Food-Coloring-art – 4/28/06
A handout from her Period Food Colorings Class by Baroness Faerisa Gwynarden.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This is the handout from the period food coloring class taught by Baroness Faerisa at a local Collegium, Fall 2005.
Handout for Period Food Colorings Class
by Baroness Faerisa Gwynarden
By comparison to medieval food, modern food is pretty standard. Rice pudding is always white (it may have a garnish of sprinkled spices, but it’s still white), chickens are always chicken-coloured. Some ethnic dishes call for tinting rice or bread with saffron, but by and large, rice and bread are normally served in their natural color. The most creative main stream modern dessert we have (in terms of color) is Jello, and the coloring agents are already included, all we have to do is add water. In modern North American culture, no one is afraid to eat blue or green Jello, but try serving them blue or green coated chicken and see what happens.
If we decide to get creative and say, tint a milkshake green for St Patrick’s day, we wander down to the local grocery store or cake decorating supply store and purchase a concentrated ready made bottle of artificial food dye for a couple of dollars. It will only take a couple of drops to tint our milkshake, and the remainder will have an enormously long shelf life. Unless we use an incredibly large amount of food coloring, it won’t change the flavour of our shake much either.
Our medieval ancestors, who adored coloring all sorts of foods in new and exciting ways, did not have this luxury (yes, they would have loved it if the had!), but why should we take the time and effort to make food colorings from scratch that are probably more limited and less intense than what we have available to us today, not to mention probably more expensive to produce and much less long-lasting?
Medieval cooks, in addition to creating flavourful dishes, often had to be part artist, part chemist (and sometimes even part pyrotechnics specialist) to create spectacular presentations [see picture of gilded boar’s head from _Fetes Gourmandes_]. Modern medieval cooking re-creationists, in addition to being part artist and part chemists like our ancestors, are also part detective. It’s an adventure to learn how these dishes were created and what they reflect about the medieval mindset and culture. Period food coloring often brought different flavours to a dish as well. By leaving out an original coloring ingredient we alter the end result of the original dish.
Even if you have no intention of using period food dyes again, by trying them out even just once, you will develop an “eye” for where they would be used, what they actually looked like, and be able to mimic the colors and intensities with modern food dyes if necessary.
Why was the artificial coloring of foods so important in the Middle Ages and Renaissance? Many coloring agents were expensive, to liberally use them in your feast allowed you to show off your wealth and influence to your guests. Some also considered various colorants to produce health benefits:
C. Anne Wilson states in _The Appetite_ and the Eye page 18:
"Gold itself, on account of it's longevity, was regarded by Arab physicians as a medicine which would lengthen the span of human life. Those who could not afford to consume real gold could at least consume its colour in saffron-tinted food, and could thus ingest some tiny part of the life-enhancing quality of gold. Red and white, the other two favorite colours of Arab cookery, were connected with cinnabar, that is, mercury sulphide, and with mercury itself. Cinnabar, which is the red earth known as vermillion, was the starting material for the alchemist, who extracted mercury from cinnabar, and then tried with the help of sulfur to turn it into gold. Red food shared the colour of cinnabar and white food came close to the silver colour of mercury, and both were beneficial to the eater because their colors were those of gold while it was still passing through its uncompleted stages."
Coloring agents could be used to tint an entire dish (such as a parti-colored white-dish, aspic or gelatine) or applied to the surface of a food with an egg or flour & egg paste binder.
An example of a parti-colored white dish from Le Viandier (there is another in Du Fait de Cuisine):
A Parti-colored White Dish. Take scalded and skinned almonds and grind them well and steep them in boiled water; then to make the binding to bind them, you need beaten rice or starch. When the milk has boiled, it should be split into several parts – into two if you want to make only two colors and, if you wish, into three or four parts; and it should be bound very thick, as much as frumenty, so that it cannot run when it is set on the plate or in the bowl. Then take alkanet or orchil, or fine azure, or parsley or herb bennet, or a little saffron strained with the greenery so that it will keep it’s color beter when it is boiled. You should have bacon grease, and set the alkanet or orchil to soak in it, and the azure likewise. And add sugar into the milk when it boils enough to be taken off the fire, and salt it, and stir it strongly until it has thickened and taken on the color you wish to give it.
