An exiting new endeavor by Meadbh ni Clerigh of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn is the launching of a collaborative website intended for cooks who would like both to cook medieval recipes as well as cater to modern food allergies and sensitivities.
She explains: “I’m interested in authentic medieval recipes that accommodate modern food allergies and intolerances. After some research I found that there’s not a site currently there that categories medieval recipes with this in mind, so I built one.”
Her primary goal is to have a repository of medieval recipes that any feast cook can go to when a guest says “I can’t eat X and Y.” There already are a lot of recipes out there that are perfectly good as originally written (or with a negligible substitution), and the website aims to help connect cook with recipe.
Meadbh adopted a medieval English persona who really enjoys spangled gowns. She has been interested in medieval cuisine as a culinary flavor for some time and tries to adhere to the original recipes as closely as possible. Her primary goal is to create food that a modern diner will enjoy, including diners who have food allergies and intolerances. She only has a dozen recipes on the website at the moment but intends to keep adding to the collection.
She would really like to see contributions by other people with different recipes, alternative redactions, and varied culinary interests. A recipe doesn’t need to be completely allergen free (there are a couple there, and she is looking for more.) As she mentioned: “you don’t need to have made it recently. You don’t even need fantastic pictures. I want this to feel attainable by anyone. Feel free to browse, and to contribute!”
Unto the Known World does the Barony of Thescorre send Greetings!
DO you miss playing in an SCA kitchen with other cooks? Are you sad you won’t be able to sit down to yet another famous College of Three Ravens feast prepared by the Cauldron Bleu Cooks Guild?
We, members of the Barony’s 43-year-old cooks guild, invite you to join us in celebrating our favorite past time; we cordially invite all who are interested in helping us prepare a virtual feast for this year’s C3R.
While we cannot have this event in person, we are provided with the perfect opportunity to have ALL OF YOU “in the kitchen” with us! We are currently choosing period recipes from our favorite places and times, with absolutely no respect given to any semblance of order or plan for a “menu” (this is still a pandemic folks – we can’t be THAT organized).
We have been redacting, cooking, and photographing or video recording our endeavors and sharing them with all of you throughout this month right up until the event on February 28. Our hope is to have quite a fun time learning redactions, techniques, and sharing in each others’ tables.
What we would like from you:
Join the Cook-Along-At-Home Feast page on Facebook. We invite you to choose your own items that you love or have always wanted to make, redact (or choose a redaction that you like, or work with someone you know to create the redacted recipe).
Post your medieval recipe(s), your redaction(s), your process, your photos, videos, etc. Whatever you would like to share with everyone. MISTAKES ARE WELCOME. Please share as you go through the process and PLEASE do not leave out what didn’t work. We are here to learn, to enjoy cooking, and to share with those we love. No one is perfect and food can be pretty, but let’s hear about all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are no parameters except that you choose an item that interests you and that you work safely (please do not break any rules handed down from the BOD about social distance, etc. This is meant to be done safely in your own space, not as a get- together.)
You are welcome (and encouraged) to safely drop off test batches or extra surplus foods created to your neighbors and local friends, whether SCA or not.
Let’s have some fun! This is open to the entire Known World, so feel free to share far and wide – If you cannot share, but would still like to participate, please email the info to our webminister and she will update for you: webminister AT thescorre DOT org. Just let her know your name and any info you’d like in the post so she can properly credit.
So far, we have honey-glazed carrots and Boxing Day coffins, among other dishes. Thank you to everyone who is cooking along at home with us!
Yule came and went and I did not bother to make cookies once again. Perhaps this was fortuitous, because now that I am ready to work at another baking project, we find ourselves on the slow and steady march towards Valentine’s Day. While the chocolate laden gestures and rosy seductions of that over commercialized holiday seems to have little to do with the desserts from the medieval Middle East, bear with me.
The cookies I have in mind are known in Arabic as Irnin, which means “stuffed cookie.” The origins of that name, however, hint at a remote pagan past, particularly in Sumeria, the regions of what is now Iraq and eastern Persia. Irnin, it is thought, is a linguistic twisting of Innana, sometimes known as Ishtar. She was a well-regarded goddess of love and war, sometimes gentle, sometimes ferocious. One of the hallmarks of celebrations of Innana was the fashioning of moon-shaped stuffed cookies. Even if worship of Innana/Ishtar began to wane as patriarchy rose in the eastern Levant, Innana’s, cookies, if not her cult, retained the loyalties of many bakers.
Inanna/Ishtar is known to the Greeks as Aphrodite, to the Romans as Venus. Another one of her cults in the western Levant was that of Astarte, and it is speculated that the German spring goddess Eoster is related to that. So the cookies also have a relation to our Eastertide, but for the moment I am sticking with Valentine’s Day or I will never get any baking done.
One ingredient in Irnin dear to both Inanna and Aphrodite would be rosewater as roses were closely associated with these two. Rosewater was in common use in the Middle East before the rise of Islam, and it became even more readily available due to the discovery by ibn Sina of how to produce rosewater and oil through the process of distillation. Rosewater has cooling properties, and is considered good for ailments of the chest and stomach. A rosewater syrup may indeed pull you through a hangover. The proportion of sugar is a bit hefty (two pounds of sugar to ½ cup water) and might give you pause, but then, a hangover can be a relentless foe, a thought that should have struck home the night before.
The use of rosewater provides one of the most distinctive of tastes in Middle Eastern cooking, and it entranced European cooks up until the beginning of the eighteenth century, which more or less marks the beginning of modern cookery. Some people have an instant aversion to a perfumed scent in their foods, others find it pleasing enough to consider the advent of modern cookery to be something of a mistake.
The particular cookie we are baking this time calls for the addition of almonds, pistachios, and sesame seeds. Almonds form the backbone of medieval cooking, so much so that one might speculate that, without the almond, much of the ingenuity and pleasure in eating this type of food would be gone. Almonds contain a moderate amount of heat which will balance the coolness of the rosewater. They are considered slow to digest but have the effect of unblocking one’s system — it relieves costiveness, not only constipation, but also slowness of speech, understanding, and movement. Taken with sugar, they are good for curing a dry cough as well as increasing the virility of both body and mind. Because there is nothing that does not exact a price for its benefits, be forewarned that almonds are fattening. Ibn Sina suggests that eating 50 bitter almonds before drinking will prevent one from becoming intoxicated, should this however fail, one may resort to the rosewater syrup.
Pistachios are considered hot and drying, and they have a quality of bitterness and astringency, indicating that eating them is good for one’s liver. They are popular as served salted along with wine, and also eaten alone are thought to sweeten the breath.
Abu Ishaq al-Sabi enthused over them in a poem:
I describe them as a philosopher might With pleasant and charming words An emerald wrapped in silk Enclosed in an ivory vessel.
Some even claim that eating them brings on its own type of euphoria. Perhaps under the effects of such euphoria, Ibn Wabshiyya claimed that if one took the kidney of a goat sliced open and buried it with a bone from a peacock’s spine, sprinkled this with fumewort, and buried it for the better part of a month, a pistachio tree will sprout. Presently I am fresh out of fumewort, but if any of you wish to give it a try, do let me know if you attain success.
