Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Chicken soup and sweet beets among earliest English recipes

A garlicky chicken soup, beef with dill and leeks, and beetroot dressed with honey are among the earliest English culinary recipes, a historian has revealed.

The findings come after previous research identified sauces for meat and fish in a 12th-century manuscript from Durham as the earliest examples. In a paper, Dr Debby Banham shows that they are predated by at least a century by dozens of recipes in three Anglo-Saxon compilations.

While the Durham recipes were written in Latin and headed “condiments from Poitou” [France], those she has identified were written in Old English and compiled in England. As such, she argues that they are not only significantly older, but also “more English”. 

Banham, of the University of Cambridge’s Newnham College, made the discovery while studying early English diets for her PhD. She said: “There aren’t any culinary recipe books from England before the Norman Conquest. So I had to scour around for information from other sources and one of the few genres that actually gave recipes was medical collections. I first presented a paper calling these the earliest English culinary recipes around the year 2000, but never got round to writing that
up for publication. I decided to publish after reports came out about the Durham recipes. That was in 2014, so it has had quite a long gestation.”

The 51 recipes are from three collections dating from the tenth to early eleventh centuries: Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and the Lacnunga. In her article, in the Journal of Medieval History, Banham argues that they qualify as culinary recipes as they are presented as food and drink suitable for certain conditions, rather than medicines per se. Although they aren’t representative of the daily diets of healthy people, she believes they provide fascinating insights.

The recipes were probably used to treat wealthier Anglo-Saxons, such as this hunter, depicted in the 11th-century Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Photo: © The British Library

The majority of the recipes are from Bald’s Leechbook, a mid-tenth-century manuscript that may be based on a lost ninth-century compilation from King Alfred’s Winchester. The recipes show strong influences from the ancient Greek and Roman medical traditions, with early medieval Latin texts from the continent as more immediate sources. The treatments are grounded in humoralism and the idea of using the four qualities of hot, dry, moist and cold to balance the four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile and red or yellow bile in the body.

In spite of their Mediterranean pedigree, it appears that some of the recipes were modified for preparation in England. Banham said: “There’s no doubt that the style of recipe is shared with Latin and Greek traditions and goes back a long way. However, it changes in transmission. One of the changes we see in the recipes in Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga is that beer, vinegar and water are used more as a vehicle and wine less.”

So, does that suggest the recipes were actually used, rather than collected as curiosities? Banham said: “I can’t prove it. But why did they copy them down? The clearest motivation for wanting to have a collection of medical recipes would be intending to use them.” If they were used, she suggests it was most likely by monks, priests or nuns caring for their fellow ecclesiastics or royal or noble patrons. 

Reenactors in 11th-century costume recreate medieval recipes at a Battle of Hastings anniversary event in Sussex. Photo: Shutterstock

The recipes in Bald’s Leechbook include a beetroot dish for stomach problems. The author, who may have been a physician or cleric named Bald, writes: “To moderate the belly, take beet, dig it up and shake it, do not wash it, but simmer it quite a long time in a kettle, and boil until it is all soft and turned thick, then add a little salt and five spoonfuls of honey, a spoonful of oil; give a bowlful.”

Another option: “For a spasmodic or swollen belly, take beef simmered in vinegar and with oil, prepared with salt and dill and leeks, eat it for seven nights.”

For those simply hoping to maintain a healthy abdomen, he recommends a broth of beet, mallow and brassica, boiled with young pork — or nettles simmered in water and salted.

And as a treatment for wounds: “… the lower part of ‘boar-throat’ and ‘meadow-wort’, also agrimony, upper and lower, boil the plants in beer, ferment with yeast, give to drink.”

Among the recipes from the Lacnunga, meanwhile, is a fatty stew for angina patients: “… one takes one cup of purified honey and half a cup of clean melted lard, and mix the honey and the lard together into a mixture, and boil it until it is a good pottage consistency, because it tends to clear, due to the lard, and beans are to be dried and then ground, and add them in proportion to the honey, and then pepper it to taste.”

This is one of a number of recipes that include pepper in a context that suggests it was for
flavouring, rather than as a medicinally active ingredient. Another recipe in the Lacnunga calls for “as much pepper as is liked”. Conversely, where pepper is definitely considered medicinal, the amount is specified precisely in grains.

The spice was then imported to Europe from South Asia, although nobody in England can have known where it came from and a legend held that it was guarded by fire and snakes in the Arabian desert. References to pepper in Anglo-Saxon England are very rare. The account of the death of the Venerable Bede, in Latin prose, claims that the scholar left peppercorns to his fellow monks at his death in 735.

What else can these texts tell us about culinary practices? For one thing, Banham said they indicate that chicken soup was already being prescribed for invalids in the tenth century. A recipe in Bald’s Leechbook states: “If someone cannot move their bowels… if garlic is simmered in chicken broth and given to drink, then it removes the pain.”

In the case of the various fermented drinks, she draws attention to the use of wheat, rather than barley, which was the basis of most medieval beer. Wheat was more prestigious and expensive, so she believes this may have been a case of “nothing but the best”, or the result of alleged medicinal properties.

According to Banham, the texts also contain only the second known piece of evidence suggesting that there was a trade or profession of cook in England at this time. A recipe the treatment of abdominal disease in Bald’s Leechbook states: “The people should be given eggs to sup, barley breadcrumbs, pure fresh butter and fresh barley flour or grits made into a pottage together as cooks know how, to be given after a night’s fast. Again, the juice of peas and waybread should be mixed with liquid honey, give after a night’s fast.”

Although this could possibly refer to an amateur domestic cook, Banham said it shows, at the least, that the user of the collection was expected to have access to culinary expertise.

The recipes give little insight into the diet of working people, as portrayed here in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Photo: © The British Library

As for the reach of the recipes, she writes: “By definition, this is not what everybody was eating in early medieval England. But, if the medical collections were intended to be used in practice, then presumably there were people in England who did eat food prepared from these texts, at least on occasion. Furthermore, if some kind of ‘trickle-down’ effect was in operation between learned medicine and more widespread practice, as has often been the case, it might not have been only those invalids rich and privileged enough to receive medical attention who consumed such dishes, but people who emulated their lifestyles, too.”

Still, most of the dishes were a far cry from ordinary diets. As Banham explains: “The normal diet for poorer people seems to have been envisaged as bread plus something — so bread with cheese or butter or a bit of fish, for example. And beer was the everyday drink. We don’t know very much about fruits and vegetables. It’s likely that plant foods didn’t have very high status.”

While most of the period’s treatments would be summarily rejected by today’s doctors, a 2015 study from researchers at the University of Nottingham suggested that an ointment for eye infections in Bald’s Leechbook was effective at killing the hospital superbug MRSA. 

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