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What's the best ye olde recipe?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 11:55 UK time, Friday, 10 June 2011

Dweeby food writers like me love wasting absurd amounts of time writing about ancient, arcane and forgotten recipes. It’s what floats our culino-literary boat. Trouble is, the only people who can be bothered to read them or shell out any actual cash on books about them are…well…me and a few other nerdy food writers.

So is all that time wasted? Not entirely, I’d argue. I think most people are pleased that someone is researching this stuff that they’ll never read, in the same way that I’m very happy that academics write about ancient tapestry techniques. I’m glad that someone’s doing this work, even if I’ll be damned if I’ll ever read it myself.

The trouble is that feeling arcane and eclectic is all well and good, but it doesn’t buy you biscuits. So I thought I’d write just one more piece on old recipes and if no one’s interested, this’ll be my last. My roasted swansong, if you will. And I’ll keep it all practical and bullet-pointy so as to keep you awake.

  • Old British recipes had funny but rubbish names such as fitless cock (a chicken-shaped oatmeal pudding which fooled no-one), inky-pinky (a beefy slurry), Aberdeen nips (haddock on toast), beef cecils (meatballs), singing hinnies (currant cakes) and wet nelly (suet-based bread and spice pud).
  • The oldest recipes in the world are written on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, translated by Jean Bottero in his book The Oldest Cuisine in the World. The recipes are problematic in practical terms as many key ingredients are unidentifiable.
  • There’s a Roman cookery book called Apicius, compiled in the late 4th/5th Century AD. It’s pretty good. It’s got recipes such as rose hips and calf’s brains custard’, but it’s not entirely clear whether ‘Apicius’ is the name of the book or a bloke.
  • Forme of Cury is a 14th century English cookbook, written by the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II. There’s a full free downloadable translation here.
  • Petits Propos Culinaire (generally known as PPC) is a glorious thrice-yearly repository of wonderful arcana about food. It’s academic yet fascinating. It’s probably illegal to read it unless you’re a dweeby food writer like me, though. They might let you in if you ask nicely.

My favourite ye olde recipe is Buckinghamshire bacon badger. There is, sadly, no badger in a 'Badger' (only bacon), though if you’ve got one in the fridge, I’d slip it in anyway. Here's my recipe with a few pictures.

Buckinghamshire bacon badger

Feeds 4
200g/7oz self-raising flour
ground black pepper
90g/3¼oz shredded beef suet
cold water
400g/14oz back bacon rashers
150g/5½oz chopped onions
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1 tsp chopped fresh parsley
100g/3½oz diced potatoes

First, make your suet pastry: sift the flour into a mixing bowl and grind in some black pepper, then add the suet and mix together using a knife. Add cold water, drip by drip, mixing all the time to make a nice, gluey dough. Now use your hands to work it, binding it together into a smooth elastic dough.

Lightly flour a surface and roll the pastry out into a long, even rectangle about 25cm/10in wide, and as long as you can manage without the pastry getting too thin.

Leaving 2.5cm/1in clear all around the pastry, spread the bacon rashers over it and cover this with the onions, sage and parsley. Season with pepper (no salt) and spread the diced potato slices along the middle.

Buckinghamshire bacon badger: unwrapped

Roll the whole thing up, sealing the edges by pressing them together.

Buckinghamshire bacon badger: rolled up

Wrap this tightly in muslin or a clean tea towel to keep its shape and boil gently in a large pan of water for three hours.

Buckinghamshire bacon badger: in tea towel

Unwrap it and carve into large slabs. Serve with a salad and English mustard.

Buckinghamshire bacon badger: ready to serve

Have you tried your hand at any of the ‘ye olde’ recipes mentioned above? Or do you know of any other old recipes worth sharing?

Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have a very old, around 100 years old, Household Encyclopedia which is full of great recipies for everyday 'standards' - sauces, biscuits, cold cuts etc. Basically how to get the most out of everything. It's an art that's lost in today's cooking. I have made many a dinner party go off with a bang with these recipes, but I have problems with some of the quantities sometimes. I'm busy translating the book into grams for my kids. Some of the recipes are absolutley perfect for using up garden glut and making things go further. It's nice to 'rediscover' something, feels a bit like you discovered it all by yourself. I'm off to make a fruity, honey, oaty-bakey slice from this book now.

  • Comment number 2.

    There is of course 'kitab al tabikh' an Arabic cookbook from the court of Baghdad, translated by Charles Perry. If you thought that Arabic cooking was all about Hommos and Tabboule, think no more! Sikbaj, meat cooked in vinegar is a precursor to Escabeche. Maxime Rodinson also argues that Rummaniya cooked with pomegranate molasses had been translated into Rommania a 15th c Italian dish also with pomegranate juice. Food knows no borders.

  • Comment number 3.

    Syllabub is an old recipe I think - at least from the 17th century. This is one of my favourite puddings and so easy. I sometimes use orange liqueur and orange zest instead of sweet wine and lemon zest. Delicious!

  • Comment number 4.

    This is a bacon pudding recipe, which is still made & greatly enjoyed by my family
    now in Canada,but as far as i know was originally made by my Grandmother who
    lived in Hampshire. Suet mmmm good.

  • Comment number 5.

    I remember my Gran's suet puds+pastry,she always used her hand as a measure+it always turned out beautifully.I used the Atora cookbook,being less confident.Now living in the south west of France,suet is difficult to find(berk!on ne mange pas ca!).Still there is always goose fat.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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