieval Cookbook Search that aren't going to return much in the way of useful information. I originally set the search engine up to find recipes in various medieval sources which contain a particular ingredient. It incorporates a sort of "translation" feature that copes with the wild spelling variations of Middle English. A couple of years later I added the capability of searching for multiple ingredients at the same time (which turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be).

What I didn't anticipate when building the indexes though was that some people would enter the name of a recipe. I can add this, but it'll take some time.

I also didn't expect people to enter such things as "food" and "cookery". Just what do they expect to find with those keywords in a bunch of medieval cookbooks? Even stranger, if they mistakenly thought it was a search for the entire website, what did they expect it to return given that the whole website is about "food" and "cookery"?

I can rig up some code so that if nothing is found in the cookbooks, it'll offer a generic search for the whole website (thanks be to Google), which will help with terms like "white", "mousse", and "cookie".

Which brings me to search terms like "Moo Moo". That is just plain silly, and I won't write special code for it (though I suppose I could ...).

Friday, March 13, 2009

"If it's bad then we'll order a pizza."

I experiment on my family, and while even the kids are willing to try strange looking new foods, sometimes the recipes don't turn out. Our rule is simply that everyone tries it out, and if it's no good then we call Domino's. As it turns out, we've very rarely had to resort to pizza. This is partly due to my getting better at figuring out what will or won't work ahead of time, but mostly it's because I don't usually have the whole meal depend on a single, experimental dish.

For example, I tried out a new fish recipe recently (you knew this was coming, didn't you) and the results were less than encouraging. Sometimes medieval recipes don't work out because of translation or interpretation issues and sometimes there was an error back when they were writing down the recipe in the first place. Occasionally though, the problem is that the modern palate just isn't used to certain flavor combinations. I suspect this is the case with this recipe.

The dish in question comes from "the Second part of the Good Huswiues Jewell" (England, 1597).

To dresse a carpe.
Take your carpe and scale it, and splet
it, and cut off his heade, & take out all
the bones from him cleane, then take the
fish and mince it fine, being raw, with the
yolkes of foure or fiue hard egges minced
with it, so doone put it into an earthen pot,
with two dishes of butter & a pint of whit
wine, a handfull of proynes, two yolks of
hard egges cut in foure quarters, and
season it with one nutmeg not small bea-
ten, Salt, Sinamon and Ginger, and in
the boyling of it you must stirre it that it
burne not to the pot bottome, and when it
is enough then take your minced meat, &
lay it in the dish, making the proportion of
the body, setting his head at the vpper end
and his taile at the lower end, which head
and taile must be sodden by themselues in
a vessell with water and salt.
You may vse a Pike thus in al points,
so that you do not take the proines, but for
them take Dates and small raisons, and
when you haue seasoned it as your Carpe
is, and when you do serue it put the refect
into the pikes mouth gaping, and so serue
it foorth."

Ok, it doesn't look all that complex. It's chopped fish, hard-boiled egg yolks, butter, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and dried fruit. I picked out some fish (no carp or pike were available, so I chose flounder on the grounds that it was a white, lightly flavored fish) and got to work. I didn't have prunes, but did have dates and raisins.

The resulting dish smelled good, but here's the problem: it didn't smell like dinner. In fact, it smelled like breakfast. The combination of spices made it smell almost exactly like cinnamon-spice oatmeal. To make matters worse looked like cinnamon-spice oatmeal too, complete with raisins. Worrisome.

I had the forethought to cook a full regular dinner and have the new dish on the side, so no one was worried that we'd have to wait for the pizza man. Everyone sat down, dished up the food, and started eating.

Complete silence at the table can be a good sign, but not in combination with confused facial expressions.

Everyone agreed (even the kids) that while it tasted ok, and wasn't exactly bad, it still didn't taste ... right. Honestly, it tasted exactly like lightly fish-flavored cinnamon-spice oatmeal. This is not the sort of thing you want to eat at dinner, and probably not a good bet for breakfast either.

There was a lot of talk around the table about what made it not right. It could be I used too much of the spices, or the wrong type of fish, or wrong balance of spices, but really I think this is one of those rare occasions where medieval people were eating something that modern people just aren't going to like (even if they like new and different foods). So I'll shelve this one and maybe look at it again in a few months and see if anything occurs to me.


Monday, March 9, 2009


Anyone who has talked to me long enough is probably aware that I am an ardent proponent of digitizing old and out-of-copyright documents and making them publicly available on the Internet. I can provide any number of reasons for doing this, such as the distribution of information to facilitate and promote research, but just this week the world was given a startling example of why we shouldn't keep all of our historical texts in one metaphorical basket.

