This is an article I wrote a few years ago for a magazine called Renaissance. They ended up reducing it to about half the length and having me cut out a lot of the terminology. Anyhow, here is the original:
How to Bake a Cockatrice, and Other Gastronomic Oddities
A Window on Renaissance Dining
Have you ever been struck with a sudden urge for a dish of quails farced with figs, or desired nothing so much as a plate of cockscombs on lettuce? Maybe not, but for a decadent of the Italian Renaissance, such dishes were the standard fare. In imitation of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, who ate such extravagant things as peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx or beans with amber, the Renaissance nobles were true gourmands.
Classes however were drastically divided. While the rich were living in sumptuous conditions, unheard of today, the common people generally suffered a great deal. Throughout the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries alone there was on average a famine in Europe every eight years.
The poorer people ate, for the most part, things such as corn mush, coarse bread, stock fish and salt pork. Those of a somewhat higher standing ate beef, white bread, wine, and cheese.
For the nobles and their circles, meal time was an altogether different matter.
The Italians led Europe in virtually all things; in the art of cooking no less than that of painting, dress and conversation. While England and France were still using their hands to eat with, the Italians had developed the novelty of the fork. The Englishman Thomas Coryate, upon visiting Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century, commented that he had never in all his travels seen such a wondrous way of eating, and forthwith brought the custom back to England for the enrichment of his own civilisation. Catherine Medici had brought forks with her to France nearly seventy years earlier, but their use apparently never caught on. It is interesting to note that she is also considered responsible for first bringing liqueurs to France, an invention which caught on very well.
In Italy, those of especially high rank were sure to have a nervous venom taster near at hand, nibbling at each dish and desperately hoping that he would not successfully swallow a poisoned one. Agate cups were used to drink from, because it was thought that poison would become non-toxic in such a vessel.
There were numerous myths concerning food: Salad was considered efficacious for whitening the skin, and meat for making the muscles flexible. To overcome the fear of water, you ate the partially digested small fish found in the belly of a larger. To have strong legs you ate mountain goat. A jelly of quinces prevented ‘vapours.’
A typical meal of a well to do Italian of the fifteenth century might have consisted of the following: A broth of beef and barley, roasted venison or pig, minced chicken livers in paste balls, batter fried goose breasts, and leeks parboiled and fried in oil. For dessert there would be candied prickly pears and coriander seeds steeped in marjoram vinegar and crusted with sugar.
Dessert in general has always been something that the Italians excelled at. The secrets of sherbet had been handed down from the Emperor Nero, and greatly improved by the syrups brought to Venice by Arab traders. At a pageant, the nobility liked nothing so much as a hard candy called Manis Christi, or hand of Christ, which was made of sugar, rose water and gold leaf. The ingredients were mixed together and then cast in moulds, in the shapes of flowers, birds or little beasts, medallions or ornaments, producing a candy that looked much like valuable jewellery. Gold leaf was also used to decorate other deserts, such as cookies, lozenges and marzipan. It is interesting to note that gold and pearls were once thought of as a ‘restorative’ and not uncommonly added to food and drink.
The diametric opposite of the Italians, were the Germans. In the south their eating habits were considered course. Course or not, one thing is certain: their stomachs were imperturbable. Looking over what they ate, we can only come to the conclusion that they were veritable superheroes of digestion. They ate eagles, nightingales, swallows, herons, starlings, ptarmigans and woodpeckers. Horses were common fare, as were aurochs, bears, marmots, seals, beavers, porcupines, hedgehogs and virtually any other living thing that was remotely edible.
The forests of Europe were at one time extremely rich with wildlife. It is little wonder that they no longer are.
England, like Germany, has never been known as a land dedicated to culinary excellence. When reading over books of old English recipes, one is struck with a certain hesitancy. The very names of the dishes might very well send shivers through a person with weak digestion. Boiled cony with pudding in his belly, sparrows stew, liverings of a swine – These are not the foods most of us want to have sitting on our dinner table.
