Medieval Blancmange and the Modern Classroom

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Molly Taylor-Poleskey discusses her work in teaching about late medieval taste and cuisine.]

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (Flemish, active about 1480 - 1515) The Temperate and the Intemperate, about 1475 - 1480, Tempera colors and ink on parchment Leaf: 17.5 x 19.4 cm (6 7/8 x 7 5/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (Flemish, active about 1480 – 1515) The Temperate and the Intemperate, about 1475 – 1480, Tempera colors and ink on parchment Leaf: 17.5 x 19.4 cm (6 7/8 x 7 5/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

By Molly Taylor-Poleskey

One of the most common questions a food historian gets is, “are YOU an expert chef?”

In my case, the answer is no. Sure, I can whip up an okay weekday meal, but I don’t have the experience to intuit good flavor or the patience to follow others’ recipes precisely. However, despite my personal shortcomings as a cook, I still find the act of attempting a historical recipe to be enlightening and a particularly useful exercise for teaching history. At my most recent college reunion, I taught a broad overview of medieval and early modern European culture through the dish blancmange.

As opposed to its modern, dessert version, Blancmange in the medieval period (just as the name implies) was a “white dish” of castrated rooster in almond milk. The dishes basic traits allowed me to express many of the transformations that were taking place in Europe in the 13th through 15th centuries to a group of students of all ages and historical experience. Blancmange had iterations all over the continent during a time when Europe was rediscovering networks of exchange that had been closed since the fall of Rome.

Blancmange contained some of the new and perhaps unexpected flavors of an age of war against Islam: both against the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Crusades. It was a time when most luxury goods were entering Europe from the East (mostly through the Middle East) because Europeans couldn’t produce many luxury goods themselves. The return of the crusaders and a new thriving merchant class coincided with the rise of elite, international cuisine in Europe. Elites all over Europe wanted to emulate one another and there was a high degree of exchange of information about dishes like Blancmange particularly in books purchased with this new wealth.

Now, that’s a familiar narrative for elite medieval food history, but what was fascinating for me was how much I learned while searching for these ingredients all over my hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts. Capons cost a whopping $50 each and can be ordered on the internet. I didn’t plan far enough in advance to get one, but it turned out that the local butcher shop could get me one anyway in just over a day. Capons reportedly had a better flavor than traditional hen poultry. I went to the effort and expense to get them because I was curious about this flavor difference and wanted to highlight the larger variety of food available to medieval chefs. Not only do we (in standard modern, Western cuisine) eat a smaller variety of animals, these few varieties taste the same no matter where we are because the process of raising chickens is homogenized. No matter where you are, chances are that when you purchase chicken in a grocery store it’s the same breed of chicken, raised on the same food in the same manner as anywhere else in the country. And in fact, in my inexperienced hands the capons didn’t end up tasting any different than, well, chicken.

Searching for the spices brought me to the culturally diverse-neighborhood of Union Sq. with grocerettes with foods from many different nations. The Indian store promised on the phone that they carried galangal, but when I got there, I wasn’t 100% sure that their galangal roots were not ginger and in any case, it was a whole fresh rhizome, which supposedly tastes like ginger anyway. I had to go to a chichi gourmet spice shop in Cambridge to get the dried version, which is what I assumed made it to medieval Europe.

Next, I searched for the peppery grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta). The Brazilian store had a preserved “Malagueta pepper” in a bottle and I got excited. However, just to be sure, I googled the product before checking out and there are indeed two different foods associated with this name. Just like Columbus misnamed the chili peppers of the New World because they gave a similar tongue sensation as peppercorns, the malagueta/melegueta naming was the result of culinary confusion. The trade of melegueta (grains of paradise) from the Gulf of Guinea to Europe was dominated by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The Brazilian chili (Capsicum frutescens) I found bottled in Union Square was also named by Columbus. I had never used grains of paradise before and searching for it in the twenty-first century reminded me of the convoluted foodways since the Columbian exchange. Again, the real grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) was only to be found at the Cambridge specialty spice store.

In the end, I forgot to add the sugar and the verjus while cooking my blancmange, and both of those ingredients would have made this dish stand out to the modern Western palate. But even my mistakes illustrated the distance between medieval and modern assumptions about cooking and taste, and drew my attention to aspects of history since the medieval blancmange was regularly consumed. There was a mixed audience in my classroom, as the students who participated came from many different backgrounds and levels of experience. We were able to draw on these experiences in class, and even had a professional chef press the almond milk with an urban farmer. Cooking allowed my students and me to practice the all-important historical skills of research and interpretation through a physical experience and the lens of our modern lives.