Some examples of colored aspics and gelatins:
Aspic Like a Chessboard - The Art of Cooking – Martino of Como 15th C
Use a generous amount of feet so that the gelatin will be thicker, and make a white broth with a bit of ginger. Once you have made the broth, take four or five capon or hen wings and place them on a platter; then take the broth, that is, the strained decoction of the feet, and make sure that it covers the wings by a finger. Once this broth has congealed, cut out and remove one of the squares, so to speak, and put a green square in it’s place, just as for the colored sections in the recipe for meat aspic. You can make this dish using as many colors as you like.
Fish Aspic – Cookbook of Sabina Welser 16th C
…Next one makes white, yellow, brown, black, green, as follows: first the color white one makes this way: one crushes almonds finely and strains them with isinglass water, that is the white color. Next tae the white color and yellow it. Then it is yellow. Next one takes turnsole – that is a brown clothlet [a scrap of cloth impregnated with a soluble dyestuff] – and the clothlet is laid in isinglass water and pressed out, it becomes brown (according to the footnote, it is probably closer to red, since it is a turnsole soaked cloth). The black color one makes this way: one must take rye bread and toast it well on a grate. Next crush it to powder and strain it with isinglass water. Then it wil become black. Next send to a painter and let him paint with the five colors in the dish (the fish is not in yet) whatever you wish – coats of arms or plants. And one may eat all of it. The aspic must however be set first, before one paints on it. Next when it is painted with what you wish to have – also letter – then set the 2 trouts nicely in it, and the leftover broth, which you have left over, pour over it until the dish is full as you please. And let it become firm. Thus it is made.
Colored Jelly – Rebecca Price’s Receipt Book 1681 (excerpt from “Banquetting Stuffe”)
If you would have your jelly of Harts-horne off severall coulers you must, when you have got it redy to the sweetening, instead of lofe sugar put in sirrup of clovegilliflower enough to sweeten it and couller it to your likeing; which will make it a fine red; and for blue, sweeten another part of t with sirrup of violets, which will give a fine couller, and for yellow you may dye it with saffarn as yellow as you would have it…
She also offers instructions for:
Jelly Lemons: Take Lemon pills cutt in halves; take out all the meat very clean, and whilst your [red, violet, and yellow] jelly is hot, pour it into the pills till you have filled the halves; so then let them stand until they are cold; then cut them into quarters, the jelly and pills together, and lay them on a silver server, and the several coullers mingled one among the others wil look very finely in ye lemon pills.
Although sugar sculptures intended purely for decoration could be painted with limners colors, later period cookbooks also offer instructions for both vegetable colors and inedible substances to color sugar paste. Gum tragacanth steeped in water or egg white was used as a vehicle for the pigment. Finely ground spices or dried crushed flower petals (marigold, cowslip, rose) could also be mixed directly into the icing sugar before mixing the sugar paste.
Ground spices could also be kneaded into sugar paste to color it.
From “A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen 1608:
To make Paste-Royall in Spices Take of Cinamon and Ginger, of each a like quantity being finely searced: mingle it with your searced Sugar, and Gum-dragagant steeped in Rose-water, and worke it into paste as you did your paste-royall white, and then you may turne it upon sticks made of peeces of Arrowes, and make them hollow like Cinamon sticks: in like sort you may make it taste of what spices you please.
Initially, endoring referred to coating an item in gold coloured paste or covering it with a thin layer of gold leaf. Over time manuscripts began to use the term for a coating of different colors as well. “Pommes Dorees” (literally golden or gilded apples) are meatballs, boiled and spit roasted with a coating of endoring paste. They appear in several incarnations throughout the Middle Ages.
