Janet Clarkson started her specialist food history blog, The Old Foodie, in 2005, posting every week, Monday to Friday without fail covering all kinds of subjects and questions from ‘what, exactly, is a ramekin?’ to ‘dinner in a Pullman dinning car in 1869’ and on to ‘soup for the Queen of Scots’.
She is the author of Food History Almanac: Over 1,300 years of world culinary history, culture, and social influence, as well as Pie: A Global History; and Soup: A Global History; and Menus from History: Menus and recipes from every day in the year.
How did that happen? I’ve always been interested in food, and became more so when I had a family; and I’ve always enjoyed research so the documents and notes on cooking gradually accumulated into an enormous, unwieldy mass.
The historic angle of my researches developed without my being really conscious of it. My children wanted to know why Easter eggs were only to be eaten at Easter, or Halloween sweets on October 31. I enjoyed looking into the roots of these traditions. I believe every day is for celebrating so I started investigating what had gone on in a food context on other days. In the process I began to realise that the history of food isn’t just about dates and battles, kings and queens, it was about life, and about people in all sorts of circumstances – famous and infamous, princes and paupers, chefs and housewives, and a whole miscellany of scientists, explorers, prisoners, artists, soldiers and many others. Food isn’t just a basic requirement, it’s bound up with family celebrations, religion, entertainment and cultural identity. It’s used to show love, and to demonstrate political power.
Today, for example, is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt – – the legendary English military victory immortalised in Shakespeare’s play, King Henry V.
Henry V led his own troops into battle against the French – the longstanding adversaries of the English and Welsh. Although they were outnumbered significantly by somewhere between two and five times, after three hours of fighting Henry claimed a significant victory for his country.
His success was attributed to his archers. They were extremely skilled and very strong – able to fire six amour-piercing arrows every minute over a 200 meter distance from their massive longbows. Many of these archers were Welsh, and if it hadn’t been for these Welshmen, the outcome of the battle might have been very different.
The insignia of the Welsh is the leek and in Shakespeare’s play Fluellen, the captain of the Welsh, reminds the king of their shared heritage, and the honour of wearing the leek:
Fluellen: Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.
King Henry V: I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.
So it seems appropriate today to celebrate the achievement of the Welsh, and their emblem, the leek; and what better way than to enjoy some medieval recipes from this most delicious member of the onion family?
The earliest known English cookery manuscript is called the Forme of Cury, and was written by the master cooks of Richard II, in about 1390. A couple of recipes for leeks from the manuscript are given below in both medieval English with a modern translation. It is fascinating to ponder that these dishes were likely to be very familiar to King Henry’s longbowmen.
Caboches in Potage
Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue smale and do þer to safroun an salt and force it with powdour douce.
Cabbages in Broth
Take Cabbages and quarter them and boil them in good stock with minced onions and the white of leeks cut small, and add saffron and salt, and sweet spices.
Take white of Lekes and slyt hem, and do hem to seeþ in wyne, oile and salt, rost brede and lay in dysshes and the sewe above and serue it forth.
Leeks Served Over Bread
Take white of leeks and slice them, and cook them in wine, oil and salt: toast some bread and lay it in dishes, pour the leeks over and serve.
Or you can try my modern take on the dish – vermouth-stewed leeks and porcini on brioche
For further reading, try 24 hours at Agincourt, 25 October 1415, by Michael Jones, according to the BBC History Magazine, ‘an engaging, accessible and authoritative account of the dramatic events of that day”