Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine/The Early Englishman and His Food

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192373Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine — The Early Englishman and His FoodWilliam Carew Hazlitt


William of Malmesbury particularly dwells on the broad line of distinction still existing between the southern English and the folk of the more northerly districts in his day, twelve hundred years after the visit of Caesar. He says that they were then (about A.D. 1150) as different as if they had been different races; and so in fact they were—different in their origin, in their language, and their diet.

In his "Folk-lore Relics of Early Village Life," 1883, Mr. Gomme devotes a chapter to "Early Domestic Customs," and quotes Henry's "History of Great Britain" for a highly curious clue to the primitive mode of dressing food, and partaking of it, among the Britons. Among the Anglo-Saxons the choice of poultry and game was fairly wide. Alexander Neckani, in his "Treatise on Utensils (twelfth century)" gives fowls, cocks, peacocks, the cock of the wood (the woodcock, not the capercailzie), thrushes, pheasants, and several more; and pigeons were only too plentiful. The hare and the rabbit were well enough known, and with the leveret form part of an enumeration of wild animals (animalium ferarum) in a pictorial vocabulary of the fifteenth century. But in the very early accounts or lists, although they must have soon been brought into requisition, they are not specifically cited as current dishes. How far this is attributable to the alleged repugnance of the Britons to use the hare for the table, as Caesar apprises us that they kept it only voluptatis causâ, it is hard to say; but the way in which the author of the "Commentaries" puts it induces the persuasion that by lepus he means not the hare, but the rabbit, as the former would scarcely be domesticated.

Neckam gives very minute directions for the preparation of pork for the table. He appears to have considered that broiling on the grill was the best way; the gridiron had supplanted the hot stones or bricks in more fashionable households, and he recommends a brisk fire, perhaps with an eye to the skilful development of the crackling. He died without the happiness of bringing his archi-episcopal nostrils in contact with the sage and onions of wiser generations, and thinks that a little salt is enough. But, as we have before explained, Neckam prescribed for great folks. These refinements were unknown beyond the precincts of the palace and the castle.

In the ancient cookery-book, the "Menagier de Paris," 1393, which offers numerous points of similarity to our native culinary lore, the resources of the cuisine are represented as amplified by receipts for dressing hedgehogs, squirrels, magpies, and jackdaws—small deer, which the English experts did not affect, although I believe that the hedgehog is frequently used to this day by country folk, both here and abroad, and in India. It has white, rabbit-like flesh.

In an eleventh century vocabulary we meet with a tolerably rich variety of fish, of which the consumption was relatively larger in former times. The Saxons fished both with the basket and the net. Among the fish here enumerated are the whale (which was largely used for food), the dolphin, porpoise, crab, oyster, herring, cockle, smelt, and eel. But in the supplement to Alfric's vocabulary, and in another belonging to the same epoch, there are important additions to this list: the salmon, the trout, the lobster, the bleak, with the whelk and other shell-fish. But we do not notice the turbot, sole, and many other varieties, which became familiar in the next generation or so. The turbot and sole are indeed included in the "Treatise on Utensils" of Neckam, as are likewise the lamprey (of which King John is said to have been very fond), bleak, gudgeon, conger, plaice, limpet, ray, and mackerel.

The fifteenth century, if I may judge from a vocabulary of that date in Wright's collection, acquired a much larger choice of fish, and some of the names approximate more nearly to those in modern use. We meet with the sturgeon, the whiting, the roach, the miller's thumb, the thomback, the codling, the perch, the gudgeon, the turbot, the pike, the tench, and the haddock. It is worth noticing also that a distinction was now drawn between the fisherman and the fishmonger—the man who caught the fish and he who sold it—piscator and piscarius; and in the vocabulary itself the leonine line is cited: "Piscator prendit, quod piscarius bene vendit."

The whale was considerably brought into requisition for gastronomic purposes. It was found on the royal table, as well as on that of the Lord Mayor of London. The cook either roasted it, and served it up on the spit, or boiled it and sent it in with peas; the tongue and the tail were favourite parts.

