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Experiments with Historical Food

The EPOCH Editorial Board

In preparation for the sixth issue - themed around food and travel - the Editorial Board decided to do some 'research by practice'. We got together to try our hand at some historical cooking. Below are our attempts at creating a feast from medieval and early-modern recipes.

The Main Course

Gareth Johnstone - 14th-Century Mushrooms and Leeks

Taken from To the King’s Taste by Lorna Sass – an adaptation of Richard II’s book of feasts and recipes.

8 small leeks, washed and sliced

3tbsp butter

1 1/2 lb mushrooms, quartered

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

½ tsp brown sugar

1/8 tsp saffron

½ tsp minced fresh ginger Beurre manié : 3tbsp soft butter combined with 3tbsp flour Salt and pepper

  1. Sauté leeks in butter until they begin to wilt. Add mushrooms.

  2. Combine stock, sugar, saffron, and ginger, and pour over vegetables.

  3. Simmer for about 5 minutes.

  4. Add beurre manié, stirring rapidly over a low heat until the liquid thickens and the vegetables are evenly glazed.

  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4-6.

This recipe has been adapted from a cookbook for King Richard II at the end of the 14th century. We don’t know what mushrooms they would have used - they would have had to forage and know which fungi were edible. Poisoning the king would not have gone down well. Easy to make and got the seal of approval on the night!

Amy Stanning - 18th-Century Beef ‘Soup’

Mr Hanway’s ‘Soup’ recipe:

For five stout men – 9 pints water – 1 lb. beef lean cut into thin slices, 3 1/2d – I pint split pease (boiling field-pease I suppose as good) 3/4d – 12 ounces of mealy potatoes, 1/2d – 3 oz ground rice, 1/2d – After these have boiled gently two hours, and three large leeks or onions 1/2d. two heads – sellary and salt; instead of the sellary, I add two more onions, which and salt, say 1d. This is 6 3/4d. The fifth is 1 1/4d but as I think the quantity small, I allow two penny-worth of it.

The ‘soup’ was prepared using the quantities and method described, which took around three hours to complete. Much of the vegetable and rice content had reduced but there remained a high liquid content, sufficient to justify the dish’s appellation, ‘soup’.

As the writer and chef is vegetarian, tasting the ‘soup’ when prepared fell to her colleagues. The dish was said to be flavoursome and the beef tender. The dish’s popularity was confirmed as one colleague enjoyed it so much, she took much with her to enjoy at home!

There was considerable scepticism that the dish as prepared would feed five ‘stout men for a week’. Our twenty-first century tasters would have gone very hungry!

In the Farmer’s Letters of 1768, Arthur Young calculated the living expenses for agricultural labourers’ families. At the time there was widespread debate about the sufficiency of rural wages and pressure, on grounds of rural poverty, for increased wage levels. Young set out in detail family consumption models based on both his own observation and information from correspondents. He argued, ‘the labouring poor, in general, earn now [sic] sufficient to live decently clothed and in good health’. He claimed the poor would spend any surplus on beer and tea. Young disapproved of the poor drinking tea, which was becoming widespread, describing its consumption by the poor as ‘pernicious’.

Young calculated a budget for an agricultural labourer’s family of five, annual family expenditure, totalling £21 17s, which was managed within a total family income of £37 15s. He calculated a budget surplus of £15 18s and suggested the family could live in comfort applying their surplus to save for their ‘old age’. Such a low level of spending as documented by Young appears highly dubious, given the scale of the surplus claimed, especially at a time of significant rural poverty and given his avowed intention to contain wages.

Young compiled his weekly agricultural labourer’s budget including 2d per week for ‘soup’ based on a recipe taken from Mr Hanway’s, Letter on the Improvement of the Rising Generation, (V. 2, P.194). The recipe itself is proposed for ‘five stout men’ for one week. Young appears to copy the recipe verbatim, including the method, perhaps to provide suggestions of authenticity. The total cost of the items required was 6 3/4d per week which apportioned among five men was 1 1/4d, but as Young considered the quantity ‘small’ he allowed 2d per week in the budget. Young extrapolated the labourer’s budget to calculate a budget for the family, allowing his wife an allocation of two thirds of her husband’s consumption and children of fifteen years the higher figure of three quarters. Infants were allowed one shilling per week. Young’s differentiation between the wife and children’s consumption is perhaps explained by the children’s likely employment as agricultural workers, necessitating a higher calorific requirement, whilst his wife would likely have focused on domestic tasks and possibly tending any smallholding and animals held by the family.

Young’s inclusion of rice at a price four times that of the other main carbohydrate, potatoes is interesting. Rice also appears elsewhere in the family budget, being the primary ingredient in rice pudding and in ‘rice milk’. Given the relative cost of rice compared with potatoes, and its inclusion three times within the budget, it must have been considered a sufficiently high value foodstuff to justify the higher cost. Rice would have been imported, possibly from Italy or India, putting supply at risk of disruption in times or war or other sources to trade disruption.