Teaching Recipes: A September Series (Vol. III)

Detail from “Testimonial of Merit,” Public Education, Grammar School for Girls, Burnton Brothers, lithographers (New York: 1863) Lithf Burn Melv Publ 148821, American Antiquarian Society. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Assets Archive Portal.
Detail from “Testimonial of Merit,” Public Education, Grammar School for Girls, Burnton Brothers, lithographers (New York: 1863) Lithf Burn Melv Publ 148821, American Antiquarian Society. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Assets Archive Portal.

Amanda E. Herbert

Welcome back to the Recipes Project’s annual Teaching Series, where we explore the ways that educators from both “inside” and “outside” of the academy use recipes to help people learn about the past.  This series has proven to be enormously popular: during our Teaching Series last year, the Recipes Project received almost 38,000 visits (representing about 15,000 “unique visitors”) which demonstrates not only the global impact of the series, but how enduring and useful these posts can be, as scholars and educators from around the world come back over and over again to learn more about bringing recipes into their own museums, classrooms, seminars, and lecture halls.  This year, the series puts particular emphasis upon the work done by people who use recipes as tools to involve, inform, and engage members of the general public.

Our Teaching Series opens with a post by Ian Mosby, whose course at the University of Guelph – with a unit on Canadian food during the Second World War – was profiled by ActiveHistory.ca, a website that connects the work of historians with the wider public.  We’ll also hear from Molly Taylor-Poleskey, who will share how her efforts to share medieval blancmange with non-traditional students took her to grocers, spice-mongers, and butchers all around Somerville MA.  During the second week of the series, we’ll learn how a university educator, Dr. Jennifer Munroe, brought recipe transcription and translation into her curriculum; this will be followed by a post written by three of her students, Nadia Clifton, Kailan Sindelar, and Breanne Weber, who were so inspired by their recipe assignments that they founded their own student-run Early Modern Paleography Society.  The third week of the series will be devoted to alcohol: we’ll hear from Angela McShane and James Brown at the Intoxicants Project: Angela and James will describe their “Jolly Good Ale and Old” events, where they invite members of the general public to share information about brewing, music, and history over pints at local pubs; then Gabe Klehr encourages us to think more deeply about teaching “drunkenness” in his post about introducing his students to the drinking behaviors of early Americans .  We’ll round out the series with a post by Rob Davies from the Museum of English Rural Life, who will contribute a post on a soap-making event co-sponsored with the Elizabeth Fry Charity and the University of Reading’s Special Collections, and will draw to a close with Carrie Helms Tippen of Chatham University, who speaks eloquently about food-writing, food-reading, food-teaching, and the future of the culinary literary imagination.

This year’s Teaching Series posts are as rich and varied as are recipes themselves, and we hope that educators of all kinds – from primary school teachers to museum professionals – can use them as they design their curricula, outreach efforts, public programming, and syllabi.

A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Beer soup: The Breakfast of Early Modern Rulers

By Molly Taylor-Poleskey

As a young ruler, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia began each morning with a beer soup. He then dutifully locked himself away and attended to the day’s business until the midday meal.

This simple anecdote is recounted by almost every biographer of Friedrich Wilhelm. I was intrigued by the historiographic implications of this (what did biographers think it reflected about the ruler that he consumed this rather modest fare?). Beyond this, though, I became curious: what actually was beer soup? And, what it might have been like to start every day with it?

Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877
Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877

Although foreign to contemporary German cuisine, beer soup was very common in central Europe in the medieval and early modern period. As such common fare, it had a wide number of permutations. The most basic definition of beer soup is a “soup of brown (probably dark) beer, cream, fat and flour or egg yolk.”[1]  Various other recipes called for slightly different ingredients (such as costly spices), or onions and cheese to make a more substantial soup to accompany a roast.

After reading about various beer soups in early modern cookbooks, though, I still could not wrap my head around what a beer soup was. So, there was only one thing to do: perform “experiential research” and try beer soup for myself.