Yet, it must be said, that the English food of long ago was probably not half bad, especially for those who liked piquant cooking. They used, with a free hand, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, saffron and numerous other spices. Ale and wine were used in the kitchen constantly. Toasted or stale bread was used as a thickener.
English chefs were heavily influenced by the French, and for that reason we can today trace many of our words for food preparation back to that language. When reading a cookbook from the thirteenth of fourteenth century, we find it full of strange French corruptions. We read of King Henry IV eating ‘Braun fryez‘ (fried pork) and ‘Egretez‘ (egret).
Sometimes the language is so terse as to leave one scratching one’s head. As an example of how obscure some of the old recipes could be, we only need to look at the following for Lampreys in Bruet, which was written by one of King Richard II’s master chefs. The recipe is set forth in its entirety:
They schulle be schaldyd and ysode and brulyd upon a greder and grynd peper and safron and do ther’to and boyle it and do the Lamprey there’yn and serve yt forth.
Of course, it must be remember that King Henry I died from eating ‘too plentifully of lampreys’, so the previous recipe, though undoubtedly tasty and surely adored by Richard, cannot in good conscious be recommended.
Some of what we come across in the cookbooks of is quite ambiguous, such as the following recipe for ‘apples of love,’ a fruit which I have been unable to place:
Take away the pilling, they cut them in slices boyle them in water, and after frie them in the flower of meale and butter or oyle and then cast upon them pepper and salt: this kind of meat is good for such men as are inclined to dallie with common dames, and short heeld huswiues.
The chefs of old had a certain cool brevity to their methods. There was no preheating the oven to 350 degrees. No bothering with weights and measures. No pinches of this or teaspoons of that. Occasionally they might refer to an ana or an ‘assay,’ an obscure measurement equal to 4 drams plus 24 grains (if you know what those are). Generally however it seems they measured their ingredients more by intuition than anything else.
Though they lacked our modern precision, there is no reason to think that they suffered thereby. Samuel Pepys, in his diary entry for the 26th of January 1660, says his wife prepared a very fine dinner of “a dish of marrow bones, a leg of mutton, a loin of veal, a dish of fowl, three pullets, two dozen larks all in a dish, a neat’s tongue, a dish of anchovies, a dish of prawns and cheese.” To drink he mentions liking, amongst other things, ‘sack-posset,’ which consists of hot sweetened milk, spiced and then curdled with a strong Spanish wine.
Aside from imported wines, ale and mead were drunk in abundance, it even being the custom of the men to have a ‘morning draft’ before work. The ales were often seasoned with such things as marjoram, thyme, rosemary, mint, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. Hippocras was another popular beverage and consisted of wine heavily dosed with sugar and spices. Caudell was wine mixed with eggs and, for children and teetotallers, there was furmenty, a drink which I believe is the ancestor of our present day egg nog. It was made by boiling together milk, sugar and eggs, and sometimes adding raisins or, for those in need of extra protein, venison.
When it came to feasting, no one could outdo the nobility, particularly for oddness and extravagance. Queen Elizabeth I dined almost always alone, and never on less than twenty four dishes, though she would take but a taste from each. For the coronation of the Henry V’s wife Catherine, they ate porpoise and whale. It was a fish day. King Richard II, at the age of twelve, was entertained by the Bishop of Durham. He was served fourteen oxen lying in salt, two fresh oxen, six score sheep, twelve boars, fourteen calves, one hundred and forty pigs, three hundred marrowbones and six deer. For poultry, the good bishop did not stint. He produced fifty swans, two hundred and ten geese, fifty eight dozen capons, sixty dozen hens. Additionally, there were four pheasants, five bitterns, two hundred conies, six kids, seventeen dozen pullets, one hundred dozen pigeons, twelve dozen partridges, eight dozen rabbits, ten dozen curlews, twelve dozen brewes, twelve cranes, six dozen gallons of milk, twelve gallons of crème, eleven gallons of curds, three bushels of apples and six thousand eggs.
