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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.