Learning Through Food

Recreating early modern food has many benefits. While using period recipes is not a formal part of my PhD thesis, it has helped me consider the sensory aspects of food in the kitchen and around the dinner table. It is also beneficial when working with the public as a way into the diverse world of historical food and what we learn when we approach history through dining. I make food from the 16th and 17th centuries for workshops and talks as well as using it as a starting point for historical enquiry and to think with.

There are several elements to consider when recreating early modern food:

  1. The recipe itself. Where would people source the ingredients? What sort of information does the recipe give the reader? Are there quantities given, timings, any food names we don’t recognise? What information has been omitted and why?
  2. The process. What physical labour is involved? What equipment or heat sources are used? How long does the recipe take? What feelings are conjured during the creation of the dish e.g. boredom, frustration, pleasure, reminiscence?
  3. The finished result. How does this differ from what you thought you would end up with in the absence of illustrations? How appealing does this look and how would you serve it? Are you surprised with the result?
  4. The taste and texture. As well as how something early modern tastes, often the textures can be surprising. A 16th century posset involving unsweetened curdled dairy with alcohol is not an experience we today are used to (believe me, I’ve tried it!). What does the experience of eating the finished product remind you of? What early modern associations does this act of eating raise?

Considering these questions when recreating early modern recipes can be very rewarding and prompt further enquiry. I want to show some of the foods I have recreated over the past few years and note my observations. Analysising recipes and results in this way can feed our curiosity, lead to further questions and areas of research, and inform our ideas about the meanings and associations different food stuffs had.

The Recipe:

Aside from the benefits of reading recipe books and the historical practice of doing so, which historians such as Sara Pennell, Michelle DiMeo, and Wendy Wall have written about, the starting point for early modern food recreation comes from studying receipt books and selecting what to make. There are lots of reasons why I select certain recipes. I may have seen it referred to in another source. I might recognise the ingredients as things that families I study regularly purchased. It might relate to a particular festival or season. There could be a modern equivalent I want to compare it to. Or it might be completely baffling and only make sense if I make it! Some recreations have been the result of studying perceived early modern medical benefits, others have resulted from a desire to better understand the sensory experience of consuming a food that was associated with particuarly qualities such as decadence, spirituality, civility, health, or celebration.

Some motivations can be practical ones. Many dishes involve early modern cooking techniques such as heat management, involving wood-fuelled ovens, cooking on charcoal with chafing dishes, or selecting the correct wood to burn to give the right intense heat or gentle fire. These considerations will be something I can explore and experiment with over 2023/4, as I begin to work with a cob oven and more early modern heat sources at Ordsall Hall in Salford. Therefore, recipes that mention or imply different cooking and heating techniques are of particular interest to me at the moment. Recipes like biscuits or custards, shown below, would need acute knowledge of managing and testing temperatures such as putting paper in the oven to gauge its heat, baking biscuits after things like bread as the oven cooled, or gently heating custards over brick stoves above fires, or using chafing dishes with charcoals underneath.

The Process:

Cheshire Archives DLT5524/4/11

In the biscuit recipe above, there is a lot of whisking involved. First you have to beat the 7 eggs for an hour. Then you have to add the sugar and then beat for a further hour. All this without a Kitchen Aid! This is because there are no raising agents in early modern baking other than yeast or elbow grease. What immediately springs to mind here is what would someone be thinking when they had to whisk this much? Would it be whisking for a continuous hour plus another non-stop hour after adding the sugar? Only making this can give the answers (something I’ll be doing soon). Such a labourious and mundane process also raises the question of what would someone making this think on – would they daydream? This could be idle thought which the devil could prey on. Early modern kitchens were religious places, as explored by Sara Pennell. Not only could kitchens and kitchen equipment be marked with religious messages or symbols, but the walls could also feature religious passages. Psalms or extracts from the Bible could be sung or recited during monotonous tasks. Surviving plates, pans, and spoons sometimes feature religious inscriptions or marks; kitchen walls and ceilings can be scorched or scratched with apotropaic marks to ward of evil spirits; and (though lost to us now) kitchens could also have had passages and images taken from old books, pamplets, or broadsheets pasted to the walls.

