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A Review of Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England
Three weeks after you volunteered to cook the feast for your group's next big event, the autocrat informs you that the theme is Anglo Saxon. After a brief and desperate search, you confirm what you already suspected; there are no surviving Anglo-Saxon cookbooks. You are faced with an all too common dilemma: What to do when asked to cook a feast from a cuisine for which few or no recipes survive. There are at least four possible answers:
Consider the first four recipes. After a page about bread baking, demonstrating that bread was indeed baked by Anglo-Saxons and others, the author then presents a recipe grandly titled "Ętena Hlaf (Oat Bread)." It is a conventional modern recipe for oatmeal bread, using rolled oats--a nineteenth century invention. It is followed by a modern recipe for rye bread. That is followed by a recipe for a cheese spread, apparently of the author's invention; I discuss below its claim to have some connection with a period medicinal recipe.
The fourth recipe is for honey butter. The author tells us that it "was a popular spread throughout the middle ages" but provides no documentation for that claim, presumably because none exists. While there is a mention of honey butter as a medicinal in Anthimus, diligent searching by SCA cooking enthusiasts has so far failed to produce any evidence that it was used as a spread in the middle ages, let alone that it was "a popular spread throughout the middle ages."
The author describes many of her recipes as to some degree derived from surviving medicinal recipes--which, unlike culinary recipes, survive from Anglo Saxon England in considerable numbers. The procedure has some inherent problems; it is hard to see how, even with the best of intentions, one can deduce the spicing of a sweet bread from the ingredients of a salve or the composition of meat stuffing from instructions for making a poultice--both of which she does.
A further problem is that she does not include, or even quote, the medicinal recipes she is working from. She does, however, cite her sources, and I was able to locate a copy of one of them. Comparing its contents with her recipes reinforced my long held belief that one ought never to rely on a recipe from a secondary source that is not accompanied by the primary source version. In a number of cases, her medicinal recipes not only are irrelevant, they do not say what she says they do, at least in the translation included in her cited source.
Consider the "medical recipe calling for dry bread and cheese to be boiled in rose water," on which she bases her cheese spread. The relevant passage reads: "At whiles roast the cheese and dry bread, and let him drink water which has been sodden upon roses, ..." Water boiled with roses is not rose water, since it has not been distilled, and the bread and cheese are not being boiled in it but roasted and fed to the same patient who drinks the water. Or consider the statement in her recipe for apple butter that "a recipe for stewed crabapples suggested this particular combination of spices." In the original recipe--a cure for vomiting--only the water the apples and mint are boiled in goes into the patient. The crab apples themselves are applied externally.
For a final example, consider the vegetable soup on page 22, "based on a brew for lung disease, calling for sweet flag, radish, carrot and barley meal." Savelli's recipe cooks barley, sautees radishes, then adds the radishes, cress, carrots, salt, pepper, and cinnamon to the barley. The original reads:
Work thus a brewit for lung disease; take betony, and marrubium, wormwood, hind heal, the lower part of wen wort, lupin, helenium, radish, everthroat, fieldmore; pound all thoroughly well, and boil in butter, and wring through a cloth; shed on the decoction barley meal, shake it in a dish without fire till it be as thick as brewit; let him eat three pieces, with the drink of the warm liquor.
The barley in the original is ground but not cooked; the barley in the soup is not ground and is cooked. All of the herbs in the original are pounded; none of the herbs in the soup is. The only connection between the two recipes is that they have two or three ingredients in common.
There are other problems. The author tells us that "The vegetable marrow and cucumber were two summer squashes that grew in Anglo-Saxon England." The cucumber is not a summer squash and summer squash (varieties of Cucurbita pepo) is a New World vegetable. Elsewhere she uses (New World) kidney beans and gives tea as a possible ingredient in mead, both times without any warning to the reader. She asserts that "Apicius was used throughout the Middle Ages," a proposition for which she offers--and I know of--no evidence. In these and other ways she signals her lack of the level of background knowledge, historical and culinary, necessary for the difficult project she has undertaken. Anyone who thinks that cloves and cinnamon "have similar flavors to" bayberries and mastic (p. 39) has never tasted mastic.
Subtler difficulties mark her Anglo-Saxon cuisine as the creation of a modern cook. Consider pepper. It is clear from Ann Hagen's discussion that it was the most common of the imported spices, but also that imported spices were rare and expensive. If we eliminate breads and drinks, pepper appears in almost precisely two thirds of Savelli's recipes, including recipes based on the food of the common people.
After mentioning that barley has little of the gluten needed for bread to rise and that barley bread was generally used by penitents and the poor, Savelli suggests that if the reader wants to try "this type of bread" he should substitute barley for oatmeal in her recipe for oat bread. Doing that gives a recipe with more than six times as much wheat flour as barley flour--not a plausible reconstruction of the bread of people who used barley because they could not afford wheat. Savelli's oat bread is a raised loaf made mostly out of wheat flour, although the one explicit reference to oat bread in Hagen's books suggests that it was unleavened--oats, like barley, lacking adequate gluten. In these cases, as with most of the book's recipes, the only connection to Anglo-Saxon England is the Anglo-Saxon name attached to the recipe.
I hope this book will provide an inspiration to someone, possibly its author, to go back and do the job better--try to figure out what an Anglo-Saxon loaf of wheat bread, or oat bread, or rye bread, or pea bread was actually like, how Anglo-Saxon mead was prepared--I guarantee that tea was not an ingredient--and much else. The table at the back of the book, listing ingredients and source documents that refer to them, would be a useful aid in that project, as would the author's bibliography.
I am afraid, however, that the book's chief use may turn out to be as "documentation" for people more interested in being able to claim to produce an Anglo-Saxon feast than in actually doing it. If so, one unfortunate result of Ms. Savelli's well intentioned efforts will be to decrease public knowledge of early cooking by spreading false information--about oatmeal, bread, honey butter, summer squash, and much else.
(Quoted translations are by Rev. Oswald Cockayne, editor of Leechdoms, Wortkenning and Starcraft of Early England.)