Cooking in the Middle Ages, recipe reconstruction
The Forme of Cury was compiled and written by the master chefs of King Richard II of England, around 1390 CE. It gives us a great insight into the foods that would have been served into the royal household. As such, many people of wealth and affluence would be seeking to emulate this.
However, many of the recipes are not for great feasts and I think it is reasonable to assume that this is every day cooking for the royal household. By understanding what our ancestors ate we can get a better picture of how they lived. Food has a great influence on how someone lives, for it is more than just sustenance it is a way of live for many.
The Cury – what is that?
It may come as a surprise to most people, but the word ‘curry’ or ‘cury’ is actually an English word – not an Indian word. Cury or curye was English – referring to the cooking of food. As referred in the book title, The Forme of Cury. The word was most likely a bastardisation of the french ‘curie’ (to cook).
Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, proposes that Europeans misunderstood the Tamil word kari – a thin soup-like spiced sauce – to refer to all dishes of this kind. Hence becoming the word curry.
At History Alive this year, my re-enactment group, Ex Libris cooked a few dishes over the weekend. One of which was Mawmeny a dish that appears in The Forme of Cury and a personal favourite of mine. I have made this before at home and it is delicious.
First we’ll discuss the original extract from the book.
The Original extract reads:
FOR TO MAKE MAWMENNY. XX.IX. XIIII. Take þe chese and of Flessh of Capouns or of Hennes. & hakke smale in a morter. take mylke of Almandes with þe broth of freissh Beef, oþer freissh flessh. & put the flessh in þe mylke oþer in the broth and set hem to þe frye. & alye hem up with flour of Ryse. or gastbon. or amydoun. as chargeant as with blanke desire. & with zolkes of ayren and safroun for to make it zelow. and when it is dressit in disshes with blank desire styk above clowes de gilofre. & strewe Powdour of galyngale above. and serue it forth.
That looks like a confusing mess, but with a bit of translation we can make sense of it.
Firstly, when the recipe is speaking about ‘Blanke Desire’ – it is referring to another dish that Mawmeny is supposed to be served with at the time so this can be disregarded.
Take the Cheese and of Flesh of Capon or of Hens and make small in a mortar. Take the milk of the Almonds with the broth of the flesh of the Beef, other fresh flesh. and put the flesh in the milk other in the broth and set them to be fry. And set them up with flour of rice or of gastbon or amydoun as chargeant as with blanke desire. And with egg yolks and saffron for to make it zelow. And when to serve it in dishes with blank desire stick above it Clove – gilliflower and strew powder of Galangal above it. and serve it forth.
That’s still really hard to follow and still confusing. Some of these things are easily understandable: almond milk, chicken and broth. But others still are confusing and speak in terms we no longer use or understand.
To clarify, amydoun is wheat grains that have been soaked in water, and then cooked and then dried to be used as a thickener. Gastbon is also known as wastrel bread – a good quality bread. To read more about medieval breads go here and here.
So I’ll simplify it again:
Take cheese and the meat of a chicken and pulverise in a mortar. Take some almond milk and beef broth, and other flesh. Put the flesh in the milk and the other in the broth and set them to fry. Thicken them with rice flour, or white flour or amydoun. Whisk in egg yolks and saffron. When serving, garnish it with cloves and galangal.
This is in no way helpful to us in a modern context, medieval recipes do not give measurements – there was no standardisation of cooking as we have it today. We do not get a teaspoon of this a cup of that. When it comes to reconstructing a medieval receipe, it tends to involved a lot of experimentation, and trial and error.
Many assumptions are made in culinary reconstruction. For starters, there are many different sources for Mawmeny, some that call for Greek wine and no almond milk. The first step is to find a modern reconstruction of a Mawmeny recipe to work from.
I got this recipe from Medieval Cookery:
- 1 pound chicken
- 2 cups almond milk
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 Tbsp. rice flour
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp. galingale
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. cloves
- 1/8 tsp. mace
- pinch saffron
- Chop the chicken finely and place in a large pot.
- Whisk together almond milk egg yolks and rice flour, and add to chicken.
- Add spices and bring to a low boil. Simmer until thick, and serve hot.
Source [MS Harley 5401, S. Wallace (trans.)]: Mawmeny. Recipe brawne of capons or of hennys & dry þam wele, & taise þam small; þan take thyk mylk of almonds & put þe saide brawne þerto, & styr it wele ouer þe fyre, & seson it with suger & powder of canell, with mase & quibibs & anneys in confete, & serof it forth.
This is a later recipe, however we can see that the this original also did not have measurements. The writers make an assumption that their audience know how to cook, they are merely passing on how to achieve a dish.
When asked by people how much spice they should add my advice is the same for them in both a modern context as in a medieval one. Use enough that pleases your taste, if following the recipe the first time make sure you follow it close enough to understand the intention of the flavour. But don’t be afraid to add a bit more or less to suit your own palate. The medieval palate was as refined as ours, and they did crave flavour.
My interpretation of The Forme of Cury Chicken Mawmeny
- 500g chicken
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 cups almond milk
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 Tbsp. rice flour
- pinch saffron
- 1/8 tsp cloves
- 1/4 tsp galangal
- Finely cut chicken and place in a large pot, whisk together almond milk, stock egg yolks and rice flour add to chicken.
- Bring to the boil.
- Serve hot and sprinkle with fine ground galangal and cloves.
You’ll note that I have left the cheese out of the mix for now for now as I am not too sure of the type I am supposed to be using and how much. I will be fiddling around with this, but if I would hazard a guess, I would say 100 grams of a basic cheddar.
Reconstruction of recipes is hit and miss, sometimes you make something great, other times it ends up in the sink. Those sink times you know you are on the wrong path so you go back to the shops and try again.
Feeling curious/brave? You can find a copy of The Forme of Cury from the University of Adelaide here.
Andrew Fraser is a 14th Century re-enactor with re-enactment group, Ex Libris. He loves talking about medieval cookery (Ed: and we enjoy reading it!). You can find him on his Modern Medieval Man blog and Facebook page.