On Tuesday, the six story building housing the Cologne City Archives collapsed. This building housed many medieval documents, charters, and such, some of which were probably destroyed and all were most likely severely damaged. There was almost no notice that anything was wrong, which means there was no time to get anything out of the building.

Throughout history texts have been lost in this general sort of way. Fires, wars, floods, or just plain age and decay take their toll. The information in newer books isn't as likely to be lost since there are usually multiple copies in various locations, but older documents are typically the only copy, so if we lose that one then the information in it is gone forever.

What makes this particularly sad is that with the current state of technology, the cost of digitizing such documents and widely distributing them (thereby potentially protecting them forever) is almost nothing. Yes, there are some cases where any kind of touch is going to destroy a document, so the digitization process needs to be ultra-high resolution blah blah blah 'cause we're only going to get one chance and we have to do it right, but for the vast majority of books and manuscripts out there this isn't the way it is.

All it takes is a volunteer with a cheap digital camera (which can even be borrowed). They can go into a library and photograph the document. Then the images can be uploaded to public sites like Wikimedia Commons. Others can then stitch the images together and convert them to a PDF file suitable for the Internet Archive's Text Archive, or transcribe them to text for Project Gutenberg. Each time this is done - no matter how small or insignificant the text - it's a gift to the world.

Of course, key in this process is the library that owns the document in question. Some libraries are more than willing to accommodate such amateur archivists. The Indianapolis Public Library for example allowed me to photograph and transcribe A Noble Boke off Cookry. Other libraries though see their rare books as a rare asset, and that the fewer people allowed access to their rare books, the higher the status of their rare books collection (you can imagine how I feel about that). Sometimes libraries have their own digitization process, usually high quality, which since it is usually expensive is therefore subject to budgets and funding cuts and the like - a case of making the best the enemy of the good (and sometimes they only make their digitized collection available to very few, or sell distribution rights to companies like Proquest who charge large subscription fees - again, you can imagine how I feel about that).

Still this is one of the areas where the little guy can make a difference. If you have access to a digital camera and a copyright-free text that isn't publicly available, photograph it (with the owner's permission) and upload it. If you're not sure what text to digitize or how to go about it, I'll be happy to offer suggestions. Heck, even if it's just some obscure Victorian pamphlet on apiaries, I'm sure someone in the future doing research on late 19th century English references to bees will thank you. [Ok, even that sounds interesting to me - I'm such a geek]

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Breakfast

I've posted before about breakfast, noting the general uncertainty of whether or not the people of medieval Europe did or didn't eat a morning meal. Now I've found another interesting passage of text on the subject.

This one comes from The Castel of Helth by Thomas Elyot (1541). I'd found this book many months back when I was reading up on food and humoral theory, but I hadn't read through the whole thing. Much to my surprise, buried within a section on what's appropriate to eat at various times of the year is the passage quoted below. It's rather long but in essence it says that people under the age of 40 can eat breakfast, and that (given the climate of England) not doing so might harm their health.

Sir Elyot doesn't say anything specific about people over the age of 40 though, which leaves me to conclude that I'm personally allowed at least six meals a day.

Tymes in the day concernynge meales. Cap. 27.

Besydes the tymes of the yere and ages, there
be also other tymes of eatinge and drinkinge
to be remembred, as the sundry tymes in the day,
whiche we call meales, which are in number and
distance, accordinge to the temperature of the coun
trey and person: As where the country is colde,
and the person lusty, and of a strong nature, there
may mo meales be vsed, or the lasse distaunce of
tyme betwene them. Contrarywise in contrary coun-
trais and personages, the cause is afore rehersed.
Where I haue spoken of the diete of the tymes of
the yere, not withstandinge here must be also con-
sideration of exercise and rest, which do augment
or appaire the naturall disposition of bodyes, as
shalbe more delclared hereafter in the chapiter of
exercise. But concernynge the generall csage of
countreis, and admitting the bodies to be in per-
fite state of healthe, I suppose, that in Englande,
yong men, vntil they come to the age of .xl. yeres,
may well eate thre meales in one day, as at breke-
fast, dyner, and supper, so that betwene brekefast,
and diner, be the space of foure houres at the lest,
betwene diner and supper .vi. houres, & the breke
fast lasse than the diner and the dyner moderate,
that is to say, lasse than sacietie or fulnesse of bea-
ly, and the drynke thervnto mesurable, according
to the drynesse or moystnes of the meate. For mo-
che abundance of drynke at meale, drowneth the
meate eaten, and not only letteth conuenient con-
coction in the stomake, but also causeth it to passe
faster than nature requireth, and therfore ingen-
dreth moche fleume, and consequently reumes, &
crudenes in the vaynes, debilitie and slyppernes
of the stomacke, contynuall fluxe, and many o-
ther inconueniences to the body and members.