The version in the Harlein MS. 279 calls for tinting the batter green:
“… then take flour and yolks of eggs, and the white, and draw then through a strainer, and cast thereto powdered ginger, and make thine batter green with the juice of parsley, or mallows, in the time of year wheat, and cast on the meatballs as they turn about, and serve them forth.”
The cookbook of Sabina Welser, a 16th C German Merchant Class woman, describes the same process using multiple colors: “A dish of particular colors”
Item, a dish that in each part has a particular color is made thus. Roast hens on a spit and do not put them too close together. And when they are roasted make six colors. Make the white thus: take the whites of eggs, put a little flour in it. Make a thick paste. Item, make brown thus: take cherry electuary and mix it with eggs and flour to a brown paste. The yellow make thus: take yolks of eggs, a little good flour, saffron, and three or four eggs. From that make a paste. Make green thus: take parsley. Put it through a cloth with eggs. Put a little flour with it and make a paste. Black: take flour and eggs; make a paste of them. Add crushed cloves which have soaked overnight in beaten eggs. Put enough in and it will be a good black.
An interesting late period variation on the technique of endoring is found in Robert May’s _The Accomplisht Cook_ 1660. In later period, pies often had their lids removed and replaced with decorative lids. He provides diagrams for “cut and laid tarts”, and explains how to produce different coloured jellies to paint into the recessed areas of these decorative lids (afterwards dried in a very slow oven): for yellow, preserved quinces, apricots, nectarines and melacattons, boiled with white wine and sugar, then strained; for red, quinces, pippins (apples), cherries, raspberries, barberries, red currants, red gooseberries, and damsins (plums); for black, prunes, and many other preserved berries; for white, whites of eggs and cream.
Is the most common color referenced in medieval recipes. Egg yolks, saffron or a combination of the two are the predominant choice for tinting foods gold. Chiquart’s _Du Fait de Cuisine_ recommends grinding the saffron threads and heating them with broth to help extract the color. Warm water is often recommended to extract the color from saffron in modern recipes as well.
“The Widowes Treasure” 1585 instructs how to make a gold color with orpiments (arsenic trisulphate), ground with clear quartz, saffron and the gall of a hare or pike, stored in a phial in a dunghill for five days. Note - this is not food safe!
The second most common color to appear in medieval culinary texts, greens were generally obtained from parsley, sometimes in combination with other herbs such as sage. “Gawdy grene” or “vert gay”are period terms for a bright yellow-green made by mixing green and yellow food colorants. The 16th C German Cookbook of Sabina Welser suggests crushing a handful of spinach or mangel leaves in a mortar and straining it with isinglass to make a green aspic.
“The Widowes Treasure” 1585 has a highly toxic recipe for ‘a very good green’ that calls for the juice of rue mixed with verdigris and saffron, as well as an emerald green recipe containing verdigris, litharge (lead monoxide) and mercury, ground together ‘with the pisse of a young childe’.
A range of reds could be obtained from rose petals, “dragon’s blood” plant, and alkanet root. Note: alkanet is fat soluble and stains fingers and clothing (‘Le Menagier de Paris’ describes arquenet as a spice which produces a red color, just like galingale, and recommends soaking it in wine and meat bouillon, then grinding it)! Saunders (sandalwood) may also be mixed with fat to produce a richer color.
French turnsole (an orchil lichen: Gozophora tinctoria) is normally blue, can be turned red by the addition of acid or left blue if blended with alkaline ingredients.
Galingale is available in either dried slices or powdered form – it’s better to buy the pre-ground, since the dried slices are incredibly tough (although the galingale I have found locally is more of a yellow-brown than a red). Curye on Inglysch suggests boiling brazel (brazilwood) to obtain red.
Epilario (1598) says carrots roasted in embers provide a “sanguine” color. Elinore Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (early 17th C) suggests using pomegranate juice (note if the juice is heated too long it will turn brown-black). Barbaries (red ‘corrants’) are listed as a coloring agent in The French Cook (1653).
