A Storm in a Saucepan: Setting Up a Cooking Group

You can download a PDF of this article here.

Introduction

For some reason, you’ve decided to set up a local SCA cooking group.  Maybe you want to start running authentic feasts.  Perhaps Heston, Ruth Goodman or the Supersizers inspired you.  Or possibly, you’ve been reading about other peoples’ cooking adventures on Facebook and you’d like to give it a try!  This collegium is designed to give you some tips in how to go about setting up a cooking group, whether you’re a beginner or more advanced.
 

Getting Started

Firstly, you need a group of people, and somewhere to meet.  It’s best to have a group of people so you can get opinions on what you produce; it also helps in the prep.  If you get at least one person in the group that knows a bit about cooking, it will also help.

If you are lucky, your SCA group will meet in a location that has a kitchen attached, or you might know of a community kitchen that’s available for a small fee (or even free, you never know).  However, you’ll probably find you need to meet at someone’s house.  Regardless of what kitchen you use, it needs to be of a reasonable size (say, large enough to have 3-4 people working in it at once), AND be decently equipped.  Trust me, it’s no fun hauling boxes of equipment around because the host of the cooking group only has 2 saucepans and a frypan.
 

Choosing What to Cook

When the SCA first started, there was almost no printed material about medieval cooking.  There were a few obscure texts or journals around, but what material there was, was hard to get hold of.  These days, food history is a growing field of interest, and there are many reputable works about medieval food available, there are reproductions of period cookbooks, there are even a number of books containing redactions (a modern style recipe produced from a period source).  And if you can’t afford to buy books, there’s the Internet.  More and more SCA-related cooking sites are springing up, as are general food history sites.

When you are starting out exploring medieval food, it’s best to stick to other people’s redactions at first.  Medieval cooking is quite different to modern cooking.  For one thing, they used a lot more spices than modern western cooking does, and some of the combinations of ingredients can take some getting used to.  Medieval cookbooks can also be confusing – unlike modern cookbooks, they were intended to be more aids to memory, or suggestions, to experienced cooks.  They may not have been used by cooks, but rather by estate managers, who were in charge of provisioning feasts.  You rarely find quantities or cooking times, and even some of the methods can be obscure.  However, if using someone else’s redaction, try and get hold of the original recipe.  This way, you can become accustomed to working out redactions – and you can think about whether you’d change it.

It’s best to start out simply – one or two dishes, that don’t take too long to cook.  This brings up another point – pay attention to timing when picking recipes.  For instance, if you meet of an evening, bread is probably not a good option as you will need a few hours to devote to the whole process.  A jelly also needs a minimum of 4 hours to set, and most stews need at least 2 hours’ cooking.  You really don’t want to still be cooking late at night if people have to go to work or school the next day.

I would also suggest keeping to a theme – by this I mean sticking to a specific time and place for choosing recipes.  This will mean you build up a familiarity with that cuisine, and it will make it easier to design cohesive feasts.
 

Getting the Ingredients Together

Once you’ve decided what to cook, you need to get the ingredients together.  You can either divide the ingredients up between the attendees, so everyone has to bring something, or have one person, usually the host, buy all the ingredients and everyone chips in.

Over its history, the Mordenvale Company of Cooks has used both methods, and I think the second method works better.  With the first method, if someone can’t come, someone else has to get their ingredients as well as their own, or the cooking is delayed while they are fetched.  Invariably, one person winds up getting all the expensive ingredients, while others pay virtually nothing, and things can get forgotten.  With the second method, the host can look at what’s in his/her pantry and buy accordingly.  You aren’t relying on one person to bring a crucial ingredient, and if you get unexpected attendees, they don’t get out of paying for food.

