Category Archives: Food and Drink

Strawberries: Delicious and Devotional

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While looking through the Newberry Library’s extraordinary collection of medieval books of hours, I was surprised to see how frequently strawberries dotted the marginal illuminations. The berries usually appear alongside colorful flowers; while obviously decorative, I began to wonder why this food was so prolific in imagery, yet relatively more obscure in contemporary recipes.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 27r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Books of hours are books for Christians that provide prayers and devotions, particularly the Hours of the Virgin. The Hours of the Virgin are an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these books were enormously popular. Scribes created copies for readers of varying socioeconomic levels, and the most expensive books of hours were lavishly illuminated. Containing colorful images and frequent goldleaf, these manuscripts allow us to see the beautiful, opulent life of the wealthiest nobles and royals in the late Middle Ages. The images can be a feast of information for scholars, incorporating medieval clothing, table settings, and room décor with familiar Biblical imagery. Although I set out trying to locate images of food and dining in books of hours, strawberries kept attracting my attention. Whether French or Flemish, fourteenth- or fifteenth-century, and moderately or lavishly decorated, it seemed as though strawberries were everywhere.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 104r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Strawberries were undoubtedly consumed in medieval Europe. Fruit sellers sold the berries on the street, having advertised them with musical cries. The Parisian street cries for fresh strawberries lived on in an anonymous thirteenth-century (c. 1280) French motet; you can listen for “frese nouvele” sung in conjunction with other sounds of Parisian life. Strawberries appear in household records of the aristocracy and royalty. England’s King Henry VII not only received these fruits as gifts in 1506, but his gardener at Greenwich cultivated them. Entries in the records of Anne Stafford, dowager Duchess of Buckingham, reveal her purchase of the berries throughout the summer of 1465.[1] The fruit also occasionally appears in contemporary menus; the French Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (1555) lists strawberries in a course served alongside items like almonds, a Flemish cake, and white jelly.[2]

Despite these references to strawberries in a variety of texts, the fruit appears infrequently in medieval recipes. French recipes, to my knowledge, exclude this ingredient. Only a few medieval English recipes include strawberries. Some include little instruction, such as:

“Freseyes. Streberyen igrounden wyþ milke of alemauns, flour of rys oþur amydon, gret vlehs, poudre of kanele & sucre ; þe colur red, & streberien istreyed abouen.”[3]

Other recipes include more informative details:

“Strawberye.—Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of ȝere in gode red wyne ; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flower of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysons of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale ; poynte it with Vynegre, &a lytil whyte grece put þer-to ; colure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & serue it forth.[4]

Still other recipes, such as one for darioles, a type of custard-filled pie or tart, invite the cook to include strawberries alongside dates and other spices, only “if it be in time of yere.”[5] While strawberries were obviously a known, accessible, and popular summer berry, they appeared relatively infrequently in contemporary recipes.

The Christ Child holds a basket filled with strawberries.
Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 50.5 fol. 135r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Why, then, do these berries appear so frequently in the religious imagery of books of hours given their proportionately few occurrences in recipes? I conjecture two main reasons. First, the number of recipes including strawberries is likely quite low because the fruit was probably most often served fresh and whole, rather than in prepared dishes, as mentioned above in the course of a French meal. After all, how many strawberries do you manage to carry into your kitchen after a harvest in your strawberry patch or a U-Pick farm? Freshly picked strawberries are quite easy to consume in embarrassingly large quantities, no cooking required!

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 47 fol. 87v
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Second, strawberries were rife with symbolism in medieval Christian iconography. Depending upon the context, as well as the viewer/reader’s subjectivity, the red berries could represent drops Christ’s blood, while its trifoliate leaves were suggestive of the Holy Trinity.[6] Or when paired with flowers, as strawberries typically are in horae marginalia, they represented righteousness. The fruit was also associated with the Virgin Mary.[7] I have selected a variety of personal images from my research in the Newberry Library’s books of hours, each illustrating at least one of these interpretations of strawberry iconography.

Strawberries were likely depicted in these devotional margins because they were so popular. The little fruit did not require the preparations which burdened other victuals. A noble reader, especially, would instantly recognize the berry not only as a delicious fruit so easily eaten out-of-hand, but also one symbolizing Christ’s suffering, the Holy Trinity, and the dedicatee of Books of Hours, the Virgin Mary. What a great amount of work for such a tiny fruit.