The French were even more extravagant. At one royal banquet we read a menu more or less like the one mentioned above, with the addition of numerous varieties of fish and cheese and three thousand two hundred litres of wine. Kings and nobles drained their treasuries in feasting, spending millions and competing with each other in gluttony.
At the great banquets, there would be fountains spurting rose water and lawns adorned with rabbits, deer and birds all moulded from minced meat. Subtleties, or sculptures made of sugar, paste and sometimes jelly, were extremely popular and often reached epic proportions. There were hunting scenes, fully armed ships, and even grand castles. Extravagant recipes were imported from Italy to France, where the great lords would make wealthy any man with skill enough to properly prepare them.
The royal chefs were considered to be almost magicians, and some of the extents they would go to to impress their lords are almost disturbing. Peacocks would be cautiously killed and stripped of their skins, then cooked and reclothed so that they would appear to be alive. Camphor soaked in aquavita was then cast in their mouths and set alight, so the poor creatures breathed fire.
The alchemy of food preparation was taken incredibly seriously and extravagance was always applauded. A ‘rainbow of roast chickens’ was made by dying each one a different colour. For white egg yolks and flour, for yellow egg yolk and saffron, for green parsley pressed through a cloth with egg. Cockatrice was made by cooking the front part of a capon and the back part of a small pig and sewing them together. A fish could be cooked three ways: The tail fried, the middle steamed, and the head roasted. Each part was then dressed with a different coloured sauce, in a manner similar to that of the chickens just mentioned.
The most awful recipe was certainly that enjoyed by the King of Arragon: A goose roasted alive and served not dead. I refrain from describing the recipe.
For the unwelcome guest, there was a recipe so that ‘flesh may look bloody and full of worms, and so be rejected.’ Rabbit’s blood was dried and cast on the meat, to make it look uncooked. Then ‘cut harp strings small, and strew them on the hot flesh, the heat will twist them, and they will move like worms.’
So, do you feel adventurous? Would you like to sink your teeth into a well garnished taste of the past? Well, for those spirited individuals who are handy in the kitchen, I have composed the following short and relatively simple Renaissance menu, along with recipes:
The First Course
The Second Course
Whyte Mortrewys of Porke
The Third Course
Peris in Syrippe
chicken gizzards, livers etc. (heads and feet optional)
bread (dark bread is best, preferably toasted)
Take faire garbage, chickens heads, feet, livers, gizzards and wash them clean. Caste them into a faire pot of fresh broth of beef. Add powder of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, parsley and sage minced small. Then take bread, steep it in the same broth and then draw the broth through a strainer. Let this broth boil now. Cast therein powdered ginger, lemon juice, salt, and a little saffron, and serve it forth.
Whyte Mortrewys of Porke
oil or lard
Take lean pork and boil it. Remove it when done. Blanche almonds and grind them and mix them up with the broth of the pork and stir in flower of rice and let boil together. Grind the pork small now and mix in minced almonds fried in fresh grease. Then lay this up all flat in a dish. Throw thereto now sugar and salt. Pour on the dressing (the broth) and then strew thereon powdered ginger and almonds.
bread (toasted or dried)
Take faire cabbages and cut them, and wash them clean. Parboil them in faire water, and then press them on a faire board. Chop them, and caste them in a faire pot with good fresh broth, and with marrowbones, and let it boil. Then grate faire bread and caste thereto, and caste thereto saffron and salt. And when thou servest it, knock the marrow out of the bones, and lay two or three gobbets of the marrow in each dish, as seemeth best, and serve it forth.
Peris in Syrippe
Take pears and cast them in a faire pot of water. Boil them till they be tender and then take them up and pare them in two or in three. Then take powder of cinnamon, a good quantity, and cast it in good red wine, and cast sugar thereto, and put it in an earthen pot and let it boil. Then cast the pears thereto, and let them boil together awhile. Take powder of ginger, and a little saffron to colour it with.