Category Archives: Ingredients

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 <> [accessed 19/01/2024].

[5] Elisa Tersigni and Jack Bouchard, ‘Savory biscuits from a 17th-century recipe’, 2018 [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.

Towards an Inclusive Recipe Literature

By John Broadway

Like any other piece of literature, a recipe is an act of translation. As literature takes the complexity of the human experience and translates it into a coherent set of signs and symbols, recipes take nature’s diversity and translate it, through language, into a recognizable semiotics. Yet in this translation process information is lost and changed. Just as literature is prone to omit minorities (and focus on the straight, white and male), recipes are liable to problematic limitations through their in- and exclusions.

An incredible diversity of colors, shapes, flavors, and applications flow from this one vegetable. Courtesy of


Take the humble carrot. There are two main classifications for carrots: eastern and western. Under the western branch, there are four subdivisions: Chantenay, Danvers, Imperator, and Nantes. Some estimates put the total number of individual carrot varietals in the hundreds. Soil type influences carrots’ flavor, with peat soil creating the most sweetness, while sandy soil results in more perfectly formed roots. An incredible diversity of colors, shapes, flavors, and applications flow from this one vegetable.

And yet: how many recipes acknowledge this diversity? In culinary school one of the first formulas shared was the classical mirepoix: two parts onion, one part celery and one part carrot. But which carrots? And for that matter, which onions, and which celery? Behind each of these words, incredible diversities of beautiful, unique, delicious things are hidden. How often does one find a recipe calling for Deep Purple Hybrids, Imperator 58s, Lunar Whites, Parisian Heirlooms, or Purple Dragons? There is only one default carrot, and it is obfuscating a world of diversity.

Exclusion has consequences. Just as traditional western literature is prone to shortcomings in representation, recipes are complicit in creating a world where nature is similarly monolithic, containing only a fraction of its constituent complexity. It then becomes much more difficult for nature to be made visible in its fullness.

In the late 20th century, French feminists argued persuasively for the creative, generative power of language. Hélѐne Cixous (1976) claimed that masculine language being the norm made the feminine other. More recently, Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars, especially Annemarie Mol (1999) and Bruno Latour (2013), have argued for epistemology’s role in shaping ontology; that what we know, how we know, and the ways we go about knowing, all have consequences for emergent conceptions of our realities (very much in the plural). Following Cixous, a literature that falls short in representation creates a world in which diversity is othered – exorcised, even – in favor of monoculture.

It’s a thorny problem. Recipe authors know they need to prescribe ingredients that cooks can reliably find. And yet, a recipe calling for a one-pound bag of carrots is working with a completely different set of assumptions about the world than a recipe that calls for sixteen early-season Thumbelinas. Moreover, each generates a very different sort of world. In the former, there’s only one thing that goes by the name carrot, and it’s the same every time. In the latter, there are myriad things known as carrot, and what they are, what they taste like, and how they cook, varies depending on time of year and provenance. There is an ontological politics at play that, carried out over the entire corpus of recipes and cookbooks, creates a world in which nature’s diversity ceases to exist. As Donna Haraway (2016) teaches, stories make worlds and worlds make stories.

Of course, in a world where access to any fruit or vegetable, before even considering which type, is not only fraught but oftentimes impossible, it’s clear that the work of equity is pressing. Still, the relationship between humans and nature is in dangerous need of reconciliation, for the betterment of all. Part of this work must be a critical evaluation of what we understand nature to be, and how we arrive at that understanding. A more inclusive recipe literature would help better understand the nature in which we are but one small part.



Cixous, Hélѐne. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1, 4 (1976): 875–93.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Mol, Annemarie. “Ontological politics. A word and some questions.” The Sociological Review. 47, 1 (1999): 74-89.


After earning a BA in English at St. Olaf College, John Broadway spent ten years working throughout the food industry. He recently completed an MBA at the University of Oregon and an MA in Cultural Studies at Malmö University while managing sustainability communications for Yogi Tea. He hopes to continue his interest in food with a PhD next.

House of the Dragon and The RP

By Jess Clark

I know, I know – 2023 is not the Summer of Dragons. Most of you have moved on from the battle for the Iron Throne, although maybe not the negroni…sbagliotos…with Prosecco in it. But some of us (ahem) are still catching up on last year’s slate of TV shows, and I’m sure I’m not the only one…right? For me, this means binge-watching House of the Dragon despite being a year late. The series, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, offers a prequel to Game of Thrones, charting the early years—and dynastic politics—of the Targaryen family. While the fabulous slate of acting talent, not to mention the costumes, set design, and visual effects, garnered critical acclaim, everyone knows who are the real stars of the show: Syrax, Caraxes, Vermax, and other dragons who help secure Targaryen power. In the face of endless and often ruthless familial in-fighting, these giant beasts intimidate enemies, decide battles, and secure royal lineages.

