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To-Mke-A-Tart-art - 11/30/93


"To Make A Tart" by Terry Nutter. An article on medieval recipes using a cheese-onion tart as an example.


NOTE: See also the files: pies-msg, meat-pies-msg, fruit-pies-msg, flour-msg, pastries-msg, fried-breads-msg, eggs-msg, cheese-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


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    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: jtn at nutter.cs.vt.edu (Terry Nutter)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Feast Menus

Date: 22 Nov 1993 19:32:05 GMT

Sender: Angharad ver' Rhuawn (Terry Nutter)


Greetings, all, from Angharad ver' Rhuawn.


Brother Crimthann and Amethysta have both written asking for the Tart in

Ember Day recipe (and article) I mentioned earlier.  The following is the

text of the article forthcoming in the _Oak_ (Atlantian A&S publication),

with two medieval recipes and a bunch of modern variations; hope you enjoy it.



-- Angharad/Terry


                                  To Make A Tart

                              by Angharad ver' Rhuawn

                                  (Terry Nutter)


        Tart in Ember Day, an onion-cheese quiche, has become an SCA staple:

it's simple, it's familiar, and it's good.  This article presents two medieval

recipes for the dish, talks about their similarities and differences, presents

one interpretation, then discusses variations on the theme.


        Medieval recipes aren't like modern ones, and the differences aren't

just the ingredients and the ways they're combined. Modern recipes specify a

dish precisely, so that basic cooks can reproduce them uniformly.  Say you

give four minimally competent cooks the same recipe from _The Joy of Cooking_

and ask them to follow it precisely.  If they do, you probably won't be able

to tell the results apart.


        By contrast, medieval recipes were written for experts, to give an

idea of a kind of dish.  The concept of uniformity isn't there.  If you give

four good cooks the same recipe from _Forme of Cury_, you can expect four

quite different dishes.  Many medieval dishes have recipes in several sources.  

Sometimes the recipes will be much alike, but equally often, they will vary

widely in ingredients and handling. Even within a single manuscript, you may

find several quite different recipes with the same name. Variation was the



        Medievals didn't expect blind obedience to recipes, and the recipes

they wrote can't be followed blindly.  I hope this example will give some

sense of how to use the differences among even quite similar recipes for the

same dish to guide creativity in finding many different -- but all reasonably

medieval -- interpretations of it.



The Recipes



        "Ember Days" are sets of three fasting days (Wednesday, Friday, and

Saturday) that occur four times a year in the Catholic calendar.  Meat is

forbidden, but cheese and eggs are allowed.  Tart in Ember Day is a filling

dish to take the place of a meat dish on fasting days out of Lent.  The first

recipe we are looking at comes from probably the best known collection of

English medieval recipes: _Forme of Cury_, late 14th C (about 1390); the

edition here is from Hieatt and Butler's _Curye on Inglysch_.


                                 Tart in Ymbre day

          (Curye on Inglysch, Forme of Cury recipe # 173, page 136)


     Take and perboile oynoun & erbis & presse out the water & hewe her smale.

     Take grene chese & bray it in a morter, and temper it up with ayren.  Do

     therto butter, safroun & salt, & raisouns corouns, & a litel sugur with

     powdour douce, and bake it in a trap, & serue it forth.


In more modern English:


     Take and parboil onion[s] and herbs, and press out the water, and chop

     them small.  Take green cheese and grind it in a mortar, and temper it up

     with eggs.  Add butter, saffron, and salt, and currants, and a little sugar

     with powder douce, and bake it in an open crust, and serve it forth.


We have cheese, eggs, onions, herbs, and miscellaneous other flavorings, baked

in an open crust: essentially a quiche.  What else can we say?


        The problem of proportions is obvious.  Apart from that, there are

several other immediate questions.  First, what is green cheese?  Probably a

fresh (as opposed to aged) cheese.  This could be anything from (fresh, not

aged) cottage cheese to cream cheese to something like cream havarti.  It

probably is not something like brie, which needs substantial aging, or one of

the harder cheeses.  (Bleu cheese is probably the wrong direction, as is

swiss or cheddar.)


        What herbs? Well, what herbs do you have?  What herbs go well with

cheese and onions?  The recipe is deliberately vague.


        Powder douce, on the other hand, is not intentional vagueness; instead,

it is a reference to a standard medieval premixed combination of spices, much

as "curry powder" is a modern combination of spices.  The name means "sweet

powder". Sugar was definitely one constituent; other probable ones include

cinnamon, ginger, mace, and cloves.


