What's the best ye olde recipe?
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
200g/7oz self-raising flour
ground black pepper
90g/3¼oz shredded beef suet
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.
Roll the whole thing up, sealing the edges by pressing them together.
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.
Unwrap it and carve into large slabs. Serve with a salad and English mustard.
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.