 

While You’re Cooking

If you’re trying out medieval cooking, you probably want to look at running feasts in the future.  Or if you’re running a feast in the future, you definitely want to try the recipes first to make sure they are edible and achievable.  So while you’re cooking, consider the following:

  1. Is this easy? Most cooking groups contain a small number of people; probably less than 10.  For most feasts, you’re looking at a lot more people than that.  Just about every SCA cook has dishes they’ve tried at feasts without thinking about scaling preparation.  For instance, preparing broad beans for under 10 people is tedious, but doesn’t take too long.  Preparing enough broad beans for 50 people is going to take at least an hour, with 3 people.  And incredibly, turning 20kg of pork mince into meatballs takes rather longer than 500g.
  2. How can I make this easier to prepare at a feast? There may be shortcuts you can use that would save time during feast preparation.  For instance, most medieval chicken recipes use an entire bird that you break up.  SCA cooks often buy chicken wings or drumsticks, which are a lot easier to serve and can be treated the same way as a whole bird.  There may also be steps you can do well ahead of time.
  3. Are people going to eat this? There are many period recipes that are very similar to modern dishes. There are others that will make you feel nauseous just looking at them.  Medieval thoughts about food and nutrition were very different to ours, and by necessity (perceived or actual) they prepared and ate foods we don’t today.  You may also have an absolute passion for a particular type of food that very few other people enjoy.  If you serve it at a feast, you’re going to have a lot left over (and that’s wasteful). But that doesn’t mean you should completely avoid the weird – just serve less.
  4. What sort of equipment would I need for this? Make a note of what sort of equipment you need for recipes. You will need to take equipment into most offsite kitchens when preparing feasts, so keeping note of required equipment will allow you to get it together easily when preparing for a feast.  Also, if your initial plan for a feast includes four dishes for the same course that need ovens, you can check in advance whether your venue can cope, and change accordingly.
  5. If cooking from another person’s redaction, do I agree with their interpretation? This is why you should always try and get hold of the original recipe. You may find they have omitted some steps, or used a shortcut/replacement ingredient you wouldn’t have used.  They may have added ingredients, or used them in a quantity you don’t think is right.
  6. Is this going to suit the requirements of my group? Does your group contain a few vegetarians? Coeliacs?  Allergy sufferers?  It’s a good idea to think about their needs as well, so you can start to cook dishes that are going to satisfy everyone.  I’m not suggesting eliminating ingredients entirely, but you should think about who can/can’t eat everything you’re preparing, and if you can change things so they can.  It does help if you know about these people ahead of time.

 

Doing Your Own Redactions

Eventually, you’ll get to the stage where you want to make your own redactions.  For some cuisines, you’ll have no choice, as we have the original recipes available, but no easily accessible redactions.

This is where having a working cooking knowledge will come in handy.  If you know what to look for, you can get some idea of the main techniques involved in a dish, and this will give you specific ingredients and cooking times (sometimes temperature).  For example, you will often come across an instruction to “seethe” or “boil” your meat.  From this you can extrapolate a casserole or braise, which means you need specific cuts of meat, which is going to be cooked in a liquid, over a slow fire, for a long time.

You can also get an idea of what the final dish is meant to be like from the ingredients, even if there are no instructions.  An example of this is Apicius 9.6, a Roman dish that’s a sauce for shellfish.  The “recipe” just lists ingredients – pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, garum, oil and wine.  The key here is the egg yolk and the oil; the primary ingredients for mayonnaise.  The French might have given the name to the sauce, but the Romans beat them to the recipe by a couple of thousand years.

You will inevitably find you need to change things.  Ancient and medieval cooks used ingredients such as herbs and spices we now know to be toxic, or that can’t be obtained easily.  In cases like these, make a note of what the substitution is, and why you made it.
 

Conclusion

A lot of people think medieval food is yuck and won’t try it.  Others would like to give it a go, but aren’t sure where to start.  Hopefully in this class I’ve given you a few tips to get you started in the wonderful world of medieval cooking.
 

Further Reading

The following is a list of books you might find useful in starting your culinary journey.  If I have to pick 2 to recommend for starting your library, it would be Pleyn Delit and The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages.

Clicking on the picture of the book will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book, and I will get a small commission.