        Now we compare a second recipe.  This one is take from Arundel MS 344,

dating from the early 15th C, and edited by John Nichols under the title

_Ancient Cookery_.  This collection has a lot of recipes in common with _Forme

of Cury_, some with the same names in the same order. Tart in Ember Day occurs

in one such sequence.  It is probable, given the degree of overlap, that the

author of Arundel 344 had a copy of _Forme of Cury_, from which he worked.  

Still, the recipes do vary a little in details.

                                Tart on Ember-Day

                         (Ancient Cookery 356, 448/38c)


     Parboyle onions, and sauge, and parsel, and hew hom small, then take gode

     fatte chese, and bray hit, and do therto egges, and tempur hit up therwith,

     and do therto butter and sugur, and raisynges of corance, and pouder of

     ginger, and of cannell, medel all this well togedur, and do hit in a

     coffyn, and bake it uncoveret, and serve hit forthe.


Again, in modern English:


     Parboil onions, and sage, and parsley, and cut them small, then take good

     fat cheese, and grind it, and add eggs, and temper it up with them, and add

     butter and sugar, and currants, and powdered ginger, and cinnamon, mix

     all this well together, and put it in a crust, and bake it uncovered, and

     serve it forth.


This time, we have more details.  In the place of "green cheese", we have "good

fat cheese".  This suggests that cream cheese or a soft cheese like havarti or

muenster is probably more to the point than cottage cheese, which tends to be

less fat.  In place of "herbs", we have (fresh) sage and parsley; the saffron

has vanished, and in place of powder douce we have ginger and cinnamon.


        Both recipes, then, specify onions, butter, eggs, cheese, sugar, and

currants.  One calls for herbs in general, the other for sage and parsley.  

One calls for powder douce, the other for ginger and cinnamon. One calls for

saffron, and the other doesn't.



                                    One Version


        4 onions                            1/4 cup currants

        6 eggs                       1/4 tsp ginger

        3T butter                           3/4 tsp cinnamon

        1/2 lb havarti grated             1/2 tsp dried sage leaves

        1/2 lb muenster, grated           1/4 cup parsley

        3T sugar                            1 deep dish 9" pie crust


        1.     Parboil onions (about 10 minutes).

        2.     Remove onions from heat, drain, and chop.

        3.     Chop parsley.

        4.     Mix all ingredients.

        5.     Pour into pie shell.

        6.     Bake at 350deg for 50 to 55 minutes (top will be brown; a knife

               inserted into the top should come out clean.


        As you can see, this follows the second recipe closely.  The main

liberties I've taken are to omit parboiling the parsley (it's never seemed

necessary), use dried sage in place of fresh (which I usually can't get), and,

of course, make decisions on the proportions of the ingredients.


        How did I decide on what I did?  Trial and error, mostly.  (It took

about four tries to get something I was really happy with.)  First, I decided

that this would be more egg- than cheese-based.  It doesn't say that in either

recipe: it doesn't say either way.  If you want a very rich cheese tart,

instead of something more quiche-like, you could with equal justification

increase the cheese and cut the eggs.  Second, I chose the cheeses, again

largely consulting personal preference.  Then I tried various balances of the

herbs, spices, and sugar  (and various baking times, and so on) until I got

something I liked.



Variations on a Theme



        Obviously, if you like a more (or less) herby dish, you can add (or

decrease) the herbs, and the same for the spices.  You can also experiment

with other herbs (savory, hyssop, thyme, and rosemary are all obvious

candidates), and with other spices that might go into powder douce (cloves,

mace, any other sweet spice).


        Try it with saffron; the first recipe does.  You hate currents?  Leave

them out.  One of the recipes dumps the saffron; you could dump the currants.  

Currants are strong tasting, and have a strong effect -- but the same is true

of saffron, and both are tangential to the dish.  But there are much larger

changes you can make, and still stay well within the limits of the recipes as

stated above.


        You want a cheese tart instead of a quiche?  Take the above.  Increase

the cheeses to between three quarters of a pound and a pound each, and reduce

to two or three eggs.  Cheese is salty; you may want to increase the sugar to

offset the increase in salt.  Voila: a far richer tart, more expensive but

more filling.


        You want a smoother, less salty, less tangy tart?  Change the cheeses

to half cream cheese, half ricotta.  Because these are softer and more liquid,

you may want to slightly reduce the eggs, say to five instead of six.  This

will also make the tart sweeter, but with these cheeses, you may want it that

way.  Alternatively, reduce the sugar a little.


