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.

Orality and Multi-Sensoriality: the Secret Ingredients of Food’s Longevity and the Power of Memory

By Elisa Pastorelli

The uninterrupted transmission of knowledge of oral traditions, of gestures, of words, of the practices that characterize and give significance to food and eating culture has enabled its deepest tangible and intangible foundations. By taking part in practices and knowledges related to food, people recover from the complexity of contemporary times, reconnecting with the past and collective memory[i] of their community. In the following, I aim to highlight how this has been made possible by two interconnected factors that characterize the memory power of food and food practices: multi-sensoriality and orality.

As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks — the most ancient of which is De re coquinaria, allegedly written by Apicius in the 1st century AD — primarily spread, especially during the early modern period, in noble and bourgeois contexts. In other environments, recipes were part of an oral tradition of words and gestures that reiterated and ritualised the knowledge shared by a community. Even during and after the rise in literacy through the modern era, knowledge and practices connected to food continued to be handed down orally — and refunctionalized and re-signified — especially in “lateral areas.”[ii]

The preference for orality as a means of spreading and passing on to future generations is due not only to sacred, social values but also the sensory skills involved in preparing and consuming foods, which are sometimes simplified and ignored in writing. Le Breton defines eating as a “total sensory act,”[iii] but he refers to the consumer product, which is seen, smelled, touched, and, in the end, tasted. Heldke highlights how the senses are also central to the procurement and preparation of food, skills  that are “‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.”[iv]  Cooking is thus a bodily practice that, as pointed out by Bourdieu, is the result of the way bodies are informed by a series of habits instilled in a shared environment and articulated in movements and gestures that are part of that culture.[v] We must also consider how cultural factors—along with biological, psychological, and social ones—are central in processes defined by Fischler as “formation du gout,” whose phases largely involve and depend on the senses.[vi] As cultural and social environments change or evolve, so too does the interactions between the senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell — and the food world. Nevertheless, while cultural and social environments change or evolve, the senses still remain etched in the memory of those who move or survive against changes. As Le Breton notes, “The best taste is a cultural prism projected onto food, a filiation of childhood or special moments.”[vii]

 
The preparation of a particular arbëreshë fresh pasta (fuzjiet) represents the bodily knowledge and practice used for preparing food. In particular, the iron spindle used to prepare it must not only moving but also making a precise sound. Image credit: Elisa Pastorelli

 

When a sociocultural environment varies, this “best taste” is assessed through the involuntary memory of the senses. In his Remembrance of Repasts, for example, Sutton focuses his fieldwork on the Greek island of Kalymnos on the reasons why and how food triggers the memory in powerful and effective ways. Food experience mostly evokes memories that concern not the action of eating itself, but the emotions and the relationships related to a past moment.[viii] Since these experiences are not just cognitive but also emotional and physical, food builds “embodied”[ix] memories that preserve past moments which can be lived again through senses. Aromas and flavors, and especially the senses that characterize them, generate nostalgia and activate involuntary memories that bring the taster back to previous times and places.

During my fieldwork in the Arbëreshë communities of Molise, for example, my older interlocutors always connected the bitter taste of chicory, dill, and wild turnip—which are still jarred in oil—with nostalgic moments of the past, when the great majority of people were poor but happy to stay alive together, eating these wild herbs and corn every day. Similarly, when talking about homemade sweets featuring almonds, honey, figs, and cooked wine that are still prepared during celebrations, they nostalgically told me about how and when, as children, they received those treats during past feasts.

Rooted in cultural memory, food is particularly useful for migrants to return home—at least for a while. Mankekar highlights how Indian-Californian customers go to Indian grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, not only to shop but also to engage, through smells and aromas, with representations of their homeland.[x] Food often returns people to an imagined homeland, shaped by the “armchair or imagined nostalgia” as defined by Appadurai.[xi] Another example is offered by the Sicilian community of Silkwood—which migrated to North Queensland starting in the late 1880s—that makes, eats, and shares Sicilian food during the Feast of The Three Saints to feel connected to Sicily, even if younger generations had never been to Italy.[xii]

Multi-sensoriality and orality sustain knowledge and practices connected to eating culture, allowing them to endure over centuries. In this way, food is a means of self-representation and self-celebration, which is profoundly connected to processes of identification and construction of extensive “imagined communities.”[xiii]

 

 

[i] See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[ii] I’m referring to Bartoli’s Law of Lateral Areas, according which innovation spreads from a center to peripheral areas. See Giulio Bartoli, Saggi di linguistica spaziale (Torino: Vincenzo Bona, 1945).

[iii] David Le Breton [1953], Sensing the World. An Anthropology of the Senses (New York: Bloomsbury Academy, 2017), 185.

[iv] Lisa Heldke, Foodmaking as a Toughtful Practice, in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, eds. D.W. Curtin and L.M. Heldke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 218.

[v] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979).

[vi] Claude Fischler [1990], L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2001).

[vii] Le Breton, 198.

