This is the first post in a new miniseries on historical cooking, in which we will be recreating dishes from a 17th century recipe book.
Which archive assistant doesn’t enjoy receiving mysterious packages of historical material? This slim volume (now catalogued as ms38990) appeared without ceremony in the post, bringing with it the promise of the renaissance delights of ‘muddled eggs’ and ‘needle cake’ but very little additional information. With no cover, no title and no signs of ownership – not even the sticky fingerprints, spoon marks, drips and singed areas that are the hallmarks of a frequently used cook-book – there was nothing left to do but dive right in.The initial plan to go through the entire volume briefly and jot down the title of each recipe was quickly stymied by a complete inability to pick out word other than ‘und’ – the transcription equivalent of the German saying, ‘Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof’ [I can only understand ‘train station’]. In other words, despite having worked previously with modern German palaeography and various middle high German book-hands dating from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, an immediate reading of the neat, cramped script of recipes remained frustratingly elusive.
Thus began the long process of creating a transcription and translation of the text. Transcription is not an exact science, and each hand and scribe has their own quirks, so things moved very slowly at first whilst I tried to familiarise my eyes with the strange forms and unfamiliar language of the recipes. Yet one of the most rewarding aspects of approaching a new transcription is the way solving each small riddle becomes a further piece in the key to opening up the whole text. In the riddle of the mysterious case of the beaten eggs, these keys were identifying the words ‘anken’ as butter, ‘nideln’ as cream (also solving the conundrum of the uncomfortable-sounding ‘needle-cake’), and after many hours of frustrated staring, being able to lift the term ‘undereinanderen’, meaning together, from a sea of minims. Such seemingly minor victories are a staple of the transcription process, facilitating the assembly of an alphabet of letter forms as they appeared in the recipe book which could be used to unlock the rest of the text.
The book contains approximately 121 recipes, ranging from the very basic, offering advice on how to cook peas or make an omelette, through to making sausages, smoking meat, and the appropriate way to pluck various kinds of bird. Its recipes run the full gamut of the social calendar providing both thrifty suggestions for making a fasting soup using ‘whatever greenery you may find’ and plenty of ways to make use of stale bread, to offering serving suggestions for special occasions.
A particular delight is the somewhat unappealing idea of saving the severed feet of your game birds to brown off in the pan, and use these to decorate the platter of an otherwise delicious sounding dish of small game birds braised in butter, spices and wine. A surprise came in the form of the use of paper to protect parts of roasting animals to form a cartouche, techniques still familiar today within classical French cooking. Recipes are heavily scented with familiar spices and flavouring, such as rosewater, cloves, ginger or aniseed, yet pop up in unfamiliar places – anyone for clove-spiced eggs or fish fried in aniseed?
A cookbook seems like an intimate text, in the sense that it appears to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a household, its kitchen; a potential doorway into the hum-drum everyday of cooking and eating. Yet, as mentioned previously, the pages of this example are nearly pristine, and whilst plentiful pinches of herbs and spices appear within the recipes, no amount of (very careful) sniffing could reveal any lingering scents within the book itself.
In fact, the text seems to offer tantalisingly few clues as to its past and possible previous owners. It seems to have been written in one main careful hand, making the occasional neatly crossed-through error, and stumbling over the perhaps unfamiliar words of French origin which crop up in a few places, such as ‘champinnon’ or ‘a la dobe’.
A larger number of errors occur at the end of the text, suggesting that it was perhaps written as a whole, or even copied, rather than collected in individual recipes. Just a few pages in the centre of the book are written in a second, more exuberant hand. This short section is possibly even written in a different dialect (or earlier), for example changing the form of white from ‘weiß’ to ‘vis’. Other than that the text is written in German, with the occasional French interloper, the references to geographical location are almost non-existent, with a single reference to ‘Italian’ chicken, and a ‘Hugenot’ sauce.
However, as each new recipe was haltingly revealed, letter by letter and word by word, the cookbook began to hint at its personality. The results of searches for unfamiliar terms came back time and again indicating these words were southern German or Swiss dialect, for instance Holderbeere for elderberries or nägeli for cloves.
In addition, the discovery that ‘Balchen’ is a type of salmon fish found prevalently in Swiss lakes, and that the odd sounding ‘kräglü mäglü’ is a type of regional sausage made in Switzerland add to the sense that this is probably a southern German or Swiss cookbook. And, despite total lack of chocolate, and almost total lack of cheese, these recipes present what is hopefully a delicious opportunity to try and eat a little piece of history – stay tuned over the next few weeks for experiments in historical cooking.
Special Collections Volunteer