The Cookbook Library goes where no cookbook has gone before – the distant past
Nearly everyone has a treasured recipe from a grandmother or great-grandmother that tells you something of her tastes, the trends of her times, the ingredients available to her and the kitchen utensils she may have had on hand.
Anne Willan has taken that idea to a delectable extreme. In The Cookbook Library, (University of California Press), she tells a sprawling true story of kitchens, cooks, recipes, and changing tastes over an expanse of some 400 years.
Beginning about the time of the first cookbooks, in the era of Christopher Columbus, up through the 1830s (think Charles Dickens), Willan brings to life a forgotten world of early books, jaw-dropping royal feasts, and the earliest roots of our own era of food and wine.
The first printed cookbooks were written by the cooks of royal and noble households largely for their peers. To the modern reader these seem only vaguely organized and almost code-like in terms of ingredients and measurements.
Kings and Their Spices
The oldest recipe in the book is one for the master cook to Richard II of England and dates to about 1390 A.D. It essentially tells the cook to mix small amounts of coriander and caraway seeds, pepper, salt and a little red wine to create a sauce in which to cook the pork.
Here’s how it actually reads:
“Take Colyandre, Caraway, smale gronden, Powdo of Pep, and ygronde i rede wyne, medle alle pise togyd, and salt it …”
It goes on from there with instructions for meat preparation. For those with a sense of foodie adventure Willan has translated this and many others into recipes that can be conquered in the modern kitchen.
“We tried very hard to make the recipes feasible and often had to guess at the proportions,” says Willan. “Some of the spices, such as grains of paradise, aren’t widely available but can be found on the Internet.”
Not all of the recipes she tackled were a hit.
“Some of the Medieval recipes proved unpalatable and looked dreadful, using very odd combinations of ingredients and spices,” says Willan.
Dinner as Theater
European nobles had a taste for the unusual, looking for dishes that not only offered succulent flavors and aromas, but delivered a sense of whimsy and even trickery. A favorite was “cockentrice” essentially creating a fantastical beast by sewing together – and then roasting – the front half of a chicken and the back half of a young pig.
In this spirit the book includes a recipe for “Salmon in Disguise” from the late 15th century in which a large fish is sectioned and with a theatrical flourish is prepared in three different ways.
With time the entertainment value was notched up. At one banquet, a massive pie was brought in holding an orchestra of 12 musicians. At feasts for Elizabeth I of England a jester would leap over the heads of the seated guests and plunge into a large custard pie, showering those closest, to the noisy delight of others farther off.
The book charts the trends in cooking, such as when in the late medieval age the arrival of costly spices from Asia and Africa triggered a spice mania. Willan writes:
“… recipes abound for explosive mixtures such as lamprey [eel] in hot sauce spiced with ginger, cinnamon, clove, grains of paradise and nutmeg, all bound with blood and bread crumbs soaked in wine and vinegar.”
With time, however, as these spices became more widely available, and the price came down, these fell out of favor in noble households. The prestige factor was gone. Yet while the obsession for spices fell off, ingredients from the New World took hold in the kitchens of wealthy homes, things such as turkeys, pineapples, corn and chili.
Many ingredients that were popular in the medieval period and the Renaissance have fallen out of favor. These include eel, porpoise, swan and the poor bustard ― a turkey-like bird that was eaten nearly into extinction.
Aged Wine from Ages Past
Likewise wines that once enjoyed enormous popularity have fallen into obscurity. One that Willan has personally learned to love is a wine called “ypracras,” which was used in cooking, considered a remedy for illness, and simply enjoyed for its spicy, warming
flavors and aromas.
The recipe calls for a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, ground mace, ground cloves, grains of paradise and a red wine (Willan suggests a fruity Merlot).
“It’s like the world’s best mulled wine,” says Willan. “It’s become part of my life.”
The idea for The Cookbook Library came after years of she and her husband, Mark Cheniavsky, collecting antiquarian cookbooks – she owns more than 3,000. Prior to writing some 30 cookbooks of her own Willan earned an M.A. in economics from Cambridge University in the late 1950s and went on to study and to teach at the Cordon Bleu in London and then in Paris. She is a former Food Editor at The Washington Post.