[1] Christopher Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 109.

[2] Ken Albala, and Timothy Tomasik, eds., The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An Edition and Translation of the Sixteenth-Century Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Prospect Books, 2014), 241.

[3] Constance Hieatt, and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury) (Early English Text Society, 1985), 46.

[4] Thomas Austin, ed., Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Early English Text Society, 1888), 29.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[5] Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 24; and Celia Fisher, “Flowers and Plants, the Living Iconography,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. Colum Hourihane (Routledge, 2016), 460–1.

[6] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood, 2004), 22.

Recipes in the archives of the early Royal Society

By Sietske Fransen

‘What is a recipe?’ was the simple opening question asked by the organizers of the virtual conversation hosted by The Recipes Project. This month-long online discussion has made me look at the archives of the Royal Society with different eyes.

During my weekly visits to the Royal Society Archives in London I am usually searching for anything visual from the period 1660-1710. Once found, the particular page of archival material with something visual on it is added to the Making Visible database. With this database the Making Visible team is creating a research tool through which it will be possible to enter the archives on image level, and ask and answer questions about the usage of images in early modern science. Have a look at our blog in case you are curious to find out more, or follow us on twitter @MVCRASSH. However, while my colleagues and I are looking for images, we also come across many other interesting documents that are currently part of the early archives. Like recipes!

Those of you who have followed the Twitter storm during the #recipesconf might have seen that I have tweeted about recipes in the last few weeks: recipes for the making of pigments and varnish; food recipes (for bread, butter, and bacon); and medical recipes. The discussions on Twitter have made me come up with several questions. And even though there are too many questions to answer in one blog post, I will discuss them briefly, and hope to continue this wonderful conversation with so many colleagues around the globe.

First of all, why did all these recipes make their way into the archives of the Royal Society? When I started working on the Royal Society materials two years ago, I did not expect to find so many recipes for making food and drinks, nor was I expecting the Fellows’ interest in the making of pigments and varnishes. However, it turns out that the Fellows of the Royal Society were very interested in the history of trades, which made them collect recipes from artisans, including many recipes and treatises on things related the making of images, book printing, and engraving techniques.[1]

The food recipes might need to be seen from the perspective of making products in the house, with which men and women can show off their skills to their friends.[2] During my tweet-storm, I showed a set of recipes brought to the Royal Society by John Evelyn about how to make the best French bread. But also bacon, butter, cheese, and cider recipes are part of the collections in the archives.

In the case of the bread recipe we have the name of John Evelyn stuck to it. And it is indeed interesting to know who provided the Fellows of the Royal Society with the information now in the archives. Who were the sources for the recipes? Were they named? Relatively often we find a name on the recipe. Many to the recipes related to the art of picture making have male names on the recipes, such as Jonathan Goddard in the recipes for colours. Between the recipes I found several had a female name on them, such as the butter recipe from Mrs Elizabeth Papworth, and the recipe for a remedy for scurvy by Mrs Bancroft. Is this surprising? Not at all, since regular readers of this blog know very well that recipes were very often collected by women in early modern English households. However, from the perspective of the early history of the Royal Society it is definitely interesting how recipes from women are still part of the archives. Much more research needs to be done on the women around the Royal Society.

A Receipt to cure mad dogs, or men. Cl.P/14i/33. Image @ Royal Society

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not the description of a tool needed for the performance of the recipe (such as an oven for bread baking) should be treated as a recipe? Or is it even an ingredient? The description of the oven in John Evelyn’s bread recipe almost looked like a recipe inside a recipe, as it was so clearly describing the various things needed to make the oven and made sure it would actually work correctly. And a good working oven was a prerequisite for making the best bread in itself. Also here I am looking forward to a continuing discussion about tools in recipes!

A Receipt to cure Mad Dogs, or Men. RBO/7/8. Image @ Royal Society

Finally, I would like to quickly answer a question that Elaine Leong raised  about the many underlinings and crossing-out in a recipe for curing rabies. As I suspected the crossings were done in the original document that was brought in to the Royal Society. The recipe was thought important enough to make it into the Royal Society’s Register Book, where we find it again in volume 7. All the crossed out sections that you can see in the image to the left are omitted from the neat version of the recipe in the Register book. Also the information about the effective cure of the His Majesties’ dogs is left out. But instead we do find a short Note Bene, explaining that the plant named in the recipe as “Starr of the Earth” has several Latin and vernacular namens “known among Botanists”, which will make it easier to find this ingredient.

