Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine, by William Carew Hazlitt

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Meats and Drinks.

Slender: You are afraid, if you see the bear loose, are you not?

Anne: Aye, indeed, Sir

Slender: That's meat and drink to me, now.

— Merry Wives of Windsor, i, 1.

The manufacture of wine and of fruit preserves, and many of the processes of cookery, could have scarcely been accomplished without a large and constant supply of sugar.

The exact date of the first introduction of the latter into England continues to be a matter of uncertainty. It was clearly very scarce, and doubtless equally dear, when, in 1226, Henry III. asked the Mayor of Winchester to procure him three pounds of Alexandria sugar, if so much could be got, and also some rose and violet-coloured sugar; nor had it apparently grown much more plentiful when the same prince ordered the sheriffs of London to send him four loaves of sugar to Woodstock. But it soon made its way into the English homes, and before the end of the thirteenth century it could be procured even in remote provincial towns. It was sold either by the loaf or the pound. It was still exorbitantly high in price, varying from eighteen pence to three shillings a pound of coeval currency; and it was retailed by the spice-dealers.

In Russell’s “Book of Nurture,” composed about 1450, it occurs as an ingredient in hippocras; and one collects from a letter sent by Sir Edward Wotton to Lord Cobham from Calais in 1546, that at that time the quantities imported were larger, and the price reduced; for Wotton advises his correspondent of a consignment of five-and-twenty loaves at six shillings the loaf. One loaf was equal to ten pounds; this brought the commodity down to eight pence a pound of fifteenth century money.

The sugar of Cyprus was also highly esteemed; that of Bezi, in the Straits of Sunda, was the most plentiful; but the West Indian produce, as well as that of Mauritius, Madeira, and other cane-growing countries, was unknown.

Of bread, the fifteenth century had several descriptions in use: pain-main or bread of very fine flour, wheat-bread, barley-meal bread, bran-bread, bean-bread, pease-bread, oat-bread or oat-cakes, hard-bread, and unleavened bread. The poor often used a mixture of rye, lentils, and oatmeal, varied according to the season and district.

The author of “The Serving-man’s Comfort,” 1598, however, seems to say that it was counted by the poorer sort at that time a hardship only to be tolerated in a dear year to mix beans and peas with their corn, and he adds: “So must I yield you a loaf of coarse cockle, having no acquaintance with coin to buy corn.”

In a Nominale of this period mention is made of “oblys,” or small round loaves, perhaps like the old-fashioned “turnover”; and we come across the explicit phrase, a loaf of bread, for the first time, a pictorial vocabulary of the period even furnishing us with a representation of its usual form.

Nor were the good folks of those days without their simnels, cracknels, and other sorts of cakes for the table, among which in the wastel we recognise the equivalent of the modern French gâteau.

Besides march-pain or pain-main, and pain-puff, two sorts baked on special occasions, and rather entering into the class of confectionery, our better-to-do ancestors usually employed three descriptions of bread: manchete for the master’s table, made of fine boulted flour; chete, of unboulted flour, but not mixed with any coarser ingredient; and brown-bread, composed of flour and rye meal, and known as maslin (mystelon).

A bushel of wheat, in a romance of the thirteenth century, is estimated to produce twenty loaves; but the statement is obviously to be taken with allowance. The manchet was sometimes thought to be sufficient without butter, as we now eat a scone. In the “Conceits of Old Hobson,” 1607, the worthy haberdasher of the Poultry gives some friends what is facetiously described as a “light” banquet — a cup of wine and a manchet of bread on a trencher for each guest, in an apartment illuminated with five hundred candles.

There is no pictorial record of the mode in which the early baker worked here, analogous to that which Lacroix supplies of his sixteenth century confrère. The latter is brought vividly enough before us in a copy of one of Jost Amman’s engravings, and we perceive the bakery and its tenants: one (apparently a female) kneading the dough in a trough at the farther end, a second by a roasting fire, with a long ladle or peel in his hand, putting the loaf on the oven, and a third, who is a woman, leaving the place with two baskets of bread, one on her head and one on her arm; the baker himself is almost naked, like the operatives in a modern iron furnace. The artist has skilfully realised the oppressive and enervating atmosphere; and it was till lately quite usual to see in the side streets of Paris in the early morning the boulanger at work precisely in the same informal costume. So tenacious is usage, and so unchanging many of the conditions of life.

The Anglo-Norman used butter where his Italian contemporary used oil. But it is doubtful whether before the Conquest our ancestors were commonly acquainted with butter.

The early cook understood the art of glazing with yolk of egg, and termed it endoring, and not less well that of presenting dishes under names calculated to mislead the intended partaker, as where we find a receipt given for pome de oringe, which turns out to be a preparation of liver of pork with herbs and condiments, served up in the form of glazed force-meat balls.

Venison was salted in troughs. In the tale of “The King and the Hermit,” the latter exhibits to his unknown visitor his stock of preserved venison from the deer, which he had shot in the forest.

The mushroom, of which so many varieties are at present recognised by botanists, seems, from the testimony of an Italian, Giacomo Castelvetri, who was in London in 1614, and to whom I have already referred, to have been scarcely known here at that time. I cannot say, of course, how far Castelvetri may have prosecuted his inquiries, though he certainly leaves the impression of having been intelligently observant; or whether he includes in this observation the edible toadstools; but even now much unreasonable prejudice exists as to the latter, and very limited use is made of any but two or three familiar sorts of the mushroom itself. It is a pity that this misconception should not be dissipated.