But to retourne to meales, I thynke breakefa-
stes necessary in this realme, as well for the cau-
ses before rehersed, as also forasmoch as coler be-
inge feruent in the stomacke, sendeth vp fumiosi-
ties vnto the brayne, and causeth head ache, and
sometyme becommeth aduste, and smouldreth in
the stomake, wherby happeneth peryllous sycke-
nes, and somtyme sodayne deathe, if the heate in-
closed in the stomake haue nat other conueniente
matter to work on: this dayly experience proueth,
and naturalle reason confirmeth. Therfore men
and women not aged, hauynge their stomackes
cleane without putrified matter, slepynge mode-
rately and soundly in the nyght, and felinge them
selfe lyght in the morninge, and swete brethed, let
them on goddis name breake their fast: Colerike
men with grosse meate, men of other complexions
with lyghter meate.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - March

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of March.

Yet stercoration2 is seasonable, and you may plant what Trees are left, though it be something of the latest, unless in very backward or moist places.

Now is your chieftest and best time for raising on the Hot-bed Melons, Cucumbers, Gourds, &c. which about the sixth, eighth, or tenth day will be ready for the Seeds; and eight days after prick them forth at distances, according to the Method, &c.

If you will have them later, begin again in ten or twelve days after the first; and so a third time, to make Experiments. Remember to preserve the Hot-bed as much as possible from Rain; for cool him you may easily, if too violent, but not give it a competent heat, if it be spent, without new making.

Graff all this Month, beginning with Pears, and ending with Apples, unless the Spring prove extraordinary forwards.

Now also plant Peaches and Necturines, but cut not off the top roots as you do of other Trees; for 'twill much prejudice them; Prune last years Graffs, and cut off the heads of your budded Stocks. Take off the Litter from your Kernel beds or you may fornear till April.

You may as yet cut Quick-sets and cover such Tree roots as you laid bare in Autumn.

It were profitable now also to top your Rose trees a little with your Knife near a leaf bud, and to prune off the dead and withered branches, keeping them lower than the custom is, and to a single Stem.

Slip, and Set Sage, Rosemary, Lavender, Thyne, &c.

Sow in the beginning Endive, Succory, Leeks, Radish, Beets, Chard-Beet, Scorzonera3, Parsnips, Skirrets4, Parsly, Sorrel, Bugloss, Borage, Chervil, Sellery, Smalladge, Alisanders, &c. Several of which continue many years without renewing, and are most of them to be blanch'd by laying them under Litter and earthing up.

Sow also Lettuce, Onions, Garlick, Orach, Purslain, Turneps, (to have early) monthly Pease, &c. these annually.

Transplant the Beet-chard which you sow'd in August, to have most ample Chards.

Sow also Carrots, Cabbages, Cresses, Fennel, Marjoram, Basil, Tobacco, &c. And transplant any sort of Medicinal Herbs.

Mid-March dress up, and string your Strawberry beds, and uncover your Asparagus, spreading and loosning the Mould about them for their more easie penetrating: Also may you now transplant Asparagus roots to make new Beds.

By this time your Bees sit; keep them close night and morning, if the weather prove ill.

Turn your Fruit in the Room where it lies, but open not yet the windows.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - Stercoration: The act of manuring with dung.

3 - Scorzonera: black salsify.

4 - Skirrets: Sium sisarum, a sort of water-parsnip.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Medieval Diet?

Last week I came across a post on Lifehacker in which the blogger in question described his change to a flexitarian diet and how he'd been able to lose substantial weight with a few relatively easy modifications to his eating habits. Seeing as I've been getting decidedly Pooh-shaped lately, and remembering that many years back we'd gone semi-vegetarian and didn't die from meat withdrawal, I've come to think that this may be a good thing to try.

Then the thought occurred to me that this sort of semi-vegetarian thing was a major part of the Church-dictated medieval European diet. On three days each week - Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays - meat from land animals was off the menu. They were replaced with fish, leguminous vegetables, and the like. Of course things were much more restricted during lent (no dairy or eggs allowed either, making it a sort of pisco-vegan diet). Interesting, but I'm not quite ready for 40 days of that.

So what would a modern, healthy version of "The Medieval Diet"™ be like? Let's see ...

  1. No meat (other than fish) on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
  2. Lunch is the main meal, dinner is smaller
  3. Meat portions are small (~4 oz.) with the bulk of the caloric intake coming from other foods
  4. Seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables
  5. Carbohydrates from a variety of grains and tubers
  6. Reduced intake of sugars

Mind you, this isn't how people actually ate in most of medieval Europe. Most food historians now think that the average worker was consuming around 3000 calories a day (not counting times of famine) and burning it all off with hard work, and the wealthy were eating a diet full of fats, sugars, and protein (and paying the price in terms of diet-related diseases just like we are today). Still, it's a diet that has a basis in medieval practices, and is surprisingly close to what a lot of modern nutritionists advocate.

