All posts by Amanda Herbert

Early Modern Research with Britain’s Favourite Organic Producer

By Grace Palmer

In the spring of 2023, I undertook a deep dive into early modern British (and some European) recipes for a project with Hexhamshire Organics, an organic farm near Newcastle in the North East of England, focused on creating short sentences on the historic uses of herbs, fruit and vegetables, designed to pique their customers’ interests by examining how their favourite produce was consumed in the past. Within this project, I focused on using domestically-produced receipt books – which were often collaborative family books carefully curated by multiple generations to create unique recipe collections – and horticultural texts, produced as instruction manuals for gardeners, providing information on the multitude of plants that were cultivated by early modern Britons. Admittedly these sources were produced by and for the upper- and middle-classes, however they are a fascinating route to understanding how food was enjoyed in the past, and do provide some insights into the culinary habits of ordinary Britons.

Pages exploring ‘mountayne Radish’ and ‘Carrottes’ in Rembert Dodoens (trans. Henry Lyte Esquyer), A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, (published in England- 1578), pp 600-601


Perhaps especially because our audience for this project was consumers interested in organic, locally-sourced produce, I was struck by the similarities some recipes held to many present-day dishes loved by modern Britons. For example, many recipes including carrots described the vegetable being enjoyed grated and baked with a variety of spices, reminiscent of a modern carrot cake. Similarly, by the 18th century, recipes instructing how tomatoes (a ‘New World’ discovery for many early modern Europeans) could be made into ketchup were more commonplace. It was fascinating to see how some of my favourite and regularly consumed dishes had such long-reaching origins. While early modern recipe books often contained the spectacular, documenting exceptional meals that were not eaten on an everyday basis, I was struck by the variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were clearly dietary staples. Explorations into the New World expanded the origins of commonly eaten produce: potatoes, the Jerusalem artichoke (named the “potato of Canada”), and peppers (initially viewed with some suspicion, but were quickly cultivated by poor farmers as a cheap alternative of expensive, imported black pepper) were often included in recipe collections, alongside spices from across South and Eastern Asia. Contemporary cooks displayed a clear interest in the presentation and taste of their dishes. A variety of herbs and spices were used – including dill, savory, chillies and sorrel – to add depth of flavour. Recipes describe the various innovative ways produce was used as a garnish, instructing the reader to pickle red cabbage to enhance its purple-red hue, or to finely chop brussels sprouts, to make dishes more visually appealing. I found that my research challenged pre-existing conceptions I myself had about potentially “backwards” culinary habits from the early modern era as the recipes instead showcased the diverse and rich culinary traditions from the period.

Early modern people assigned a fascinating array of medical uses to almost all plants. While some seem to make logical sense to the modern reader, many seem incredulous. (Giant) mustard leaves were often placed like a plaster on a patient’s head to help prevent vertigo. Spring onions were made into an ointment to cure dandruff, and lettuce was eaten after supper to prevent drunkenness, imagined to stop alcohol vapours (widely believed to cause drunkenness) reaching the brain. One early modern writer even used globe artichokes as a deodorant, believing the vegetable helped reduce the smell of his armpits. The huge variety of medical uses assigned to various herbs, fruits and vegetables is a testament to the ingenuous inventions of contemporaries, showcasing how they innovatively used all aspects of different produce to understand the world around them. Many medicinal recipes for common ailments and diseases were passed between generations, adapted and improved through experimentation over time. Much of the way early modern people understood their diet was influenced by humoral theory, often dictating the imagined medicinal cures behind plants and even the combination of ingredients set out in recipes. For example, sorrel was often paired with meats or eggs for its perceived cooling properties, imagined to aid digestion. Similarly, “hot and dry” horseradish was commonly eaten with fish, believed to counteract the negative associations of the “cold and wet” nature of fish. The humoral properties of produce meant some recipes came with warnings for future readers: cooks were advised against serving raw onions, imagined to induce headaches and dull the senses, and readers were warned about the overconsumption of spinach, believed to cause nausea. While sometimes comedic to the modern reader, early modern cooks used commonly consumed produce in innovative ways to understand the world around them, a testament to their ingenuity and invention.

