BNYeast-art - 4/24/97
"A Brief Note on Yeast" by Terry Nutter (Katerine Rountre).
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: gfrose at cotton.vislab.olemiss.edu (Terry Nutter)
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 1997 09:39:15 -0500
Subject: sca-cooks Yeast
Hi, Katerine Rountre here. Mistress Ceridwen o Cahercommaun asked about
yeast in period cookery. As it happens, this issue came up in a recent
issue of Lady Therica's _Boke_or_Diverse_Knowledge_. What follows below
my signature is a brief article I wrote, in response to the claim that
yeast was unknown in period. I hope it's helpful.
A Brief Note on Yeast
Katerine Rountre (Terry Nutter)
In their article "Winemaking in the Modern Middle Ages" in volume ten of the
_Boke_of_Divers_Knowlege_, Lord Ivan Kalinin and Lady Valentina Krasnaya (Jay
Toser and Christa Toser) write: "Yeast is not mentioned as a separate entity
until Louis Pasteur discovered it in 1857." Claims of this sort must, I think,
be very carefully stated, or they risk misconstrual. It would be natural to
concluded from this, that medieval brewers, bakers, and cooks had no notion of
an ingredient corresponding to yeast, let alone of different strains of it.
That conclusion would be false; and the culinary recipe corpus clearly attests
Certainly, medievals had no notion that yeast was a microorganism, and their
view of what it did when it worked, whatever it was, surely did not closely
resemble the view since Pasteur. In that sense, they did not know the entity
that we today recognize. But they used the term "yeast" to refer to the stuff
that makes leavens flour and that causes fermentation in grain, honey, and
fruit based beverages, and they had developed specialized strains.
One would not expect much evidence on the subject of yeast from the medieval
culinary recipe corpus. Brewing and baking, the two activities that most use
yeast, took place primarily in the brewery and the bakery, not in the kitchen.
But it is kitchen recipes, not brewery and bakery ones, that survive in those
collections. Certainly the most ample record in the English corpus is
post-medieval, and found in a collection notorious for its extensive repertoire
of brewing recipes. In the 17th century, Kenelm Digbie's brewing and baking
recipes provide ample evidence that varying strains of yeast were recognized
and distinguished more than two centuries before Pasteur. But there is far
earlier evidence, if one looks for it.
The earliest evidence I am aware of in the recipe corpus for a direct
recognition of yeast occurs in a late 13th century Anglo-Norman collection
(B.L. MS Additional 32085), recipe number 4 in which ("Mincebek") includes the
ingredients "un poi de gest ou un poi de past egre", that is, "a little yeast
or a little sourdough". In the 14th century, two recipes from _Forme_of_Cury_
(number 154, "Frytour of pasternakes, of skirwittes, & of apples", and number
156, "Frytour of erbes") call for "ale & 3est"* and "a lytel 3est"
A 15th century recipe from MS Harleian 279 (recipe LV 54, "Fretoure") indicates
specialization of yeasts by calling specifically for "Ale 3est", as do MS
Harleian 4016 recipe 133 ("Lente ffrutours": "Ale yeest"), MS Beineke 163
recipe 107 ("Bastons": "A lytyll yest of new ale"), and the
_Noble_Boke_off_Cookry_ recipe 46 ("To mak rostand": "alitill yest of new
These may not be all the references to yeast by name, even in the culinary
record alone, retricted to England between the 13th and 15th centuries and
considering only collections of which printed editions exist: to date, I have
analyzed only the first fifty of 252 recipes in the _Noble_Boke_off_Cookry_,
and none of Pepys 1047, or _Liber_Cure_Cocorum, which may contain more
references to yeast. In addition to recipes that specifically call for yeast by
name, there are six more to my certain knowledge that call for barme (two in MS
Harleian 279, three in MS Harleian 4016, and one in _Noble_Boke_off_Cookry_.
Significantly, of these, two are for rastons, and one is for fritters -- both
dishes other recipes for which call for yeast, suggesting that the cooks who
developed these recipes recognized yeast as the active ingredient in barme.
A 14th century French manuscript provides further evidence of specialized yeast
strains. In the _Menagier_de_Paris_, the recipe for "Bouchet" (a weak mead)
under the heading "Beverages for Invalids", includes the following passage:
"and add one chopine ... of beer-yeast, for it is this which makes it the most
piquant, (and if you use bread yeast, however much you like the taste, the
colour will be insipid),...."
In short: by the late 1200s -- six hundred years before Pasteur -- recipes
called for yeast by name, and by the 1400s, recipes routinely specify a
particular variety of yeast (ale yeast). The existence of dishes for which one
recipe calls for yeast and another, in its place, for barme strongly suggest
that the authors of the collections recognized barme as containing yeast; and
the presence, in the 13th century recipe, of sourdough as an alternative to
yeast indicates the awareness that yeast is what makes dough work. It follows
that not only were they able to provide yeast as an ingredient, but they knew
that it persisted, and continued to work, in certain forms of the products made
with it (barme and sourdough) but not significantly in others (ale or bread).
There is a sense in which, prior to the development of the modern theory of
atomic structure and the understanding of the periodic table, nobody understood
gold. They did not know that it was an element -- or indeed, know what
distinguished chemical elements -- and did not know its position relative to
the rest, and so on. But no one would claim, on that ground, that nobody was
familiar with gold before this century. Likewise, there is a sense in which,
prior to Pasteur's discovery, nobody understood yeast. But in the middle ages
-- and indeed, there is good reason from Jewish dietary law to believe, far
earlier, people knew what yeast was, and had developed specialized strains, and
used them with discretion.
MS B.L. Additional 32085:
Hieatt, Constance B. and Jones, Robin F., Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections
Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii,
_Speculum_ 61/4 (1986),
Forme of Cury:
Hieatt, Constance B. and Butler, Sharon, eds., _Curye_on_Inglysch_, Oxford
University Press (London, New York, Toronto) 1985.
MS Harleian 279, MS Harleian 4016:
Austin, Thomas, _Two_Fifteenth-Century_Cookery-Books_, Oxford University Press
(London, New York, Toronto) 1888.
Noble Boke off Cookry:
Houssolde_, Elliot Stock (London) 1882.<P></dd>
Hieatt, Constance B., _An_Ordinance_of_Pottage_, Prospect Books (London) 1988.
Menagier of Paris:
Hinson, Janet, trans., _Le_Menagier_de_Paris_ (unpublished; available from
Cariadoc of the Bow [David Friedman]).
* In the quotations in this article, "3" represents the letter yoch, which
corresponds roughly, in a medial position, to modern "gh", or in an initial, to
the consonantal use of "y". "3est" would, in more modern orthography, be
Copyright 1996 by Jane Terry Nutter, Rt. 1 Box 118-1, Oakland, MS 38948. Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.