 

Books with Recipes/Discussions of medieval food

Brears, Peter.  Cooking and Dining in Medieval England
An exhaustive look at how food was produced and prepared in medieval England, with many recipes.  However, Brears, while he cites his source recipe, doesn’t the source recipe, and some of these manuscripts aren’t easy to get hold of (and sometimes he CHEATS).
Brears, Peter.  Cooking and Dining in Tudor and Early Stuart England
An exhaustive look at how food was produced and prepared in Tudor England, again with many recipes.  Again the source recipe isn’t included which is a gripe.
Brears, Peter.  All the King’s Cooks
Concentrates on the running of Henry VIII’s cooking, based on Brears’ experience in reviving the Hampton Court kitchens.  Again the source recipes aren’t included which is a gripe.
Butler, Sharon, Hieatt, Constance and Hosington, Brenda.  Pleyn Delit
A collection of mostly English and French recipes, using very few shortcuts or substitutions, with some good information about how medieval kitchens worked.  Constance Hiett was one of the pioneers of medieval food research, and if you see her name associated with a publication, you know it will be good.
Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini. A Taste of Ancient Rome
An English translation of an Italian classic, and a good introduction to Roman food in general, with a wealth of redacted recipes. However, some of them take shortcuts that aren’t in the text, and leave out/substitute ingredients.
Grainger, Sally. Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today
A companion to the Apicius translation. Great for examining the pitfalls in reconstructing Roman recipes.
Monroe-Cassel, Chelsea and Lehrer, Sariann.  A Feast of Ice and Fire
OK, so this isn’t precisely medieval food, but an interpretation of the food in George R.R. Martin’s A Feast of Ice and Fire.  But they use medieval recipes as their basis, and explain their redaction process.
Renfrow, Cindy.  Take a Thousand Eggs or More (vols I and II)
These books show the standard you should be aiming for in redactions.  Renfrow is a SCAdian, and these recipes are taken from two C15 English manuscripts.  Volume 1 has the original recipe, a translation, and a redaction, with notes explaining the redaction process.  It also has menus and a glossary.  Volume 2 is the recipes and translations from the C15 manuscripts that haven’t been redacted.
Scully, Terrence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages
An absolutely essential book in any SCA cook’s library. Contains information about the production and preparation of food, and the scientific ideas behind food of the time.  Terrence Scully is one of the pioneers of medieval food research, and while he is primarily interested in dealing with the text, he likes to cook as well.
Scully, Terrence.  Early French Cookery
Discusses how French cooking influenced most of medieval Europe, and has recipes from the non-nobility as well as the nobility.

 

Websites

http://godecookery.com/

A jumping off point for all SCAdian cookery, with articles about food, menus and recipes for all levels.
 
http://www.medievalcookery.com

An excellent collection of recipes, links to online period cookbooks, and articles about period food.
 
http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Medieval.html

Not just recipes, but translations of cookbooks, and general SCA articles, collected by Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, one of the fathers of the SCA.
 
https://sites.google.com/site/medievalcuisine/

A series of blogs and articles by a number of SCA cooks.
 
http://www.foodtimeline.org/

Details when various foods started being used, along with articles about food history.

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Medieval Cooking Terms

One of the things that can make redacting medieval and early modern recipes Interesting is trying to work out what the words actually mean. You will definitely find it easier if you know the meanings of certain terms; many times these will be the only hint you have towards cooking methods or main ingredients.

If there are any terms you’d like to see explained, let me know in the comments.

Bray – to grind or pound ingredients, typically in a mortar and pestle.

Boil – while it might be clear what this means, sometimes “boil” should actually be interpreted as “simmer” as a full boil might be too aggressive. You will need to use some judgement as to how much heat you want to apply.

Broil – this is often misinterpreted as “boil,” but broiling actually means to cook by directly exposing to heat. This is typically done by suspending food over or under a flame in a cage or frame (such as a grill).

Capon – a rooster that has been castrated and allowed to grow to full size before being eaten.