Caviary had been brought into England, probably from Russia, at the commencement of the seventeenth century, perhaps sooner. In 1618, “The Court and Country,” by Breton, seems to represent it as an article of diet which was little known, and not much relished; for a great lady had sent the writer’s father a little barrel of it, and it was no sooner opened than it was fastened down again, to be returned to the donor with a respectful message that her servant had black soap enough already.

In the time of James I. the ancient bill of fare had been shorn of many of its coarser features, so far as fish was concerned; and the author of “The Court and Country” tells a story to shew that porpoise-pie was a dish which not even a dog would eat.

The times had indeed changed, since a King and a Cardinal-archbishop judged this warm-blooded sea-dweller a fit dish for the most select company.

It is not a despicable or very ascetic regimen which Stevenson lays before us under April in his reproduction of Breton’s “Fantasticks,” 1626, under the title of the “Twelve Months,” 1661:—“The wholesome dyet that breeds good sanguine juyce, such as pullets, capons, sucking veal, beef not above three years Old, a draught of morning milk fasting from the cow; grapes, raysons, and figs be good before meat; Rice with Almond Milk, birds of the Field, Peasants and Partridges, and fishes of stony rivers, Hen eggs potcht, and such like.”

Under May he furnishes us with a second and not less appetising menu:—

“Butter and sage are now the wholesome Breakfast, but fresh cheese and cream are meat for a dainty mouth; the early Peascods and Strawberries want no price with great Bellies; but the Chicken and the Duck are fatted for the Market; the sucking Rabbet is frequently taken in the Nest, and many a Gosling never lives to be a Goose.”

Even so late as the succeeding reign, Breton speaks of the good cheer at Christmas, and of the cook, if he lacks not wit, sweetly licking his fingers.

The storage of liquids became a difficult problem where, as among our ancestors, glazed pottery was long unknown; and more especially with regard to the supply of water in dry seasons. But so far as milk was concerned, the daily yield probably seldom exceeded the consumption; and among the inhabitants further north and east, who, as Caesar says, partook also of flesh, and did not sow grain — in other words, were less vegetarian in their habits from the more exhausting nature of the climate — the consideration might be less urgent. It is open to doubt if, even in those primitive times, the supply of a national want lagged far behind the demand.

The list of wines which the King of Hungary proposed to have at the wedding of his daughter, in “The Squire of Low Degree,” is worth consulting. Harrison, in his “Description of England,” 1586, speaks of thirty different kinds of superior vintages and fifty-six of commoner or weaker kinds. But the same wine was perhaps known under more than one name.

Romney or Rumney, a Hungarian growth, Malmsey from the Peloponnesus, and Hippocras were favourites, and the last-named was kept as late as the last century in the buttery of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for use during the Christmas festivities. But France, Spain, Greece, almost all countries, contributed to furnish the ancient wine-cellar, and gratify the variety of taste among connoisseurs; and for such as had not the means to purchase foreign productions, the juice of the English grape, either alone or mingled with honey and spice, furnished a not unpalatable and not very potent stimulant. As claret and hock with us, so anciently Bastard and Piment were understood in a generic sense, the former for any mixed wine, the latter for one seasoned with spice.

In “Colin Blobol’s Testament,” a whimsical production of the fifteenth century, Tent and Valencia wines are mentioned, with wine of Languedoc and Orleans. But perhaps it will be best to cite the passage:—

“I trow there shall be an honest fellowship, save first shall they of ale have new backbones. With strong ale brewed in vats and in tuns; Ping, Drangollie, and the Draget fine, Mead, Mattebru, and the Metheling. Red wine, the claret and the white, with Tent and Alicant, in whom I delight. Wine of Languedoc and of Orleans thereto: Single beer, and other that is double: Spruce beer, and the beer of Hamburgh: Malmsey, Tires, and Romany.”

But some of the varieties are hidden under obscure names. We recognise Muscadel, Rhine wine, Bastard, Hippocras, however. On the 10th of December, 1497, Piers Barber received six shillings and eight pence, according to the “Privy Purse Expences of Henry VII.,” “for spice for ypocras.”

Metheglin and beer of some kind appear to be the most ancient liquors of which there are any vestiges among the Britons. Ferguson, in his Essay “On the Formation of the Palate,” states that they are described by a Greek traveller, who visited the south of Britain in the fourth century B.C. This informant describes metheglin as composed of wheat and honey (of course mixed with water), and the beer as being of sufficient strength to injure the nerves and cause head-ache.

Worlidge, in his “Vinetum Britannicum,” 1676, gives us receipts for metheglin and birch wine. Breton, in his “Fantasticks,” 1626, under January, recommends a draught of ale and wormwood wine mixed in a morning to comfort the heart, scour the maw, and fulfil other beneficial offices.

The English beer of by-gone times underwent many vicissitudes, and it was long before our ancestors conquered their dislike to the bitter hop, after having been accustomed to a thick, sweet liquor of which the modern Kentish ale is in some measure a survival. Beer was made from a variety of grain; oats were most commonly employed. In France, they resorted even to vetches, lentils, rye, and darnel. But as a rule it was a poor, thin drink which resulted from the operation, and the monks of Glastonbury deemed themselves fortunate in being allowed by their abbot to put a load of oats into the vat to improve the quality of the beverage; which may account for Peter of Blois characterising the ale in use at Court in his day (he died about the end of the twelfth century) as potent — it was by contrast so. The first assize of ale seems not to have been enacted till the reign of Henry III.

From a glossary of the fourteenth century, inserted in “Reliquse Antique,” 1841, it appears that whey was then used as a drink; it occurs there as “cerum, i, quidam liquor, whey.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42