The Experiment

Somewhat surprisingly, my friends Steve and Noria enthusiastically agreed to join the experience. We gathered at my apartment one Saturday afternoon (we couldn’t bring ourselves to perform the experiment first thing in the morning) and decided to attempt two versions of the recipe. We selected the recipes for their clarity and because they used a representative mix of commonly-mentioned ingredients.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first recipe was inspired by a recipe in an eighteenth-century encyclopedia for “a really good beer soup.”[2] We translated it thus:

  • 1 Bottle of dark beer
  • Sweet cream
  • Three egg yolks[3]
  • Mace
  • 3 ½ Tbs. Butter[4]
  • Raisins[5]

Thoroughly stir mixture, boil it and serve with toast.

“a really good beer soup”
“a really good beer soup”

The result? “Repulsive,” said Steve, “I don’t want to eat it anymore.” I had to agree, the egg-drop soup consistency combined with the taste of day-old beer was nauseating. Noria had a more descriptive response: “it’s weird that it tastes sweet; I would have never guessed it since it smells like feet.” The toast was unquestionably the highlight of that attempt.

Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise
Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise

The second attempt was, thankfully, slightly more palatable. For this, we used the following recipe from the 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook:

  • 1 Bottle of white beer (we used Erdinger Weißbier)
  • Cloves
  • 3 ½ Tbs. butter
  • 2 slices of rye bread cut into small chunks
  • Salt to taste

Combine beer, cloves and butter. Heat in a pot, but don’t let it boil. When it’s ready, add bread and salt and this makes a tasty soup. [6]

Although this attempt was not completely successful, we all agreed that it was much better than the first. Perhaps with fewer cloves and less salt, it was conceivable that someone (other than us) might enjoy this soup.

Reflection

Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.
Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.

In following these recipes, I did not presume to recreate the experience of an early modern diner. The gulf between our palates, ingredients, cooking tools and methods is just too wide. But there’s no doubt that the exercise helped me realize some things about the habits and tastes of the people I study. For example, beer soup was more a hearty drink than a soup that might constitute a meal. This fits with the description of daily habits from an early eighteenth-century court advice manual, which described beer and bread for Früh=Trunk, or “early drink” (instead of using the word for breakfast, Frühstück). The records of daily food distribution at the Berlin residence also only refer to two meals: the midday and evening meals. The elector’s beer soup, then, was more likely meant as a restorative broth. Other absolutist rulers, such as King Charles II of England, are known to have drunk such a restorative during their morning levée when they were ceremoniously washed and dressed.

The practical application of the recipes made me pay much closer attention to the details of the instructions than if had I just read them. I could not follow the author’s instructions to the letter. In the end, I had to make decisions about what modern ingredients to substitute for early modern ones, such as whipping cream with sugar for sweet cream. Most likely, my Calphalon pot over an electric burner also produced different results than an iron kettle or a raised hearth.

But, even Rumpolt allowed some room for improvisation: “each cook prepares food as he pleases … in my opinion, there are no absolute rules in cooking, otherwise it would be impossible.”[7]


[1] Sabine Bunsmann-Hopf, Zur Sprache in Kochbüchern des späten mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit-ein fachkundliches Wörterbuch. (Würzburg: Verlag Koenigshausen & Neumann GmbH, 2003), 29.

[2] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Bier=suppe.” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie Oder Allgemeines System Der Staats- Stadt- Haus- Und Landwirthschaft, 1773, http://kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[3] Presumably the egg whites would have been turned to more elegant purposes elsewhere in the early modern kitchen.

[4] Measurement taken from a beer soup recipe at the website: www.how-to-live-like-a-German.com

[5] We only had dried cranberries on hand—a New World food that only entered German cuisine in the 21st century!

[6] Nimb weiß Bier/ thu Kümmel und Butter darein/ laß nur damit warm werden/ und nicht affusieden/ und wenn du es wilt anrichten/ so schneidt Ruckenbrot darunten/ unnd salz es/ so is ein wolgeschmackte Biersuppen. Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch (Franckfurt am Mayn: Fischer, 1604), 164.

[7] “ein jeder Koch seine art und weise/ eine Speise seines gefallens zubereiten … Ist auch meine meynung ganz und gar nicht/ gewisse Regeln un Praecepta/ nach welchen sich einer/ der kochen wil lernen/ eben richten solte un müßte/ als wer es sonst unmüglich kochen …” Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch, 63.