WORLDFOOD – Food Fit For A King

30 Aug 2002

Though recipe collections from the medieval period do exist, A Noble Bok of Festes Ryalle and Cokery, A Bok for a Prynces Housholde, recently rediscovered at Longleat House, ancestral seat of the Marquis of Bath, is believed to be the earliest cookbook to be printed in English.
The 80-page book dates from around 1500 and is a mine of information about life at England’s noble tables in the period. It was, apparently, aimed at patricians aspiring to emulate the modes and mores of the royals.

The book was printed by Richard Pynson – born in Normandy but resident in London from 1492 and, from1508, official printer to Henry VIII, the first in England to use Roman type – who is believed to have compiled it from miscellaneous written sources.
Pynson’s cookbook probably arrived at Longleat in 1759 at the time of the marriage between Elizabeth Harley, daughter of Margaret Harley, later the first Duchess of Portland, to the first Marquis of Bath. In the early nineteenth century, it was re-bound by a certain Thomas Whitacker, but was then mislaid until recent archiving work brought it to light again.

The book consists of a history of important feasts, a calendar of seasonal variations in food, and a comprehensive list of ingredients.
It differs from modern recipe books in so far as it fails to provide exact quantities for ingredients or preparation and cooking times – skilled cooks were presumably expected to judge such things by eye and smell – but copious handwritten notes in Latin in the margin suggest that it was actually consulted in kitchens.

Most of the recipes and menus listed feature meat. Spices imported from the Indias – pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and so on – were used to flavor it, and animals were generally cooked and presented whole (the meals described in the book were generally sumptuous affairs for hundreds of people). Fish recipes abound, since Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were days of fasting on which only fish could be eaten.
A few dairy dishes are also mentioned. They include ‘Ledlards’, a colored mixture of beaten egg and milk:

To make ledlards of thre colours, take clene cowe mylke and put it in thre pots, and breke to every pot a quantite of egges as ye seme best, and colour one part with sanders and another parte with saffron and the thyrde parte grene with herbes …

Vegetables are not mentioned at all, and there are only passing references to ‘dowcetes’, or puddings. One such is ‘leche lumbard’, a spicy date cake from Lombardy.
Nobles would use knives and spoons to eat, adopting their fingers instead of forks (which were only brought to England for the first time in 1608 by a certain Thomas Coryate, who had seen them in Italy during a journey there the same year). Be that as it may, eating habits would appear to have been relatively tidy and little went to waste. It was common, after all, for aristocrats to send their sons to noble houses to learn the rules of etiquette and the art of meat carving. Great importance was also attached to presentation and tables were elaborately decorated with painted or gilded sugar sculptures.
Among the feasts described in the first section of the book is the one staged for Henry V’s coronation, a banquet in which the first course alone consisted of 31 roast swans. Other meats served included ‘venyson’, antelope and porpoise, while fish dishes featured carp, perch, pike, trout, ‘congre’, ‘halybut’, ‘base’, ‘eles’ (‘That must our dame have or els she will be wrothe [angry]’, notes the book), salmon, sole and and lamprey (a favorite of an earlier king, Henry I, who is believed to have choked to death on one).
Another feast described is that held in honor of George Nevill to celebrate his investiture as Archbishop of York in 1465. Here the menu was given over almost entirely to birds, among which sparrows, gannets, gulls, larks, curlews, dotterels, redshanks, peacocks, partridges, woodcocks, knots and sparrows.
Facsimile copies of this remarkable book are now in preparation for scholars of the period and cookery enthusiasts alike.

John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food website

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