When I explain that I am researching the links between food and the European Reformations, I am usually met with premature praise for my (in reality non-existent) cooking skills. The obvious location in which to research food, they assume, is the kitchen. The cooking of historical recipes, moreover, has gained much public exposure recently, especially after last week’s Tudor theme on the nationally-coveted show, The Great British Bake Off. Meanwhile, food is increasingly becoming a legitimate and flourishing subject of enquiry in academia, as it moves away from traditional historical narratives. How then, should historians react to this popular interest in historical cooking, and is there any academic value in moving research from the archives to the kitchen? With these questions in mind I attempted to recreate an early-modern blancmange…
This dish appears repeatedly in medieval and early-modern recipe books across Europe, and was eaten on both meat and lean days. Unlike the jellied sweet dessert that we might remember from our childhood, blancmange, coming from the French ‘blanc mangier’ meaning ‘white dish’, was generally a mixture of ground meat (or fish if the liturgical calendar demanded it) with almonds, rice or breadcrumbs, sugar and rosewater.
The recipe I used is taken from Robert May’s printed cookbook of 1660:
‘TAke a capon or a pike and boil it in fair water very tender, then take the pulp of either of them and chap it small, then take a pound of blanched almonds beat to a paste, beat the pulp and the almonds together, and put to them a quart of cream, the whites of ten eggs, and the crumbs of a fine manchet, mingle all together, and strain them with some sugar and salt, put them in a clean broad stew pan, and set them over the fire, stir it and boil it thick; being boiled put it into a platter till it be cold, strain it again with a little rose water, and serve it with sugar.’
The first problem encountered in recreating this dish was the use of vague measurements, of ‘some cream’ and ‘some salt’, for example. The recipe also assumed knowledge of cooking techniques which I had previously never encountered. To create ‘blanched almonds’ it was necessary to heat and cool them in order to loosen the skins (see video, below). Although no direction was given to do so, I also found it necessary to add some water to the blanched almonds in order to better ‘beat’ them into a paste. Additionally, beating the almonds proved to be a physically demanding and time-consuming task.
Having completed the cooking process, I was struck by just how white the dish was. In a culinary culture in which the transformation of food and its colour were particularly significant, it was clear to see why this dish would impress, and why it belonged on wealthier tables. The taste of the dish was certainly a shock to the palate not used to the mixture of salt and sweet flavours which to an early-modern consumer were thought to be complementary or even necessary for a healthy humourly-balanced dish. The almonds, sugar, and rosewater were the most striking tastes. Adding the eggs transformed the texture of the dish into a fluffy consistency, and also provided a distinct sweet omelette-like smell.
Of course, I cannot claim that my early-modern blancmange turned out exactly as the author intended: the required ‘capon’ was really chicken, and my necessary estimations of quantity may not have been to the tastes of contemporaries. Nor can this particular recipe represent all early-modern blancmanges; May alone provides five distinct recipes. The absent details in the recipe suggest, however, not just a degree of assumed culinary knowledge, but that the recipe was meant to be used as template that left room for divergences based on personal or regional preferences or the availabilities of ingredients. Rather than worrying about strictly adhering to the recipe, the experience of attempting to recreate an early modern dish allowed access to the general ways in which foods could be made, and the types of looks, smells, and tastes that were appreciated by early-modern consumers.
Perhaps, then, the assumption that a historian of food should cook is a valid one. Food was not an abstract concept written or preached about, it was eaten, smelt, seen, and made. Being aware of these embodied processes can help us better understand the cultural, political, and religious meanings that were built into foods. If embraced, the current popular appetite for recreating historical recipes will only enhance the burgeoning academic field of food history. Too often, our noses are in books rather than in the kitchen.