Coffyn – a pastry case used to cook food. Many people believe the pastry case wasn’t meant to be eaten, and in the case of many meat recipes, this is likely the case. However sometimes the coffyn is described as being made of a “fair paste” or contains luxury ingredients such as saffron or sugar – why would you throw these away? Furthermore sometimes the coffyn is encasing ingredients such as cheese or custard, where pastry enhances the eating experience. So I feel not all coffyns were meant to be thrown away.

Fricassee – similar to a pottage. The meat, usually chicken, is cooked in a pale sauce that does not have much liquid. The resulting dish is generally quite pale. Fricassees first appeared in C14 France, and spread to England in the early C16. In later fricassees, the ingredients were briefly fried before the sauce was added to complete the cooking.

Leche – a slice. If you see this in a recipe, the final product will be firm and need to be cut to serve. You may only pick this up from the title of a recipe, or section of the book.

Pottage – to cook in a sauce in a pot. This can be particularly tricky because meat, in particular, is often cooked in other ways as well as being part of the pottage; and like leche, pottage may only be mentioned in the title of a recipe. If you see pottage, it means the final dish will be cooked at least partially in the sauce it will be served in, like many stews or braises.

Roast – most modern “roast” meats are actually baked – the meat is placed in the oven and cooked by radiant heat. Medieval roasting is done with an open fire over a spit; while radiant heat cooks the meat, the meat also absorbs smoke from the flames. The meat is also constantly turned and basted while it is cooking, so the end result is far more succulent and tasty. If using a joint such as a leg, bone and roll the roast – the bone means the roast takes a lot longer to cook, and is much harder to carve. This was done in period.

Seethe – typically interpreted as boil, but sometimes in the context of a recipe, a simmer would be better. It’s best to use your judgement about how vigorously you want to heat your cooking.

Serse – to sieve ingredients.

Redacting Historical Recipes

Note: This article is available as a downloadable PDF, complete with 3 sample recipes, here.

Introduction

Redacting recipes is an important skill you need to develop if you are going to advance in SCA cookery. Eventually you are going to want to try a cuisine where you just have a manuscript, but no one else’s redactions…. Or you find yourself disagreeing intensely with someone else’s redaction. Redacting is a skill that like any other improves with practice, but hopefully these notes will give you a starting point.

The Golden Rules of Redactions

When redacting recipes, there are two rules I always keep in mind, that guide every redaction I do.

Golden Rule 1: If the food produced isn’t liked, the redaction is a failure

One of the major goals of a historical cook (whether in the SCA, another group, or just for interests sake), if not THE major goal, is to produce food that’s fun and/or tasty to eat. It doesn’t matter how accurate, how expensive, how darned spiffy a dish is – if people don’t eat it because it’s awful, the dish is a failure.

Please note, this does not mean you always shy away from the weird and shocking – it just means you provide other food as well as the weird, and only small amounts of weird. One of these days I WILL serve chicken’s testicles at a feast. But they won’t be a major component of the feast, and there will be non-testicle chicken for people to eat as well.

Golden Rule 2: The only substitutions that should be made are for toxic/extinct ingredients, or when a modern method will produce the same result for less hassle

Frequently, when reading recipes in books about medieval food, you will find people have substituted a modern method of cooking that’s not mentioned in the text of the recipe (for example frying meat instead of braising or stewing it), or they will add ingredients or leave ingredients out. NO. In the age of Internet shopping, “I couldn’t find an ingredient” is (mostly) no longer the reason it was twenty years ago – it’s an excuse for being lazy. Similarly, changing the method of cooking because people won’t be used to the recipe is lazy. Yes, it might seem weird. You won’t know how people will like it until you try it. (That said, using muslin and a strainer to produce a puree rather than a blender is a lot of hard work for no good reason.)

However, ancient and medieval cooks used ingredients we now know to be toxic, and these should be substituted or left out. We are also more aware of dietary concerns these days, so failing to provide gluten-free options for celiac sufferers for example, is rude. Similarly, there may be substitutions/exclusions you can make to make it easier for people with severe allergies if there are ingredients that form a major component of a feast.