        To increase the influence of the onions, slice instead of chopping.

You can also omit the parboiling; but if you are going to do that, it is wise

to go to a sweet onion, for the greater digestibility.


        To get an interesting and novel effect, mix half of the eggs with the

cheese (either kind) and put in the shell, then mix the other half with all

the rest, and pour that in on top for a layered tart.


        You like swiss, or cheddar, or a mixture of them?  Go ahead.  Increase

the butter, to make up for the decrease in fat in the cheese.  No, these

probably aren't the kind of cheeses originally intended (and they can't have

specifically been intended, as both are post period; but so are most readily

available cheeses).  On the other hand, the preceding recipe in both

collections calls explicitly for brie; there are others, in other collections,

that call for cream cheese.  Medieval recipes can be reasonably explicit, when

they want to.  These aren't, presumably because they don't much care.

Furthermore, when you make cheese, what precise cheese you get depends on

everything from the precise set of wild yeasts in your buttery to the relative

humidity.  With a few exceptions, uniformity in cheeses is a modern artifact.

Don't worry about it.


        The first three of these variations, while giving a wide range of

effects, can all be described as straightforward interpretations of the

originals.  The fourth takes a greater liberty, but is certainly a reasonable

variation: there are other medieval pies that involve pouring one filling in

a layer over another.  The fifth is also more of a departure, but again, in a

reasonable and justifiable direction.  What you will get is not precisely Tart

in Ember Day, at least as we know it from these recipes, but it's an authentic,

documentable medieval-style dish.



Summing Up



        Many people are afraid to use medieval recipes, for at least three

reasons.  First, they are afraid that the food will be weird, or just plain

bad.  When we talk about medieval meals, many SCAdians seem to envision

nightmare landscapes, haunted by wraiths of ballock broth, eels in jelly, and

blood pudding.  You can, of course, make some very odd meals from medieval

cookbooks.  Then again, you can make some surpassingly strange repasts from

_The Joy of Cooking_.  It's a matter of what you choose, and using a little

sense.  There are many, many medieval recipes that are perfectly acceptable to

modern palates.


        Second, people look at the recipes, see no proportions, and wonder how

they can make food from them.  Actually, it's pretty easy. First tries are

rarely perfect, but if the cook has a decent food sense -- and most people

have a better one than they realize! -- it's usually edible.  If you write

down what you did, and take notes like "Much less salt!  Try a couple more

eggs next time," improvement tends to be fast.


        Third, and perhaps most tellingly, people seem to be afraid that they

can't follow recipes and also be creative cooks.  Nothing could be further

from the truth.  Medieval recipes are not sets of orders, to be slavishly

followed.  They are indications of a style of a dish, with most of the details

left to your imagination.  The more you read, the more variations will occur

to you: and instead of stew after stew after boring stew, interrupted by the

occasional (good, but unexciting) plain roast, you will have at your disposal

a wide selection of good, enjoyable dishes that are different enough in detail

from anything you would get at a modern restaurant to be interesting.  I've

met very few medieval recipes with familiar main ingredients that I couldn't

like (well, there's a pork in vinaigrette in my big collection that's plain

dreadful, and I don't think anything can be done to save it, without making it

into something plain different; but that's only one); whereas some of the worst

food I've ever put into my mouth was somebody's undirected notion of



        In this regard, food is not all that different from clothing, or from

calligraphy and illumination, or for that matter from armor.  The medievals

wanted food that tasted good, just as they wanted to look good, they wanted

(some of) their books to be beautiful, and they wanted their armor to keep

them alive.  They faced constraints that we don't, but by-and-large, they met

them with an ingenuity that we rarely need, and found solutions that we can

admire.  Tart in Ember Day is one of them; I hope you will enjoy it.





Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler, eds., _Curye on Inglysch_, Oxford

   University Press (London, New York, Toronto) 1985, ISBN 0-19-722409-1

   (Early English Text Society SS8).  Fourteenth C English material;

   contains the following manuscripts: Diversa Cibaria (63 recipes, early

   14th C), Diversa Servisa (92 recipes, 1381), Utilis Coquinario (37

   recipes, late 14th C), The Forme of Curye (205 recipes, c. 1390), and

   Goud Kokery (25 recipes, misc. 14th C sources).


Nichols, John, ed., _Ancient Cookery_, London, 1790. Contains recipes from

   Arundel MS 344; English material, early 15th C.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org