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.
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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)
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.
To Make A Tart
by Angharad ver' Rhuawn
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.
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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.