Category Archives: Experimentation

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.

Oppenheimer and the RP

By Joshua Schlachet

It may not surprise you to hear that The Recipes Project is light on nuclear arms. Given the exploratory style and generative levity with which so many of our contributors approach our shared themes of food, magic, art, and medicine, the weightiness of weapons of mass destruction, the inner pathos of their “father,” and recipes for radioactive isotopes are nowhere to be found. (Gravity, after all, was a topic for a different Christopher Nolan film.)

Yet the spirit of experimentation, the enormity of collective endeavor, and the destructive consequences of creation without humanity can all be found throughout our pages past. And a profound trust in the process, in taking a leap of faith that the farfetched—even the impossible—could be achieved with sufficient inquisitiveness and dedication to the procedure, runs through so much of what we do at the RP. What is a recipe if not a leap of faith? To begin with raw, even primordial ingredients and trust in a method to transform them into something perhaps unimaginable (whether a delicious pie or a fission reaction) cuts to the heart of what a recipe is and does.

These too are personified in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which undoubtedly contributed to famed director Christopher Nolan’s choice of Oppehheimer as his first ever foray into the biopic genre. As the principal figure in the Manhattan Project and in the construction of the first atomic bomb, what began as a career of scientific exploration evolved into an existence plagued by the destructive power that his endeavors unlocked. Oppenheimer’s life of contradictions would be forever tied to the terrible weapon he and his team developed and to the wartime state that produced and used it.

Throughout the pages of the RP, our contributors have probed the relationship between war and recipes in a variety of contexts. In some posts, recipes had the potential to win wars, whether by provisioning the troops, encouraging thrift on the homefront, or buying domestic goods. Here are but a few to sample:

Other contributors have taken a creative approach to the study of recipes and weapons, both top secret and otherwise. We need not dig too far back into the archive to find Madison Clyburn’s piece It Roars and Breathes Fire on the making of ‘terrifying’ dragons for waging war and for spectacle. Aileen Das’ Removing Arrowheads in Antiquity and the Middle Ages explores recipes as a means to heal the wounds of war in the ancient world. For a far more lighthearted (though still very much political) take on ‘secret’ weapons of a very different sort, check out Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe.

Yet to historians of Japan like me, the atomic bomb means something quite different. As I watched Oppenheimer in the theater, I couldn’t help but think of who got left out—of the silenced voices of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is clear that the film agrees with Gary Oldman, playing President Harry Truman, when he tells Oppenheimer that “Hiroshima isn’t about you.” Whether or not we agree with this sentiment, it is worth remembering that some of our contributors have used the lens of recipes and food to center Japanese voices and experiences. Here are two highlights from Nathan Hopson’s series on food culture in wartime Japan:

Finally, as an auteur filmmaker, Nolan is a master of time. To bend and, at times, even overcome it, is a hallmark of his filmic style. While Oppenheimer’s narrative jumped from era to era, traversing decades in seconds, Tillmann Taape’s 2017 RP post ‘Thus It Prevails Against Time’ reminds us that recipes have sought to cheat time (and decay) since at least the sixteenth century. How and why did an early modern maker of medicines prevail over time without the modern tools of nonlinear storytelling or IMAX cameras? Take the time to read and see.

The Many Shades of Naples Yellow: Experimental Re-Working and the Influence of Fluxes on Pigment Colour

By Umberto Veronesi, Mario Bandiera, Marcia Villarigues, Andreia Ruivo, Marta Manso,  Susana Coentro

The ChromAz project tells the story of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Portuguese azulejos from the perspective of colour technology. Tiles are a crucial piece of Portuguese national heritage, and artists had a broad palette of colours at their disposal. We started with one of the most complex to achieve: a pigment known as Naples yellow (lead antimonate), a product of human craft with a long history.

A panel of tiles show a pattern of blue, yellow, and white.
Figure 1. A panel of tiles that shows different shades of yellow. Image courtesy by Umberto Veronese and courtesy of Museu Nacional do Azulejo, a partner in our project.

 

As one of the very first artificial materials, Naples yellow was employed from the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BC) and initially linked to the production of opaque yellow glass. After disappearing from the European tradition for over a millennium, the pigment resurfaced in the sixteenth century, used by Venetian glassmakers, in oil paintings and in decorated glazed ceramics.

Around this time, technical texts begin to feature recipes for the manufacture of Naples yellow. Besides the lead-antimony base, authors list a number of other reagents, but only vaguely (if at all) describe the chromatic effects brought by the additions of these ingredients. So, to gain insights into such an important aspect of the early modern artistic process, we replicated eight recipes, summarised in Table 1.

A table that summarizes eight experiments with historical pigments.

Four recipes (Mariani I and II, Piccolpasso and Marmi 126) are simple, binary lead antimonates to which salt or tartar (or both) were added as fluxes to facilitate the reaction. The remaining four (Mariani III, Marmi 136, Darduin and Danzica) are ternary variants of the pigment. They can come with or without fluxes but, importantly, they contain what the authors refer to as tutty or tuccia, which scholars have variably interpreted as either zinc or tin oxide. To evaluate differences, we made two sets, one with the former and one with the latter, bringing the total to twelve re-worked recipes.