Thanks to the organisers of the #recipesconf for giving me a great excuse to look into recipes in the Royal Society Archives and for all the stimulating conversations online!

[1] See for the history of trades and especially the Royal Society’s interest in the making of images Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligene (Chicago, 2013), esp. chapter 1.

[2] See on the exchange and discussion between households for example Elaine Leong, “Brewing Ale and Boiling Water in 1651”, in M. Valleriani (ed.), The Structures of Practical Knowledge (Springer 2017), pp. 55-75.  DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-45671-3_3

Reflections on Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century Recipes

By Katherine Allen

For the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation on Saturday, 24th June, I reconstructed two eighteenth-century recipes from Mary Wise’s recipe book: a lip salve remedy and a pound cake. You can find out how these experiments unfolded over at my blog, and you can also check out Twitter @KAllen622 for the tweets on making the lip salve, and Instagram @raspberrythriller62 for photos of the pound cake.

The task: choosing a manuscript recipe collection

Actually, this wasn’t difficult. I knew that I wanted to pick both recipes from the same manuscript because this gives me insight into what one individual (or connected group of people creating one collection) desired to record: whether it was out of use, interest, or preserving inherited knowledge. I’ve long been interested in the two manuscripts belonging to the Wise family of Woodcote, which are housed at the Warwickshire Record Office, so I decided to look at these manuscripts for inspiration. For more information on the manuscript I selected, and the family, please refer to this post.

What’s particularly interesting about the lip salve remedy and the pound cake recipe is that they are the third and fourth recipes recorded in Mary’s collection. This means that she could have been inspired to begin a manuscript and had these recipes in mind at the start, and they could have been her own creations or ones passed down to her. Or, she copied recipes from another collection/printed work/letters and these recipes are again among the first she selected.

It’s also worth noting that this manuscript is organised with a table of contents, with a large proportion of the medicinal recipes following the culinary ones written in two different hands. Yet, there are several intermixed medical/culinary recipes (such as these two) recorded at the start of the collection.

Much of the research involving manuscript recipe books is based on speculation and inference: why the compiler began his/her collection, why recipes were selected, if these recipes were deemed effective/valuable, and why the compiler organised the work in a specific way. As neither of these recipes have annotations or statements of efficacy to guide me in determining their value and use, they proved an exciting and unknown challenge for reconstruction. They were also safe to create and I could source the ingredients.

The challenge: selecting a medicinal remedy to re-create

I would have loved to make a plaster or medicinal drink, but I quickly found the ingredients to be prohibitive. For instance, most early modern plaster and salve remedies for treating aches or burns contain lead and turpentine (no thank you!). The main category of remedies found in eighteenth-century recipe collections is for digestive complaints, and many of the recipes I considered contain purgative ingredients such as senna and ‘true’ rhubarb. These ingredients were common since early modern medicine focused on evacuating the body as part of treatment.

I also don’t think my local Boots chemist has Peruvian Bark (cinchona) on hand, and let’s not even get started with the opiates to avoid… I also obviously don’t have access to popular early modern panaceas like Venice treacle (theriac) or mithridate, both of which were cited several times in Mary’s collection for plague and bite of the mad dog (rabies) recipes.

Even when ingredients weren’t toxic, they were difficult to source. Many remedies are herbal-based and I simply don’t have the time or resources to try and track down handfuls of fresh flowers/herbs (unless they’re available at the supermarket). I was additionally restricted by the process of creating recipes. Although my research is on household distillation in eighteenth-century England, I do not own a still and, in any case, wouldn’t feel confident trying to distil a cordial water.

‘How to make Lipsave’

For a transcription of the recipe and my troubles with re-creating it please see my blog post.

Once I settled on this recipe (a few weeks ago) I knew that I had to source beeswax, golden pippins, and orange flower water. Orange flower water could be prepared at home via distillation, and some early modern collections contain recipes, though Mary’s  does not.

As Mary may well have purchased her orange flower water, I too ordered a bottle off Amazon. Simultaneously, I was fortunate enough to find exactly a 1 ounce bar of beeswax! The golden pippins were more difficult to find. They certainly don’t sell pippins in my local shops, and it’s also the wrong season for harvesting apples. So, I opted for golden delicious.