Sesame seeds are best toasted and taken in small quantities as they contain a powerful heat. This can be useful for curing earache and dispelling gas but they are also hard to digest and, consuming too many of them, can bring on excessive internal drying. Perhaps the rosewater in this recipe is indeed a necessary cooling factor given the combined heat of these elements. That said, rosewater and ground nuts, particularly these two, provide a taste that is quintessentially Middle Eastern.
To make these cookies, you will need the following ingredients:
2 ½ cups of flour
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons chopped pistachios (I used shelled, salted pistachios and if you don’t have these, add a teaspoon of salt to the recipe; you may also substitute walnut for pistachio)
8 tablespoons ground almonds
6 tablespoons melted butter (I used ghee)
6 tablespoons almond oil
6 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
3 tablespoons rose water
3 tablespoons honey
If your almonds still have skins, slip them by bringing the almonds to a boil for a minute in a pan of water. Let cool and slip the skins free. Process three tablespoons of the almonds and two of the pistachios and add them to the flour and sesame seeds in a bowl. Blend thoroughly and make a well in the center. To this, pour in your melted butter, oil, and water. Mix very well and form a dough. It will be a little stiff and will become more elastic as it rests. If it is still stiff after two hours of resting, add a little more oil to the dough and knead it very well. It should then be sufficiently elastic. Cover your dough and let it rest for two hours or so.
While the dough is resting, grind or chop finely the remaining pistachios and almonds. Place them in a bowl and add the sugar, the spices, and honey. Add the rosewater and work it into a thick paste.
Take the dough and knead it briefly. Break off a small round and work it into a ball, approximately two inches in diameter. Push your finger into the bowl and smoosh a teaspoon of the rosewater nut filling into the ball so it fits into the center. Work the dough to cover it and then lightly press the ball between your palms. When these cookies were made for ritual use, the Sumerians used a special mold, but this is not necessary. The recipe above will provide for a little more than a dozen cookies. You could of course make them smaller, but that is a tease, not a cookie.
An additional finishing touch, if desired, would be a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Place these morsels on a greased baking tray and bake at 350* for about half an hour. They are done when lightly brown. Watch carefully, as lightly brown turns to scorched quite easily. Carefully place them on a cooling tray and, just as carefully, transfer item onto your serving platter when ready. The cookies are crumbly, not too dry, not too sweet, and for those not familiar with its perfumed goodness, not saturated with rose water. Good enough, one might say, to make a long-forgotten goddess smile.
Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook: Nawal Nasrarallah. Brill. 2010.
Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets: Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, Leila Salloum Elias; I.B. Tauris 2013.
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: Shihab al-din al-Nuwayri. Penguin
It’s hot. I know it gets hot in the Middle East, but not like this. This humidity. Not something a cook from the medieval world of dar al Islam would have to contend with. Or so I imagine.
Between the heat and the social distancing from the pandemic, I am far from keeping on track with my dessert project. Because I don’t want to think about baking. On the few occasions I make desultory forays into my cookbooks, I find things that look appealing, but are sticky sweet with honey.
Honey is a good thing. Sweet is a good thing. Sticky sweet, when sweltering, is not a good thing. The thought of working with phyllo dough in this weather, and having my hands sticky with honey, is more than faintly disgusting. I make a note to come back to the idea in the autumn.
Then it occurs to me that since my last project of khabis, I could work on one of the many iterations of its cousin, mamounia (or ma’mounia). This is a sweet porridge/pudding that is quite popular in Syria. Sometimes it is served at breakfast, the way sensible people enjoy a good piece of cake now and again. Generally though, it’s brought out at dessert time.
Let’s start out with making a modern version of mamounia. I chose this recipe because it is simplest, and more important, the same principles apply to every iteration one finds of this dish as one travels back historically.
You will need:
4 Tb. cooking oil
1 cup semolina or rice flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. extract of almond oil or scented water (rose or orange blossom)
chopped nuts (optional)
¼ cup cold water
Whipped cream (optional)
Like many traditional Arabic dishes, you begin with melting some cooking fat. In medieval dar al Islam, this meant the fatty part of a sheep’s tail. It’s to the Arabs what lard is to southern American cooks or chicken fat is to Jewish cooks, meaning it imparts something so magical and delicious to the finished dish that only fools will try to cook without it.
That said, there are a lot of fools out there, and most of us will have a tough time finding sheep tail at the local Safeway.
In its place I chose ghee (a form of clarified butter) that is much easier to obtain and imparts a desirable rich flavor. Take about four tablespoons of ghee and heat it in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until you have a nice golden liquid. Keep the heat on at medium heat and add one cup of semolina flour to the ghee. Stir this until it turns light brown.
If you’ve made roux before, you’ll note you’re doing the same thing here. If you haven’t had to make roux previously, take note: the longer you cook the fat and flour, the more careful you have to be about the dish scorching. If it scorches, there is nothing you can do but to start over; there is no way you can fix the roux if it burns. So, now is a good time to cultivate patience and let the fat take its time and do the work. You just keep stirring.
The earlier versions of this dish call for rice flour, and the earliest of all have the cook make his own rice flour by cooking the rice and then smashing it flat and pushing it through a fine sieve. This adds a considerable amount of work to the process but it might be fun, depending on how low you set the bar for fun. On a day like this, I’m willing to wager you’d just end up an irritable, sweaty, mean person, wondering why you wanted to cook anyway. So, this is the reason one pulls out the rice flour or semolina.
Once your grain and fat have made a happy marriage, add a cup of sugar and a cup of milk. Be prepared to stir rapidly at this point, since the milk will scald easily with the hot fat. Once you have that worked together, add half a teaspoon of orange blossom water or rosewater, or, if you prefer, almond extract. The point to remember is that if using scented waters in your cooking, a little goes a long way. You want a hint of floral, not a dish of perfume. [Editorial Note: Ensure you are using edible-grade scented waters, not perfume-grade ones.]
While stirring, work your cold water into the mush gradually, a little at a time. An early Syrian version of this recipe tells the cook to toss small pieces of pistachio into it as you cook.
Pistachios, according to ibn Sina (often known as Avicenna), have the property of inducing euphoria. My own experience has fallen somewhat short of this, but it does bring to mind an anecdote about a shaykh in Ottoman Egypt who had an ill reputation for being intoxicated, eating something all day and laughing without restraint. People said it was hashish. When the authorities finally hauled him in for questioning, they found it was not hashish at all, but mamounia that was the source of his levity.
Naturally, almonds would work here as well, so too would hazelnuts or walnuts. Once the whole reaches the consistency of a thick paste, the cooking is done. Remove it from the heat and spoon it onto a platter The cooking of the dish is now finished, and you can sprinkle the surface with nuts, if you didn’t add them while cooking. You can smooth the surface of it a bit, since it takes a few minutes to congeal.
For summertime cooking, I would decidedly prefer the orange blossom water, as it provides a certain cooling element to dishes. That was a selling point for early Arabic cooks, who used scented waters for a variety of purposes. The essence of Persian cookery can be summed up as rice with a gentle rose perfume hovering over it. Its cooling properties, as with orange blossom water, is useful for curing nausea and headache (codewords for hangover.) Scented waters are necessary for driving off stale smells from stored water in clay jars and provide freshness to any area where company is seated. A good host always provides scented water for his guests to wash with before and after eating.
