By Minjie Su
Looking to get some culinary expertise from the Middle Ages? Try these four recipes from the fifteenth-century.
Liber cure cocorum, or Book of Cookery, is a peculiar little recipe collection dated to about 1420 to 1440. It survives in Ms. Sloane 1986, a collection of medical treatises now preserved in the British Library; Liber cure cocorum is but an appendix.
The content of the Liber may not be particularly eye-catching – for many of the recipes are also found elsewhere – but the document is interesting in its own right. To start with, the collected recipes are composed in verses; on many an occasion, the author sacrifices details about ingredients and steps to keep the rhymes, making it hard not to wonder about the real purpose behind the making of this book. Who might be the intended reader? To what extent is this book intended as a cook book, or is it intended to be read in a more allegorical way? In the very beginning, the poet writes:
Now speke I wele a lytul more
Of craft, iwys, þat tase grete lore
In court, þat men calles cure,
Þat most be don in þrinne degre;
Þis hasteler, pasteler, and potagere.
The work of the kitchen is divided into þrinne degre (three roles) – hasteler (meat roaster), pasteler (pastry maker), and potagere (vegetable cook) – based on the main ingredient. The poet then lists out the structure of the book: he shall treat each type separately and proceed al by rawe (by category), marking each dish numerically. To cook, so it seems, is like writing: both must be proceeded in an orderly and systematically fashion.
Although the Liber attracts more scholarly attention for its linguistic value (since it was composed in a fifteenth-century Northern dialect and supplements our Middle English vocabulary), it would be unfair to dismiss the recipes, especially when some of them are among the most celebrated (and delicious) dishes.
It is Burns Night, so it is only right to start with the haggis! The recipe given in the Liber is in fact the earliest for the much-cherished Scottish dish.
Þe hert of schepe, þe nere þou take,
Þo bowel noȝt þou shalle forsake,
On þe turbilen made, and boyled wele,
Hacke alle togeder with gode persole,
Isop, saveray, þou schalle take þen,
And suet of schepe take in, I ken,
With powder of peper and egges gode wonne,
And sethe hit wele and serve hit þenne,
Loke hit be saltyd for gode menne.
In wyntur tyme when erbs ben gode,
Take powder of hom I wot in dede,
As saveray, mynt and tyme, fulle gode,
Isope and sauge I wot by þe rode.
So, you mix a sheep’s heart, kidney, and intestines, boil them and chop them fine with parsleys. Then serve with salt and pepper and, if in winter, take other fine herbs such as mint and thyme. Here the poet gets all the essential ingredients but one: the stomach! But the omission is probably due to an earlier entry under the title ‘for fraunche mele’ (for pudding), where the poet does instruct the reader to stuff a mixture of herbs and the crashed suet of sheep into ‘your bag that is so good’, and this ‘bag’ has been interpreted as the signature stomach:
And kremelyd sewet of schepe on last,
And fylle þy bagge þat is so gode.
Fancy Meat Pies
In addition to haggis, the Liber also provides us with some earliest recipes for meat pies. Under the pastry section, we find pies with a rich range of fillings, from cheese to beef, to pork liver, to vegetable, and to birds. Here is a two-step recipe for a hearty pie. The first few lines instruct you how to make the filling:
Take peiuns and smalle chekuns with alle
And oþer smale bryddes, and hew hom smalle;
And sethe hom alle togedur þoo
In brothe and in white grece, also
In verius, and do þer to safroune;
Take the pigeons and small chickens and other small birds, chop them fine and boil in broth and white grease, then add in saffron. Once the filling is ready, proceed to put them into the crust:
Fyrst make a fole trap þou mun,
Pynche hym, cowche hym þy flesshe þerby;
Kast þerin raysyns of corouns forthy,
And powder dowce and salt gode won;
Breke eyren and streyne hom thorowghe a clothe anone,
And swynge þy sewe þerwyth þenne,
And helde hit onne þe flesshe I kenne,
And kover þy trap and hele hit wele,
And serve hit forthe, Syr, at þe mele.
First you pinch the crust that you have already made, pour the meat mixture in, add died currents, salt, and mixed sweet spices (powder dowce). Then mix in eggs and cover it well. Now it is ready to serve.
Although medieval physicians were often suspicious of oysters, if cooked properly and consumed cautiously and modestly, this beloved shellfish can be safely served. The Liber offers several oyster recipes, including an oyster stew (oystere in browet):
Take and schole hom and sethe hom in clene water;
Grynde peper and safroun with brede and ale, temper hit
Up with þe same brothe, and do þe oysters þer in, and
Let hit boyle and cast salt þerin and messe hit forthe.
First, shell off the oysters and boil them in clean water. Mix grounded pepper and saffron with bread and ale. Boil the oysters in the broth, salt the mixture, and voila – serve it forth.
Ioutes, or Vegetable Soup
Towards the end of the Liber, the poet lists several vegetable recipes – for the pottagere, no doubt. A word that keeps coming up is ioutes, which is a kind of vegetable or pot-herb soup. One of the recipes goes as:
Take most of cole, borage, persyl,
Of plumtre leves, þou take þer tyl,
Redde nettel crop and malues grene,
Rede brere croppes, and avans goode
A lytel nept violet by þo rode,
And lest of prymrol levus þou take,
Sethe hom in water for goddes sake;
Þenne take hom up, presse oute þou shalle
Þe water, and hakke þese erbs alle
And grynd hom in a morter schene
With grotene; and sethe hom thyk by dene
In fresshe brothe, as I þe kenne;
Take sklyset, enbawdet þenne
Besyde on platere þou shalt hit lay
To be cut and eten with ioutes in fay.
This soup is made of cabbage, borage, parsley, plumtree leaves, along with many other pot-herbs. Boil them and ground them with a mortar. Boil again until the mixture becomes a thick broth. The soup can be served with slices with meat. The richness of herbs in this particular recipe indicates its medicinal nature – perhaps this is why the Liber is appended to medical treatises in the manuscript. After all, we are what we eat; to maintain a healthy diet is essential to keeping the body in balance.
Read more recipes from the Liber cure cocorum in the 1862 edition by Richard Morris:
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Top Image: BNF Français 343 fol. 31v