The dragons’ centrality to HOTD invokes historical descriptions of dragons, including those in recipes, as explored by Madison Clyburn in her recent RP post. As Clyburn notes, dragons frequently appeared in western manuscripts and myths; they were also central to many Middle Eastern and South Asian texts and art. Yet, in contrast to the enormous, reptilian beasts dominating HOTD, historical depictions of dragons ranged in size, color, and shape. In her review of western manuscripts from the late fifteenth century, for example, Sarah J. Biggs charts creatures ranging from “a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.” Meanwhile, Kanishk Tharoor observes the global movement of dragon representations, including the ways that “[i]n Persian art, the form of the dragon looks very similar to traditional Chinese ones, with a snake-like body surrounded by wisps of fire.” Regardless of their appearance, dragons almost always conveyed important symbolic messages. In some instances, they were cast as opponents to “a saint or angel,” engaged in epic battles of good versus evil. In other cases, Dorothy Kim and others show how (real-life) aristocratic groups and families adopted the dragon in heraldic and artistic forms, as powerful symbols of prestige and standing.

Ten people surround a fire-breathing dragon with weapons.
Barham Gur kills the dragon that had killed his youth. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).


They also functioned in recipes, as symbols of engineering, technology, and innovation. Clyburn’s post explores how, in the mid seventeenth century, writers across Italy, England, and Germany circulated recipes for “Flying Dragons.” These “mechanical dragons,” constructed out of paper, line, and cords, “demonstrate the role of recipes in producing technological entertainment.” Meanwhile, Samantha Sandassie mentions the inclusion of “dragon’s blood” in a late seventeenth-century recipe, “a plant-based resin, [which] was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to…recipe[s] for aesthetic purposes.”

A winged dragon. Woodcut, unknown date and location. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark


The widespread fascination with dragons, owing to their symbolic import, also connects to broader themes in histories of recipes, including the centrality of myth, magic, and conceptions of animal life. Over the years, RP authors have foregrounded the importance of exoticized animal ingredients, not to mention the power imbued in them, in a variety of times and locations. This includes:

While these posts primarily focus on “real” animals, guinea pigs and puppies nonetheless took on enhanced qualities in the imagination and hopes of recipe-writers who sought sustenance, relief, and health.

A broad range of animals may have been central to historical recipes, but let’s be clear – when it comes to HBO dramas, it’s the dragons that give HOTD its magic. Targaryens may come and go, but dragons will always reign supreme.

Roubo and Watin: The Sweet Scent of Early Modern Varnishes

By Érika Wicky

Fig. 1: Nécessaire, wood and leather, ca 1760, 8,4 x 6 cm (closed), Grasse. Courtesy of Musée international de la parfumerie.

If the decorative arts of the eighteenth century shine so brightly, it is thanks to the innovation and mastering of techniques such as gilding and varnishing.[i] While the latter may have given surfaces the shiny appearance that was particularly desirable at the time, both were above all essential to protect wood, especially against insects. Varnishes were used not only for furniture, but also for small painted objects such as snuffboxes, fans, and boîtes à mouches or fly boxes (Fig. 1). Varnishes’ appealing visual characteristics and protective properties were marred, however, by what was generally perceived as their unpleasant smell. The recipes for some of these varnishes have been passed down to us, and with them, the possibility to retrieve their odors. Some of these recipes continue to be in use, such as the varnish described by French cabinetmaker André-Jacob Roubo in L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste in 1774 (Fig. 2), whose use remains frequent in restoration[ii] so that the same recipe is regularly remade at the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France. While current olfactory accounts of these products are much more nuanced, they do persist, which is a sign that olfactory sensitivity has certainly evolved, but also that the smell of the varnish remains a major part of the experience of its manufacture and use. What are the substances that have given varnishes such a characteristic olfactive identity through the centuries? And how has the meaning attributed to these smells evolved?

Fig. 2 : André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste, Board 11 (Paris: 1774). Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

There are a number of recipes for varnishes found in eighteenth-century texts, and all essentially contain aromatic plant resins. For instance, the varnish used by Jean Félix Watin (1773) was prepared as follows: “Two ounces of mastic in tears and half a pound of sandarac in a pint of wine spirit, when the materials are well dissolved together, incorporate four ounces of Venice turpentine.”[iii] Similarly, Roubo’s (1774) was “composed of one pint or two pounds of wine spirit, five ounces of sandarac, two ounces of mastic in tears, one ounce of gum elemi and one ounce of oil of aspic.”[iv] Essentially, the process involved Venice turpentine (the name given to the resin of Melese[v]), mastic in tears, sandarac and other more precious resins such as copal, or of lesser quality such as galipot, which were generally dissolved in alcohol (wine spirit), and then heated. This gave off such a strong and unpleasant odor that the practice was forbidden within city walls.[vi] Indeed, this smell could be significant during the process of preparation, and Jean Riffault, for example, recommended that cooking copal should be stopped when it gave off an empyreumatic or burnt smell [vii] (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein, India Copal (Vateria indica L.), colored line. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Although the smell of varnish released during firing is still considered strong and dangerous today, our current perceptions seem to accord less significance overall to the smell of varnishes. For example, the sensory-aware description of a varnish recreation at the V&A mentions that the smell of lavender dominated that of turpentine.[viii] That the smell of turpentine could be camouflaged was well known in the eighteenth century, when aspic oil was often adulterated with turpentine, which was much less expensive. To ensure the quality of the aspic oil, Watin recommended approaching a soaked cloth to a fire, which dissipates the lavender oil quickly and allows the detection of the odor of any turpentine that may have been added.[ix] Since most of these raw materials were subject to adulteration, the artisans could, in fact, evaluate their quality thanks to their sense of smell. For example, according to Baudeau’s Encyclopédie méthodique (1783-4), an unpleasant smell from gum elemi (which is usually pleasant) can reveal that it was substituted with galipot.[x] The olfactory consensus here seems to rest on the fact that the artisan knew enough about the agreeable smell of gum elemi not to be tricked. Similarly, olfactory references in professional treatises, such as Roret’s guide, often rely on experience, invoking “characteristic” or “particular” odors rather than defining them by analogy, like when elemi gum is described as smelling like fennel.[xi]