There are several recipes I have tried that were not clear from the information provided or only made sense once I made them. Sometimes only by having a go can you appreciate what the recipe is telling you, trying to imagine it in your head without pictures is a challenge. Several examples below show how the process can be unusual, require lots of trial and error, take an epic amount of work, or help you to understand the different conditions of an early modern kitchen. The Hannah Glasse recipe for a hedgehog below was like making a cake in a pan on the hob; early modern syllabubs are a delicious concoction of wine, cream, and sugar but it takes a lot of attempts to get the correct separation of creamy froth from sweetened wine that typify syllabubs of the period; making a medlar paste for sweetmeats and tarts requires a lot of time extracting the flesh from the fruit, straining it, and then heating and thickening the mixture.

Syllabubs were a mix of a dessert and a drink, evolving out of earlier possets, and which involved mixing dairy ingredients with white wine or sack. A good syllabub should result in a thick creamy curd layer floating above a sugary wine liquor beneath. Hannah Woolley, in The Queen-Like Closet (1672), instructs to mix cream, white wine, lemon juice, and sugar until it goes frothy then leave for 12 hours. Other techniques involve pouring the wine from a height into the cream so it froths, using special equipment such as syllabub piggins or buckets with long handles for the pouring of the dairy ingredients into the alcohol, or syllabub pots or glasses which allowed the mixture to separate. The latter had a spout to help suck up the alcohol layer, with the creamy layer above being eaten with a spoon from a wide opening at the top. Syllabubs, as with possets, are deserving of their own blog entry which will follow in due course as I have yet to perfect this separation! Understanding them, I believe, can only come from making and consuming them. They are an important element of my research into commensality and convivility, as their consumption required the sharing of drinking vessels and the creation of common bonds based on identity, rites of passage, or through the very act of drinking together.

Robert May’s syllabub recipe demonstrates the pouring technique, mimicking the action of milking the cow straight into the alcohol and sugar mix:

Robert May, The Accomplist Cook or The Art and Mystery of Cookery (1660):

An excellent syllabub:

Fill your sillabub pot half full with sider, and good store of sugar, and a little nutmeg, stir it well together, and put in as much cream by two or three spoonfuls at a time, as hard as you can, as though you milkt it in; then stir it together very softly once about, and let it stand two hours before you eat it, for the standing makes it curd.

The Finished Result:

This recipe is for a hedgehog pudding and is taken from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747):

To Make a Hedge-Hog:

Take two quarts of sweet blanched almonds, beat them well in a mortar, with a little canary and orange flower water, to keep them from oiling. Make them into a stiff paste, then beat in the yolks of twelve eggs, leave out five of the whites, put to it a pint of cream, sweeten it with sugar, put in half a pound of sweet butter melted, set on a furnace, or slow fire, and keep it constantly stirring till it is stiff enough to be make into the form of a hedge-hog. Then stick it full of blanched almonds slit, and stuck up like the brissels of a hedge-hog, then put it into a dish. Take a pint of cream, and the yolks of four eggs beat up, and mix with the cream; sweeten to your palate, and keep them stirring over a slow fire all the time till it is hot; then pour it into your dish round the hedge-hog, and let it stand till it is cold, and serve it up.

While it is a little late for my time period, I think this illustrates the unusual things you come across when reading old cook books. There is something strange about a British love of creating edible hedgehogs, whether it is this 18th century version, a late medieval version made from meat (which I will try at a later date), a 1970s/80s hedgehog made from cocktail sticks with cheese and pineapple on, or modern chocolate hedgehog cakes with chocolate finger spines!

My artistic skills (or lack of them) aside, the hedgehog pudding was delicious but I still didn’t know until the end quite what I was going to come out of the process with. The presentation of food, particuarly sweet food, in various shapes ranging from hedgehogs and castles, to edible tableware and rock faces, represent the various ways people, and especially gentry women who engaged in these practices, could experiment with and display their knowledge and enagement with the social, religious, and political world (see Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen for an exploration of this).

Taste and Texture:

The proof is in the eating and, for me, eating the finished dish is a large part of this process of recreation. Hannah Glasse’s hedgehog was an intriguing mixture of a sponge pudding, polenta cake, or marzipan. Served cold with custard it was something very different from what my guests and I were used to. Beautifully light and with an unusual combination of almond, white wine, and orange flower water, the taste was different and refreshing. Flavour combinations and textures are important considerations when it comes to early modern ideas involving health, digestion, and the four humours. Such considerations raise the question of whether recipes were designed with pleasurable taste in mind, dietetic advice, regional preference, or sensory impact and associations.

