Mousse-art - 10/19/00
"13 good reasons why chocolate mousse isnÕt medieval." by Lady Jehanne de Huguenin.
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
Originally published in January, AS 34 in "Storm Tidings", the newsletter for the Shire of Adamastor in Cape Town, South Africa.
13 good reasons why chocolate mousse isnÕt medieval.
by Lady Jehanne de Huguenin.
A heavily disguised lesson in some aspects of medieval cuisine
For some reason, if I ask the Herald for suggestions as to what I should
make for a potluck, he usually says "Chocolate mousse." To which I
invariably answer "It isnÕt period," or, occasionally, "ItÕs not period,
dammit!!" I am sometimes tempted to assume that the HeraldÕs harping on
this theme is deliberately unhelpful and designed merely to irritate.
However, mature reflection suggests that such a chivalrous and noble
individual could never stoop to those depths. He must therefore be sorely
afflicted with (a) a liking for chocolate mousse, and (b) ignorance. While
I am unable to indulge (a) within the scope of this society, I can
certainly address (b), which I do below, at some length.
As an added bonus, at no extra charge, and for purposes of discussion, I
reproduce below my favourite Chocolate Mousse recipe. But straitly do I
charge all gentles of the Shire to pray remember that it is a bastard and
upstart recipe, having no place in our Current Middle Ages; for reasons
which I hope I shall be able to demonstrate.
VERY UNMEDIEVAL CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
250 ml caster sugar
250 ml cocoa powder
125 ml strong black coffee
250 ml cream
dash of rum or brandy
50g walnuts or pecan nuts
Stir sugar, coffee and cocoa over low heat until well mixed and smooth.
Beat egg yolks until pale and thick and beat in chocolate mix. Cool to room
temperature. Whip cream to soft peaks and fold into chocolate mixture with
nuts and rum/brandy (nuts and alcohol are optional). Beat half of egg
whites until stiff and fold into chocolate mixture (also optional).
Refigerate and allow to set.
Other variations on the chocolate mousse concept use chocolate instead of
cocoa, or set the mix with gelatine.
This discussion is based on my experience of medieval cookery, which I
define for my own purposes as ending somewhere around late 15th century or
early 16th. From the 16th century onwards, the development of cooking
techniques brings the recipes and concepts much closer to our familiar
modern cuisine, and they lose their distinctive medieval character to some
extent. Chocolate mousse has perhaps the most in common with an Elizabethan
illusion food called "A dysshe of Snowe", but I donÕt define that as a
medieval dish. (IÕve reproduced it at the end of this article, just for
Chocolate mousse? ItÕs not medieval. HereÕs why:
1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "mousse" appeared
first in the late 19th century (1892, a recipe for Chestnut Mousse in an
Encyclopedia of Cookery). The OED isnÕt great on cookbooks, and there are
probably earlier examples that they havenÕt found, but not that much
earlier: 1892 is very far out of our period indeed. The OED suggests that
the word "mousse" developed from "moss", which is "a kind of fine sugar
work, made by confectioners, in imitation of moss" (Edward Phillips, The
New World of English Words, 1706). So we could have a mousse in the 19th
century or a moss in the 18th and probably 17th. Still way out of the SCA
2. Chocolate. This was discovered in South America by the Spanish explorers
of the early sixteenth century; to the best of my (admittedly limited)
knowledge chocolate or cocoa do not appear as an ingredient in any cookery
books of our period. Cortez and the boys were familiar with it, but it took
a while to permeate to the rest of society. In 1604 a dictionary definition
describes it as a drink of the South American Indians; it has appeared as a
Western confectionary by 1659, at six shillings and sixpence per pound for
the best sort. It would have been far too expensive for extensive use as an
ingredient in sweet dishes.
3. Cocoa powder. This is the crushed cocoa bean with the fat and moisture
removed. When chocolate did start to become known in the West, it was as a
drink. The Mayans used to drink chocolate with boiling water and spices,
including chilli; these were added to a crushed paste of the beans. Spanish
missionaries added sugar, cream and vanilla to the cocoa bean paste,
producing the cocoa drink beloved of the seventeenth and eighteenth century
nobility, who drank it in the morning when they woke up. Cocoa powder is a
comparatively modern invention, and its original users would not have known
it flavoured with sugar.
4. Caster sugar is a modern concept: while finely-ground sugar was
undoubtedly known to the medieval cook, any recipe requiring it would
specify that it needed to be specially ground and sifted to make it finer.
In my experience of medieval cooking, finely-ground sugar is generally used
only in later-period or Renaissance recipes for sweets such as sugar plate.
5. There is a lot of sugar in this recipe. In the bulk of medieval recipes,
sugar is treated more as a spice than an ingredient; for example, it is one
of the components of the spice mix known as poudre douce (the Goodman of
ParisÕs version has sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and grains of
paradise). Most recipes calling for large quantities of sugar, such as
sugar plate, seem to be Renaissance or Elizabethan dishes; these are much
closer to modern cuisine, and are not true medieval foods.
