Level of Authenticity: I made a tasty thing!
Who: My project is based on a recipe found in the manuscript Libro de arte coquinaria, compiled by one Maestro Martino, who cooked in Rome at the residence of the Patriarch of Aquileia. There are a good many more questions I could be asking myself here, like “who worked in the kitchen?”, “who was Maestro Martino and what kind of background did he come from?”, “who was the intended audience of the manuscript?”, “who were the intended or expected consumers of this dish?”, but my journey down the culinary rabbit hole has not yet led me this far and maybe never will.
What: The source I used for my recipe is “The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy”, by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi and translated by Edward Schneider (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998). These modern authors title this dish “Pumpkin or Winter Squash Soup” but in the translation of the original recipe, the header is given as “To cook squashes”. This leaves me with an interpretation question of whether it’s really meant to be a soup, or something with a texture more like modern day mashed potatoes, or something else. I may need several iterations of this dish before I’m fully convinced that I’m making what Maestro Martino intended me to make.
When: Redon et al. date Maestro Martino’s manuscript to the middle of the fifteenth century.
Where: As noted above, Maestro Martino was active in Rome.
Why: There are a lot of good, in-depth questions I could ask myself here, like “on what occasions was a dish like this served?” and “what sort of logic went into the choice of ingredients in this dish?” but again, my culinary journey has not yet gone this far. I do know that, like many other aspects of medieval life, cooking choices such as how to cook a particular dish, when to serve it, and to whom, were often informed by the Galenic theory of the four humours. This is probably the area of research I’m most interested in following up, as one of my ongoing interests is in the history of science.
For now though, what you need to know is that Montengarde’s Culinary Group chose as its theme for the month of October “Harvest Extravaganza and Apples, Apples Everywhere.” With this theme in mind, I went to my shelf of medieval cooking resources and started flipping through the books for the first harvest-type recipe I could find, which happened to be two different varieties of squash soup in “The Medieval Kitchen”. I think at this point I should mention that although in our current culture squashes are inextricably linked with autumn and the harvest (pumpkin spice lattes, anyone?) I actually don’t know if they had the same association to the medieval mind.
How: Recipes: I started with two different recipes. Both are provided in Redon et al., which gives both an English translation of the original text plus a modern redaction or interpretation of the text. If a source has been translated I like to try and look at the original language source, even if it’s in a language I don’t have a great mastery of, but that wasn’t possible here, so I had to rely on the translations provided.
The first recipe is from an edition of Le Viandier de Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent and reads “Squash. For squash, peel them and cut them into slices. Remove the seeds if there are any and cook them in water in a pan, then drain them and rinse in cold water; squeeze them and chop them finely; mix with some beef and other meat broth and add cow’s milk; and mix half a dozen egg yolks, put through a sieve, into the broth and milk; on fast days the cooking water from peas, or almond milk, and butter.”
The second recipe is from Maestro Martino, and reads “To cook squashes, peel them as they should be, and then cook them with meat broth or water; add a little onion according to the quantity you want to make. And when they seem cooked, take them out and put them through a sieve or pound them very well; and cook them in a pot with rich broth and a little verjuice. And they should be slightly yellow with saffron; and when they are cooked, remove them from the fire and leave them a while to cool. Then take egg yolks according to the quantity and beat them with a little aged cheese, and add them to the squash, stirring constantly with the spoon so that they do not stick; dress your bowls, and top with sweet spices.”
Materials: As I’ve mentioned before, my self-selected criteria for my dishes is that they must be gluten-free and free of animal products. Medieval “lenten” foods tend to also be free of meat and dairy products (though not necessarily free of fish products), so there are often existing recipes or suggestions that can be adapted. Here there were several substitutions to be made:
- squash – Redon et al. indicate that at the time of the two recipes I chose, winter squashes and pumpkins had not yet been introduced from the Americas into European cuisine and that therefore the “squash” called for in these recipes were probably gourds (lagenaria vulgaris). When I was shopping for ingredients I knew that winter squashes or pumpkins probably weren’t right but I hadn’t actually read this passage about the gourds yet. I used acorn squash because they were the only kinds of squash that were in stock at Superstore the day I went shopping for ingredients. I’m not sure where I might go looking for gourds in Calgary but I would probably start at Superstore, knowing that they carry a really wide variety of produce including many items that are unfamiliar to the modern western palate.
- almond milk – almond milk is a very characteristic medieval Lenten ingredient. Unfortunately I have had histamine reactions to tree nuts in the past so I try to avoid them. In contemporary society we have several additional non-dairy milk alternatives and for my modern cooking I like to use So Delicious’ coconut milk beverage line (not to be confused with the kind of South Asian coconut milk that comes in a can), but coconut is not at all a medieval Western European ingredient and although it’s not very strong tasting, I worried that it might be too strongly tasting of coconut to get a good medieval flavour. One of our other culinary group members is very sensitive to soy products, so I opted to try hemp milk. Like almond, soy, and dairy milks and unlike coconut milk, hemp milk is high in protein, which was otherwise missing from this dish. This was the first time I had used it and I thought it had quite a chalky, not very nice flavour, so I don’t think I would use it again. Instead, I might try making my own non-nut milk with sunflower seeds, which I very often use in place of tree nuts in modern cooking.