For Dessert

Sophie Merrix - An 18th-Century Chocolate Tart

From: Sarah Stack, The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or, an infallible Guide to the Fair Sex. Containing Rules, Directions, and Observations, for their Conduct and Behaviour through all Ages and Circumstances of Life, As Virgins, Wives, or Widows. With Directions, how to obtain all Useful and Fashionable Accomplishments suitable to the Sex. In which are comprised all Parts of Good Housewifry, particularly Rules and Receipts in every Kind of Cookery, (London: Printed for T. Read, in Dogwell-Court, White-Fryers, Fleet-Street, 1737)

We take two Spoonfuls of Rice-Flour, some Salt, with the Yolks of four Eggs, and a little Milk; mix all these together, but don’t let them curdle; then grate some Chocolate and dry it before the Fire, and when your Cream is boiled, mix the Chocolate well in it, and so set it to cool; make your Tart of good fine Flour, put in the Cream and bake it: When it is enough, glaze it with powder Sugar with a red hot Fire-shovel; then serve it

So, I like chocolate and I like the eighteenth century. I have to admit I saw the title of this recipe and not the baking instructions before I embarked on my quest to bake. I am sure you will agree that this recipe is so specific that you cannot possibly go wrong. I am of course joking. The vague instructions offered are typical for recipe books of this period as are the requirements for unusual cooking appliances like fire and a red-hot Fire-shovel (which I am sure we all have lying around our kitchens). The only measurement I was sure of was the yolks of four eggs. (Eggs are however smaller now than they used to be.) We did however manage to make a rather tasty dessert to end our evening.

Onto history, chocolate first arrived in England as a drink, not as a food, and it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that it was regularly produced in its recognisable solid bar form. I have to say as a hot chocolate fiend this would not have bothered me. Chocolate was promoted for its “health benefits”, and one ounce was believed to provide as much nourishment as a pound of beef. These were the words of Dr Henry Stubbes (1632-72), who prepared chocolate for Charles II according to The True History of Chocolate. I must note that Stubbes did not say this about plain chocolate but about chocolate combined with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Amy Louise Smith - A 17th-Century Cake

From: Hannah Wolley, The Cooks Guide: Or, Rare Receipts for Cookery Published and set forth particularly for ladies and gentlewomen; being very beneficial for all those that desire the true way of dressing of all sorts of flesh, fowles, and fish; the best directions for all manner of kickshaws, and he most ho-good sawces: whereby noble persons and others in their hospitalities may be gratified in their gusto’s. Never before printed. (London: Printed for Peter Dring at the Sun in the Poultry, next door to the Rose-Tavern, 1664)

To Make a Cake with Almonds

Take one pound and an half of the fine flower, of sugar twelve ounces beaten very fine, mingle them well together, then take half a pound of almonds blanched and beaten with a little rose water; mingle all these with as much sack as will work into a paste, and put in some spice, some yest and plumped currants, with a pound of butter; so make it into a cake and bake it.

This recipe required a little research, and a little creativity, to complete. Being more accustomed to Mary Berry recipes, I found Hannah Wolley to be somewhat imprecise in her instructions. ‘Spice’ for instance, we guessed to be a combination of flavours available in the mid-seventeenth century – nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. A few substitutions were required – we used a nice mead instead of sack, and mixed dried fruit instead of currants – and some estimations. ‘Make it into a cake and bake it’ was interpreted as ‘put into a deep oven dish and bake at 180, checking regularly’. The result was surprising – not just edible, but good. With the spice and fruit, it tasted very Christmassy.

The ingredients here may seem commonplace today, but the quantities of sugar and spice indicate that these recipes were designed for the more wealthy (or those cooking for them). In the 1660s, when the recipe was published, sugar was mostly imported from Venice at considerable expense. The trans-Atlantic trade in sugar was still in its nascent stages in the mid-seventeenth-century, and so it came to England via the Mediterranean, from the Middle East; Arabic merchants had been lucratively trading with western powers for centuries.

Spices such as nutmeg were also imported from distant climes – the Banda islands (Indonesia), brutally colonised by the Dutch in the late sixteenth century, supplied most English kitchens. (Read more about the legacy of nutmeg in Steven Kent’s article here.) Cinnamon also reached England from traders in the Dutch East India Company, who were fighting the Portuguese in Sri Lanka for a monopoly on the commodity. By ‘spice’, Hannah Wolley may have meant allspice – which combines the flavours associated with nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves – and had been sourced from the relatively new colonies in Jamaica since the 1620s.

Strange to think that my seemingly unremarkable cake represented, at least in the 1660s, a network of profitable global trade and broadening colonisation that spanned not just Europe and the Americas, but also the Middle East, East Asia, and even Oceania.


This article was assembled by members of the EPOCH Editorial Board. As well as those who brought recipes, thanks goes to Meredith Guthrie and Karianne Robinson who helped us with the cooking (and eating!).


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