The final line of the recipe is ‘& if you see occasion pair of the Drops’. This instruction presumably meant that you can use it in conjunction with another liquid-based remedy. However, nowhere does it specify what the drops are for, and, moreover, there is no recipe in either of the Wise family books that has ‘drops’ in the title. This leads me to suspect that Mary copied this recipe from another source, but omitted the accompanying ‘drops’ remedy.

‘How to make a pound Cake’  

Again, please see my blog post for further details on the process of creating this cake.

Sourcing ingredients for this culinary recipe was easier. I ordered a bottle of rose water at the same time as the orange blossom water off Amazon. The only ingredient hurdles I encountered were substituting medium dry sherry for sack (an antiquated term for fortified white wine), and deciding how many large eggs I would use, since early modern eggs were likely not as big.

Upon reflection, this was a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience and I’m thankful that I was able to participate in this virtual conversation on several platforms. The challenges I faced sourcing ingredients in a modern marketplace (and interpreting instructions) likely compare to those that eighteenth-century compilers could have faced when navigating which recipes and remedies to collect and prepare. Sometimes ingredients are simply unattainable, unsuitable for one’s constitution, or undesirable. Instructions are frequently lost in translation, and households needed to improvise and adapt recipes to their available equipment and domestic circumstances.

It is a few days later and I’m still using the little pot of lip salve, and my lips feel very smooth! The cake is disappearing slice by slice.

Henri’s kitchen: 3. Croque Madame

Harry Hayfield, a resident of Ceredigion in Wales, has long had an interest in the stories of the Musketeers which are set in early 17th century France, this led in turn to an interest in the Stuart period of history and joining a living history group. However, as a registered carer for his grandparents, he is unable to get to many of the events and yet wanted to do something to help. One day he was watching “The Little Paris Kitchen” broadcast on the BBC and thought “These are recipes designed by the French, therefore could they be converted in the 17th century versions of themselves?”. Doing some research he found that they could. Harry will therefore contribute four of the recipes as shown in the programme as if cooked by Henri de Ceredigion (Harry’s Stuart persona) a cadet member of the Musketeers, with able assistance from Planchet, his manservant cum stable lad.

Whenever I invite people to have a meal with me, they are always very surprised by how little I actually have. I explain this by saying that both Planchet and myself are very careful about what we eat for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to be as big and rotund as Athos and secondly, I have always had a very small appetite and therefore all my meals are very small. That does not mean that they are boring, as demonstrated when Planchet introduced me to what he called Croque Monsieurs, which were absolutely delicious, but so filling I could only manage one of them. So I wondered if I could make a version just a little smaller, and that’s when I came up with the idea of Croque Madames (after all, most ladies are smaller than me) with a few English connections.

The first thing that you need is to make a sauce, which is the simplest thing in the world to do. Take a knob of butter and melt it in a pan, then take roughly the same amount of flour, give it a good mix then pour a good quarter pint (English I should point out) of milk slowly into the mixture whilst still mixing. Then, depending on your opinion on the subject, add some mustard and then start to make your croques. These are so simple even Porthos could make them (but don’t tell him that I said he was simple). First you take a loaf of bread and slice it into as many slices are you want croques, ignoring the comments from a certain manservant about how dull and uninspiring that sounds, then cut off the crusts. Then flaten them with a roll until they are as half as thick as they were to begin with and then brush them with butter on both sides. This is the get the crunch. As Planchet has often told me “Monsieur, no crunch, no croque”, and who I am to argue with him!
A nice piece of ham for my croque madame. Credit: Wellcome Images.
Place the buttered slices into a cup, adding some ham, a small egg and the sauce last of all before dusting them with a liberal amount of cheese of your own choice and brushing the exposed pieces of bread with some more butter before placing into the oven. Now, depending on how runny you like your egg, you leave them in for about fifteen minutes for a soft egg (as Planchet prefers) or twenty minutes for a set egg (as I prefer). Once you take them out of the oven, don’t worry if the edges of the bread look a little burnt as this adds to the crunch. Then simply serve and enjoy your meal as myself and Planchet will in about thirty minutes, as writing about these has made me rather peckish. Planchet, have you got any sliced bread not doing anything? I would like a Madame.