This fashion passed onto medieval Europe. Rosewater in particular makes several appearances in early French and English dishes, which was a taste, no doubt, brought back by Crusaders. By the Renaissance, however, scented waters became more the provenance of apothecaries, a specialty item connected to hygiene and beauty. They never managed to make their way back into the kitchens of the West. Personally, I love the Renaissance as much as the next amateur scholar. But one can’t help but wonder what the value of progress is, if the end result is wearing plastic shoes and not having lots of dishes with scented water in them.
What you’ve made is really just a sweetened version of polenta, a grain and fat mush made popular by Italians, who were the first to use cornmeal to make it. In earlier days, it was generally made with barley meal. Polentas had the great distinction of being a dish fit to serve at aristocratic tables, yet was so inexpensive that it often served as a staple for peasants.
One more iteration of mamounia is to take chicken breast meat, finely shredded and pounded, and cook it in the fat/rice mixture, and then sweeten the whole with sugar. This dish became known as mawmany in English. It appears in one of the earliest known cookbooks of Northern Europe, and it had its adherents; it was considered a very swanky dish (one noted for its very aristocratic white coloring). However, the taste for sweetened meat was not destined to last in the West.
Similarities between a savory dish and a dessert serves to remind us that in earlier times, all dishes, of either type, were brought to the table all at once. The work of dividing and separating dishes so that sweets arrive at the end of a meal did not become an established fashion until the end of the French Renaissance at the end of the 16th century. This process may have started as early as 10th century Andalusia, when a man by the name of Ziryab began dictating ideas that define many of our modern cultural norms: wearing seasonal colors in our clothing, how to set a table, the use of glass instead of clay drinking vessels, and of course, the order in which courses of a meal are served.
Some modern variants of mamounia contain broken pieces of nuts and the whole surface is sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Another way is to spread whipped cream over the whole, and then sprinkle nuts on it. This is a modern innovation, not scorned by me in this instance because I had a hankering for a dessert with whipped cream. It’s simple.
There is yet another more traditional way of working with cooled cream, but we shall deal with that with later, with another dessert. In the meantime, I am off to search for more pistachios.
Acquired Tastes; T Sarah Peterson; NCROL 1994
Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook; Nawal Nasrallah; Brill 2010
Scents and Flowers: A Syrian Cookbook; Charles Perry; New York University Press 2017
Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets; Salloum, Habeeb, Salloum, Muna, Elias, Leila; I.B. Tauris 2013
By Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
Going down the rabbit hole can result in some interesting finds. During my digging into historic brewing techniques, I came across the following story. I thought it offered a nice peek behind the curtains into the life of the modern Viking — what is Christmas without a ghost story — which is why I am sharing it now with you.
Historians believe that the way of life of rural Scandinavians did not significantly change for hundreds of years, if not more, and that many of the traditions and techniques as found in the 19th and early 20th century could even go back as far as Viking times. The following account is called “Christmas preparations and Christmas” and is written by Norwegian Guro Hoftun Narum. The chapter is part of the book Livet i en fjellbygd omkring århundreskiftet (Life in a mountain village around the turn of the century), which was published in 1965.
In the good time before Christmas, the pigs were slaughtered. As a rule, it was the wife of the garden who cooked the cracklings and made pork stew and meat baskets (sausages). In part of the Christmas baking, they used pork dumplings.
One time before Christmas they bought a bunch of lutefisk, which had to lie [soak] in strong ash [potash lye] until it had swelled. New water had to be refreshed until the water was completely shiny and the fish was light and glossy as well.
Then the containers of Christmas beer were prepared. First, they sprout barley grain with some water. The grain grew, sprouted, then became lofty. They had it in a big wooden tray inside the living room, because it was warm. While the grain was growing, they sometimes touched [checked] it, and when it was fit, they dried it in the sauna. From the sauna they put it in the mill and got it roughly ground.
The women brewed beer from the malt. […] The beer fermented a little in the barrel as well, and there was some yeast on the bottom of the barrel. When the beer was drunk, they emptied the yeast into a dish and let it dry out, and when this yeast had dried out, they kept it until they had to make bread dough. Before it came from the cookers [could be purchased], baked fermented bread was preferred only for Christmas.
It’s Christmas Eve I remember best of the days of Christmas. Early Christmas Eve morning, we dragged the children into [listening to] a lot of Christmas [stories] around our kettles. We had the fireplace full and even something beside the fireplace. Most days, father set up one or more Christmas nights.
I can’t remember we had Christmas trees, and we didn’t get gifts outside of new clothes.
The evening meal was the same every Christmas Eve as long as I was a kid, namely lutefisk, a little fried pork and “dipping”, which was thick white sauce of good milk. Mother probably had some cream in it. Furthermore, there were peeled potatoes and beer in coffee mugs. Every day, the potatoes had to be peeled.
At Christmas, the adults talked about Christmas ghosts that came out of Hahaug during Christmas Night and came back on the thirteenth day. Hahaug is a large mound in the garden of Viko. There were many legends about undead (underground) people living in this mound. It was the legend of Christmas Eve, and I will bring you a couple more.
When the undead people in Hahaug were visited by other undergrounders, they held feasts. The music-man sat on top of the mound and played, and the others danced a kind of ring dance around the mound. Some of the people kept burning torches in the room.
Another legend is about a man who rode away to Hahaug on Christmas Eve. He saw a light shine inside the mound. The man greeted and called out Merry Christmas, and then he asked for a Christmas story. “It’s old custom and use here,” he said. Many women and men came out of the mound, and one of them handed the man a silver-plated drinking horn. He accepted the horn, but sprinkled its contents behind him so some of it hit the horse, and the horse was scorched on both hair and skin where the contents hit it. He should not have taken the drinking horn.
Quince Bread, also known as Quittenbrot, Chare de Quences, or Pâte de Coing, is a confection made from quince apples or quinces. Quince trees, Cydonia oblonga, are small fruit trees in the Rosaceae family. They are closely related to apples and pears. Quinces were grown in West Asia and around the Mediterranean since antiquity. Quinces remained popular fruit trees throughout medieval times.
