By Kristine Kowalchuk
“Take a pound of double refined sugar, searce it
through a tiffainey sieve….”
And so begins a recipe “To make sugar pufs.” As any scholar of early modern English cookery books can testify, the terms searce, sieve, sift, and strain come up with surprising frequency in recipes and remedies of the period. Those in the three manuscripts I focused on for my forthcoming critical edition, Recipes for Sharing, were no exception; searce comes up 28 times, in this spelling as well as scarce, scearce, scerck, search, seirce, serce and shvrch. Sieve comes up 33 times, including as cive, scive, sefe, seive, sieff, and sive. Sift comes up 29 times, and strain comes up no less than 129 times, usually as straine.
What’s with all this searcing, sieving, sifting and straining? I thought I’d take a closer look at the instances of these terms in the manuscripts I focused on—Folger manuscript V.a.20 (otherwise known as the Receipt Book attributed to Constance Hall, and the source of the sugar puff recipe above), Folger MS V.a.430 (Receipt Book attributed to Mary Granville and Anne Granville D’Ewes), and Folger MS V.a.450 (Cookery and Medical Receipt Book attributed to Lettice Pudsey)—to see if I could, well, sift out any specificities. Or should I say searce?
While one might at least assume that sifting, and the historical term searcing, are for dry ingredients, and straining for wet (to filter out solids)—indeed this is what the Oxford English Dictionary would have us believe—in practice the terms seem to have been more muddled. They are used as both nouns and verbs (the noun sieve being associated with the verb sift). They are also often used in combination, as is evident in the sugar puff example above. Likewise, a grated penny loaf is “searced through a siue” in “To make Mackaroones” (V.a.430). However, these terms could be reversed: “sift [sugar] with a fine searce,” appears in “To mack the best sort of beskett” (V.a.450). Searcing and sifting are both used for sugar (in various grades, from loaf sugar to double-refined), bread, spices and lead, although sifting is also used for wetter ingredients such as ginger and lady’s smock blossoms. Straining, meanwhile, while indeed called for when dealing with medicinal waters, creams, and juice for jellies, is also used for drier ingredients such as herbs, butter, bread, and horse dung. I also recalled perhaps the most intriguing instance of straining in all early modern recipes: the Countess of Kent’s oil for an ache in the sciatica, which calls for a boiled and strained middle-aged badger.
The material specified for each term in their use as nouns—as physical tools—does offer some distinction. While searces, sieves and strainers are all often indicated as being made of cloth, the specific cloths differ (the frames are not described, nor whether the cloth was simply stretched or tied over a bowl). Searce is sometimes specified as “searce-net,” or sarcenet, a very fine, soft silk, indicating the etymology of the original term. Sieves are often specified as linen, cotton or tiffany—and, commonly, as hair, meaning horse hair. Strainers were specified as linen, cotton or canvas. This progression from fine to course weave suggests different uses. And it seems the tools for the job were not always interchangeable. “To make a carrett pudding” (V.a.430) calls for the cook to “grate a penny loaf & sift/ it thro a sive cullender.”
A colander comes up in another instance in the manuscripts too, as does a mazarine, a deep plate pierced like a colander (but shallower). The tool that stumped me was in a recipe for “bottel water”: “drawe [the water] forth into your bottels through / a sriprius bagg that it may run cleare from the yeast &…spicess” (V.a.450). My hunch that “sriprius” linked to cypress was half-correct. But it took an online call-out via the South West Heritage Trust and the Rural Museum Network for a basket-weaver from Thornbury named Jenny Humphris to come forward and fill me in on Scirpus lacustris—the common English bulrush, which for centuries has been used in weaving of chair seats and baskets. Jenny writes at the end of her email, “PS the bag would have acted as a sieve.”
So what to make of all this? Based on my three sources, searcing is for dry ingredients only, sifting mostly dry, and straining mostly wet, and the materials used for each provide a range in granularity, but there is significant overlap. But why all the soft food in the first place? Early modern cooks did have to perform a lot of basic processing: flour for bread, butter, and medicinal waters all needed searcing, sifting, or straining. But so ubiquitous were paps and purees that one wonders if something else was going on. I look forward to Joseph Imorde’s upcoming talk, “Royal Cavities: The Bitter Implications of Sugar Consumption in Early Modern Europe.” While recipes for soft foods extend back to Roman times (see Apicius’s references to gruels and vegetable mashes), meaning sugar couldn’t be the only culprit, this doesn’t mean western Europeans haven’t had a long history of bad teeth. And ironically, the ingredient most often searced and sifted in the manuscripts I studied was…sugar.