For year-end gifts, I received some cookbooks. I am easy to buy for. Cookbooks are my ties or socks.
Two volumes, however, were very special gifts; their recipes date back to the Middle Ages. The friends who gave me the books know of my affection for ancient cookery. Not only do I enjoy teaching about and cooking from eras long past, I also learn how to cook better now because of those exercises.
For example, during the wintertime, I relish preparing cassoulet. This dish, which originated in southwestern France, may date back as far as 1350 A.D. But the secret to a good cassoulet — what we would call a casserole of meats, beans and vegetable flavorings — is layering its many tastes over a long cooking time.
On the one hand, I appreciate — and frequently use — my Instant Pot. On the other, taking three days to make a terrific cassoulet tethers me both to history and to important, evergreen lessons about cooking.
Little in the kitchen matches that mica-like stratifying of aromas, textures, and tastes that comes with long cooking of many ingredients in one pot — so primal a way with fire that it goes back to our times in caves.
Ancient recipes, and especially the manner in which they were eventually written down, teach much else.
For instance, the listing of measured ingredients in a recipe is a very modern phenomenon (via Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 “Book of Household Management” in 1861 and Fannie Farmer’s 1896 “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book”). Look at this beginning, by way of example, of today’s recipe in its original (c. 1430) old English: “Perys en Composte. Take Wyne an Canel, & a gret dele of Whyte Sugre, an set it on þe fyre & hete it hote, but let it nowt boyle … .”
It goes on with nary a “teaspoon” or an “ounce.” Letting go of the precision of measurement is not only scary, yes, but also liberating. When you can go without measurement, you know you’ve graduated to expert cooking: to sense, in your own stew pot, when a little of something needs adding, or to know, ahead of time, the amount of a medium necessary for boiling, or sautéing, and the like.
Old recipes teach other lessons about cooking. For example, when cooks in the Middle Ages wanted to add color to a food, they used “dyes” already available to them in other foods. For instance, saffron gave them yellow, or spinach or parsley leaves, green.
Finally, an important cooking lesson taught by older recipes is the ease of substitution. A modern person may panic when the precise ingredient isn’t in the pantry or even at the grocery.
Cooks of old(e) knew that sweetness comes by way of many elements (dried fruit, honey, boiled-down juice); salt via many a food already preserved or washed in it (anchovies, ham, cheese, sauerkraut and seaweed); and acidity, always in vinegar, of course, but also from sour grape juice and, later, citrus and the tomato.
That’s why, in today’s recipe, if you don’t want to poach the pear slices in red wine, you may easily and conveniently use tart cherry juice. If you prefer whole over sliced pears, that’s fine. If you want to use honey instead of sugar, go ahead. Or, if you’d rather apples than pears, have at it.
I suppose, in sum, that old recipes above all teach comfort in the kitchen. For all of their intrigue and imprecision, their odd language and old-fashioned ways, old recipes are little stories that liberate.
Pears in Compote
From the Harleian manuscripts 279, British Library, 1430 A.D.
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 cup sliced pitted dates
- 4-6 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced thin
- Pinch of salt
- Boil the pears until they are tender but not too soft; drain well.
- In a separate pan, heat together the wine, cinnamon and sugar. Remove from heat, strain the mixture in a fine-meshed sieve or with a coffee filter to remove the cinnamon, then return to the fire.
- When hot, add the dates, pears and salt.
- Bring to a boil, allow to cook together for several minutes, then remove from heat.
- Place pears and wine in a wooden dish and allow to cool slightly before serving.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com