Overall, this was a fascinating project, which taught me a huge amount about early modern recipes, diets, and consumption habits more broadly. While this project focused on highlighting the spectacular and sometimes comedic aspects of early modern food habits, I was struck by the many similarities to modern recipes and gained a deeper understanding of the rich history behind British cuisine. I hope this project will help inform Hexhamshire Organics’ customers on the fascinating interplay between early modern and present-day uses of their favourite produce, and perhaps even provide historic inspiration for unconventional and thrifty ways to make the most of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Grace Palmer is currently studying for her MA in history at Durham University, having recently completed her undergraduate studies there. She is writing her dissertation on poisoning as a method for resistance by enslaved men and women and white fear of poisoning conspiracies in plantation era America. Outside of academia, Grace is a keen foodie and enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes. She is also an avid sports fan and shares a season ticket to her local football club with her brother. 

Food for Thought: A Medieval Experiment with Ale Pastry

By Florence Swan

Whilst digging through medieval English cookery collections for my thesis I came across a curious fifteenth-century recipe that suggests using ale to make pastry short and supple:

‘Yf ye will have your past short and sopill that ye bake with, knede hit with good ale and it will be short’.[1]

Intrigued by what appears at first to be an early English recipe for shortcrust pastry, I thought I’d give it a go. I am partnered with Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle for my PhD, working with their team of chefs to develop medieval culinary recipes with the hopes of better understanding their form, function, and taste balances. I discussed the recipe with Blackfriars’ pastry chef, who was hesitant about the extent to which ale would make pastry short, but wondered if it might leave a beery aftertaste.

Jug with Horseshoes, 13th century, orig. Derbyshire, England, 16x13 5/8 x 13 1/16 in., The Cloisters Collection, 2014.280, The Met.
Jug with Horseshoes [used for making and storing ale], 13th century, orig. Derbyshire, England, 16×13 5/8 x 13 1/16 in., The Cloisters Collection, 2014.280, The Met.

Before experimenting I therefore had to address some key questions: is this pastry simply ale and flour, or is it suggesting adding ale to enriched fatty pastry? What does it mean by short and supple? And why ale? Most medieval pastry was made from just flour and water, a simple case to contain looser fillings whilst they cooked, keep hands tidy whilst its contents were eaten, and often disposed.[2] There were more refined pastries for consumption such as Payne Puff which used fats like cream or egg yolks, rarely butter or lard, to enrich them, however we have limited recipes for both basic and refined pastry. Preparing pastry in large wealthy households was typically a separate job carried out by pastry chefs, not the senior cooks who appear to be the primary audience of culinary recipes, and it was such a basic function in the kitchen that, like bread, it appears to have been unnecessary to provide detailed recipes. In the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there emerged what we might consider shortcrust pastry recipes, that incorporated fats such as oil or butter to make ‘sotille’ pastry, as quoted from Libro per cuoco.[3] That the term supple or soft is used to refer to pastries with shortening in other collections might suggest the ale pastry recipe of interest is intended to be made with fat, however because it simply does not say, I made pastry both with and without shortening.

Searching the Middle English Dictionary confirmed that the recipe is alluding to a crumbly pastry because ‘short’ is defined as meaning crumbly or friable, and ‘sopill’, or supple, as soft or pliable. Supple is also defined in the MED as meaning ‘a mixture containing eggs’, however I am not convinced by this definition and would be wary of suggesting this alone implies the use of eggs in this recipe.

