Friday, October 16, 2009

The Quiz - Question 1

On Monday I posted a 6 question quiz about medieval cooking. I had tried to phrase the questions so that there would be many possible answers that could be considered to be correct depending on viewpoint. Here are my thoughts on the first question.

1. What process would you use for converting a modern recipe into a medieval one?

One answer to this is to replace all ingredients not available in medieval Europe with similar ingredients that were available, and for an extra measure you could replace any modern cooking methods or equipment with medieval ones that achieve similar results. The problem is that this doesn't get you a medieval recipe. It gets you a variation of a modern recipe.

The classic example of this is the cheeseburger. In medieval Europe they had almost all the ingredients and equipment necessary to make a cheeseburger. They didn't have tomatoes or ketchup, but they did have mustard and even had what they needed to make mayonnaise. The problem is that they didn't make sandwiches, they don't seem to have served raw vegetables (lettuce, onion, pickles) with meats, and they didn't make mayonnaise.

So even if you grind the beef in a mortar, cook it on a grill over an open fire, put it on a home-made bun, top it with home made cheese and heirloom lettuce and onion slices and pickles, and use camaline sauce instead of ketchup, what you end up with is still a cheeseburger. It may be a very nice cheeseburger, but it's still not even remotely medieval.

In short, you can't convert a modern recipe into a medieval one. Imagine trying to convert a Mexican dish into a Thai one. The best you can hope for is something cooked in a Thai style.

Take a typical recipe for burritos, replace the cumin and garlic with ginger and lemongrass, serve it with soy sauce instead of salsa, and you've got a Thai-style burrito (beef or chicken - I don't think it'd work with a bean burrito). Is it a real Thai recipe? No, not really.

Of course your goal may not be to make a medieval dish. You might be trying to avoid new-world ingredients, or experiment with new flavors. But then it wouldn't be a question of converting a modern dish into a medieval one. It'd be more one of incorporating aspects of medieval cuisine into a modern recipe.

So if you want to make a medieval recipe, then start with a medieval recipe. If you want to be creative in the kitchen and create a new recipe, go right ahead. You can even combine the two - but the results aren't necessarily medieval cuisine.


kuechenmeyster said...

Hi Doc,

In most points you are right. But
there is another way of "transscribing" modern recipes.
Take some of the traditional recipes still used in Europe and change the Ingredients that had been added and changed over the last centurys.

For example:

Risotto Milanese (13th century?)
Makkaroni (before 14th century)
different kinds of Ravioli (at least since 14th century)
predecessor of Pizza (14th century??. I have not found a recipe jet.)

Alsatian onion tarte
some kinds of sausages
onion soup

Arme Ritter (lost knights: roasted slices of white bread covered with egg yolk and fried in a pan; at least since 14th century)
different kinds of fritters and doughnuts
kinds of gingerbread
grilled sausages of Thuringia or Nürnberg

Great Britain:
different kinds of pies and pastrys

To the list of still used but more or less changed medieval recipes could be added some more. That's just, what came to my mind first. Italy, France, Germany, GB are the countries I know most about, but in other european countries there should be some traditional recipes more descending from the middle ages.
But before changing some european recipe you have to do lots of researching to be sure it has a medieval heart.



Wacky Hermit said...

I wasn't entirely sure what you meant by converting a modern recipe into a medieval one, so I'm glad you clarified. Truth be told, on first reading I thought you'd reversed that by mistake and meant converting a medieval recipe into a modern one.

I've thought that it would be cool to take a dish with medieval ancestry and sort of reconstruct its medieval form. Example: the Portuguese have a dish called vinha d'alhos, whose modern form is chicken or pork marinated in red wine, vinegar, garlic, and bay and then grilled or occasionally boiled in its marinade. We know the dish dates back to at least the Renaissance because it was brought to India by Portuguese explorers where it evolved into vindaloo. It'd be cool to reconstruct a sort of proto-vinha-d'alhos that was the original medieval dish, and to see what its relation is to the Filpino dish chicken adobo, which is chicken marinated and boiled in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and bay. Perhaps there's an Iberian proto-dish that the Spanish brought to the Philippines.

Do you think dishes can be traced back through time, like languages can? I would imagine the spread of foods and cooking techniques would be very similar to the spread of languages.

kuechenmeyster said...

For reconstructing the origin and original form of a recipe you have to consider the following basics:

1. You need as many recorded versions of the recipe as possible covering some hundred years. So you can observe the way the dish “travelled” and the changes made in different countries and through time. You can’t say “oh, this modern dish looks like this ancient, they must be related” if you have just one old and one new one. Sometimes some inventions are made more then ones – in different times or in different countries – but have never been connected.

2. You have to find not only the most ancient recorded example or description of a dish but also the oldest recipe. Everything that lies before this date is pure speculation.

3. You have to look for similar names and their corruptions. But not always recipes with the same name belong to a similar dish. On the other hand recipes with very different names can be more related than thought. So you have to compare the ingredients and the way of making to be sure.

