Medieval Cooking is Complex: A Complete Recipe Annotation

During the process of creating my pie for KASC, I had to not only do a lot of test cooking, but I also had to do a ton of close reading. Reading a medieval recipe is a complex and nuanced endeavor. Here is an example of my process of interpreting a recipe.

Original (as transcribed by Hieatt and Butler in Cury on Inglysche): 161. Crustardes of flessh. Take peiouns, chykens, and smale briddes; smyte hem in gobettes. & sethe hem all ifere in god broþ & in gres wiþ veriows. Do þerto safroun & powdur fort. Make a crust in a trap, and pynche it, & cowche þe flessh þerinne; & cast þerinne raisouns coraunce, powdour douce and salt. Breke ayren and wryng hem thurgh a cloth & swyng þe sewe of þe stewe þerwith, and helde it vppon the flessh. Couere it & bake it wel, and serue hit forth.

Translation into modern English: Crustardes of flesh. Take pigeons, chickens, and small birds; smite them in gobbets. And seeth them all fair in good broth and in grease with verjus. Do thereto saffron and powder fort. Make a crust in a trap, and pinch it, and couch the flesh therein; and cast therein currants, powder douce, and salt. Break eggs and wring them through a cloth and swing the juice of the stew therewith, and hold it upon the flesh. Cover it and bake it well, and serve it forth.

Annotation and Notes:

Medieval recipes are notorious for their deviations from what a modern cook expects to find. In the process of recreating this pie, I found it extremely beneficial to do a line by line annotation of the source recipe, unpacking as many aspects of the ingredients and methods that I could. In addition to clarifying linguistic ambiguity, I also used this opportunity to gather additional research into which ingredients or methods are most likely to have been used by a medieval cook.

  1. Crustardes of flessh.  

There are three recipes in Forme of Cury in the “crustardes” family; this one (number 161) which is for a meat day, plus crustardes of fysshe (163) and crustardes of eerbis (164). The full text of these recipes is in Appendix 1. Based on the similarities between these recipes, crustardes seem to have a significant portion of liquid combined with the main ingredient in the crust, which is always baked in a trap. I suspect that the word crustardes is related to custard, which would go along with this observation, as both involve liquid and thickeners. Two of three crustardes do not appear to have a top crust, while this recipe does specify that the filling is to be covered before being baked.

All three of these recipes are also centered around expensive / high-status ingredients; the flesh version has birds, the fish versions have freshwater fish, and the herb version contains walnuts. All three recipes are augmented with spices and imported dried fruits. Both birds and freshwater fish were specifically luxury-market items, and walnuts may have been imported rather than grown in England (which would have made them costly).

Take peiouns, chykens, and smale briddes; smyte hem in gobettes.

Chickens were domestic fowl. Across multiple archeological sites dating to the high medieval and late medieval periods, chickens were by a wide margin the most common bird remains found; at higher status sites, many of the chickens consumed appear to have been immature pullets and cockerels or laying hens (Serjeantson). While pigeons (doves/squab) could technically have been either domestic or wild, both archeological evidence (ibid) and artistic evidence in the form of images of dovecotes suggest that squab were commonly raised in royal and noble contexts. The small birds were presumably wild songbirds, such as thrushes, finches, or starlings. For more on bird consumption trends, see Appendix 2. Cutting the birds into pieces first would expedite cooking.

& sethe hem all ifere in god broþ & in gres wiþ veriows.

The birds are to be stewed (sethe — seethe/boil/simmer) in broth along with grease and sour grape juice. Broth is a tricky thing in 14th century recipes. I haven’t found an English recipe for the broth itself, and I suspect that it was actually a byproduct of other foods being produced. I also have not found good linguistic evidence that there was a distinction made between broth and stock. Everything I see of medieval kitchen management, even in high-status contexts, suggests economy and reuse. Boiled beef (especially salt beef) was a staple food for servants and commoners; while the cooks responsible for preparing this pie were cooking for the king, those same kitchens were responsible for feeding the other members of the royal household. Thus it seems reasonable to me to suppose that these cooks had a ready supply of beef-infused liquid, possibly with salt. To recreate this I tend to use homemade beef broth (or stock) with salt but without other spices. Since I cannot know for certain if herbs or spices were included in medieval broth, I choose to leave them out to make my recipes more consistent.

I believe the other ingredients that the birds are cooked with each have a specific purpose for inclusion. The birds being used by a medieval cook, even if they were from domestic stock, would have been substantially leaner than modern poultry. Adding grease, therefore, would have improved the flavor and texture of the meat. Verjus is the juice of unripe grapes; in addition to being pleasantly tart, its acidity would help to tenderize the meat during cooking.

Do þerto safroun & powdur fort.

It’s unclear if these are cooked with the birds or added after cooking. I have tried both and prefer adding the spices during the latter part of cooking; this could be the intention of the recipe writer as well as this step comes after seething the birds but before assembling the pie. Powder fort is a “strong” spice mix that may have been purchased pre-mixed or may have been prepared by the kitchen staff. I have never found evidence that powder fort was a consistent mix; I believe it is more likely that individual merchants and cooks had individual blends. In analyzing the spices described in the other recipes in Forme of Cury, I found one possibility in recipe number 16 for powder fort’s ingredients: “…and lat it seeth togydre with powdour fort: of gynger oþer of canell and macys…”

Although some continental culinary manuscripts and later English cookbooks give more detailed information about spice blends, I have not found specific recipes or even standard ingredients for powder fort in the 14th century English corpus. Other “strong” spices mentioned in Forme of Cury that might be part of powder fort are black pepper, cubeb, long pepper, grains of paradise, cloves, possibly galangal, and cassia cinnamon. Making powder fort for use in recreating 14th century English cuisine is inherently speculative; the spices I chose (see next section) could be debated.