Image: Roman painting of a quince tree in the Casa die Livia, probably 30BC
Like other pomefruits, quinces do not do not come true from seed. Desirable genotypes need to be propagated by grafting. Grafting was well known to the Romans. At the time of Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79, better known as Pliny the Elder, many different varieties were grown, several of which Pliny mentions by name in his natural history:
Chapter. 10. (11.)—The Quince. Four Kinds of Cydonia, and Four Varieties of the Struthea: Next in size after these are the fruit called by us “cotonea,” by the Greeks “Cydonia,” and first introduced from the island of Crete. These fruits bend the branches with their weight, and so tend to impede the growth of the parent tree. The varieties are numerous. The chrysomelum is marked with indentations down it, and has a colour inclining to gold; the one that is known as the “Italian” quince, is of a paler complexion, and has a most exquisite smell: the quinces of Neapolis, too, are held in high esteem. The smaller varieties of the quince which are known as the “struthea,” have a more pungent smell, but ripen later than the others; that called the “musteum,” ripens the soonest of all. The cotoneum engrafted on the strutheum, has produced a peculiar variety, known as the “Mulvianum,” the only one of them all that is eaten raw. At the present day all these varieties are kept shut up in the antechambers of great men, where they receive the visits of their courtiers; they are hung, too, upon the statues that pass the night with us in our chambers. There is a small wild quince also, the smell of which, next to that of the strutheum, is the most powerful; it grows in the hedges. (Pliny)
In modern times, various named quince varieties propagated by grafting are available to the gardener. However, quinces also serve commonly as dwarfing rootstock for pears, resulting in the mature pear tree reaching only about 40-60% of the natural mature height. (Elkins, Bell, Einhorn, 2012, Journal of the American Pomological Society 66(3):153-163). These quince rootstocks along with occasional chance seedlings are the source of feral quinces found in the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn. In the work presented here, I compare quince bread made from fruits of a named cultivar, ‘Orange,’ with quince bread made from feral quinces and a third variety that attempts to combine the benefits of both.
Quinces are considerably more heat tolerant than apples, hence their historic popularity in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. However, many varieties are cold hardy to USDA zone 5 and thus can be grown successfully in Myrkfaelinn and neighboring Baronies. Quinces do well in sun and partial shade. Unfortunately, Quinces are plagued by two pests. Quinces are extremely vulnerable to Fireblight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. Fireblight is the main reason quinces are no longer widely grown. A local apple and pear grower (Ian Merwin of Black Diamond Farm) explained to me that he was avoiding quinces to prevent the likely fireblight infections jumping over onto his pear trees. The round headed stem borer (Saperda Candida) also causes damage to trees. Both of these diseases have caused loss of quince trees in my garden.
Quinces tend to flower later than apples, in my garden at the end of May, which usually protects them from damage by late frosts. Quinces also tend to ripen later than apples. Unlike apples and pears, quinces are self-fruitful. There is no need to grow second variety for pollination. According to the Trinity Encyclopedia compiled by an anonymous writer in the 1400s in England, the quince season starts at Michaelmas (September 29th) and lasts till Martinmas (November 11th).
§62 Chare de quences. Forto make chare de quences. Take þfayre quences in tyme of yeer, as between Mihelmasse and Martynmasse… (Clarke 2016)
In my garden, quinces ripen around Halloween. I found that quinces harvested but not quite ripe yet, can ripen a bit while being stored indoors. However, since quinces can’t be stored much longer than a month, only so much post-harvest ripening can be had. I would advise any quince grower to leave the fruit on the tree, until they have fully changed to yellow/orange color, unless a severe frost is threatening the harvest.
Image: Late medieval rendering of a quince tree, probably 1300-1400, in the Tacuinum sanitatis, by Ibn Butlân
As Pliny the Elder described, the Romans valued quinces particularly for their smell. A single quince can easily fill a small room with its fragrance. Most quince fruits are hard and sour and not delightful, when eaten raw. ‘Aayvay yemek’ or ‘to eat quince’ is a Turkish expression used to describe unpleasant situations. The Mulvanium is a rarity for being enjoyable in raw form. Even today, there are very few quince varieties available that can be enjoyed raw, the best known one is the Russian variety Aromatnaya. I found that after storing Orange quince for three weeks, the pectin in the fruit broke down enough to make the fruit edible raw. The texture was then like a radish and the level of acidity not unpleasant. Attempting to eat feral quince raw was an experience similar to biting into a very hard lemon.
In my kitchen freshly harvested quince last for about a month, before eventually they go bad. The feral quinces appear wrinkled after this time of storage, which makes them harder to peel. The Orange quinces tend not to wrinkle, but the fruit flesh softens and they turn brownish on the inside. Making quinces last longer requires some sort of preservation. Apicius lists two recipes featuring quince in his book De Re Coquinaria Liber. The first one is in the first book and is concerned with the preservation of quinces for future use:
Ut mala Cydonia diu serventur: Eligis mala sine vitio cum ramulis et foliis, et condes in vas, et suffundes mel et defritum, et diu servabis. (Apicius 21)
How quinces might be served later: Select apples without blemish with stems and leaves, and put them in a vessel, submerge them in honey and concentrated spiced white wine (=defruitum), and you will serve them in a long time later.
This recipe is solely about the preservation of quince, not a dessert in itself. Note that the quince is not heated or cored. The emphasis on the stem and leaves still intact is to ensure that no air enters the fruit that could lead to fermentation. Even with the sometimes – from modern perspective – rather strange culinary customs of the Romans, it is unlikely, they would have actually eaten the cores and leaves. It is in a section of the book that describes how to preserve various fruits for later use. (the previous recipe suggests to steep pomegranates in sea-water and hang them to dry for preservation, the following one advises to place a variety of fruits again intact with the stems in honey for preservation.) However, if the fruits were cored, relieved of stems and leaves and actually boiled in honey and spiced wine, this would make for a delicious dessert. If such a concoction were dried, it would pretty much be quince bread. Apicius’ second recipe suggests that quinces might have been boiled in honey for preservation. This recipe is a savory one:
Patina de cydoniis: Mala cydonia cum porris melle liquamine oleo defricato coques et inferes vel elixata ex melle. (Apicius 163)
A Dish of Quinces: Cook quinces with leek, honey, fish sauce, rubbed (?) oil or threw in thoroughly boiled in honey.
The recipe offers two versions to prepare the same dish, either cooking the fresh quinces together with the other ingredients or throwing in the already honey cooked quinces later. The second part of this savory recipe, ‘or throw in [quinces] thoroughly boiled in honey’ might be a reference to conserving quince by boiling them in honey. Potentially this was done to preserve quinces not quite free of blemish. From quinces boiled in honey for preservation to quince bread is only a small step.
Quinces remained popular in Europe into medieval times. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) mentions quinces in her book ‘Physica’ both as food source and for medical use as a remedy for gout, excessive saliva and badly healing wounds.
IV. Quince Tree
The quince tree is very cold and of a subtlety which is assimilated, sometimes usefully, other times not. Its wood and leaves are not of much use for human beings. Its fruit is hot and dry and has good balance in it. When it is ripe and eaten raw, it harms neither a sick nor a healthy person. It is useful, cooked or roasted, for a sick person to eat. One who is virgichtiget (=suffering of gout) should frequently eat this fruit, either cooked or roasted, and it will check the gicht (=gout) in him, so that it does not blunt his senses, nor break his limbs nor leave the person helpless. One who produces much saliva should eat this fruit frequently, cooked or roasted. It will dry him up internally and diminish his saliva. Where there are ulcers or foulness on a person, one should cook or roast this fruit and place it, with other spices, over the wounds, and he will be cured. (Bingen)
The Trinity Encyclopedia from the second half of the 14th century lists a very detailed recipe for quince bread, called ‘chare de quences’, translated as ‘pâte de coing’ or ‘pâte de coing’.