After thoroughly mixing the ingredients, we fired the raw pigments at 950°C for five hours and left them in the furnace to cool down to room temperature. Finally, we collected the mixtures, which had turned yellow, and ground them to a fine powder to homogenise the colour (Figure 2).

Two top panels show ground pigment powders, in grey and amber tones. Two panels below show pigments after firing, in vivid yellow and amber tones.
Figure 2. Top: some of the pigment mixtures before (left) and after (right) firing; bottom: two mixtures being ground showing very different colours due to recipe variations. Left: Mariani’s potters’ yellow III with tin; right: Danzica with zinc (Photos by the authors).

 

As the images show, variations in the recipes resulted in remarkably different hues, ranging from pale to bright yellow and all the way to dark orange. Adding zinc tends to darken the colour, while tin makes it lighter, as previous works already indicated (Figure 3A). The one yellow with calcina (lead and tin calcined together) is also made somewhat paler, due to the action of tin (Figure 3B).

Five cylinders show different hues of historical recipes, all of which are yellow or amber in tone.
Figure 3.A: The recipe by Valerio Mariani in the binary version (left), with zinc (centre) and with tin (right), showing different hues; B: Two very similar recipes showing how the addition of calcina (left) makes the pigment lighter (Photos by the authors).

 

However, it was more interesting to find out that fluxes have an equally crucial role in defining the chromatic characteristics of the pigment. We found out that salt invariably makes the pigment lighter in colour. On the other hand, the recipes containing tartar as the main flux display a darker, reddish hue (Figure 4).

A panel of five images shows the different yellow tones of the pigments, depending on the salt and tartar content.
Figure 4. Five Naples yellow recipes with different amounts of salt and tartar, showing the general lightening effect of the former and the darkening effect of the latter. From left to right: Mariani I (binary), Mariani III (with zinc), Marmi 126, Piccolpasso and Mariani II. (Photos by the authors).

Re-working lead antimonate recipes provided access to the wide chromatic palette that Renaissance artists could rely on. The pigment could be adjusted to be proper yellow or more orange-red, depending on users’ needs. Importantly, this flexibility also meant that recipes could be tweaked to accommodate issues of materials’ availability. Our work is still very much in progress, but it shows how performative methods complement information from texts and material culture and give them new context, throwing more decisive light on the act of art-making in the past.

 

Key references

Dik, J., Hermens, E., Peschar, R. and Schenk, H. “Early production recipes for lead antimonate yellow in Italian art”, Archaeometry 47, 3 (2005): 593-607.

Hermens, E. “A seventeenth-century Italian treatise on miniature painting and its author(s)”, in A. Wallert, E. Hermens and M. Peek (eds), Historical painting techniques, materials and studio practice: preprints of a symposium, University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 26–29 June 1995. Marina Del Rey (CA): Getty Conservation Institute, 1995: 48–57.

Marmi, D. The Ceramist’s Secrets. Edited by Fausto Berti. Translated with an introductory note by David P. Bénéteau. Montelupo Fiorentino: Aedo, 2005.

Moretti, C., Salerno, C.S. and Tommasi Ferroni, S. Ricette Vetrarie Muranesi. Gasparo Brunoro e il Manoscritto di Danzica. Firenze: Nardini Editore, 2004.

Piccolpasso, C. The Three Books of the Potters’ Art. Vendin-le-Vieil: Editions la Revue de la céramique et du verre, 2007.

Rosi, F., Manuali, V., Miliani, C., Brunetti, B.G., Sgamellotti, A., Grygar, T. and Hradil, D. 2008. “Raman scattering features of lead pyroantimonate compounds. Partt I: XRD and Raman characterization of Pb2Sb2O7 doped with tin and zinc”, Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 40(1): 107-111.

Wainwright, I., Taylor, J.M. and Harley, R.D. “Lead antimonate yellow”, in R.L. Feller (ed.), Artists’ Pigments. A Handbook of their History and Characteristics, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986: 219–254.

Zecchin, L. Il Ricettario Darduin. Un Codice Vetrario del Seicento Trascritto e Commentato, Venezia: Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro, 1986.

Rice Bread in Sixteenth-Century Italy

By Lena Breda

While scholars are broadening our understanding of food in early modern Italy, one curiously absent ingredient from such pictures is rice. Rice (or oryza sativa) is hypothesized to have been brought to Europe as early as 400 BCE [1], used more as medicine than as a culinary ingredient. The European consumption and cultivation of rice, however, increased rapidly in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as eastern trade networks faltered following the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453 [2]. Aided by contemporary improvements in irrigation, sixteenth-century Italian farmers from across the peninsula took to their soils to grow this increasingly popular grain.