The porpoise, however, was brought into the hall whole, and was carved or under-tranched by the officer in attendance. It was eaten with mustard. The pièce de résistance at a banquet which Wolsey gave to some of his official acquaintances in 1509, was a young porpoise, which had cost eight shillings; it was on the same occasion that His Eminence partook of strawberries and cream, perhaps; he is reported to have been the person who made that pleasant combination fashionable. The grampus, or sea-wolf, was another article of food which bears testimony to the coarse palate of the early Englishman, and at the same time may afford a clue to the partiality for disguising condiments and spices. But it appears from an entry in his Privy Purse Expenses, under September 8, 1498, that Henry the Seventh thought a porpoise a valuable commodity and a fit dish for an ambassador, for on that date twenty-one shillings were paid to Cardinal Morton's servant, who had procured one for some envoy then in London, perhaps the French representative, who is the recipient of a complimentary gratuity of £49 10s. on April 12, 1499, at his departure from England.

In the fifteenth century the existing stock of fish for culinary purposes received, if we may trust the vocabularies, a few accessions; as, for instance, the bream, the skate, the flounder, and the bake.

In "Piers of Fulham (14th century)," we hear of the good store of fat eels imported into England from the Low Countries, and to be had cheap by anyone who watched the tides; but the author reprehends the growing luxury of using the livers of young fish before they were large enough to be brought to the table.

The most comprehensive catalogue of fish brought to table in the time of Charles I. is in a pamphlet of 1644, inserted among my "Fugitive Tracts," 1875; and includes the oyster, which used to be eaten at breakfast with wine, the crab, lobster, sturgeon, salmon, ling, flounder, plaice, whiting, sprat, herring, pike, bream, roach, dace, and eel. The writer states that the sprat and herring were used in Lent. The sound of the stock-fish, boiled in wort or thin ale till they were tender, then laid on a cloth and dried, and finally cut into strips, was thought a good receipt for book-glue.

An acquaintance is in possession of an old cookery-book which exhibits the gamut of the fish as it lies in the frying-pan, reducing its supposed lament to musical notation. Here is an ingenious refinement and a delicate piece of irony, which Walton and Cotton might have liked to forestall.

The 15th century Nominale enriches the catalogue of dishes then in vogue. It specifies almond-milk, rice, gruel, fish-broth or soup, a sort of fricassee of fowl, collops, a pie, a pasty, a tart, a tartlet, a charlet (minced pork), apple-juice, a dish called jussell made of eggs and grated bread with seasoning of sage and saffron, and the three generic heads of sod or boiled, roast, and fried meats. In addition to the fish-soup, they had wine-soup, water-soup, ale-soup; and the flawn is reinforced by the froise. Instead of one Latin equivalent for a pudding, it is of moment to record that there are now three: nor should we overlook the rasher and the sausage. It is the earliest place where we get some of our familiar articles of diet—beef, mutton, pork, veal—under their modern names; and about the same time such terms present themselves as "a broth," "a browis," "a pottage," "a mess."

Of the dishes which have been specified, the froise corresponded to an omelette au lard of modern French cookery, having strips of bacon in it. The tansy was an omelette of another description, made chiefly with eggs and chopped herbs. As the former was a common dish in the monasteries, it is not improbable that it was one grateful to the palate. In Lydgate's "Story of Thebes," a sort of sequel to the "Canterbury Tales," the pilgrims invite the poet to join the supper-table, where there were these tasty omelettes: moile, made of marrow and grated bread, and haggis, which is supposed to be identical with the Scottish dish so called. Lydgate, who belonged to the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds, doubtless set on the table at Canterbury some of the dainties with which he was familiar at home; and this practice, which runs through all romantic and imaginative literature, constitutes, in our appreciation, its principal worth. We love and cherish it for its very sins against chronological and topographical fitness—its contempt of all unities. Men transferred local circumstances and a local colouring to their pictures of distant countries and manners. They argued the unknown from what they saw under their own eyes. They portrayed to us what, so far as the scenes and characters of their story went, was undeceivingly false, but what on the contrary, had it not been so, would never have been unveiled respecting themselves and their time.

