When I tell the story of how the Transylvanian Cookbook came to be, I make sure to mention the first translation of the recipe titles. Not having anyone handy who read fluent Hungarian, we fed the webpage listing all the recipe titles into Google Translate […]
So, I have a pretty decent collection of medieval cookbooks these days, and of course there are SO many more available for free access online. To the folks who read this, my question is this: What three to five SCA period cookbooks, in order, do YOU consider essential and most representational, and why? Yes, I know your choices show your particular bias in studying period food, but that’s okay. Pretend you have a tiny amount of space to pack some period cookbooks…which ones are coming with you? Please post your answer in the comments.
My top five?
- Forme of Cuyre (my first)
- Scappi’s Opera (a huge assortment of recipes, very accessible
- Taillievent (very representational of middle medieval French)
- Martino (extremely readable, great array of recipes)
- The Transylvanian cookbook (oh, come on, I HAD to).
Of course this list changes depending on mood and what I’m into at the moment. But now I want to know yours. So….go!
You know the story…the centipede was walking along, and someone asked it, how can you keep track of your feet? And the centipede stopped, and actually thought about what he was doing, and was never able to walk in a coordinated fashion again.
Well, hopefully I’ll be able to avoid that. A good friend asked me how it was that I could read a medieval recipe which made no sense to him, and write out something that did. I was my usual flippant self, but realized he deserved a better answer. So this one’s for you, Paul. And anyone else who wants to take a trip into my brain. Caveat: this is only MY process. Other people have theirs, which serves them at least as well.
Okay. So you have a medieval recipe. We’ll assume it’s either in an English variant, or has been translated, because translating is a whole ‘nother ball of dough. Though it may well have words that aren’t English or are used differently, and that’s okay.
First step: remind yourself that what you’re reading is NOT a modern recipe. A modern recipe has a goal, and that goal is to teach you how to make that one dish, just the way the author says. In our modern format, we have this nice, sensible list of ingredients, with nice measurements, sometimes with sub-instructions (1/3 cup carrots, small dice). Then it logically moves into what you do with those ingredients, and maybe has a picture of the final product, so you can check your work.
Yeah, that’s not at all a medieval recipe. Medieval recipes are NOT supposed to teach you how to make a precise copy of dish X. Most of the time, these cookbooks were collections of notes of some highly skilled professional chef who was jotting (or had someone jot) reminders about the dish, more often than not with instructions on how his boss specifically liked it, perhaps for someone following him. Later published cookbooks were basically bragging rights (“this is what MY most awesome chef cooks for ME, because I’m a wealthy noble!”). To make it more challenging, these books that we end up with are generally hand copied copies of a copy of someone who might not have written well to start with. But don’t despair. Just remember, what you’re looking at has only a vague connection to what “The Joy of Cooking” might have.
Second step: read it a few times. Especially, read it out loud. I mentioned these things might have been what a scribe jotted down on the mutterings of a chef, right? This helps return it to its original format. In some period cookbooks, even it feels very much like a conversation the cook is having with his audience, a room full of students. Reading it out loud helps you make sense of it. This is extra-true with older English, when the words are more phonetic than you’re used to. When it’s out loud, it feels more natural to say “Do this, then do that…oh, I forgot to say do this other thing first, and did you get your oven hot?”
And when you’re reading, especially something that’s a translation, is there something that just doesn’t belong? People make mistakes, and the more hands and eyes that come before you get it means more opportunities for error. So stay aware that an error could creep in at any point, and that if something seems like a mistake…it might be one.
Third step: this one is the kicker. You have to -decide- what the end result is going to be. It’s counterintuitive, but I’m the absence of a helpful picture, or a labeled section of cookbook (like: “Pies”, or “Sauces”), this is your call. This says it’s a pottage. Is it going to come out as a thin soup, a thick stew, meat with some sauce, maybe a custard…how about a pie filling you scoop out of a pie after baking? All these and more are things I’ve seen labeled as pottages. So you have to read carefully. To this end, I have what I call “filters”—each pass through the recipe I look at it with a different filter in mind, to help me build up a picture of the final product. These filters can also help you deduce any missing or out of order steps in the recipe.
