Samui Wining & Dining
The Forme of Cury

Not a misprint and nothing to do with curry! A look behind the oldest recipe book
written in the English language.

 

15If I was writing this article 600 years ago then every page would have taken forever. Firstly, I’d probably be using a mix of soot and glue for ink and running out to catch another goose ever half hour or so to collect quills (there’s a limit to how much you can sharpen them). The trick here is to pluck your goose, and stick a bunch of the feathers in hot sand before you use them, thus making them harder and less likely to split.

 

Then there’s the parchment. Although the Chinese and the Arabs knew how to make paper from about 800 AD, it never really caught on (until the 1800s) as it took just as long to make as parchment but was far more fragile. Any old goat or cow will do for parchment, but they are a bit coarse-grained. If you’re the personal cook to a king, however, then you’ll certainly use the thin, durable and fine-surfaced skin of a calf to write on. It’s called ‘vellum’ and it’s expensive, but then you can afford it.

 

And that’s exactly what the un-named master chefs in the kitchens of King Richard II did somewhere back around the year 1390 AD. They put together a recipe book – the first-ever written in the English Language – of 196 different offerings. But it’s also quite certain that none of the cooks themselves actually wrote anything. In those days, it was rare for even the nobility to be able to read and write. This was the sole province of The Church and, for a venture of this kind, the Royal Court would have used a scribe who was almost certainly a monk.

 

And you have to look at the historical perspective here. Firstly, this was a really radical venture and good King Richard must have taken some persuading for the go-ahead. Why? Because there was no reason whatsoever to actually do it! It had never been done before because cooks simply … cooked. They knew how to cook, that was why they were cooks. They had been taught and trained to do it. Shown how, as none of them could actually read. So what was the point of writing a book about it?

 

The other curious thing is that, although sanctioned by the King and Court, this recipe book is as much about the food that the peasants ate as it is about courtly dishes. It’s certainly an amusing and informative insight as we look back on it today. But, again, why on earth would the royal cooks want to write about the sort of stuff that the commoners were eating?

 

It’s altogether a bit of a mystery – particularly if you bear in mind that recipe books didn’t begin to appear until the general population started to become literate, somewhere around the end of the 18th century. In fact, a character by the name of Samuel Pegg got hold of one of the original copies and, in 1791, made himself a lot of money by ‘reprinting’ it. But, nevertheless, for almost 300 years this was the only collection of recipes known to mankind.

 

And then there’s the really obscure language that it is written in. Anyone who has ever had to study the famous middle-English playwright, Geoffrey Chaucer, will know what I mean. And if you scratch your head over what William Shakespeare wrote, you’ll rip your hair out over this!

 

But to ease you into it gently, the title means ‘The Book of Food’. The Chaucerian English for ‘book’ was forme and cury meant ‘food’. That’s easy enough, although most of the recipes need some serious translating. Back in those days ‘pottage’ was the universal staple of everyone’s diet, from the rich to the poor. It was basically a stew. But, whereas the nobility threw in hunks of venison and peacock, the lower orders made do with onions, potatoes and herbs.

 

Thus the Forme of Cury advises that, “… any pottage should be made thoughtfully and with the best food available.” And that, “… this is true of all meat and table decorations both high and low.” (Although if you read the original text you might not quite understand this from, “… curiousley vaerious potages and meetes and sotiltees for alle maner of States bothe hye and lowe.”) It was OK for Chaucer, as this was how they all spoke at the time, but it’s not so easy for us today!

 

The word sotiltee (or ‘subtlety’) refers to the elaborate sculptures that adorned the tables at grand feasts. These displays (usually made of sugar, paste, jelly or wax) depicted ships, grand buildings or mythical beasts and were also known as ‘warners,’ as they were presented at the beginning of a banquet to notify the guests of the approaching dinner.

 

But let’s drop down a notch or two and see what the ordinary folks were eating. How about Pygg in Sawse Sawge – pig in sausage sauce? Or Blank Maunger (eventually coming to mean a white, wobbly dessert, here it was made with chopped meat, almonds, milk, rice, and sugar), maybe? And then there’s ‘Custarde’, and ‘Wortes’ and ‘Garbage’. Curious how language shifts, isn’t it! Six hundred years ago this last word meant ‘the entrails of an animal’, and I suppose that the essential meaning is not all that much different today.

 

Back then, they ate all sorts of strange things: whales, cranes, curlews, herons, seals and porpoises, to name but a few. But you’re in Thailand. And so I’m certain that you’ve already eaten oddities such as banana flowers, as they’re an integral part of every pad Thai. Plus there are the grubs, scorpions, beetles and locusts, all of which are consumed with relish (and lots of fish sauce too), at every temple fair!

 

Happily, I am able to write this with a keyboard attached to a computer and with not a quill in sight. And when you turn to the recipe page in this paper, you’ll probably feel like taking it home to use. Hopefully, when you do, you’ll remember times gone by. You may not have herons or grasshoppers on your Thai menu, but there are lots of other interesting things – but none as curious as you’ll find in ‘The Forme of Cury’.

 

Rob De Wet

 


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