We'll have to see how well it works.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Items of Note

Music - Venere Lute Quartet
"Aery Entertainments"
Mees Hall, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
February 20, 2009

One of few professional lute ensembles, the Venere Lute Quartet performs
Renaissance and Baroque masterworks and is actively expanding the surviving
lute ensemble repertoire with its own arrangements. In its Columbus debut,
the quartet will perform works by Palestrina, Praetorius, Sweelinck and
others. The Venere Lute Quartet is named after the Italian Renaissance
luthier Vendelio Venere, who (like Stradivarius) was regarded among the
finest luthiers of his age.

Tickets are $25, $20 (seniors), $10 (students) and are available at the
door. To order by phone, call Early Music in Columbus (614-861-4569), the
CAPA Ticket office (614-469-0939) or Ticketmaster (614-431-3600).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Leaving One's Comfort Zone

Towards the end of last month, we took a family car trip to Florida. About a third of the way into the sixteen-hour return trip we stopped briefly at a gas station/convenience store, and while I was waiting for various family members to be ready to continue the trip I wound up staring at a rack of commercial baked goods with Spanish labels. While I'll freely admit to being an adventurous eater, I found the names and visible contents to be somewhat dubious. I mean, I don't like Twinkies or most store-bought cookies, and here was an array of factory made "food" that apparently is geared to patrons of Mexican gas stations.

So I bought some.

I picked out the most unusual and oddly named items I could find and thus begins the tale of the trying of three products: Pingüinos, Gansitos, and the ever-appetizingly-named ¡Sponch! Into the grocery bag they go, and into the car, and down the road for ten interminable hours, and once we were home I shoved the bag into the back of the pantry to save them for later without worry since they had an expiration date that was sometime in the later half of the 32nd century.

Thus when Avelyn, my apprentice, came over for dinner on Sunday (broiled steak seasoned with coriander and ginger, rice steamed with coconut milk and currants, and fresh asparagus), I was ready with something truly educational for dessert. We cleared the dinner dishes away, got out the grocery bag of dread, and started dividing things up.

Penguins are good, right?

The first thing we tried were the Pingüinos, and they were a bit of a disappointment. In appearance they're indistinguishable from hostess cupcakes - right down to the loops of icing on the top and the plastic tray. That's about where the similarity ends though, for Pingüinos have all the chocolaty flavor goodness of potting soil and a moisture content like that of dryer lint. Of the five people at the dining table, only the nine-year-old child liked them.


After the Pingüinos we decided to jump right in and try the scariest looking thing here - ¡Sponch! It was obvious right off the bat that this wasn't like any snack cake I'd encountered before. It consists of a square shortbread cookie (imprinted on the bottom with the word ¡Sponch!) topped with four mounds of alleged marshmallow, with a bit of jelly at the center and the whole thing sprinkled with coconut. Apparently ¡Sponch! comes in a variety of flavors. I had purchased a package of "strawberry" (hereafter referred to as PINK) and "grape" (hereafter referred to as PURPLE).

By far, ¡Sponch! received the most reaction from our intrepid team (actually, I think we were all very trepid). Avelyn said the PURPLE flavored ¡Sponch! tasted like chewable vitamins. The eleven-year-old said it tasted like children's chewable Tylenol. The nine-year-old took the tiniest of nibbles from the PINK flavored one and then (wisely) refused to eat it. For some strange reason nobody wanted the PURPLE flavored one that he didn't touch. The general comment upon tasting was something like "Um ... urgh ... ghah!".

How can you go wrong with something called "Little Goose"

Gansitos were by far the best of the lot. They were small (somewhat stale) yellow cakes topped with a strip of jelly, topped in turn with a strip of white fluffy stuff, then coated in chocolate and sprinkled with "chocolate" sprinkles (the shape of which had disturbing connotations when connected with the phrase "Little Goose"). The eleven-year-old said he liked them (but didn't want the extras), the nine-year-old tasted it and decided he was done. I thought the jelly had an odd, acidic, almost alcoholic taste to it. LU Biscuits makes a kind of cookie (PIMS) that are vaguely similar in flavor (but a whole lot nicer).

On the whole, it was a fun thing to do for dessert, and while some things tasted strange (¡Sponch!) none of us got sick or anything.

What does this have to do with Medieval Cooking? Not a heck of a lot. But part of researching culinary history means trying foods that look strange and/or have weird ingredients. You have to be willing to go beyond what is normal for your culture, and you find yourself asking things like "Do people really like this sort of thing? If so, why?" and "What flavor were they trying to get here?"

Hmm ... maybe I need to make another trip to the international section of Jungle Jim's International Market soon. They've got some really weird stuff there!