Far from being a mere nuisance, the smell of the raw materials thus made it possible to identify them, in the same way that wood, whose different species were characterized by their smell, was sometimes considered when choosing materials. Odour could be so defining that, as Cheng He has shown, the concept of lacquer was long associated with a range of odorous resins rather than with a finished object.[xii] For example, objects decorated with Martin varnish [xiii] were simultaneously prized in the eighteenth century and dreaded for their bad odor. They were distinguished in particular by the use of copal, a plant resin whose use as an incense in Mexico is often mentioned in technical treatises.[xiv]

The manufacture of varnishes thus intersects with other types of olfactory knowledge. The resins used for the varnishes are found in many other recipes, in particular for perfumes. Louis Peyron’s 1986 compilation of recipes for perfumes to be burned, which had been recommended as a way to defeat the plague in the 1720s, reveals that the components of varnishes were all found in these recipes and that their strong odor was believed to have the prophylactic virtue of keeping miasmas away.[xv] The connection between varnish and perfume can be further explored in eighteenth-century perfumery treatises: in 1761, the royal perfumer proposed a “varnish” for the complexion made with sandarac spirit, whose protective and preserving virtues aligned with those of wood varnishes.[xvi]

The negative connotations associated with the smell of varnish seem to have faded with time; tear mastic was used in perfumery into the nineteenth century, [xvii] while, according to perfumer Lucille Lefranc Gallo, gum elemi is now experiencing renewed interest in perfumery, alongside a range of spicy raw materials. The scent of varnishes produced according to eighteenth-century recipes, such as Roubo’s or Watin’s, takes us back to a time when smells had specific connotations and were part of a network of knowledge provided by olfaction, particularly with regard to the identification of materials. It is not only the sensitivity that has evolved, but also the entire olfactory culture.


[i] My warm thanks to Marc-André Paulin (C2RMF), Lucille Lefranc Gallo and Ersy Contogouris for their advice and comments. This text forms part of the work conducted for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie research project PaintOdor (845788).

[ii] Nathalie Balcar, Frédéric Leblanc et Marc-André Paulin, “La protection de surface pour les meubles en marqueterie de métal du musée du Louvre : étude d’un vernis, entre formulations anciennes et expérimentations actuelles,” Technè, 49 (2020).

[iii] Jean Félix Watin, L’art du peintre, doreur, vernisseur (Paris: 1773), 229. Watin claimed to have discovered the secret of an odorless varnish, but he does not give its recipe in his book.

[iv] André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste (Paris: 1774).

[v] Pierre Chomel, Abrégé de l’histoire des plantes usuelles (Paris: 1712), 190.

[vi] Watin, 224.

[vii] Jean Riffault, Manuel théorique et pratique du peintre en bâtimens, du doreur et du vernisseur (Paris: Roret, 1825), 254.

[viii] “This time, despite both ingredients being very strong smelling, the scent of the lavender oil completely overpowered that of the turpentine.” Simona Valeriani, “Recreating Sixteenth-Century Varnishes on the History of Design Course,” June 23, 2017,

[ix] Watin, 202.

[x] Nicolas Baudeau, Encyclopédie méthodique (Liège: 1783-1784), 63.

[xi] Riffault, 229.

[xii] Cheng He, “Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe,” University of Toronto Art Journal 9.1 (2021): 68-76.

[xiii] Anne-Solenn Le Hô, Céline Daher, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, Yannick Vandenberghe, Jean Bleton, Myrtho Bonnin, Léa Drieu, Juliette Langlois, Céline Paris, Marc-André Paulin, “French lacquers of the 18th century and vernis Martin,” ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference, September 2014, Melbourne, Australia. hal-01279161

[xiv] Chomel, 512.

[xv] Louis Peyron, Odeurs, Parfums et parfumeurs lors des grandes épidémies méridionales de peste Arles 1721, Talk presented at the Arles Académie on March 23, 1986.

[xvi] Le parfumeur royal (Paris: 1761), 115.

[xvii] Auguste Debay, Nouveau manuel du parfumeur-chimiste (Paris: E Dentu, 1856), 37.