• Historic Heston!


    I was just falling asleep the other night when the Book of the Week came on the radio.  It was Heston Blumenthal.  I nearly fell out of bed when he mentioned King Richard II.


    All became clear.

    It was because the heavenly Heston has written a book about cooking through the ages and is recreating some of the best recipes.  It so happened that King Richard commissioned the first ever English cookery book from his master chef in the Palace of Westminster.  What made it especially astonishing to me was that the previous week I’d made a few notes from that same book, The Forme of Cury.

    As Heston mentioned, they used some curious  ingredients, almond milk being one of the most popular.  English cookery was renowned at this time.  Cooks used ingredients from all over the known world.  Heston chose risotto as his typical medieval dish.  Rice was frequently eaten and was imported via Genoa from the middle east until Italy started to grow it commercially.  Other popular dishes were sweet and sour, using far more spices and herbs than we seem to use today.  There were no potatoes, of course, but soups were thickened with breadcrumbs, flour, blood and ground nuts.

    There was something called blancmanger (familiar?) but this wasn’t pudding.  It was made from rice and almond milk with shredded white meats and spices and there was another version called mawmenee which was the same thing but with added pomegranate seeds, spices and coloured with red wine.

    Colour was important in medieval times-  they ate in technicolour –  and I wonder if Heston colours his dishes?  I think saffron must have been cheaper in those days.   As for gilding with gold leaf?  Five star restaurants may do so even now but what did ordinary mortals eat?  Plenty, according to the records.  Brewetts for instance, a combination of boiled and fried meats, sweet fruits and spices, all simmered in a rich gravy and thickened with cheese and eggs.  Sounds good to me.

    I love some of the names of these dishes:  gyngawdry, macrows, chysanne, chawdon for swans and many more.  A keen cook will get a lot from King Richard’s unnamed master cook.  I’m off to try nysebek for to make pom dorryes.  Bon apetit!

  • The first woman novelist

    Some say it was Christine de Pizan, an Italian widow living in the French court when Richard II was on the throne of England.  Her most famous book, The City of Women, came out in the year Richard was murdered by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper King Henry IV.  Meanwhile in England it was Chaucer who was stealing all the literary honours.  Were there an women writers like Christine de Pizan at the court of King Richard?  We do not know.  Given his pleasure in all things beautiful, in poetry, art, fashion and food, as opposed to his Lancastrian cousin’s desire for more and more wealth and power, Richard must be seen as our first ‘Renaissance prince.’  If he had lived would Christine have visited the English court?  Would English women have followed her example and started to write for the public instead of only for a private readership?  History is crammed with unanswered and unanswerable questions like this.  I recommend her writing if you don’t already know it.  It’s full of common sense and explodes a few myths about women’s lives in the fourteenth century.