§62 Pâte de coing
To make pâte de coing. Take nice quinces in season, that is between Michaelmas and Martinmas, and cut them equally in two in the middle, and take away the pips with a knife, and the core of them as well, and if there is any part of them that is rotten, pare it away with a knife as well. Then when you have as many as you want to work up at once, cleaned and prepared like that, then put them all in a nice clean pan and add clean water to it so that they lie all submerged and somewhat more, so that they can be seethed well in it. Then set your pan with your quinces over the fire and seethe them well until they are tender enough to be strained. Then when they are tender enough, take down the pan off the fire, and take out your seethed quinces from the water with a dish or with a platter and lay them in a sieve or else on a nice clean table and let the water run out from them; let them lie like that on that table or in a sieve all night still, without stirring. (Clarke 2018 – for the rest of this lengthy recipe, please check the reference)
Like the Roman recipes, this medieval recipe uses honey to preserve quinces. The recipe is from a time when sugar was just about to become available in Europe and therefore had not yet taken a crucial role in food preservation. In the quince breads presented here, I used sugar instead of honey, as the only honey I had available was brown honey from goldenrod and Japanese knotweed, which has a much stronger flavor, than a ‘nice white honey’ asked for in the recipe.
Images: Smooth skinned feral quinces to the left. Fuzzy skinned Orange quinces to the right. Orange quince cut open. The slight browning of the fruit flesh indicates that the pectin is breaking down, making the quince softer.
The first step is to core the quinces and remove all the seeds. Quince seeds – like most seeds in the Rosaceae family – contain some cyanide, so removing the seeds before cooking is a good idea. The cores themselves are very hard. After cooking, quinces were passed through a sieve, thereby removing the hard leftovers of the cores and the skin. When working with feral quinces, I followed the first cooking-then sieving approach, because these quinces proved very tedious to core and peel. With the much larger and softer Orange quinces I found it easier to simply peel and thoroughly core the quinces, before I cooked them and omitted the sieving step. The cooked peeled quince is very soft and can easily be mashed with a potato stomper like applesauce or potato mash, or run through a sieve.
Image: Quince puree ready to be sweetened. At this point it is still yellow.
It is surprising that in this recipe the boiling water is simply discarded. The water, in which quinces are boiled, is very aromatic and pleasantly fragrant. In many modern quince gelée recipes, the main focus is on the boiling water, which then gets sweetened (occasionally acidified) and thickened, while the use of the remaining pulp for the making of quince bread is treated more as an afterthought – some modern cooks apparently simply discard the pulp. This is quite a change in attitude from medieval times. Not wanting to waste the flavor in the boiling water I opted for a change in the recipe, boiling the quinces in much less water, similar to the amount one would use for applesauce and omitting the drip off stage. I found this approach frequently mentioned in German Internet publications, generally citing Hildegard from Bingen as source for the recipe. Unfortunately, none of these Internet publications provide a citation of a recipe written by the Abbess herself.
Image: Quince puree ready to be dried. The color is now orange.
Having omitted the drip-off step, my quince pulp was presumably much moister than the pulp the medieval confectioner, so therefore I only added 1/2 of the pulp weight in sugar. Initially, I followed the recipe evaporating water from the sweetened quince puree on the stove top. However, I found that the sweetened pulp is quick to stick to the pot bottom and burn, even while being stirred. Therefore, I opted for a different approach to dry the quince puree. Once all the sugar was dissolved in the quince puree, I spread the quince puree about 1/2inch deep on a backing sheet and dried it in the oven. The quince puree was still orange/yellowish in color, when I spread it onto the sheet.
I dried the feral quince puree at 220° F. Upon tasting it, I felt I might have heated it too much and therefore dried the other two purees at 180° F. By the time the puree had sufficiently dried out it had taken a red color and a somewhat glassy consistency. The drying process took about two days at the given temperatures.
Following the advice of the medieval recipe I made sure to use nice clean cookware at every step of the process.
The three quince breads presented:
Quince bread made exclusively from feral quinces. This bread has a fair level of acidity to it. The texture is leathery and chewy.
Quince bread made from Orange quince. The bread is very mild with strong quince flavor. The texture is soft, smooth and almost creamy.
Quince bread made from a combination of feral and Orange quince (ratio roughly 1:2). The texture and aroma resemble the quince bread from Orange quinces; however, the color is darker and there is a bit more acidity.
I did not use spices in this work to prevent them from overpowering the flavor differences caused by the quince varieties.
Image: Eadgytha enjoys sharing her yummy samples with the general populace present during the Kingdom A&S Championship.
Apicius Book I; 21. De Re Coquinaria Liber I. Epimeles (about honey, translation mine)
Apicius Book II; 163 Patinae Piscium, Holerum & Pomorum (Dishes of Fish, Vegetables and Apple-Fruit, translation mine)
Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica, The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, (Translated from Latin by Priscilla Throop, 1998, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.)
Mark Clarke, The Crafte of Lymmyng and the Manner of Staynyng, Early English Text Society, 2016
Mark Clarke, Tricks of the Medieval Trades, The Trinity Encyclopedia: A Collection of Fourteenth-Century English Craft Recipes. Archetype Publications Ltd., London, 2018
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.
Exemplar at Villa di livia, affreschi di giardino, parete corta meridionale. From here.
Quince; from the Theatrum Sanitatis, Library Casanatense, Rome. From here.
Process photos by Eadgytha scripsit
Kingdom A&S Championship entry photos by Elska á Fjárfelli
Sent to us by Mistress Illadore from her 2019 Gulf Wars meal plan for the Æthelmearc encampment.
Viva la France! Let us eat like Queens!
A historical review of French Cookbooks and French Queens
History lessons on French Queens, based on French cooking manuscripts available at the time. Let us eat like queens.
Monday – Joan I of Navarre. She was the Queen Consort to Philip IV of France, who was emotionally dependent on her. Mother of the She-Wolf of France (Isabella, Queen of England) and the last Capet King, whose death started the 100 Years War. She had her first child at 15, raised and led an army at 24, and died at 32.
Period Manuscript: Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viands. Early French cookery book from 1300, well used as it’s covered in food stains. Considered to be the oldest cookbook in France. Cooks comments – this cookbook is almost entirely nothing but meat. I had to use other non-French recipe books to help fill out the menu.
Here’s a recipe from Monday:
Grilled Pork Chops with Green Garlic and Onion Gravy
Original translation found here (c) 2005 Daniel Myers, MedievalCookery.com, Lines 13-18
4 pork chops
8 cloves of garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp ground pepper (or to preference)
1/2 tsp grains of paradise (or to preference)
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
corn starchGrill pork chops. While the pork chops are grilling, add the garlic, onion, together in a pot and fry in olive oil until slight brown. Add spices to the pot and then add enough water to make it a bit wet. Make a cornstarch slurry and use to thicken until it because more of a sauce. Serve with the pork chops.Discussion: The recipe calls for pork loin but pork chops are cheaper and easier to cook in the woods on a grill. Cornstarch is not period; however, we had gluten-free folks for dinner so compromises were made. The grains of paradise are not required. You could try other spices like ginger or long pepper. This sauce was very well received by the diners.
My first colonial ale — called Dear Old Mum, a spiced wheat — at Chowning’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. (Photo R. Mazza)
The 8th annual Reconstructive and Experimental Archaeology Conference, hosted by the experimental archaeology group EXARC (https://exarc.net), drew speakers and participants from many parts of the world. The REARC conference once again took place in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia from October 18 to 20. Mistress Chrestienne deWaterdene and I drove down together to check out the event.