- verjuice – I have previously sourced verjuice in Calgary and if I am going to be doing much more medieval cooking I will want to see if I can find it again since it is quite a common medieval ingredient. This time, I relied on suggestions and research from Master Thorvald and Tomas de Courcy, who advised that the best substitute for verjuice in an Italian dish would be diluted lemon juice.
- eggs and cheese – because these perform different functions in a dish under different circumstances, they will be discussed below under “Processes”.
- meat broth – Tomas has also alerted me to the existence of a medieval formula for making vegetable broth, although I haven’t looked at it yet. I used to buy vegetable bouillon cubes, but since buying Mark Bittman’s excellent book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian I’ve switched to just making a quick veggie broth with water, vegetable offcuts, salt, a couple of bay leaves, and a handful of peppercorns. Normally when I am chopping and peeling veggies I just save all of the bits in a bag in the freezer so I can toss a handful in when I’m simmering my veggie stock. I didn’t do that this time, because I have lots of bits of kale in my freezer bag and one of the culinary group members is very sensitive to crucifers and I didn’t want to accidentally poison her. I did debate over how many, if any, peppercorns to use since they were a much more precious commodity in medieval Western Europe than they are today, but in the end I decided to use the same amount I normally use, which is about 3-6.
- sweet spices – my student Alice Percy gave me a really nice Powder Douce mix for Christmas last year. I’ve been using it all year, and not just in medieval recipes!
Tools: Like many contemporary cooks, I do my cooking on a modern electric range. When I’ve toured pre-modern kitchens, they’ve had different firepit shapes and constructions for different purposes. I’m not completely certain, but in the below two pictures I took in the kitchens of Hampton Court Palace (top) and Castello Estense (Ferrara, bottom), both dating from the Renaissance, my best guess is that the counters with spaces for fires underneath them are the pre-modern equivalent of stovetop burners. Interestingly, both of these kitchens as well as some of the other great palace kitchens I’ve seen are semi-subterranean, which I assume is some kind of a response to the amount of heat they must generate (especially in Italy and Turkey!). Some day, I would really love to try cooking using a wood fire heat source, but I’m not sure where I’d find the facilities to do such a thing and I’m pretty sure my condo association would frown on me building a great big medieval kitchen in my back yard.
Another very modern piece of technology I used was my trusty immersion blender. Even as recently as 1997 (…oh dear, that was almost 20 years ago, wasn’t it?) you had to laboriously transfer your soup out in batches to your blender and carefully blend so you didn’t send scalding hot liquid spraying everywhere. With an immersion blender you can just stick it right in your soup pot as it’s on the stove and blend away without even dirtying another dish. It’s simple and convenient and it makes a really nice even, creamy texture, but I have to admit that I’m curious about trying some of the methods described in medieval recipes for getting a cream soup texture. In the Le Viandier recipe, the method described for the cooked squash pieces is to “squeeze them and chop them finely”, which depending on your interpretation might result in a mashed/creamed texture, or maybe just a finely diced texture. In the Maestro Martino recipe, the technique is either to put the cooked squash pieces through a sieve or “pound them very well”, perhaps in a mortar and pestle. These are all techniques I would like to experiment with, although I’m gonna need a bigger mortar and pestle.
Processes: A process that seems very second nature to contemporary cooks of Western European cuisine is to first heat your pan with oil or butter, then saute any onions or garlic until aromatic or cooked, and then add the rest of your vegetables or meat. This process did not appear in either of the recipes I tried so I very carefully did not do it this way, even though it seemed strange the whole time not to be doing so. I’m not familiar enough with the whole corpus of medieval Western European recipes to know if this process shows up anywhere, but it is something I will be keeping my eye out for as I continue my journey.
First I tried the Le Viandier recipe. The non-Lenten version with its half dozen egg yolks and cow milk looks like it could be quite creamy and protein-rich, but Redon et al. chose to redact the Lenten version and I also chose to try this version. I didn’t measure anything precisely, I just added enough ingredients until it “looked right”. When it comes to cooking (as opposed to baking) I prefer a sort of intuitive method and I often prefer to read directly from the period description rather than the modern redaction – in other words, directions like “add a little onion according to the quantity you want to make” makes perfect sense to me. My Mom started having me help in the kitchen when I was a child, so I often find that my experience is a better guide than a carefully written out recipe. First I heated equal parts olive oil and Earth Balance (see my discussion of choices of vegan fats that are solid at room temperature under “Dairy-free substitutions” here) until they were both liquid, then I added some well-steamed squash and a quantity of hemp milk and pureed well with my immersion blender. This is a really simple dish without apparently any seasonings in it, so I hoped that the flavour of the squash would really shine, but unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the hemp milk had a really chalky taste that overpowered the dish.
I also wanted to try the Maestro Martino recipe, because it looked like it had a more complex flavour profile, and it also provided a more interesting challenge for my substitution skills. I had a really large quantity of squash pieces (two whole acorn squashes worth) so the quantity of onion I decided to use was one medium onion. I cut up the onion but didn’t dice it like I normally would, since it was going to get immersion blended later. I then steamed the squash pieces and onion together in a fair amount of water with bay leaves, salt, and peppercorns. Maestro Martino’s recipe then calls for draining the cooked squashes, pureeing them, and putting them into a new batch of “rich” broth (as opposed to the water or meat broth they were originally cooked in). I didn’t have the time or resources to make a new batch of broth, so once the squash pieces looked tender I immersion blended them in their own cooking water. As mentioned above, I used lemon juice in place of verjuice. I then proceeded to make the unforgiveable mistake of not tasting my own cooking before letting other people try it, because if I had I would have noticed that I still needed to add more lemon juice. Now came the trickiest part of the substitution process.
As I noted before, cheese and egg can behave in different ways in different recipes, so they should be substituted in different ways depending on what they are supposed to be doing. Here it looks like they are supposed to add thickening, protein, and flavour (aged cheese is specified). I spent a long time mulling over what ingredient or combination of ingredients I should use. Even when it’s melted into a dish, aged cheese can have a kind of grainy mouth feel, and as far as taste it has a bit of a tangy bite. Modern vegans often use a product called “nutritional yeast” as a sprinkle on their dishes where more omnivorous types might sprinkle parmesan cheese, but I wanted to avoid ingredients that others at culinary night might turn their noses up at as “weird”, and frankly, I don’t like nutritional yeast much myself. Other more complex vegan substitutes for parmesan I’ve found tend to use ingredients like lemon juice, garlic, black pepper, and soaked and blended nuts. Some of these additional ingredients were already in my dish, so I decided that a small quantity of soaked and blended sunflower seeds would be suitable for providing protein and texture. Here, because of the very small quantity I needed to blend, I decided to try pounding the soaked seeds in my mortar and pestle instead of using the immersion blender on them. It turned out to be kind of a messy process, but it produced a result that was not too unlike what I can get with an immersion blender, if slightly less uniform in texture. If I had small amounts of seeds to process, I would use a mortar and pestle again, although I might want a larger one; but if I had anything more than a couple of tablespoons I’d use the immersion blender simply because it’s faster and less messy.
The blended sunflower seeds added some thickness to the dish, but probably not as much as “a quantity” of egg yolks, so I decided to use another technique that I’ve been given to believe is post-period, making a roux. Normally you would mix some wheat flour into a little bit of liquid, then gradually add more liquid to avoid clumping, which is what my Grama Ward used to do when she was making gravy. Wheat flour was certainly available in period but I’m not sure this technique had yet been developed. Even if it had, wheat flour does not meet my self-imposed gluten-free criteria. Many gluten-free cooks will use corn starch as a substitute for wheat flour in gravy and sauce making, but a straight corn starch substitution yields a product that is noticeably different in colour and texture. Instead the mix that I’ve adopted using, likely from a Living Without recipe, is three parts cornstarch and one part millet flour. Here though I decided to use chickpea flour (higher in protein and also an ingredient familiar to the medieval kitchen) in place of millet flour in the substitution, to see if it would work. I’d need more experimentation before I was prepared to say that I think chickpea flour is a good substitute in a smaller quantity of a thicker sauce, but it seemed to give a good texture to the soup here.
I have two possible future directions to take the Le Viandier version of this recipe. On the one hand, if I want to keep with the nut milk theme, I could try making my own sunflower seed non-nut milk and using it in the recipe instead. On the other hand, I could try using the other Lenten suggestion, “cooking water from dried peas”. Interestingly, legume cooking water (now pretentiously called “aquafaba”) has quite recently (2014) been discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, to have cooking working properties similar to egg whites, although I haven’t really experimented with it myself yet. Given that there are egg yolks called for in the non-Lenten version of this dish, it’s tempting to wonder if maybe medieval cooks were already aware of some of the egg-like properties of legume cooking water, so this seems like an interesting avenue for further discovery. In both cases, I think I would try to stick closer to the original directions of squeezing and then finely chopping the squash pieces instead of blendering them, and I would also try to find the appropriate kinds of gourds instead of continuing to use New World squashes.
I was reasonably satisfied with the outcome of the Maestro Martino version, but I think it would be interesting to try one of the two medieval methods for pureeing suggested in the text. I would also like to try adding the second infusion of “rich broth”, and cooking with gourds instead of New World squashes.
If we are being honest here though, it probably will be a while if ever before I try these particular dishes again, because there are so many other interesting recipes to try out. Even if I never come back to these particular recipes, I think there are some overall learnings I can take away from this adventure. Although I’m not aiming for 100% accuracy because I’m interested in adapting medieval recipes for modern food sensitivities, I would say that I am interested in using ingredients that are as period as possible unless I intend to make a substitution for allergy or ethical reasons, and I am also interested in increasing the authenticity of my processes by relying on fewer modern tools.