The expenditure on festive occasions seems, from some of the entries in the "Northumberland Household Book," to present a strong contrast to the ordinary dietary allowed to the members of a noble and wealthy household, especially on fish days, in the earlier Tudor era (1512). The noontide breakfast provided for the Percy establishment was of a very modest character: my lord and my lady had, for example, a loaf of bread, two manchets (loaves of finer bread), a quart of beer and one of wine, two pieces of salt fish, and six baked herrings or a dish of sprats. My lord Percy and Master Thomas Percy had half a loaf of household bread, a manchet, a pottle of beer, a dish of butter, a piece of salt fish, and a dish of sprats or three white herrings; and the nursery breakfast for my lady Margaret and Master Ingram Percy was much the same. But on flesh days my lord and lady fared better, for they had a loaf of bread, two manchets, a quart of beer and the same of wine, and half a chine of mutton or boiled beef; while the nursery repast consisted of a manchet, a quart of beer, and three boiled mutton breasts; and so on: whence it is deducible that in the Percy family, perhaps in all other great houses, the members and the ladies and gentlemen in waiting partook of their earliest meal apart in their respective chambers, and met only at six to dine or sup.

The beer, which was an invariable part of the menu, was perhaps brewed from hops which, according to Harrison elsewhere quoted, were, after a long discontinuance, again coming into use about this time. But it would be a light-bodied drink which was allotted to the consumption at all events of Masters Thomas and Ingram Percy, and even of my Lady Margaret. It is clearly not irrelevant to my object to correct the general impression that the great families continued throughout the year to support the strain which the system of keeping open house must have involved. For, as Warner has stated, there were intervals during which the aristocracy permitted themselves to unbend, and shook off the trammels imposed on them by their social rank and responsibility. This was known as "keeping secret house," or, in other words, my lord became for a season incognito, and retired to one of his remoter properties for relaxation and repose. Our kings in some measure did the same; for they held their revels only, as a rule, at stated times and places. William I. is said to have kept his Easter at Winchester, his Whitsuntide at Westminster, and his Christmas at Gloucester. Even these antique grandees had to work on some plan. It could not be all mirth and jollity.

A recital of some of the articles on sale in a baker's or confectioner's shop in 1563, occurs in Newbery's "Dives Pragmaticus": simnels, buns, cakes, biscuits, comfits, caraways, and cracknels: and this is the first occurrence of the bun that I have hitherto been able to detect. The same tract supplies us with a few other items germane to my subject: figs, almonds, long pepper, dates, prunes, and nutmegs. It is curious to watch how by degrees the kitchen department was furnished with articles which nowadays are viewed as the commonest necessaries of life.

In the 17th century the increased communication with the Continent made us by degrees larger partakers of the discoveries of foreign cooks. Noblemen and gentlemen travelling abroad brought back with them receipts for making the dishes which they had tasted in the course of their tours. In the "Compleat Cook," 1655 and 1662, the beneficial operation of actual experience of this kind, and of the introduction of such books as the "Receipts for Dutch Victual" and "Epulario, or the Italian Banquet," to English readers and students, is manifest enough; for in the latter volume we get such entries as these: "To make a Portugal dish;" "To make a Virginia dish;" "A Persian dish;" "A Spanish olio;" and then there are receipts "To make a Posset the Earl of Arundel's way;" "To make the Lady Abergavenny's Cheese;" "The Jacobin's Pottage;" "To make Mrs. Leeds' Cheesecakes;" "The Lord Conway His Lordship's receipt for the making of Amber Puddings;" "The Countess of Rutland's receipt of making the Rare Banbury Cake, which was so much praised as her daughter's (the Right Honourable Lady Chaworth) Pudding," and "To make Poor Knights"—the last a medley in which bread, cream, and eggs were the leading materials.

Warner, however, in the "Additional Notes and Observations" to his "Antiquitates Culinariae," 1791, expresses himself adversely to the foreign systems of cookery from an English point of view. "Notwithstanding," he remarks, "the partiality of our countrymen to French cookery, yet that mode of disguising meat in this kingdom (except perhaps in the hottest part of the hottest season of the year) is an absurdity. It is here the art of spoiling good meat. The same art, indeed, in the South of France; where the climate is much warmer, and the flesh of the animal lean and insipid, is highly valuable; it is the art of making bad meat eatable." At the same time, he acknowledges the superior thrift and intelligence of the French cooks, and instances the frog and the horse. "The frog is considered in this country as a disgusting animal, altogether unfit for the purposes of the kitchen; whereas, by the efforts of French cookery, the thighs of this little creature are converted into a delicate and estimable dish." So sings, too (save the mark!), our Charles Lamb, so far back as 1822, after his visit to Paris. It seems that in Elizabeth's reign a powdered, or pickled horse was considered a suitable dish by a French general entertaining at dinner some English officers.