—First filter: what do I know about the ingredients called for…what will they do? I’m adding eggs to the soup and beating it without letting it boil…sounds to me they’re using the eggs as a thickener, like custard, not as a component of the soup, like egg-drop soup. Or “make it yellow with saffron”…so to spread the color, I’d want to add it to the broth I’m cooking that rice in, rather than just sprinkling it on the final dish. A good cook can even predict why some instructions are in there (in the fried cheese from my last post, it says only too cook the batter until it’s yellow, not golden brown, which as we know is delicious. Why? Because if you cook it that long, the cheese will completely melt and boil out of your crust and burn, and you will be a sad chef). This is also where knowing the difference between modern and medieval ingredients is important (a -dozen- eggs? Oh, yeah, eggs were smaller then).
—Second Filter: Cooking technology. Knowing what they had to cook with, with what materials, how energy was applied, and what their tools were, you can make a likely guess as to what the result will be. In the example about about the eggs and soup. “Okay, so they’re likely cooking this in a ceramic pipkin over coals. That’s going to greatly slow down the heating, making it easier to avoid the boiling and the clumping of eggs.”—voila, another item of evidence for your creamy egg soup.
You can even take this further…”so, Wood for fires is a scarce resource, what’s the most efficient way to cook this…boiling or frying or on a spit?” Or “why does this call for already cooked meat? Oh! It’s using leftovers from last night’s roast!”
—Third Filter: What did they -think- about food? This is the most tenuous, the one that takes the most experience…and it also can help you jump big holes in your original recipe…but it means you can be more wrong too. Let’s put it into modern terms. Suppose you know someone does the “Keto diet” thing. That gives you hints about what they’re going to eat and how to eat it. If their recipe says to “bread the fish” you could guess they’re unlikely to use actual breadcrumbs, and now you know you have to look for something a keto person might bread with that isn’t bread! It’s like that with period foods.
Through much of our period, people subscribed to two big food philosophies—humoral theory of foods, and second, a religious-based set of limitations on what you could eat at what time. While a big discussion of humoral theory is out of the scope of this particular article, it’s worth looking up (I recommend _Eating Right In The Renaissance_ by Ken Albala). Suppose you had a fish…humorally speaking, it would always be considered a cold and wet food, so you might want to use a cooking technique that was alleged to be “warming and drying” to balance that (like grilling it over a hot fire), or using other foods or seasonings to do the same (sour orange juice was a “dry” ingredient, so just pour some of that over the dish after cooking…). You’re basically teaching yourself the way to think they did.
With religion, if something is for “a fast day”, “a fish day”, or “for Lent”, you KNOW that if you’re going to fry something, it’s going to be in oil, not butter or lard, and that pasta you’re making isn’t going to have eggs. Almond milk is the rule of the day, and so forth.
—The Last Filter: Does it all make sense? Keeping in mind all the above, has what you’ve come up with (hopefully jotted as notes) make sense in the confines of the kitchen? The laws of physics were no different then, and the goal is always to make good, tasty food that doesn’t waste food or effort, that people are going to want to eat. Yes, tastes changed between then and now (back then, sour and savory was a popular combination, now it’s more sweet and sour), but what you make should not taste actively BAD.
So now, two things remain. One, if you feel you need to, take your notes and write up a modern recipe with them. Second…and this is huge…cook the recipe, and eat it! Share it if you can. Decide if you need to make changes, but you HAVE to give it a go. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Get out there, and have fun.
Oh, yeah, this feast. A couple friends of mine, Bjorn and Hilarie, were at the time Prince and Princess of Cynagua in the West Kingdom (if you don’t know where that is, don’t worry, it’s not crucial). In any case, they wanted to show off to some of the other Royalty at this particular camping event. Yes, we were camping, about 10 people were to eat, and Bjorn loaned me some of his Guard to be servers.
It was a challenge.
Oh, and the picture is from the West/An Tir War, not the above event. I’ll talk about the war and the Play Dates some other time.
No, not leaving. It’s just that, many years ago, I took a class in pewter casting at the Estrella War. And, as one does, I came home, wrote my own class handout, and taught the local group how to do it. It’s basically, how to do Terminator 2 on a low budget. Assuming you can get Schwarzenegger to work cheap.
So, after the boost to my cooking mojo from last week’s Culinary Symposium, I thought I needed to capitalize on that and play with the Transylvanian cookbook this weekend. The two recipes for “vetrece” caught my eye just now. Tenth. BEEF VETRECE WITH BREAD Salt […]