Make a crust in a trap, and pynche it,

I wanted to confirm why this is meant to be in a trap, so I tested this as a free-standing coffin. It failed miserably: the filling has too much liquid, and it falls apart. “Pynche it” could mean a variety of things; usually we “pinch” a crust when it’s all done and the top crust is on, and not necessarily before. I tried one test run of this pie where I pinched the top edge of the bottom crust before putting the top on it and it did not improve the process or the product.

& cowche þe flessh þerinne; & cast þerinne raisouns coraunce, powdour douce and salt.

I choose to interpret this that one separates the bones out of the flesh first. The meat is then put into the crust, with currants, salt, and spices to be added.  Similar to powder fort, powder douce was a prepared spice mixture that may not have been standardized by this time period. Powder douce, however, is a sweet spice mix. Based on the spices listed in Forme of Cury, the most likely to be part of powder douce are ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and potentially sugar (which may be the source of the name). One recipe from Forme of Cury makes a note to add to a pie:  “a litel sugur with powdour douce” — this may imply that powder douce did not typically (or always?) contain sugar, but this is not certain. Again, recreating powder douce is speculative. My chosen spices in this recreation (see next section) should not be taken as definitive, they represent my best guess and personal taste preferences.

Breke ayren and wryng hem thurgh a cloth

I had fun experimenting with wringing eggs through a cloth. I used modern cheesecloth; based on how cloths seem to have been used by medieval cooks, it’s reasonable to infer that they had a relatively open-weave linen to work with. Squeezing the eggs through the cloth removed the chalazae, which would yield a more smooth finished product (especially with fresh eggs, which have more noticeable chalazae). It’s also possible that this step controlled for fertilized eggs of slightly varying ages.

& swyng þe sewe of þe stewe þerwith,

The liquid from cooking the birds is now mixed (presumably beaten) with the eggs. It helps to cool the liquid first to avoid curdling the egg. Because I think this recipe’s name is very likely related to “custard,” I take that as evidence that the eggs and liquid are meant to be a rather significant part of the finished pie. In my early experiments, I was cautious and only used a small amount of liquid and egg. These pies turned out unpleasantly dry. A later experiment had a better ratio, but I filled the crust much too full and it overflowed, burning around the outside of the crust and pan. This was the same set of experiments wherein I discovered that this pie will not work in a self-supporting coffin; the amount of liquid needed to make the filling the most palatable is too much for a coffin to support.

and helde it vppon the flessh.

While “helde” may have some additional significance that is not obvious, I poured the liquid over the meat (with currants and spices) in the crusts. I found it helpful to spread the meat fairly evenly in the bottom crust first so that the egg mixture fills in the spaces, much as one might do with a quiche.

Couere it & bake it wel,

It’s possible that “couere” means to put an actual lid over the pie plate, or a cloche, but I haven’t seen direct evidence of either in this time period. It is simplest to interpret this as as top crust, especially since most recipes do not mention a top crust, implying that adding one may have not been the norm (and thus the writer had to clarify this step).

Medieval ovens were significantly different from modern ovens. They were wood-fired and made of earth or brick. Wood-fired ovens can either have fire/coals continuously in them alongside the food, or a large fire can be built, allowed to die down, and the coals raked out before adding the food. I have had some experience baking in wood-fired ovens, although not in strict replicas of medieval ovens. In cases where the oven is heated solely by an initial fire, it works best to bake bread first (when the oven is hottest) and then to bake pies second; bread needs those initial high temperatures much more than pies do. While I cannot be certain at what temperature medieval pies were baked, I have found through my pie experiments while camping (using wood-fired ovens, modern cast iron Dutch ovens, and ceramic cloches) that pie is fairly forgiving. While 350-400°F seems to generally produce the best results, I have made pies that were baked at lower temperatures over a very long period of time.

In fact, provided that any meat used in the filling is pre-cooked, it is very, very hard to bake a pie that is truly inedible unless you char it to a cinder. After my adventures last summer with an extremely uncooperative wood-fired oven, I have come to appreciate that many meat pie recipes from medieval English texts do indeed call for the meat to be braised or stewed first, which makes producing a better finished product with the inherent inconsistency of a wood-fired oven a bit easier. Additionally, I have not come across any textual evidence that medieval cooks blind-baked their crusts, and the written record would actually seem to suggest that fillings, and not the crusts, were pre-cooked. Before temperature-controlled ovens, taking crusts in and out of an oven would cause significant temperature fluctuations, and would not have provided enough of a benefit to outweigh this cost.

and serue hit forth.

This pie is to be served relatively soon after baking. While the idea that pies were a longer-keeping food in period is generally reasonable, there’s no evidence that storage of prepared food (as opposed to ingredients) was a significant concern in the royal household. Food prepared for the king, in particular, was probably not intended to be kept long (if at all); this recipe is certainly not the only one ending with an exhortation to serve it forth. We cannot be certain that this meant the pie was to be served immediately; based on my experiences with open-fire cooking, one of the advantages of pies is that they can be baked while other dishes are preparing and that they do not suffer from sitting out if they are ready before dinner time.

(In a future post, I’ll post a complete modernized recipe. Stay tuned.)

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Author: eulalia

I'm a foodie, medievalist, crafter, and gardener living in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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