The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 5, 2008

The King's Cookbook

It has been claimed that Bartolomeo Scappi's magnum opus of cookery is one of the first such in the Western world. Almost a year back, Carluccio, the genial Italian chef and owner of the eponymous chain of eateries in England, presented a programme of history and food dedicated to Scappi. Two months ago, to whet the thinking gastronome's appetite and grey cells, the Medieval Season on BBC4 offers up a veritable delight of sumptuous repast. What follows is an extended paraphrase of the show Clarissa and the King's Cookbook.

Clarissa Dickson Wright tracks down Britain's oldest known cookbook, written during the reign of King Richard II from recipes created by the King's master chefs.

England in the 1390s is ruled by King Richard II in an era where the Church dictates every ritual of life. But one area of the quotidian clamours with hustle and noise. This is the royal kitchen where the master chefs have compiled England's oldest known book of recipes. It is called the Forme of Cury.

Clarissa aims to show in this programme that many of the dishes popular in today's Britain derive from those served up to the king six centuries ago. She will prepare some of the meals and serve them up to dedicated medieval buffs, eagerly awaiting their analysis, and - dare she say it? - their appreciative burps?

Richard the Second is said to have been swaddled in the skin of goats at birth. What an intimate introduction, marvels Clarissa, into the fruits of his land. Crowned monarch in 1377, he was expected to follow his sanguinary Plantagenet ancestors; instead, he became known as a bon vivant.

The precious document that describes what the king ate is now preserved in the British Library. It has suffered some damage, but the first few words read as follows: The Forme of Cury was compiled by the chief master cooks of Richard II. Translated from Middle English, Forme means Method, and Cury means Cooking. It is a scroll about six metres long - and has an index! It is somewhat faded, has stains from the kitchen, and contains 196 recipes. One example is Porpoise in Broth, made - the book instructs - as numbles with onions - perhaps not the most diligently described recipe in the world. But there are other items that would feature quite happily in a modern restaurant menu, such as blancmange made with capons, and salad of parsley, sage and garlic, rosemary and purslane, mint, all washed (very clean they were in the middle ages).

Clarissa ventures into the kitchen and is pleasantly surprised by how well lit it is, how nicely ventilated. There are skylights and windows, open countertops and fires, fine rugged furniture for the chef. Like today, the medieval master chef would have worked his way through the kitchen, learning every aspect of cookery and cleaning and service and butchery and the selection of fresh ingredients, before finding himself at the top of the profession, preparing feasts for the King.

The chef ruled over a vast staff - 300 people - all with specialised roles. Mincers minced and ground spices all day long; sauce makers prepared the sauce for the hundreds of dishes being prepared; pluckers plucking all manner of birds; boners with essential knife skills stripping carcases bare; choppers keeping the fires well stocked with cut wood; spit boys maintaining the large spits on which the food was roasted; all working in shifts at high temperatures, often without much clothing on. The chef was the only man in the kitchen who remained seated, overseeing everything going on in his domain.

Richard's court was obsessed with documentation. It kept records of household lists, costs of goods, the food the King ate. A scribe sat in a little alcove near the chef (who was possibly illiterate), writing down his every instruction, taking notes of recipes throughout the year. The Forme of Cury reads like an almanac of seasonal food.

Wild animals were the source of much of Richard's gustatory pleasure. Fifty years earlier, half the human population of England had been extirpated by the Black Death leaving the fauna untouched. Now, his lands were a veritable paradise for hunters of every manner of game. He hunted heron, hare, and deer with bow and arrow, and he loved the noble pursuit of falconry. There was a strict hierarchical etiquette in the use of hunting birds. Only a king could hunt with an eagle or a gyrfalcon. Such trained birds were not cheap. Gyrfalcons were rare, but prized for their stamina and predatory acumen. Richard paid 260 golf florins in 1399 for a gyrfalcon, easily equal to £34,000 in today's money.

Not all meats were hunted. Geese were farmed, and there's one recipe in the Forme of Cury that was the high-point of any of Richard's feasts. Clarissa plans to prepare this recipe to show how modern it was: Sauce Madame.

Take sage, persil, hyssop and savoury, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and fill the geese therewith and sew the hole that no grease come out and nothing falleth from it.

The exorbitant cost of this royal dish arose from the expensive spices and herbs used. Sage, considered good for the digestive system, cleaned the blood and gave one wisdom. Hyssop, a cleanser ("my soul is whiter than a swan when washed with hyssop"). Savoury, a herb that prevented flatulence, very necessary in medieval cuisine. Parsley, to clean the blood and the breath. Garlic, burneth away the fat that groweth around the heart. Medicine and diet was very well intertwined. Chopped pears, warden pears very likely, always went well with geese. Quince, which grew in England, was often imported from the continent, and was much loved in the middle ages. And finally, grapes, which Richard was very keen on. All stuffed down a goose, sewn up, cooked with no need for oil, for the grease from the goose would marinate and prepare all the ingredients well.