Friday was reserved for the presentation of papers by students and researchers alike, demonstrating the wealth of information and practical skills available within the EXARC community. Saturday was filled with numerous demonstrations in which the conference attendees could participate and museum visitors could watch and learn.
Elska presenting her very first academic paper, which started life as an uncooperative Ice Dragon brewing entry. (Photo S. Stull, occasional SCAdian and a conference presenter)
The presentations ranged from practical recreations like making flutes from bird bones and weaving with captive reed beads to duplicate pottery impressions to the use of recreated objects such as determining if Ötzis’ tools were for hunting or for warfare, and the function of experimental archaeology within different types of classrooms. Some researchers presented a follow-up on previous papers, such as Neil Peterson with his ongoing Viking bead furnace project.
Some might look for resources not yet found; the joy of Caitlin Gaffney after finding a possible source for a reproduction medieval knife to carve her bone flutes was absolutely contagious. And some were looking to network: David Spence asked for additional projects for his experimental archaeology in high school plan and left with numerous contacts and suggestions.
Each and every paper had some unique view, some unusual bit of information; since the practical aspects of experimental archaeology requires a more interdisciplinary approach than traditional academics, conferences like REARC are essential. You just never know from what discipline, from which subject, the answer to the question you did not even realize you had could come from. I personally was amazed to find that the gist of my paper — to not take words at their literal modern definition — was independently repeated in another paper… to have my initial interpretation validated via an independent source right then and there.
The work stations, surrounded by assorted Colonial-era garments being altered or repaired.
During the lunch break, Chrestienne and I quietly excused ourselves and took a quick look at the Annual Open House at the nearby Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center. Here, the staff fits, designs, creates, and dresses the area’s costumed interpreters.
The clothes range from silk gowns and caps for the ladies, to cotton and linen wear for the middling sort, to handmade leather gloves and embroidered coats for the male gentry. Ordinarily, the Center is only open by appointment, except one day a year, when it opens the doors for all to show and tell. And we made sure to be there! It was a cornucopia of fabrics and embellishments, and the workstations were to die for…
Talon Silverhorn showing his beaded belt made using Fingerweaving. He also told about how his tribe uses this technique to record and tell stories right up to our modern period.
I also learned that the colonial interpreters do not make nor own their costumes. It is this department that researches, designs, fits, and creates for everyone on the payroll. Except for the Native Americans, it seems. We did not see any Native American wardrobes out in storage or on display, and from talking with Native interpreter Talon Silverhorn we learned that most make their own as part of their tribal community and heritage.
Bill Schindler, experimental archaeologist and co-host of the National Geographic show The Great Human Race. I enjoyed our conversation over a craft beer at the hotel, and even taught him a thing or two about historic mead brewing.
The keynote speaker for this year was Bill Schindler, an experimental archaeologist with Washington College and part of the Eastern Shore Food Labs. His quite-engaging presentation on Fusion: ancestral diets, modern culinary techniques, and experimental archaeology was well received and left the audience with a number of questions to think about.
This paper was perfect for the younger generations now growing up in an environment that might be more hostile to them than they would surmise, and this area of research, experimental archaeology, could help shed light on where to go from here. The connection between human biology and our diet, and the impact industrialization has had on our health to the point where humans and our pets can be both obese and malnourished, is not only fascinating from an academic point of view but relevant to the survival of our species.
This year’s demonstrations were two part: the practice of throwing atlatl and observing and shooting early bows, combined with the technique of smelting and casting bronze and making Viking era glass beads.
Unfortunately, while the weather was absolutely gorgeous on Friday, by the time Saturday came around it had changed to intermittent drizzle and rain. But that did not stop us from having a go at each of the stations and appreciate the added value of tent coverings at the metallurgy and flamework areas. While I would have loved to try the Ötzi replica bow as initially intended, Manuel Lizarralde did not feel comfortable to have it out in soaking rain as it was not yet waterproof.
I did get to shoot a fire-hardened black locust Native American self bow, weatherproofed with bear grease, and even hit the target center. Conference host Tim Messner enjoyed the primitive tattoo kit and extant stone tools that Talon Silverhorn, Native American interpreter, brought to share – and almost talked him into a tattoo demo on the spot!
Fergus Milton, with help from David Spence, melting bronze to do a lost-wax mold casting later in the afternoon.
At the station near the blacksmith area, we enjoyed Fergus Milton’s bronze casting demonstrations — with help on the bellows by David Spence — using a small furnace constructed on site from local clay and aerated with a primitive leather-bag bellows.
He began the day by smelting the bronze and preparing two molds, and poured the molds mid-afternoon. Several museum guests returned specifically to witness the casting, after stopping by periodically to keep an eye on the proceedings.
Chrestienne making her first Viking glass bead over a charcoal bead furnace under the expert supervision of Neil Peterson (a SCAdian of old). She’s wearing the loaner sweater Neil provided (available to those wearing flammable man-made fiber fabrics). Wool is a safer fabric to protect against sparks and burning embers.
At the same time Neil Peterson had his coal-fed bead furnace up and running for conference attendees to try their hand at making a Viking glass bead. His station was in continuous use throughout the day and many of the attendees left with a precious homemade bead in their pocket. Surprisingly, participants often had more trouble with the coordination required to operate the bellows effectively, me included, than they had creating a simple bead.
Pouring molten tin into a cuttlefish mold encased in fresh clay as support.
The mold is only able to be used once, becoming burned during use. Although tin is used to demonstrate, it is a softer metal than the master used for the impression.
Finally, before packing up, Fergus Milton did a quick demonstration of cuttlefish casting for David Spence to consider showing to his high school students. He used some tin he had on hand, and as it had a lower melting temperature than the bronze, it quickly became molten and he was able to show how the porous nature of the cuttlefish bone lends itself well to making a quick mold. It takes in a good amount of detail from the master used to press into the material and feels a bit like a dense, fine Styrofoam when pushing a metal object in to make an impression.
To cap off this wonderful experience, the resident founders at Williamsburg had invited Fergus Milton (burgundy shirt) for a special bronze casting demonstration at their shop on Sunday morning. To experience the prehistoric process, so closely followed by the much more refined methods of the 18th century Geddy Foundry, was an appropriate ending to an otherwise perfect immersive weekend of reconstructive and experimental archaeology. We are ready to come back for more next year!
Insistent cow, with bull calf, determined to charm snacks from us! (Photo: R. Mazza)
All photos credited to S. Verberg, unless otherwise stated.
For details on the presented papers, see the EXARC site.
Pennsic 47 all-grain class by Alain ap Daffyd, from the Canton of Salesberie Glen, Barony of Sacred Stone, Kingdom of Atlantia (current Royal Brewer) and Aethelmearcian by association with Madoc Arundel.
Written by Alain, photography by Elska á Fjárfelli.