Finally, why ale? My first thought was that is it used for its yeast content, a leavening agent creating a flakier pastry as is the case with Danish pastries or croissants. The question then follows, why not just use yeast? Although it is possible that the ‘good ale’ means use yeast derived from ale, I believe it is referring to the beverage because yeast is typically directly called for in medieval recipes, such as in Bastons in Yale Beinecke 163, which says add ‘a lytll yest of new ale’.[4] In their recreation of a seventeenth-century biscuit recipe that also uses ale, Elisa Tersigni and Jack Bouchard note that ale was historically more yeasty as it was not pasteurised (compared to modern ale that is typically pasteurised), thus it was likely to act as a leavening agent.[5] Furthermore, using ale instead of just yeast was probably efficient for making large quantities of pastry as it was readily available and meant they would not have to use another liquid to wet it, but it might also suggest the ale’s alcohol is important, as it might evaporate whilst cooking to create a crumbly pastry. Most medieval ale was made using a mixture of grains, however hops were used in its production in the late fifteenth century, from which the ale pastry recipe dates.[6] Furthermore, that the recipe calls for good ale suggests it is not a small ale with low alcohol but has a reasonable ABV. Hence, there are a multitude of factors in play when considering the nature and purpose of the ale. In this initial experiment I used a modern local brewery’s hopped ale, however I will continue to experiment with different types of ale in the future.

I first tried a lard shortcrust to see how the ale worked with a pastry I am familiar with – lard, butter, flour, salt, and a little ale. It was thoroughly tasty, crumbly and soft with a slight hint of a beery, yeast flavour. I then made two simpler pastries, one containing flour, salt, liquid, and egg yolks and one with just flour, salt, and liquid, of which I made water-based versions to serve as a control, and then ale-based variables to compare (four total). Prior to baking I found the ale-based pastries more pliable and easier to work with. After baking there was no dramatic difference between the water and ale pastries, however the ale versions were slightly crumblier. Where I noticed the greatest difference was in taste. The eggless ale pastry had a noticeable yeasty bread taste, and the pastries made with egg yolks had a rich egg flavour that was enhanced and more complex with ale, both of which I believe was the result of the beverage’s yeast. Yeast has a fermented umami flavour that complements egg, and this yeasty flavour is synonymous with bread, which is what I believe I could detect in the eggless ale pastry.

The results were not dramatic, but ale pastry is certainly easier to work with, crumbly, and the ale imparts a yeast flavour well suited to pastry, so the recipe’s advice holds true. I will continue to experiment and use ale with higher yeast content, which, I anticipate, will yield crumblier pastry. Ale appears to complement fats in pastry which might suggest it is to be used in conjunction with them to enhance the shortness of the pastry, but the recipe appears quite open and applicable to whatever ‘your past’ might be. But what is most pertinent is the culinary creativity and knowhow exhibited by the use of ale to achieve shortened pastry, and the apparent desire to make a commonplace and typically disposable foodstuff tasty; food for thought for my thesis and for those interested in medieval taste. Modern cooks are advised to take the recipe’s advice and add some ale when they next make pastry for a flavoursome result!

Florence Swan is currently studying at Durham University, where she is working on her PhD titled ‘The Transmission of Taste’, which examines food, recipes, and taste in England c.1200-c.1400. Collaborating with Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle, her archival research is complimented with the practical knowledge of culinary science and recipe development from the restaurant. Although a food historian, her research interests encompass a variety of topics from medieval horticulture to London urban life in the twelfth to sixteenth centuries.  

Instagram: transmissionoftaste       
Twitter: @florence_swan


[1] London, Society of Antiquaries, MS 287, f. 99v, printed in Constance Hieatt, A Gathering of Medieval English Recipes (Prospect Books, 2009), p. 136.

[2] Peter Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2008), p. 125.

[3] Barbara Santich, ‘The Evolution of Culinary Techniques in the Medieval Era’ in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. by Melitta Weiss Adamson (London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995), pp. 61-81 (p. 72).

[4] New Haven, Yale University Library, Beinecke MS 163, f. 69v <https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2003060> [accessed 19/01/2024].

[5] Elisa Tersigni and Jack Bouchard, ‘Savory biscuits from a 17th-century recipe’, 2018 https://www.folger.edu/blogs/shakespeare-and-beyond/savory-biscuits-from-a-17th-century-recipe/?_ga=2.80100119.1212766997.1707746077-1857904347.1660288475 [accessed 14 February 2024].

[6] Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 9.