Another unusual ingredient and an unexpected texture came from a historic orchard fruit: medlars. Medlars took a lot of preparation and I had nothing to compare them to. The only way I could understand how they tasted and felt was to make something with them. Medlars are only edible once they are rotten and so you can either pick them and ‘blet’ them (let the rot) for a while, or wait until they fall off the tree. Either way, this concept is itself unusual to my modern idea of what is inviting or offputting! Squeezing the flesh from the skins was decidedly unpleasant and straining the fibres and seeds from the resulting paste laborious. However, once heated and thickened with eggs and sugar, the flavour and texture were a revelation. A mix between an apple and a pear, but with a texture more akin to stewed dried fruits like dates or prunes, medlar was the perfect ingredient for autumnal or wintery pies and tarts and definitely worth all the effort and squeamishness.

Robert May, The Accomplist Cook or The Art and Mystery of Cookery (1660):

To Make a Tart of Medlers:

Take medlers that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chaffing dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon, and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart; being baked scrape on sugar.

Having no idea of what I was aiming for, I subsequently understood why medlars were a staple of early modern recipe collections, and felt able to talk about their merits. Often early modern foods can read as being unpleasant in recipes when they are, in fact, delicious. We have lost our taste for them but there is no reason why medlars can’t be a seasonal treat as the nights close in towards the end of the year. Because of their seasonality, medlars would be associated with Halloween and Christmas, being gathered and processed in November and, because of the use of sugar, preserved until Christmas feasts.

Drawing Conclusions:

There are myriad questions that come to mind as I cook early modern recipes. For me, food history should not be considered in a vacuum. It wasn’t in the 16th and 17th centuries and it isn’t today. We too have a whole host of memories, associations, techniques, preferences, flavours, and uses for food that historians of the future will want to explore just as much. Rather than skimming through texts or treating recipes as only written sources, through following their instructions and thinking through doing, recipes open up thought processes, awaken the senses, and help us interrogate what they are telling us in diverse and unique ways. That is not to say that textual analysis of recipes or the treatment of them as material texts is not important. However, remaking of dishes bridges the divide between past and present, and provides new perspectives on historical food and its connections to other elements of 16th and 17th century life. The aim is not authetic recreation (that is impossible) but a holistic examination which deepens understandings and forges new lines of investigation.

More Recipes to Try, Interrogate, and Explore: Whitepot and Posset Two Ways

Hannah Woolley, The Queen-Like Closet (1672)

To Make a Dainty White-Pot:

Take a manchet (loaf) cut like lozenges, and scald it in some cream, then put to it beaten spice, eggs, sugar and a little salt, then put in raisins, and dates stoned, and some [bone] marrow; do not bake it too much for fear it will whey [curdle], then strew on some fine sugar and serve it in.

J.Partridge, The Widowes Treasure (1573)

To make a good possett curde:

First take the milke and seeth it [boil it] on the fire, and before it seeth put in your egges according to the quantitye of your milke, but see that your egges be tempered with some of your milke that standeth on the fire, and you must stirre it still untill it seeth, and beginning to rise, then take it from the fire, and have your drinke ready [ale] in a fair bason on a chafing dishe of coles and put your milke in to the bason as it standeth, and cover it, and let is stand a while, then take it up, and cast on ginger and synomon.

William Rabisha, The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (1682)

To make a sack-possett the best way:

Set a gallon of milk on the fire, put therein a grain of musk, whole cinnamon and large mace; when it boyls, stir in half a pound of naple bisket grated, keeping of it stirring while it boyls; then beat eight eggs together, casting four of the whites away; beat them well with a ladleful of milk or two amongst them; take off the fire the aforesaid milk, and stir in your eggs; put it on the fire again (but keep it stirring for fear it curdles) having almost a pint of sack in your bason (upon the coals, with a spoonful of rose-water) your milk being seasoned with sugar, and taken off the fire, pour it into your said sack, stirring of it apace; while it is so pouring forth, take out your grain of musk, so throw thereon beaten cinamon, and send it up.

Further Reading:

Pennell, S. The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 (2016)

Pennell, S. and DiMeo, M. Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800 (2013)

Wall, W. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen (2016)

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close