The Business of Redacting

If you’ve ever looked at ancient or medieval recipes, you will know they aren’t like modern ones. Ingredients aren’t always listed in the order they’re used, or might be missing entirely, there are often no measurements or timings, and even cooking methods can be inexact. However, medieval recipes were more likely memory aids than precise instructions; a medieval cook might also be cooking for anywhere between 10 to 1,000 guests, so quantities aren’t necessarily useful. And even in a modern recipe, timings are often more like guidelines than actual rules.

Before You Begin: Gain a Working Cooking Knowledge

You need to have a reasonable grasp of general cooking before you try and start redacting recipes. This way, you will be more likely to work out what an author meant, you will know how to combine ingredients, and you may even recognise what the final dish will be from its description.

Step 1: Find Your Recipe

If at all possible, work from the original manuscript or a direct copy. Translators are sometimes “helpful” in putting things in a modern way of speaking, which can cause more harm than good.

Translate your recipe directly into modern English. If you are working with an unknown language, you have to work with someone else’s translation, but even period “English” can be weird.

Step 2: Know Your Source

Understand your source material. Find out about the manuscript and the author, and its intended purpose. Usually this simply means reading the Introduction for a book.

If you are working with someone’s translation, find out if it’s reputable – and the easiest thing to do is ask; whether other SCA cooks, or by checking the reviews on sites like Amazon or GoodReads. There aren’t that many undiscovered manuscripts (or translations) out there. Odds are, someone’s going to know whether this funky new book you’ve found is actually worth using.

Step 3: Parse your Recipe

(Yes, I work in IT). Break down your recipe into ingredients, cooking methods and service instructions. Try and group your ingredients together – major ingredients, seasonings, garnishes etc.

If there are weights and measurements mentioned, translate them into metric equivalents. If there are proportions mentioned (for example “of sugar, half as much as flour”) take note of them and think about what the final weights will be.

Step 4: Know your Ingredients

Make notes on your ingredients, and try and find out what they were. Especially for herbs and spices, use modern sources of information, because these will tell you about toxicity. Consider what would have been used in period, rather than modern times. For meat, consider what cut is the best cut to use. Find reliable sources for your ingredients.

Step 5: Consider Cooking Methods

What cooking methods are mentioned in your recipe – boiling, frying, roasting? Are there any indication of temperatures? Any indication of cooking times? Note the cooking methods if any, and try and get them into the correct order. DO NOT substitute modern, or different, methods here.

Step 6: Look for Other Versions

In other manuscripts, are there recipes with the same name, or similar methods? You often find there will be similar recipes in other manuscripts, which can help you fill in gaps or put your own spin on the recipe (while still being “true to period”).

Step 7: Fill in Any Gaps

Does your recipe look complete? Are there any steps you think are missing, and will you need to draw on your cooking knowledge to fill in the gaps? A classic example of this is pies and tarts – they feature heavily in medieval cooking, but you will search long and hard before you find a pastry recipe in a period cookbook. Pastry was one of those things “everyone knew how to make;” furthermore, in a royal household, there was often a separate kitchen just for making pastry, with one or more people whose sole job was to make pastry. Probably they guarded their recipes and techniques.

Step 8: Prepare a Proper Recipe

WRITE DOWN the ingredients, using proper portions, cooking methods and timings (tip: when working with meat, use 500g or 1KG as your base portion – it will make scaling for feasts easier). Make notes of any substitutions you have made and why.

It is a good idea to keep a recipe log, such as an exercise book. Trying to remember what you did even the next day rarely works. And writing down your redaction on any piece of paper that comes to hand guarantees that paper will go missing when you need it for a feast.

Step 9: Try, and Evaluate, the Recipe

How did it go? Are there any improvements you could make? Was it easy to make, and would you be able to do it easily in bulk at a feast? What equipment did you need?

WAS IT TASTY?