6. Coffee. This was known in the West in our period, as a strange
concoction drunk by the Turks. It was only in the seventeenth century that
it became a fashionable drink. It spread pretty quickly: Samuel Pepys
describes frequent trips to coffee houses in his diary of 1664 (in one such
visit he records drinking "chocolata" as well as coffee). But coffee does
not appear as an ingredient in any medieval recipe I have ever seen, and
even as a beverage its use is much later than our period of interest.
7. Rum or brandy. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat maintains that distilled
spirits were known to the Arabs for centuries before the West caught on;
perhaps as early as 450 A.D. She also claims that the eau-de-vie made by
the French in the fifteen century was a distilled essence of wine, while
the Irish were doing something similar with cereal products. These were not
widely drunk, however, and I have certainly never come across a medieval
recipe of any sort which calls for a spirit ingredient. I suspect the stuff
was too precious.
8. The melting of the cocoa and sugar in the liquid of the coffee is unlike
any method IÕve ever met in medieval cooking, with the exception of some
14th-century Andalusian recipes for lemon or pomegranate syrup (as a
beverage). In period dishes of my experience, a heated syrup is far more
likely to be honey than a sugar syrup. Also, cocoa beans were roasted and
ground and boiling water added to make the seventeenth century beverage;
the powder was not heated in the water.
9. Beat the egg yolks until pale and thick? Whisk the whites until stiff?
This method of introducing air into a mix was apparently unknown to the
medieval cook. The most we have is an instruction to pass the egg through a
strainer, and this doesnÕt seem to introduce air at all. The OED records
the use of a "whisk" for beating egg whites, but the earliest mention -
1666 - was BoyleÕs Origine of Formes and Qualities, a basic physics text
rather than a culinary treatise. ItÕs only with Hannah GlassÕs cookbook in
1747 that we have an injunction to "beat the whites of the eggs up well
with a whisk". Not in our period.
10. While egg yolks and whites were often separated, it was usually only in
order to use one or the other. There seems to be no concept of separating
the egg only to whisk the white and re-combine them, in the body of
11. Folding? Most medieval recipes require mixing or beating; they donÕt
ever specify the very careful and specific process of folding an aerated
substance back into the mixture so as not to flatten the introduced air. If
air is to be introduced into a mixture, itÕs by prolongued beating of the
whole mix, sometimes for hours; not by whisking and folding. (A good
example of a beaten mixture is Prince-Bisket (Hugh PlatÕs Delights for
Ladies, 1609), a light, aniseed-flavoured cookie with a texture like rather
tough and glutinous meringue).
12. Some mousse recipes call for gelatine. While there are jellies
described in the medieval recipe books, these are meat jellies, using the
natural gelatinised broth of the meat (e.g. Harleian MS. 279 - Gelye de
chare, a fancy dish of jellied pork and chicken; there are also several
recipes for meat jellies in the 14th century Goodman of Paris). The only
jelly-like sweet recipes I know are dishes known as a leach or leche,
effectively a milk jelly (e.g. A leche of divers colours, from MurrellÕs
Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1617). They are set with
isinglass, a gelatine made from the bladders of fish (yech), and they are
Elizabethan rather than medieval recipes.
13. Chocolate mousse is a dessert. This means itÕs a light, sweet dish
served at the end of a meal, either on its own or with other light, sweet
dishes. This was not a characteristic meal order in the Middle Ages. Sweet
dishes - fruit tarts, cream custards, etc - tended to be served as part of
a meat course. The closest we have to a dessert course is the final course,
which usually consisted of spiced wine, nuts, oranges, and wafers (a sort
of a cross between a waffle and a biscuit - a sweet or savoury batter
cooked on a hot plate to make a thin, crispy biscuit).
An Elizabethan mousse-like thing
The closest thing to a mousse in the Elizabethan cookbooks is an illusion
food that recreates a snow-covered bush; it is made with cream, sugar and
egg whites whisked together.
To make a dyschefull of snowe
Take a pottell of swete thyke creame and the whutes of eyghte egges, and
beate them altogether with a spone, then putte them in youre creame and a
saucerfull of Rosewater, and a dyshe full of Suger wyth all, then take a
styke and make it clene, and than cuytre it in the end foure square, and
therwith beate all the aforesayde thynges together, and ever as it ryseth
taek it of and put it in a Collaunder, this done take one apple and set it
in the myddes of it, and a thick bushe of Rosemary, and set it in the
myddes of the platter, then cast your Snowe uppon the Rosemarye and fyll
your platter therwith. And yf you have wafers caste some in wyth all and
thus serve them forthe. Anonymous, A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye (before
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food.
Madge Lorwin, Dining with William Shakespeare
The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
The Goodman of Paris (1393), tr. Eileen Power.
Copyright 2000 by Lady Jehanne de Huguenin, jessica at beattie.uct.ac.za, P O Box 443, Rondebosch 7701, Cape Town, South Africa.. 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.