Barbie and the RP

By Amanda E. Herbert

While we’ve never received an RP pitch for a Barbie post (*ahem* get cracking) we have, over the years, featured many amazing and insightful posts on beauty standards, cosmetics, makeup regimes, and the art of gender. Our authors have shown decisively that beauty standards have changed over time, and that while these beauty rules often encourage people to enact idealised versions of femininity and masculinity, individual people — the women and men who populated the past — have interpreted, adopted, furthered, and rejected these standards in their own individual ways.

When I began thinking about this Barbie post, I had a lot to choose from: Alana Martini’s “What’s in an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag”; Eugenia Lean‘s “Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in early 20th century China,” on the creation of home beauty remedies in modern China; Mobeen Hussain‘s “The Kitchen, Courtyard, and Bazaar: Meditations of ‘Natural’ Health and Beauty,” on the ways that women in interwar India balanced ready-made, commercially-available beauty products with their own homemade cosmetics; and so many more. The RP even did a fabulous special series on Beauty Recipes in 2014, led by my co-editor Jess Clark.

But the post that spoke to me most strongly was this one, written by Daisy Payling in 2019: “Beauty and the Beaumont Magazine: Transgender Make-Up.” Payling blends insights from Trans activists, such as Charlie Craggs, with sources from the past that illuminate the lives, struggles, and triumphs of Trans women and men. In particular Payling focused on the Beaumont Society, the longest running support organisation for the Transgender community, and the past issues of the society’s publication, The Beaumont Magazine. The post shows how organisations and publications like these could be a helpful source of advice, while also offering senses of community, care, and support to members and readers.

This brings us to this vintage 1966 advertisement for “Hair Fair” Barbie.

“…you can change Barbie’s hairstyle, every time you change her costume.”

The quote that Payling uses to open her piece, from Charlie Craggs herself, speaks provocatively to the ad for “Hair Fair” Barbie, above. Craggs talks about makeup as a crucial tool, a powerful mechanism by which to shape identity and self-presentation. It is something to be respected, celebrated, and treated with care. This is something that comes across clearly in “Hair Fair” Barbie, whose close-cropped head can be covered with any number of elaborate wigs. Appearing in 1966, in the midst of the second wave, this advertising campaign celebrates beauty choice and variety. Changing this Barbie’s hair, the ad says, is just as deliberate, desirable, and possible as changing her clothes.

Of course the ad has its limitations, many of which are serious. Everyone in the spot is white, from dolls to humans. Nearly everyone is blonde. There aren’t any boys playing with Barbie. And this Barbie’s look is stereotypically and traditionally feminine, all skirts and dresses — although she does sport a pretty groovy pair of tights around 0:22.

So while we should be cautious about celebrating “Hair Fair” Barbie uncritically, she does have one thing in common with Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the iconic woman-who-does-it-all: she owns her sense of style. The tools of fashion, which can include makeup, hair styles, accessories, clothing, and anything else that we use to decorate, shape, and adorn our bodies, all have, as Payling suggests, “a transformative power.” How we own those transformations is up to us.

A ‘recipe’ for chocolate on a 19th-century cup

Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

By Frederick Fossey-Warren

This porcelain hot chocolate cup from the early 19th century seems decidedly Ottoman. Gilded with gold and over-glazed with an intricate red pattern, the cup is designed to follow the “Egyptian style” that proved immensely popular with colonial Ottoman officials at the turn of the century. In fact the cup is so extravagant that it’s possible it was never actually intended for use, but purchased as a display piece, a succinct symbol of both status and wealth, by a member of the Ottoman elite.

Given its appearance, one could reasonably expect to trace the cup’s origins to a Turkish city such as Istanbul or Ankara. Upon closer inspection, however, the presence of different languages written onto the cup complicate its provenance. While the cup was bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire, its origins lie elsewhere. In fact, the cup was constructed in none other than…Paris? So, how did we get here?

After its arrival in the so-called “Old World” in the early 16th century, chocolate slowly but surely became a new court favourite across Europe and, by the end of the 17th century, had become a mainstay in aristocratic circles. It wasn’t long before chocolate began to spread into Asia and Africa, truly becoming one of the world’s first global commodities. As in Europe, given its scarcity and price, in the Ottoman Empire chocolate was initially largely restricted to the nobility, as much a status symbol as a foodstuff.

