The Seventeenth Century Egg

By Kristine Kowalchuk.

The first thing people usually ask when they hear my PhD thesis was on seventeenth-century cookbooks is “Have you tried any of the recipes?”

No, I had not. While it might be interesting to read about hashed calf’s head and syrup of snails, I was in no hurry to actually eat these things. Furthermore, my thesis was in literature, not history, so it was the writing itself and the role the writing played in the women’s lives that interested me, not the actual recipes. And every time I said this, even I felt it was lame; abstract ideas cannot compete with the actual taste of food.

I decided to try a recipe from each of the three manuscripts I had studied: those of Mary Granville, Constance Hall and Lettice Pudsey. I invited my mom, my sister and a couple of friends passionate about European history — but as they are mostly interested in its opulence, and as the recipes I studied were everyday rather than courtly, the dress code stipulated “no velvet.” And then I set to work finding recipes that were vegetarian (my sister and I only eat fish), celiac-friendly (also for my sister), that featured eggs (for The Tomato egg issue) and most importantly, were palatable.

Next, I considered practicality. This eliminated “plum cake,” which did call for eggs, but thirty of them, and “how to make a cake,” which called for 10 pounds of currants, and “cynamon water,” which called for a pound of borage flowers. I realized this dinner would have been easier in summertime, when many of the herbs and wild plants grew in my backyard. But I knew my authors dealt with seasonality and variable harvests in their lives too, so I moved on to Plan B.

I shopped at Planet Organic; all food would have been organic in the 17th century. They didn’t have fresh marjoram so I bought dried, nor pennyroyal so I substituted mint, nor winter savory so I left it out. Mace was $9 for a tiny sachet, so I replaced that with nutmeg (from the same plant). Horseradish root was in the same bin as burdock root; I hoped I chose the right one. Whole creek trout caught in the wild (I learned from the Ocean Odyssey people) is nearly impossible to find. Instead, I picked up a side of steelhead trout that I cut into filets.

Mary Granville’s “bread a la roine” — meaning “bread à la reine” or “the Queen’s bread” — like the other recipes, specifies no quantities and includes no technical instruction. It ends: “the oven must not bee heated too much nor too little but according to the Judgement of the Baker.” The recipe called for starter, flour, beer, eggs, milk and butter, so I added what I thought seemed reasonable amounts and hoped for the best. The dough rose beautifully. I popped it into the oven (which, according to my judgment, should be set to 450°F) and 45 minutes later, pulled out a lovely loaf.

A few hours later, my guests, compliant in wool and linen, settled into the living room while I sliced the bread, grilled it and topped it with prunes stewed in red wine, cinnamon (a word spelled 17 ways in the three manuscripts), grated ginger and lemon peel. (I put some prunes and gluten-free crackers on the side for my sister.) Everyone, surprised, agreed this appetizer was good.

For our main course, I followed Lettice Pudsey’s recipe for trout poached in beer, herbs and the root (which did turn out to be horseradish). Though “let your Liquor boyl up to ye height before you put in your fish” seemed ambiguous, the broth bubbled up to the top of the pot and I knew it was time to add the trout. The filets cooked perfectly and were delicately flavourful. The sweetness of roasted parsnips on herbs and greens was balanced by the acidity of apple cider vinaigrette. Pudsey’s “frittars of eggs and herbes,” although seasoned with sugar, cloves and nutmeg, were also tasty.

For dessert, I made Constance Hall’s “To make a orring pudding,” partly because it included eight egg yolks. As I worked my way through the recipe, I realized I was basically making a custard baked in flaky pastry. I had cheated and bought ready-made pastry, using the whole box; this was too much. But the orange pudding inside was a delightful prize.

In the end, I couldn’t believe how it all turned out. My guests, proclaiming the meal delicious, admitted they thought they’d go home hungry. The flavours were different than those we’re used to today, but they still appealed to our tastes. I’d had to substitute a number of ingredients, and I benefited from a gas stove, clocks and electricity, but I had followed the spirit of the recipes, which often relied upon improvisation and the “Judgement” of the cook. I think Mary, Constance and Lettice would have approved.

To make bread a la roine

Take good Flower of good wheat, ground in a good mill make leauen with flower, and beere not bitter, and warme, yet not boiling, the leauen must bee made of the third part of all the Flower which is to bee used, then make the paste somewhat soft, and in the moistning of itt put in milke somewhat warme, egs butter, and salt, putt in butter sparingly, of the Rest you cannot put in too much, the oven must not bee heated too much nor too little but according to the Judgement of the Baker.

KK notes: I fed my starter with ¼ c Charlie Flint organic lager that I’d left open on the counter for a few hours, then I used 1 c starter, 3½ c of Park Wheat flour from Gold Forest Grains, 1 egg, 1½ t salt, and 1 t butter.

Frittars of eggs and herbes

Take persle peneriall and Margerum the quantity of a handfull finly choped put to them vi egges a littell grated Bread and three or fouer sponfull of Melted Butter beate them all togeather and season itt with Salt and Suger Cloues and Mace beaten then frye itt as you doe a tansy & soe serve itt.

KK notes: In the spirit of economy (which very much governed 17th-century cooking), I used the eight egg whites left over from the orange pudding below, plus 2 whole eggs. I used a pinch of salt, ½ t sugar, ¼ t cloves and ¼ t nutmeg (instead of mace). I made it into one giant omelet, which my mom expertly flipped so that it was brown on both sides, and then we cut it into wedges.

To make A orring pudding

Take the paring of one large sivell orring and pound it in a morter until it is very fine and then mix it well with 8 ounces of white suger and then take the yolks of 8 eggs and beate them and 8 ounces of butter and melt it with a little water as you do for sauce and then mix your eggs and butter together and after that put it into your suger and orring and mix all together and then put it into puft past and bake it.

KK notes: I used a navel orange, and 1/8 c water. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill for an hour before putting it into the pastry (which I also folded over the top) and baking it at 350°F for an hour.

Next summer, Kristine Kowalchuk is going to try mead with crystallized violets on the side.