[viii] David E. Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

[ix] Jon Holtzman, “Food and Memory,” The Annual Review of Anthropology, 35 (2006): 365.

[x] Purnima Mankekar, “‘India Shopping’: Indian Grocery Stores and Transnational Configurations of Belonging,” Ethnos 67.1 (2002):75-97.

[xi] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 76-78.

[xii] Franca Tamisari, “Working for the Saints. Food, Memory and the Senses in the North Queensland,” Queensland Review 2 (2023): 70-83.

[xiii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Londra: Verso, 1983).


Elisa Pastorelli completed her joint bachelor’s degree in European Literary Cultures at the University of Bologna and Strasbourg in 2020 and recently received her Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology, and Anthropological Linguistics from the University of Venice. Her thesis, which investigates heritage and reinvention between feasts, senses, and gastronomic lexicon from past to present in the arbëreshë communities of Molise, will be published as a monograph in the Il Mondo in Tavola Series. Combining an ethnographic method with the heterogeneous collection of studies offered by the anthropological but also sociological, linguistic, and semiotic perspectives, Elisa uses food as a lens to investigate how particular forms of food production, distribution, and consumption are culturally and socially framed and valued through discourses of ‘heritage,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘identity,’ especially in contexts of migration and multiculturalism. She collaborates with the scientific Journal of Agriculture and Gastronomy edited by the International Library “La Vigna” (Vicenza, IT).

Building Community Through Recipe Sharing

By Sara de Blas Hernández

All of the famous cookbooks emerging in early modern Spain were written by men who worked for the royal court: Libro de guisados (1529) was written by Roberto de Nola, Arte de cocina, pasteleria, vizcocheria, y conserveria (1611) by Francisco Martínez Montiño, and Arte de repostería (1747) by Juan de la Mata. Outside of the palace walls, however, it was generally women —and not men—who were in charge of feeding the family. Even though there is no record of edited cookbooks by female authors during the period, there are some manuscripts authored by nuns and by literate noblewomen that made possible the preservation of knowledge shared through oral traditions. One of these recipe books is Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces written by María Rosa Calvillo de Teruel around 1740.

Original Libro de Apuntaciones de guisos y dulces at the Real Academia Española in Madrid. Image Credit: The author

At first sight, one might consider recipe books to be straightforward texts with instructions, but they can provide the attentive reader with more information than what initially meets the eye. This is the case with Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces. The only biographical information contained in the book is the name of the author, which, interestingly enough, is written by a different hand than the one that writes the recipes in the book. Is María Rosa the author? Was the book passed down to a relative who signed her name to claim it as hers? Even though these questions remain unanswered, a careful reading of this recipe book has allowed me to reconstruct, to a certain extent, the details of María Rosa’s life, the social context in which she lived, and the cooking practices used at the time.

In Libro de apuntaciones, the titles of some recipes —“How to prepare quails as it is done in Seville” or “How to make Utreras’ pastries”[i]— locate the author in Andalusia, the southernmost region of mainland Spain. The ingredients, meanwhile, disclose María Rosa’s social class, or at least the one she interacted with, which was the lower nobility. The book calls for spices such as clove, paprika, cinnamon, and saffron. These are a constant in most of the recipes and were very expensive but essential ingredients in the preparation of most dishes at the time. There is a recipe that even calls for Flemish butter, a special kind of butter mixed with potassium nitrate that kept the product fresh. This butter was imported from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland and was a luxurious and expensive ingredient not available to all.

Map of Spain with the Andalusia region highlighted. Image Credit: Wikicommons

An exploration of the handwritten recipes in Libro de apuntaciones reveals yet another key detail. Out of the 100 recipes contained in the book, six of them are attributed to other women: Antonia, Mari-quita, tía Felipa, doña Joaquina, María Teresa, and María Manuela. These recipes are considerably longer and more accurate than María Rosa’s recipes. By including these recipes in the book, the author recognizes other members of the food-making community and also acknowledges their skills, abilities, and knowledge. This resonates with Janet Theopano’s concept of “cookbook as community,” which understands recipe books as spaces where women created networks of support and spaces that promoted social interaction and exchange of ideas.

In these six recipes, María Rosa’s own voice gets intertwined with the voices of the six other women. She suggests improvements and variations to the original recipes proposed by her peers and evaluates the quality of the food being prepared. This is proof of experimentation. María Rosa tests and tastes the recipes herself, which is the kind of experimental knowledge and sensorial methodology necessary in the kitchen.

Food making relies on what Sutton defines as the “lower senses.” Take as an example the recipe for “Huevos moles” in which the sense of sight — “both things are whisked until they are very white and they make little bubbles”— and the sense of smell— “ cook until it smells done”— are the ones that determine when the eggs and the sugar are done. In “How to make pork blood sausage,” the sense of touch, and more specifically the hand and its parts, become the unit of measurement: “[add] a handful [of aniseed] with the whole hand,” “as much [cumin as] can be fitted in three fingers,” or “as much [ginger as] can be fitted in four fingers”.