Brewing area with plenty of shady seating for the brewing enthusiasts who came and visited throughout the day. The class was scheduled for four hours. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
The recipe I used in the class is redacted from The English Housewife by Gervase Markham. “The best March beer” calls for peas and the brewing of three beers, or three sparges of wort from the grain. In the interest of time, I combined the first two sparges for a boil yielding slightly more than ten gallons. The peas were omitted.
16# Briess pilsner malt
2# wheat malt
2# oat malt
3 oz. East Kent Golding
The pilsner grain is a barley malt, barely lighter than a “standard” two-row, and happened to be what was in my bin for base malt. I used East Kent Golding, as it is a fine English hop, and I was low on Fuggle. Every medieval recipe I’ve read calls for barley malt, oat malt, and/or wheat malt (in some combination) and hops—I have not seen anything more specific than those terms. From some of the discussions of malt (more/less smoky, etc.), I suspect there was variation from malthouse to malthouse, and between any two maltings as well, but I have yet to see evidence of anyone using different barley malts in any proportion in a single grain bill. Thus, I always weigh my malt from a single bag for any one boil.
Copper kettle on propane burner: This Pennsic I chose to use a propane burner for heat instead of a wood fire. The smoky quality added to the wood-fire brew was lovely, but the smoky quality it added to my respiratory system was not. Every period illustration I have seen has the copper on a stone/masonry stand, where wood is added through the front and smoke is carried away in a chimney. I’m thinking of building something similar and trying wood again. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
The session begins with adding eight gallons (30 liters) of water to the copper and setting it to heat. All of the grains were combined in a bucket earlier – once the water was on to heat, they were cracked, and put in the tun. The water is raised to approximately 170 degrees Fahrenheit (~77 degrees Celsius), then added to the cracked grain in the tun, using the “pot-on-a-stick.” After all the water is transferred, a paddle is used to stir the mash, making sure all the grain is wetted and with no clumps.
Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
After stirring, the mash is covered to prevent heat loss. Eight more gallons (30 liters) of water are measured and added to the copper. Once the mash rests for thirty minutes, it is stirred. On this occasion, we used a thermometer to check the mash temperature, and found it to be just over 150°F (66°C). The copper is now heated, bringing the water to mash temp (150°F/66°C). At the end of another thirty-minute rest, the wort is extracted from the grain by dipping it from the tun and straining it through a wicker basket, allowing it to collect in a bucket. Grain is placed in another bucket once the basket becomes full. After all the wort is extracted (~5 gallons/19 liters, more than expected), the grain is returned to the tun, and the additional water from the copper (8 gallons/30 liters) is added.
Separating the spent grains from the mash – the large wood tub hides a fiberglass insulated plastic tub to help keep the mash at temperature. The large stirring spoon and pot-on-a-stick are period tools; the wicker basket is a period tool; the funnel shelf is of home design. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
This is where we depart from Markham’s description, as rather than setting the first wort to boil we collected the wort from the second session and added it to the first, doing a single boil rather than two separate boils. We abandoned the third boil entirely, although a taste of the remaining grain did indicate sugar remaining.
Ludwig taste-testing the spent grains for residual sugars. There was enough left for a third mash/sparge, or a small beer. The strained wort tasted very sweet, both from the first sparge and the second (remember, it is still going to be boiled). Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
The second run gathered just short of 8 gallons/30 liters (as expected), resulting in just short of 13 gallons/49 liters to boil. As my copper only holds 12 gallons/45 liters, we elected to do a longer boil, adding additional wort as it progressed, until all wort had been reduced to approximately 10.5 gallons/40 liters.
Heating up the wort from the first sparge. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
Adding the wort from the second sparge. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
The hops were measured and put into a small bag, and added to the wort prior to starting the boil.
Starting gravity is 1.056. The wort was pitched with Mangrove Jack’s M42 yeast, with an expected final gravity of 1.010–1.020, or around 5–6% ABV. This should be a dry, malty beer, and I hope to be serving it at War of the Wings.
Surveying the two fermenting buckets with wort cooling off enough to pitch the yeast. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
And everyone went home with a nice glass of “something.” Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
Recipe of Spent Grain Cookies as made by Alysoun (Alison Leister Steele) and served throughout the brewing class:
Absalon (Christian Leister Steele) hawking the baking wares of his wife. Photo by Elska á Fjárfelli
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine whole wheat flour, spent grains, baking soda, brown sugar, cinnamon & egg in a large mixing bowl.
3. Once mixed, stir in melted butter and honey.
4. Fold in raisins.
5. Spoon onto a greased baking sheet.
6. Bake at 350 for 10–12 minutes, or until edges start to brown.
7. Remove from oven and allow to cool. The cookie are even better the next day (they travel well!).
By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
As a mother, and brewer, I was unsurprisingly asked (begged) by my kid to help him make root beer. We both quite like the taste of root beer, and the idea of going on a root-and-herb scavenger hunt in the back swamp spoke to both of us! The cunning plan was to have the kid enter his root beer in a brewing competition and thus he had to know at least some of its early history. But – how period is root beer? The two ingredients most often mentioned to make root beer are sarsaparilla and sassafras, so let’s first take a look at those.
Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata) was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spaniards, first from Mexico and later from Honduras. Mexico, Central America and many parts of northern South America abound in various species of sarsaparilla, valued by the natives for their, more or less, medicinal qualities. The natives value its nourishing and healing qualities so much they would drive their cattle to areas where it grew in abundance in order to feed on the plants and receive its benefits.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) was a well-known plant to the natives of the southwestern United States way before the Europeans came around. It had many purposes, including cooking (to flavor bear fat, to cure meat) and medicinal.
The European interest in sassafras brought Europeans into closer contact with the Native Americans during the early years of settlement in 16th and 17th century Florida, Virginia and parts of the Northeast. Early European settlers enjoyed the aromatic scent of sassafras – according to legend, Christopher Columbus finally found land because he could smell the sassafras! As early as the 1560s, French visitors to North America discovered the medicinal qualities of sassafras, as well as the Spanish who arrived in Florida.
Sassafras trees were reported as plentiful at the arrival of the English on the coast of Northeast. Sassafras bark was sold in England and in continental Europe where it was made into a dark beverage called ‘saloop’ – touted to have medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments. This refreshing beverage was sold in place of tea and coffee, which were much more expensive, and was served in a similar way with milk and sugar.
Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest to bring sassafras to England in 1586, and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to commercially export sassafras in 1602. Since the bark was the most commercially valued part of the sassafras plant due to large concentrations of the aromatic safrole oil, the trees would be stripped of their bark – which kills the tree.
This meant that as significant amounts of sassafras bark were harvested, supplies quickly diminished and sassafras became more difficult to find. For example, while one of the first shipments of sassafras in 1602 weighed as much as a ton, by 1626, the English colonists failed to meet their 30-pound quota. Unfortunately, over-harvesting is not a modern invention.