The Forme of Cury doesn't give cooking times or quantities. As chefs of today, those of yesteryears were expected to know what to do. But the cooking techniques and terminology therein haven't changed in 700 years: parboyling, straining, clarifying, toastyng, bakyng, and roastyng.

Next, the cooked goose is dressed in an exotic sauce made of expensive spices. The sauce is started by using the juicy stuffing. The goose is opened, and the innards, beautifully cooked and melded with the herbs and fruit, are mixed with bread and gelatine. To the mix is added poudre douce, or sweet powder - a spice specialty of every chef. Several things always went in: sugar, salt, mace, ground ginger. Clarissa adds this mix to the gelatine and bread and stuffing, and puts it to cook on the fire.

The goose is then cut up ("smite him into pieces," says the Forme of Cury), and the sauce madame is added on top of the fowl. And one royal dish is ready. "Serve it forth."

Richard was known as the dandy king. He introduced the pocket handkerchief, bathed once a week, and took his meals in his private chambers, wanting to be aloof from the noble rabble that surrounded him. It was all show. Contemporaries described him as petulant and obsessed with magnificence and regal appearance, but like everyone else he had to bow before the power of the Church. His cookbook was one thing, but what he ate was dictated by doctrine.

He and his court had to eat a lot of fish. The Church reserved about 242 days a year for abstinence and fasting, when one couldn't eat any meat. Richard was famous for his well-stocked fish ponds (or as they were called then, stew ponds). Still, having to consume so much fish a year meant that the rich tried to get dispensations, reclassifying animals. The badger, for instance, was considered a fish because it lived in the water.

The chefs had to be particularly inventive in their preparation and presentation of piscine dishes. Exotic spices came to their rescue. The Forme of Cury describes in detail the ingredients that were used. Clarissa wants make a fish dish next - it's something she has tasted in Spain and is thrilled to find it in the King's Cookbook: Escabeche, or Sweet and Sour Fish.

Egre dauce of fish. Take roaches, other tenches, other soles. Smite him in pieces.

First, the syrup - sugar in white wine vinegar. Sugar was expensive in medieval times, and applying it liberally to a sauce was a sure giveaway of the patron's wealth. Ethiopian pepper is added ("grains of paradise"), ground ginger, ground cinnamon, and cloves all the way from the East Indies, vanilla, chopped onions finely minced, currants, sultanas from Cyprus, all handled by the Venetian traders. Fillet of pike, next. Soles, saltwater fish, add a separate flavour to the proceedings, and part of the reason for using different fish was to add that subtle incremental distinction in tastes and textures; the roach provided oiliness, and different colour. Cook all the pieces in olive oil, and tip the sauce all over the fish. The dish is ready, fit for a king.

Richard was not just a man of magnificence and fashion; he was also a man of etiquette and pageantry. He insisted that his diners wash their hands before every meal. Cutlery was important, particularly the spoon, which was so prized that the court carried it on their travels. Manners were stressed: no fighting, no belching, no talking with the mouth full, no swearing, no farting, no elbows on table.

Food was constantly being prepared in the kitchens as Richard and his cohorts ate. Desserts were not ignored. One, Pears in confyt (poached in red wine), is eaten to this day.

Take pears and pare him clean. Take good red wine and mulberries and other sauntries, and seep the pears therein.

Warden pears, peeled, and dried white mulberries and blackberries for colouring. Pour red wine into a dish and cook. Add honey to the wine, powdered ginger, and wait till the wine is reduced. Pour over the fruit, and "mess it forth, hot or cold."

Richard ate better than any King of England, and his feasts were ruinously expensive. One such in 1383 is recorded as having cost £57,000 for food, and £10,000 for naperies and spices. Richard taxed his subjects horrendously to pay for his pleasure. When they and Parliament rebelled, he scoffed:

I will not dismiss one scullion from my kitchen at Parliament's request.

Disillusioned noblemen revolted and he reacted brutally, killing or exiling most of them. But the clock was ticking for England's king. His end was less glorious than his food. His exiled cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, returned in 1399 and claimed his throne. Stripped of his kingdom and incarcerated, Richard died aged 33, starved to the end. What a finish for a hedonist with such a superb legacy as the Forme of Cury.

UPDATE 2008/09/29: The Forme of Cury is to be digitised

Further Reading

1. Medieval and Anglo-Saxon recipes, from The British Museum Cookbook, by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson.

2. Liber Cure Cocorum, from around 1430, copied and edited from the Sloane Manuscript, published for the Philological Society, Berlin, 1862.


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