Although there is much to be uncovered regarding the ‘Rice Renaissance’ of the sixteenth-century, one area for further research is its cause. While there may have been the necessary land and technology for rice cultivation, such features do not explain why Italians decided to start cultivating rice as opposed to any other crop.

One possible motivation yet unexplored by historians is the contemporary lack of wheat. Wheat—specifically wheat bread—was the cornerstone of pre-modern Italian diets; its absence was detrimental for urban society. Sixteenth-century Italy suffered a series of wheat shortages as a result of inclimate weather, forcing many to find suitable alternatives. Contemporary accounts praising the abundant harvest and agricultural fortitude of rice suggest these were considered important benefits, possibly indicating why rice’s cultivation grew in this period. Rice, resistant to soil erosion and cold weather, may have proved an appealing and reliable alternative to wheat during harvest crises.

Relatedly, grain fraud petrified sixteenth-century Italians during famines. As bread prices surged, fears that bakers substituted wheat with alternatives (but charged the same price) verged on paranoia. Many sixteenth-century Italians recount how contemporaries would make hybrid loaves during famines, combining numerous grains together including beans, millet, oats—and rice. Given the simultaneous shortage of wheat and increasing cultivation of rice, is it possible bakers made rice breads that would have passed as wheat?

Reading numerous such mentions of rice bread, I asked myself: is this even feasible? Would rice bread be a presentable or edible product? Could these accounts be merely impracticable exaggerations? Therefore, I conducted an experiment to see if rice bread could be crafted, and whether it would be aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and mistakable for a pure-wheat bread.

As other contributors have noted, it is impossible to recreate a historical recipe exactly given the difference in ingredients, tools, and training. Despite these deviations, my experiment would still allow me to observe whether rice bread could be executed in practice or whether such accounts were myth.

For this experiment, I based my recipe off of Giovanni Battista Segni’s Discorso sopra la carestia e fame (1591). In this text, Segni recounts famine in his life and in history, and describes various ingredients in terms of their role during food shortages. While he does not include a classic ‘recipe’ for rice bread, Segni describes the proportions people would use to increase the size of their bread loaves without more wheat flour. Segni writes that for every 30 pounds of “grain” (presumably wheat) flour, they would add three pounds of rice flour with hot water (41).

Based on this proportion, I modified a bread recipe to substitute 10% of the wheat flour with rice flour and see if that modified the final size, taste, and appearance of the bread loaf. For comparison, I also created a 100% wheat and 100% rice flour loaf.

Control Recipe

Segni-Hybrid Loaf

Pure Rice Loaf

      ●         200 g wheat

      ●         4 g salt (2%)

      ●         7 g yeast (2.5%)

      ●         120 g water (60%)

      ●         5 g sugar (.005)

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         181 g wheat flour

      ●         18 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         200 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

 

While creating the loaves, I was forced to modify the base recipes due to the nature of the ingredients. While the control and hybrid loaves followed the planned recipes, the pure rice dough needed much more water. Likely due to the lack of gluten, the pure rice mixture was oilier and crumblier, creating a mass that felt more like wet sand than supple bread dough.

After letting the loaves rest, the two wheaten ones had risen nicely (the pure wheat somewhat more than the hybrid) while the rice loaf appeared the same after forty minutes. Once baked, the rice loaf was very white but very wrinkled, and had barely grown in size. The other two loaves, however, had risen, browned, and were nearly identical.

Upon tasting, it was clear that a 100% pure rice loaf would be unable to pass as wheat bread. The flavor was very bland, but the clearest problem was the texture. Incredibly hard and crumbly, the rice loaf was nearly impossible to slice. This result corroborates some sixteenth-century authors who remark on the heaviness of rice bread. Indeed, the rice bread was substantially heavier than the others: 318 grams while the wheat loaf was 306g and the hybrid was 304g. Its greater weight was likely caused by the additional water I added to form a workable dough. On the other hand, the hybrid was a near doppelganger of the wheat loaf. In fact, both were so identical I had to be attentive to not confuse them. Their interchangeability was underscored by the fact that there was no rice flavor in the hybrid loaf.

While my experiment was unable to corroborate Segni’s assertion that a 10% rice flour loaf would be larger or heavier, it did confirm that it would be possible to substitute without detection some rice flour for wheat in grain scarcity. This experiment also demonstrates that rice substitutions could not occur in a complete absence of wheat given the inability to create a successful 100% rice loaf. While these results do not prove conclusively that famines contributed to the rise in rice cultivation during the sixteenth-century, they do suggest that rice would have been an appealing alternative to wheat during such shortages. My experiment also confirms that rice flour substitutions could occur unbeknownst to the buyer, given that the hybrid and wheat loaves were near identical. Moreover, both findings present the value of remaking as a mode of historical analysis.


[1]: For more on rice’s history before its arrival to Europe, read: Chang, Te-Tzu, “Rice,” The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), 132-149.

[2]: For more on Italy’s historical relationship and cultivation of rice, consult: Bevilacqua, Piero, Tra natura e storia: ambiente, economie, risorse in Italia (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), 39-48.