In addition to the above mentioned turnsole, non food grade colorants were also used – finely ground lapis lazuli and pennyroyal mixed with verdigris yielded brilliant shades. A safer method would be to try to duplicate these vivid shades using matching shades of modern food colors. A German recipe for “cold blue dish” or “blue mush” calls for picking columbine blossoms before they open at dawn, crushing them and mixing them with honey. Another calls for steeping bruised cornflowers in almond milk for pudding.
A French recipe from Le Menagier, “To Make Blue Jelly”, also calls
Take of the aforesaid broth, be it of flesh or fish, and set it in
a fair pan and boil it again on the fire, and get from the spicer
two ounces of tournsole and set it to boil therewith until it be
of a good colour, then take it off; and then take a pint of loach
and cook it somewhere else, and spread the loach on your dishes
and let the broth run onto it as above and then leave it to cool.
Item, thus is made a blue jelly. And if you would make armorial
bearings on the jelly, take gold or silver, whichsoever pleaseth
you best, and trace [your design] with the white of an egg on a
feather, and put the gold thereon with a brush." (Le Menagier de
Paris, Power's translation)
From Sabrina Welserin: 39 To make a blue pudding Bruise cornflowers and press them with water through a cloth. If you want, blanch almonds in it, whose milk is then blue. Afterwards make a pudding with it
Maestro Marino’s _Libro de Arte Coquinaria_ has a recipe for “Sky-blue sauce for summer” Take some of the wild blackberries that grow in hedge-grows and some thoroughly pounded almonds, with a little ginger. And moisten these things with verjuce and strain through a sieve. ) p 168 _The Medieval Kitchen_.
Sandalwood yields a brick red-brown. Burn toast could yield a range of browns depending on the level of carbonization. Cinnamon, alone or combined with ginger, creates a range of browns.
Burnt toast, if allowed to become completely carbonated, will produce black (However, depending on how much is used, a burnt flavour may be imparted to the dish) cooked blood or liver will also produce a brown/black, but modern sensibilities are sometimes a bit squeamish with these ingredients. Powdered cloves steeped overnight in beaten eggs or other liquid will also produce a brown/black, but with a very strong flavour.
Where to find medieval food colorants:
Although many coloring are readily available, like eggs, parsley, cinnamon and toast for burning, some may prove a little more difficult to track down.
Most Middle Eastern grocery stores carry saffron and vark (edible silver leaf)
Health food/herb stores often carry food grade rose petals or other flower petals.
There are also SCA-friendly stores that carry medieval food dye supplies:
- The Pepperer’s Guild
- Lettice’s Stillroom: for all your herbal, perfumery, essential oil, remedy, natural health & beauty, fragrance oil, dyeing and soap making needs.
(This is the merchant’s contact information; her website is still under construction)
The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, Prospect Books 2000
All the King’s Cooks, Peter Brears, Souvenir Press 2002
And Thus You Have a Lordly Dish: Fancy and Showpiece Cookery in an Augsburg Patrician Kitchen, Marianne Hansen. Medieval Food and Drink, Acta, Vol. XXI, 1995
The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Terrence Scully, The Boydell Press 1985
The Art of Cooking, Martino of Como (translation by Jeremy Parzen)
University of California Press 2005
Banquetting Stuffe, C Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press 1991
Du Fait de Cusine, Maistre Chiquart, online translation by Betty Cook
Early French Cookery, Terrence Scully, University of Michigan 1995
“Using Period Food Colorings: part one, the color red” – by Dame Alys Katherine
Serve it Forth issue #3, July 1996
“Using Period Food Colorings; part two” –by Dame Alys Katherine
Serve it Forth issue #5, January 1997
The Viandier of Taillevent, Terrence Scully, University of Ottawa Press, 1988
Copyright 2006 by Fernanda Gomes, 121 Fraser's Grove. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canada R2K 0E6. <faerisa at mts.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
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.