4. If an historic dish has a name mentioning its origin, you seldom can trust on that. Often they were called “bohemisch”, “welsch”, “almande”, “heathen” … just to make them more exotic and exclusive. Their legendary origin from a far away country should arise imaginations of exotic, adventure,… among the eaters. Or it was part of a theme chosen for the event or a special part of a dinner.

5. Linguistic can give you some clues to, as you mentioned yourself. “Vindaloo” has, as much as I am informed, no roots in the Indian language. So there are three possibilities if you have dishes named with words not common for a language:

It is a created nonsense word, making the dish more exotic.

It is a foreign word, showing influence of another Language or the origin of a dish in another country.

It is named after a person of an unusual name – maybe the creator of it or some person of honour, an important guest, the reigning king/queen, an ancient legendary heroic …

But always remember the points 3. and 4. above.

I’m sorry, but I’m not a native speaker, so sometimes it is hard for me expressing my thoughts correctly in English. But I hope you got the idea.

Greetings, Andreas

Doc said...

A lot of good thoughts here.

Of course one can use modern recipes as a pointer to medieval equivalents, but my point (or at least one of them) is that the modern recipe is not necessarily like its medieval counterpart, and the only way to know for sure is to thoroughly investigate the medieval one.

Further, knowing the modern variant can lead one to make assumptions about the medieval version that are incorrect. A trivial example of this kind of thing is when I first tried making snowe. I followed my natural inclinations and beat the cream and egg whites separately, and then folded them together. However, when I followed the medieval recipe as written (put the egg whites and cream together and then beat them) the result was slightly different in texture.

Using linguistic clues is also helpful, but can be similarly misleading. Note how different the medieval dish called "blanc manger" is from the modern dessert "blancmanger". They're undoubtedly related, but knowing how to make the modern one doesn't help much in making the medieval one. Similarly, compare modern and medieval forms of "gingerbread".

kuechenmeyster said...

Yes you are absolutly right. If you want to trace a recipe, you have to be very careful. As I tried to say, you have to find as many steps between your modern and the oldest version as possible and look carefully at the recipes. The oldest version should always be your basis. In searching your recorded sources you often have to go backwards from modern to old, but the interpretation of the results should be carefully made. The question being:"How far can I trace an old recipe towards presens?" and not "How far can I trace a modern back?"

But there are some recipes that are still unchanged or at least very little changed. Risotto Milanese or Elisen-Lebkuchen (form of gingerbread from southern Germany) are such examples.

Tracing recipes is a lot of hard research work. Especially if you want to find some pattern of their spreading through time and space.
The steps I mentioned are much more complex as they seem.
The biggest problem in the process is, as you experienced yourself, to forget all your knowledge about modern cookery and to try thinking about how "they" would have done it in the past.

I am always astonished how far back the roots of some still used traditionel european, south-american, asian, arabic,... recipes can go, even if many are extremly changed.

David Woods said...

I came across this blog while researching information on medieval cooking.

For the question, one could argue that yes you can make Modern into Medieval while the other side can argue that no you can't make Modern to Medieval.

Using your example of a cheeseburger, one could look at the definition of it and that is a sandwich consisting of a bun, a cooked beef patty, and often other ingredients such as cheese, onion slices, lettuce, or condiments. (

So could that be done in a Medieval format? Yes and you all ready proved it. But is it Medieval? No. With no historical documentation, then we can't prove it was done in that time period.

Ahhh, but what if I give you a dish that was being made in the Middle Ages and is still being done today, could we do that?

As chance would have it, for my current baking class, I had to research... blancmange. And as part of that research, I had to find a modern menu that utilized this dish, which I did ( and what I have is...

Pistachio Blanc Mange:
A pistachio-infused pudding garnished with crème Anglaise and
pistachio biscuit joconde
Now, I may not have the recipe for today's standards, but could I make this for a Medieval Feast? There are a number of blancmange recipes in several Medieval cookbooks, so it would not be too much of a stretch to have done this.

I'm sure I could keep throwing additional dishes from menus of today and it would be a hard presses issue, but still, I don't know if you can actually call it Medieval. More of NeoMedieval if you will. It's close, but we don't have an official word on it.

To add onto this question, it also depends on the cook. Let's say each of us decides to make the Medieval New York Cheesecake. We have the recipe for Sambocade so there should not be too much of a stretch with the manipulation of ingredients from Modern to Medieval. But using the Sambocade recipe, what type of crust are you making? Could you technically make a cookie crust using a period cookie recipe? What about a nut crust? What kind of cheese are you using? Ricotta? Cottage? Farmer's? Or something else? Proportions of ingredients? There are a lot of various ways to look at this.

Because I have been in the food business for a number of years, every chef, every cook, every sandwich artist has a different take on making something. Something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my version would actually be different from others, as theirs would be to me. It's how you want to enjoy that particular dish.

So I would say that there isn't a real solid way to bring it back from Modern to Medieval, but if you try it, your actually changing modern cooking.