Initially enjoyed primarily as a drink, chocolate was seen as not only a nourishing treat, but a superfood, a sobering source of energy able to cure or prevent most common ailments. Many saw potential in its import as a commodity, and through its arrival it often contributed to the development of industry and revenue. Given its initial scarcity – chocolate had to be harvested in the Americas, loaded onto ships, and sailed across the Atlantic in a journey that routinely lasted three months – chocolate stayed in high demand, and markets soon opened not just for cacao, but for chocolate ‘accessories.’ These included such objects as chocolatera for dissolving together chocolate paste and sugar, molinillo for frothing hot chocolate, and, of course, cups for drinking, which brings us back to our porcelain cup.

When people consider the movement of luxury goods in the long nineteenth century, it is often taken for granted or assumed that goods primarily moved out of the peripheries of Africa, Asia and the Americas, and into the imperial core of Western Europe. This cup, however, challenges this understanding. From the date and manufacturers mark on the underside of the object, we can tell that this cup, saucer and lid collection was constructed in Paris in 1809. Given its design, it was likely always intended for sale within the Ottoman market.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire remained a powerful and, importantly, wealthy force in Eastern Europe, and an attractive market for many across Europe. When, in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expanded to encompass much of the Middle East and North Africa, the tastes of Ottoman elites changed, adopting the styles and fashions of many of their newly incorporated colonial subjects. This chocolate cup was ingeniously crafted to capitalise on these trends, part of an aesthetic and cultural movement that historian Ussama Makdisi has called ‘Ottoman Orientalism’.

Inscription detail. Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

So what were the design features that made this chocolate cup an example of ‘Ottoman Orientalism’? The underside of the saucer features a series of seemingly random Chinese characters. In relation to the cup’s purpose, these four characters, 李唐宋官, roughly translate to ‘Li Tang, Song dynasty official’. While there was a Li Tang in the Song dynasty, and in fact he was an accomplished landscape painter, he had nonetheless died almost seven hundred years prior to the time of this cup’s creation, and almost six hundred years before chocolate’s arrival in China. So why were these Chinese characters included? Simple: to make the cup seem more appealing to prospective buyers, and hence more likely to sell. The inclusion of these Chinese characters, presumably merely copied wholesale from another source, both fed into the intended exoticism of the piece, and attempted capitalise on a long existing market for Chinese porcelain in the Ottoman Empire.

The story of this cup does not, however, merely end with its creation and sale. Just as with the saucer, on the underside of the cup is another short sentence, this time, however, in Urdu. Unlike the Chinese characters, this writing was added after the cup was purchased and offers us a perplexingly poetic phase. The cryptic writing roughly translates to ‘That same diminished consciousness; This same deep target’ and is attributed to one Jannatī, likely a pen-name, meaning ‘the heavenly’. Whoever this Jannatī was, they clearly had some affection for the cup; not only did they write an inscription on its underside, but there is evidence of attempts at restoration, with the gold on the lid having been re-gilded.

Inscription detail. Porcelain chocolate cup, saucer and lid set created in Paris for the Ottoman market and marked in red overglaze, 19th century, Oriental Museum, Durham University. Image courtesy of the author.

When taken together, the elaborate and varied inscriptions on this cup act, in some sense, as a recipe. If a recipe is a set of instructions allowing you to, hopefully, produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, then, for a historian, the cup’s inscriptions act as an invaluable recipe in allowing us to gain a far deeper understanding not only commerce in the early 19th century, but also of chocolate, and its role as one of the world’s first truly global commodities. From South America to France, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire and even China, this porcelain cup combines facets of many different cultures and civilisations in both its purpose and construction. While both the maker of this cup and its first owners are by now long dead, this object they left behind lives on, and continues to tell us much about the world in which they lived.

Frederick Fossey-Warren is a scholar interested in the role of race and ethnicity in modern East African politics. He participated in Durham’s Undergraduate Research Internship (UGRI) programme to conduct research on chocolate in the Durham University collections. He currently studying towards a Master’s in History at Durham.