Martin Pring; in his own words (1603):
“In all these places we found no people, but signes of fires where they had beene. Howbeit we beheld very goodly Groves and Woods replenished with tall Okes, Beeches, Pine-trees, Firre-trees, Hasels, Wich-hasels and Maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of Beasts, as Stags, Deere, Beares, Wolves, Foxes, Lusernes, and Dogges with sharpe noses. But meeting with no Sassafras, we left these places with all the foresaid Ilands, shaping our course for Savage Rocke discovered the yeere before by Captaine Gosnold, where going upon the Mayne we found people, with whom we had no long conversation, because here also we could find no Sassafras. De-parting hence 3 we bare into that great Gulfe which Captaine Gosnold over-shot the yeere before, coasting and finding people on the North side thereof. […] Bancroft, following Belknap, identifies Whitson’s Bay with the harbor of Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, which is in the latitude of 41° 25g. […]and finding a pleasant Hill thereunto adjoyning, we called it Mount Aldworth, for Master Robert Aldworths sake a chiefe furtherer of the Voyage, as well with his Purse as with his travell. Here we had sufficient quantitie of Sassafras.”
Is root beer period plausible?
What this rather long introduction means is that both main root beer flavors – sarsaparilla and sassafras – were known in 16th century Europe, and at least sassafras was used in a drinkable medicinal concoction in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not (yet) fermented… The tradition of brewing, or fermenting, root beer is thought to have evolved out of other European small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with very low alcohol content. These were thought to be healthier to drink than possibly tainted local sources of drinking water, and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used. For instance, the 14th century recipe Tizanne Doulce (like a tisane, or infusion) uses barley, licorice root and crystal sugar to make a root beer-like beverage.
Le Ménagier de Paris, 1393
TIZANNE DOULCE. Take water and boil it, then for each sester [the sester of 8 pints] of water put in a bowl heaped with barley, and it matters not if it be hulls and all, and two parisis [2 1/2d.] worth of liquorice, item, figs, and let it be boiled till the barley bursts; then let it be strained through two or three pieces of linen, and in each goblet put great plenty of crystallised sugar. Then the barley is good to give to poultry to eat to fatten them. Note that the good liquorice is the newest and it is a fresh greenish colour, and the old is more faded and dead and is dry.
Roots, bark, resin, fruits & flowers
For our recreation, we chose roots, barks and leaves that either grew in the back yard (our property adjoins a New York State Protected Wetland, so plenty of bio-diversity) or we already had in the kitchen cupboards. Even though I met someone via Facebook who lived in the South and had a sassafras tree in his backyard and was willing to ship rootstock, unfortunately, facebook ate the conversation and he was never heard from again… so this time around, at least, no period-correct Southern grown sassafras. We substituted with black birch, as that has a root beer typical wintergreen-like flavor, and spicebush (right). We went on a scavenger hunt and gathered as much as we could from the back yard and surrounding property. Ironically, it is in our modern middle Ages not possible to buy fresh, green licorice, therefore we’ll have to do with the ‘dead’ dry stuff. The kid made name cards to label each baggie of ingredients.
0.6 oz black birch bark
0.6 oz spicebush bark
0.3 oz licorice root
0.3 oz dandelion root
0.3 oz birch bark
0.3 oz black cherry bark (included resin)
0.3 oz juniper berries
1 tbs hops flowers
1 tbs ginger root
1 cinnamon stick
2 ½ quart water
1 cup sugar (brown sugar)
1 yeast starter (ale yeast, reclaimed from a perry).
Then it was time to brew! He scraped the bark off the wintergreen and spicebush twigs. He chopped the dandelion root and grated the ginger root. He broke the birch bark, the cherry bark and the dried licorice root into little pieces. He picked the juniper berries from between the greens. And crushed the cinnamon stick. Mom got homegrown hops from the freezer (he’s not touching the hops supply). He measured everything on the scale, and added it all to the big sauce pot. He measured and added the 2 ½ quarts of water. Turned on the stove, and brought it up to a boil. When boiling, it was turned down to a simmer, to simmer for 20 minutes. When done, mom put the pot in the sink in cold water to cool. The infusion was left to sit overnight.
The rootbeer stock, ready to infuse in water.
The next day, he poured some reclaimed ale yeast into a 1 gallon carboy, and poured the infusion – through a filter – into the same carboy. He added 1 cup of sugar, for the yeast. He then shook the carboy well to dissolve all the sugar, and carefully poured the infusion into his recycled fliptop soda bottles. They were left in a warm place to start fermentation. They will stay out for a few days at the most, or until carbonation is visible, and then be refrigerated to stop/slow down the yeast.
Ready for bottling!
A table showing the different botanicals that can be used in root-beer (X marks the ones we used):
Roots and herbs
Sassafras albidum – roots, leaves, bark
Pimenta dioica – allspice
Smilax ornata – sarsaparilla
Lindera benzoin – spicebush (bark/berries)
Smilax glyciphylla – sweet sarsaparilla
Juniperus communis – juniper berries
Piper auritum – root beer plant
Trigonella foenum-graecum – fenugreek
Glycyrrhiza glabra – liquorice (root)
Myroxylon balsamum – Tolu balsam
Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
Abies balsamea – balsam fir
Gaultheria procumbens – wintergreen (leaves and berries)
Myristica fragrans – nutmeg
Betula lenta – sweet birch (sap/syrup/resin)
Cinnamomum verum – cinnamon (bark)
Betula nigra – black birch (sap/syrup/resin/bark)
Cinnamomum aromaticum – cassia (bark)
Prunus serotina – black cherry (resin/bark)
Syzygium aromaticum – clove
Picea rubens – red spruce (tips)
Foeniculum vulgare – fennel (seed)
Picea mariana – black spruce
Zingiber officinale – ginger (stem/rhizome)
Picea sitchensis – Sitka spruce
Illicium verum – star anise
Arctium lappa – burdock (root)
Pimpinella anisum – anise
Taraxacum officinale – dandelion (root)
Humulus lupulus – hops (bells/flowers)
Mentha species – mint
Hordeum vulgare – barley (malted)
Hypericum perforatum – St. John’s wort
Note: black birch and the evergreen Gaultheria are both sources for the scent wintergreen.
Note: while in medieval European brewing Juniperus communis was used, as we have several mature trees of Juniperus virginiana we used that instead. Like its European counterpart, Virginian juniper is also used to flavor gin.
Medieval European plausibility of our chosen ingredients: [yes / no]
black birch bark
eastern North America
eastern North America
native to Eurasia and North America
native to Eurasia and North America
black cherry bark
eastern North America, Central America
native to Eurasia and North America
introduced to northern Europe in the 9th century
native to southern Europe and parts of Asia
exported to EU via India in the first century AD
exported to EU via Africa (Egypt) from Sri Lanka
Legenda – wh: wild harvested; hg: home grown; cs: commercially sourced
neither of us liked the licorice after-taste. Next time we’ll also add burdock, and maybe some mint, or anise – and less of the licorice.
only add a little bit of lees. There is plenty of yeast in even a little bit to start fermentation
when using commercial dry (bread) yeast, a pinch to each bottle is enough.
as soon as vigorous carbonation is visible on the outside of the bottles, refrigerate.
just in case, have a large container ready when opening the flip-top to catch any overly-carbonated blow-out.
fermented root beer will go alcoholic eventually – keep an eye on the brew so the kids don’t get too frisky.
alcoholic root beer tastes good too!
And as Sir Kenelme Digby so aptly adviced, in his slightly post-period brewing cornucopia:
“You may use what Herbs or Roots you please, either for their tast or vertue…”