The examples above position María Rosa and her peers as a community of practice that boasts a unique set of knowledge and skills rooted in experimental methodologies and the senses. In turn, this is conducive to the validity and recognition of a field —food-making— and a group of people—women— undervalued and undermined by society. My work helps unveil the potential of a text which, although not very promising at first sight, proves to be a rich source of avenues of inquiry and a way to rescue women’s voices and their knowledge from an unrecognizing past.

[i] Utrera is a town south-east of Seville

 

References

Calvillo de Teruel, María Rosa. Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces, 1740.

Sutton, Davis. “Cooking Skill, the Senses, and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge.”  Sensible Objects ed. Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth Phillips, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.

Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. Palgrave, 2002.


Sara de Blas Hernández is a Ph.D. student specializing in Spanish Linguistics at UC Davis. Even though her main field of research is Second Language Acquisition, she has a keen interest in Food Studies. She is currently working on creating and testing pedagogical materials that develop students’ communicative competence and critical thinking skills while boosting motivation and engagement through multisensory and experiential learning methodologies.

Critically Making Games from Historical Cookbooks

By Alessandra Zinicola Lopez

To make something edible is arguably the anticipated end-expectation of the design and use of any food recipe. Making is entwined with cookery, from the writing of its instruction, guided by the experimentation involved in developing a recipe, through the tactile creation process of the consumable result.

As scholars, we can approach the study of recipes from different perspectives. My educational background is in technical communication, but my doctoral work has been done through the University of Central Florida’s innovative digital humanities program, Texts and Technology.

Within this program I typically focus on historical domestic technical communication, the old receipts that instructed Americans for centuries on how to run households. But rather than solely approaching my research from methods historians or technical communicators might default to, I approach my work like a digital humanist, and have found critical making to be useful in exploring my studies.

In this article I aim to introduce the critical making research method to recipes research by showcasing a digital exercise I have completed using it. Through this, I hope to encourage other recipe scholars to experiment with this method.

In Ratto’s 2011 publication of Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, the author writes about critical making merging concepts of critical thinking and pragmatic physical making together to create a process-focused way of deriving knowledge.

Ratto explains the method includes three stages: a literature review, prototyping, and reconfiguration, discussion, and reflection. The method is performed to bridge gaps between technology and society.

The critical making process can be interactive or collaborative and various digital tools can be used to perform it. In this exercise I used Twine, an open-source hypertext platform that allows for the formation of scholarship through online interactive non-linear narratives. I would describe it as a tool to create a digital choose-your-own-adventure.

Image Credit: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/poeticalcookbook00moss/page/n8/mode/1up

I worked with Twine to explore a historical cookbook that interested me because of its creative use of poetry to instruct meal preparation. The book is Maria J. Moss’ A Poetical Cook-Book, a community cookbook originally published in 1864 during the American Civil War. An aim of the project was to generate public and scholarly interest in historical recipes through gamification. I thought that perhaps a younger, technologically savvy audience might have their interest in American culinary history piqued through a digitally interactive experience. I used the critical making research process to create a hypertext narrative game based on the cookbook.

The following is an abbreviated example of the show-your-work type of documentation done during the prototyping stage of critical making.

To begin, I consulted Twine’s discussion boards and searched for tutorial videos on using the platform. I wanted to create all the passages and arrange them in the way I felt would make sense to a user. While it was easy to select and place each recipe, it was harder to figure out how to lead up to them, transition between them, and end the journey.

In the next passages, I offered information about the project, and I allowed the recipes to be accessed in the order of what people typically consume during mealtimes, and additionally in any other way they want to access them (i.e., dessert for dinner). After I added all the recipes, I played with how they could link together. It was then that I realized the way to click through them could be a conversation between the user or attendee and the host.

Image Credit: Twine, https://twinery.org/

I eventually ordered the passages and links together as pictured above. I then started to fiddle with color. I used a tutorial to guide me through the tips on how to change the font within the stylesheet. While I was initially successful in finding fonts and colors for the game, I ran into some issues.

I tried to figure out why my colors displayed incorrectly. I had copied and pasted code from a forum discussion response that claimed to be a coding answer. Revisiting it, I realized there was code missing. Once I added it, the issue was solved. This type of refashioning constituted a reconfiguration portion of the project.

Image Credit: Twine, https://twinery.org/

I felt the exercise in gamifying a historical cookbook was successful and well received. Through the process of critical making, I found that it has provided a path to be more creative as a scholar by exemplifying the traditional ways of generating knowledge are not the only ways. Research can be designed in ways that allow for it to be presented in ways that may speak to more people, expanding its reach and impact. Turning historical rhyming recipes into a digital narrative game is just one way to garner more interest from scholars and the public in recipes, history, and literature.

Special thanks to Dr. Anastasia Salter for all the knowledge imparted within their course on Critical Making for Humanist Scholarship.

The published version of the game can be played at https://madeofallwork.itch.io/.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine

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