It is difficult to avoid an impression that Warner has some reason, when he suggests that the immoderate use of condiments was brought to us by the dwellers under a higher temperature, and was not really demanded in such a climate as that of England, where meat can be kept sweet in ordinary seasons, much longer even than in France or in Italy. But let us bear in mind, too, how different from our own the old English cuisine was, and how many strange beasts calling for lubricants it comprehended within its range.

An edifying insight into the old Scottish cuisine among people of the better sort is afforded by Fynes Morisoh, in his description of a stay at a knight's house in North Britain in 1598.

"Myself," he says, "was at a knight's house, who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blue caps, the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having a little piece of sodden meat; and when the tables were served, the servants did sit down with us; but the upper mess, instead of porridge, had a pullet with some prunes in the broth. And I observed no art of cookery, or furniture of household stuff, but rather rude neglect of both, though myself and my companion, sent by the Governor of Berwick upon bordering affairs, were entertained in the best manner. The Scots ... vulgarly eat hearth-cakes of oats, but in cities have also wheaten bread, which, for the most part, was bought by courtiers, gentlemen, and the best sort of citizens. When I lived at Berwick, the Scots weekly upon the market day obtained leave in writing of the governor to buy peas and beans, whereof, as also of wheat, their merchants to this day (1617) send great quantities from London into Scotland. They drink pure wine, not with sugar, as the English, yet at feasts they put comfits in the wine, after the French manner: but they had not our vintners' fraud to mix their wines."

He proceeds to say that he noticed no regular inns, with signs hanging out, but that private householders would entertain passengers on entreaty, or where acquaintance was claimed. The last statement is interestingly corroborated by the account which Taylor the Water-Poet printed in 1618 of his journey to Scotland, and which he termed his "Penniless Pilgrimage or Moneyless Perambulation," in the course of which he purports to have depended entirely on private hospitality.

A friend says: "The Scotch were long very poor. Only their fish, oatmeal, and whiskey kept them alive. Fish was very cheap." This remark sounds the key-note of a great English want—cheaper fish. Of meat we already eat enough, or too much; but of fish we might eat more, if it could be brought at a low price to our doors. It is a noteworthy collateral fact that in the Lord Mayor of London's Pageant of 1590 there is a representation of the double advantage which would accrue if the unemployed poor were engaged to facilitate and cheapen the supply of fish to the City; and here we are, three centuries forward, with the want still very imperfectly answered.

Besides the bread and oatmeal above named, the bannock played its part. "The Land o' Cakes" was more than a trim and pretty phrase: there was in it a deep eloquence; it marked a wide national demand and supply.

The "Penny Magazine" for 1842 has a good and suggestive paper on "Feasts and Entertainments," with extracts from some of the early dramatists and a woodcut of "a new French cook, to devise fine kickshaws and toys." One curious point is brought out here in the phrase "boiled jiggets of mutton," which shews that the French gigot for a leg of mutton was formerly in use here. Like many other Gallicisms, it lingered in Scotland down to our own time.

The cut of the French cook above mentioned is a modern composition; and indeed some of the excerpts from Ben Jonson and other writers are of an extravagant and hyperbolical cast,—better calculated to amuse an audience than to instruct the student.

Mr. Lucas remarks: "It is probable that we are more dependent upon animal food than we used to be. In their early days, the present generation of dalesmen fed almost exclusively upon oatmeal; either as 'hasty-pudding,'—that is, Scotch oatmeal which had been ground over again, so as to be nearly as fine as flour;... or 'lumpy,'—that is, boiled quickly and not thoroughly stirred; or else in one of the three kinds of cake which they call 'fermented,' viz., 'riddle cake,' 'held-on cake,' or 'turn-down cake,' which is made from oatcake batter poured on the 'bak' ston'' from the ladle, and then spread with the back of the ladle. It does not rise like an oatcake. Or of a fourth kind called 'clap cake.' They also made 'tiffany cakes' of wheaten flour, which was separated from the bran by being worked through a hair-sieve tiffany, or temse:—south of England Tammy,—with a brush called the Brush shank."