A taste of our Medieval Past.
On the only day so far this year that has seen snow, I braved the elements and ventured to Boston for the unlikely mission of a medieval cooking course. Being an obsessive collector of old recipes and cookbooks, I was, despite the weather excited to learn more about the food from this period in history.
Heritage Lincolnshire had arranged for the day to be held at the magnificent - Fydell House. Built in 1702/3 this elegant Grade 1 listed building is far from medieval, but in the words of Nikolaus Pevsner in his Architectural Guide “undoubtedly the grandest house in town”. Joseph Fydell bought the house in 1726 and on his death his nephew Richard bought it. He was a successful wine merchant, mayor and MP. His son Thomas Senior and Grandson Thomas Junior followed in Richards footsteps with the family business and politics. World renowned botanist Sir Joseph Banks was a regular visitor to the house and could be seen quite often with Thomas Senior fishing on the River Witham. The house remained in the family until 1868 and then passed through several hands until sadly falling into a perilous state of disrepair. Thankfully in 1935 The Boston Preservation Trust raised enough funds to purchase the house and through lots of hard work on the part of volunteers it has been restored to its former glory. It now runs as a charity and offers the community a range of services from educational courses, meetings, dinner parties and even weddings. They are open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm and if you would like to find out any more information please see www.bostonpreservationtrust.com
Our tutor for the day was Neil Parker of Hengist’s Kitchen. Neil had planned for us to cook in the garden using a Medieval Fire Pit, but the snow scuppered that! Despite not being able to play outside, Neil admirably managed to steer us through creating an impressive array of dishes in the Fydell kitchen. He’s well qualified to do so with a Master’s Degree in Medieval History and over ten years’ experience as a professional Archaeologist. With Hengist’s kitchen he has done many demonstrations and recreated recipes from Saxon, Viking and Medieval times, educating school children and working with National Trust Properties all over the UK.
It is impossible to condense such a wide and complex era of our culinary history into one day, but Neil really managed to give us a flavour (literally) of what our medieval ancestors would have cooked and eaten. I have to say, it’s not that removed from what we would eat today, just the methods of cooking have changed and the use of spices can be a bit unusual to our palate. I feel that food history programmes can lean towards the “freak show” dishes, as this makes good “telly”. However there are many historic recipes that are tasty and easy to recreate, especially with our modern ovens and all the labour saving equipment that we have available today.
Money, status, seasonality and availability all dictated what you ate, but what is significantly different ,is the power the church had over what you consumed and when. There were strict rules on “fleshe and fyshe” days. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were strictly meat free, however rules were bent and Puffins and Heron were allowed as they ate fish and even Beaver as it had a fish’s tail! If you think about it most of our oldest food traditions that we celebrate today still revolve around the church calendar.
We focussed on food of the late middle ages, largely because that’s when we are able to study the first written texts on cookery. One excellent resource was “The Forme of Cury”, which was written by cooks in the court of Richard II around 1390. We made a stock, almond cream, small birds in a pie (not as alarming as it sounds), spice creamed rabbit, a flan, boiled puddings, maslin bread and medieval filo purses. There was about a dozen of us on the course and we all got the chance to have a go at making everything and you could be as “hands on” as you felt comfortable with. Our pastry turned out a bit “robust”, a combination of working with Rye and Spelt flours that we were unfamiliar with and perhaps a case of “too many cooks………”.
Our first recipe of the day was an enormous pot of stock. As in a real kitchen of the time; this provided the foundation of many of the dishes made and quite simply would have been essential in keeping you alive. Our stockpot contained Beef and Pork Bones, Onions, Turnips, Parsnips, Rosemary, Bay and salt. No potatoes as they don’t make an appearance until later on in our food time line. We used this stock to boil a rabbit, a pheasant and some little puddings made with squares of cheesecloth containing dried pearl barley, green lentils and the ancient grain emmer.
Next on the list to make was that essential staple – bread. You would have eaten different breads depending on your place in society. The higher your social status and wealth, the more refined and white your bread would be, the top one being Pandemain. We made Maslin Bread as this would have been the most widely made and consumed in Lincolnshire. Neil didn’t weigh any of the ingredients; somewhat dispelling the myth that bread making is an exact science. He used a mixture of spelt, rye and wholemeal flour and the end result was a flavoursome loaf, with a lovely texture inside and a good crust. I thought you would enjoy making this recipe and since doing the course I have made this bread at home, just tweaking it a bit and getting the quantities right for you. As with most homemade bread it’s best eaten on the day it is made. This does make a very large loaf, so it’s useful if you have a quite a few mouths to feed. Russell made toast with it the day after and it was still fine, but beyond that it goes stale quickly.
The second recipe is for Medieval Filo Purses. These sweet little morsels are made with filo pastry. I was surprised to learn that this ingredient has a history stretching back to the days of the early 13th century Ottoman Empire. Imported to mainland Europe in big crates, it was a relatively accessible ingredient for the rich during medieval times. In England this would have been most certainly for the wealthier end of the spectrum. These are easy to make and absolutely delicious, offering you a flavour from the more affluent end of society.
Medieval Filo Purses
Heritage Lincolnshire have more exciting courses coming up including “How to find History on Your Doorstep”, “The Architectural History of Lincolnshire”, “Decoding Church Architecture”, “Archaeology of the Lincolnshire Wolds” and many more. For further information please contact Heritage Trust Lincolnshire email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel 01529 461499
Sadie Hirst is a member of the British Society of Baking and Select Lincolnshire. She is passionate about preserving our culinary heritage and is often asked to talk to local organisations about her old cookbooks and cookery authors from our past. You can follow on twitter Sadie Hirst@RJHirstfamilybutchers email email@example.com www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk