I’ve been leisurely flipping through a book called Seven Centuries of English Cooking: A Collection of Recipes by Maxime de la Falaise over the past few weeks as part of some casual research for a dinner party. The book reviews and reinterprets a variety of old English historical records about food preparation and recipes and updates them for the modern kitchen. It’s a fun and easy read chock full of delicious historical glimpses into the evolving habits and traditions of England, much influenced by trade and cultural fads*.
One neat example from the book describes medieval kitchens of the wealthy putting much care into making food as bright and flashy looking as possible, like glazing pies and baked goods with saffron and other bright seasonings for maximum visual impact. This makes me think of Stirling Castle in Stirling, Scotland which Mike and I visited last May. One of the oldest parts of the castle was the medieval structure (mainly a dining hall) that has recently been painted a pale yellow (limewashed) as it was in the medieval era. Originally this done to make the building appear to gleam like gold in the sun in a blatant display of wealth and status.
Apparently the locals in Stirling weren’t so into this historical update, but I think it’s pretty rad. I like being shaken out of my own tendency to imagine history through a nostalgic, soft focus lens. So medieval England liked colourful everything, better to fight back the rainy day gloom, I suppose.
One of the neat features of Stirling Castle were the medieval kitchens which had been excavated in the 20s and more recently done up with models and the like (see below) to illustrate medieval kitchen life. The kitchens were quite extensive, having to feed a huge staff of people as well as serve up elaborate feasts for the nobles.
Back to the book! One fun and over-the-top recipe that Mrs. de la Falaise reinterprets is the Robert May’s Bride’s Pie from his 1660 cookbook Accomplish’t Cook. The pie itself is actually several pies within one large pie (think a pastry version of turducken) and was served at special feasts like weddings, hence the name. Once of the interior pies was even reserved for live birds or snakes to burst forth from in order to further entertain the banquet guests. To review the original recipe in full, do check out this page on The Old Foodie. Here is an excerpt pertaining to the inclusion of live animals:
(…)if you set them several you may bake the middle one of flour, it being baked and cold, take out the flour in the bottom, and put in live birds, or a snake, which will seem strange to the beholders, which cut up the Pie at the table. This is onely for a Wedding to pass away time.
Maybe they should try this at the royal wedding later in the month, non? If you’re interested in giving Mrs. de la Falaise’s interpretation a go, I’ve scanned the recipe pages for you below. She suggests accessing a baker’s oven to accommodate the recipe’s baking requirements! I may come up with a much more scaled down version of the Bride’s Pie in my humble apartment-sized oven, and if I do, I’ll surely share the results here**.
* That whole sentence sounded very much like copy, I know.
** Those who know me, know that I usually hate pie, but I must point out that savoury pies are usually an exception to this rule.