An Old, Old Cookbook

I would like to introduce you to “The Forme of Cury” a collection of recipes compiled around 1390 by the master cooks of King Richard II. To modern readers the title is somewhat confusing. Are we going to read about spicy East Indian foods? To decipher the meaning we have to go back to medieval English. In the title “forme” means method or instruction and “cury” comes from the French word cuire for cooking (French being commonly spoken among the English upper class well into the sixteenth century).

Recipes in those days were not very precise from our point of view. They were more of a series of guidelines rather than step-by-step instructions. You rarely see quantities, time periods for cooking, or even temperatures. It is assumed that the reader is an experienced cook who understands how to cut foods to the right size, how much seasoning to use, and how long and at what temperature to cook certain classes of foods (e.g. pies, meats, sauces). The cook would be expected to make ingredient substitutions, depending on what was in the larder and expand or contract the quantities at a moment’s notice to handle the varying number of people at table.

The Forme of Cury contains about 200 recipes for use in the enormous kitchens of nobility, where food was daily prepared for a hundred or more people – from the lord of the castle all the way down to the boys working in the stables. To give you a flavor of this book (pardon the pun) here’s an exact transcription of one of the recipes, followed by my modern translation. Please note in the fourteenth century spelling was highly variable and depended on how the writer spoke. You will better understand this original text if you sound it aloud as you read.

For to Make Tartys in Applis – Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colord with Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and to yt forth to bake wel.

…and now for my modern translation of “Making Apple Tarts”:

Take fresh apples, sweet spices, figs, raisins, and pears, [slice the fruits and grind the spices] and when they are well mixed add enough saffron to give it a golden color, then place the mixture in a pie shell and bake until well-done.

This is a mixed fruit pie, not much different from what we might make today. One oddity that probably caught your eye in the original recipe was the word “cofyn” or coffin as we would spell it. Today a coffin is only used to house a dead body and inter it in the ground. In times past the word was more generally used to mean a box with a lid, also known as a coffer. In cooking terms, a cofyn was a pastry lining in a baking dish, which was filled with sweet or savory filling (e.g. fruits or meats), covered with a lid of pastry, and baked.

As one reads through the other recipes in this book other interesting tidbits are revealed. There are several recipes that call for “almond milk” or a liquid made from finely ground blanched almonds. Sounds just like some of today’s milk substitutes you’ll occasionally see in the dairy section. Sugar was rarely used in these times but things were made sweet with honey clarified with wine and vinegar to remove impurities. A wide range of fish (lamprey, conger, salmon, eels, pike, haddock, lobster), fowl (pigeons, geese, duck, capons, curlews, pheasant, and any small birds they could catch), and pork were served but not much lamb or beef. Recipes in this cookbook tended to be low on vegetables but high on fat and protein. This might simply reflect the fact that cooking vegetables hardly merited being included in the recipes (they would be boiled or baked) or it might be a class difference (those who could afford to have a cook who could read could afford to eat meat regularly).

Reading old recipes provides an interesting glimpse into the past. If you’d like to read more from The Forme of Cury, click here.


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