Roasted Swan for Dinner? Oldest English Cookbook Reveals 200 Meals Fit for a King
Created in September 1387, The Forme of Cury is the oldest written cookbook in the English language. The manuscript was commissioned by King Richard II of England, best known for his deposition in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, and his uncle John Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who many believed was trying to usurp the English throne. The book contains the recipes the master of cooks used for their joint banquet of nearly 200 dishes.
Sometime toward the end of September, Richard and John hosted a wonderful feast together for reasons not quite clear to historians. Some speculate that it was held to assure the nobles that there was no discord between the young king (then only 20 years old) and his Uncle. More likely it was an end-of-harvest feast for a particularly good year. The reasons behind the manuscript’s creation are more certain. Banquets and feasts were symbols of power and prestige. They allowed kings and nobles to show off their wealth by displaying fine cutlery, extravagant dishes, and a ridiculous amount of food. For the 1387 feast, King Richard II’s team of over three hundred cooks commissioned a grocery list that included:
“Fourteen salted oxen, two fresh oxen, one hundred and twenty sheep, twelve boars, fourteen calves, one hundred forty pigs, three hundred kegs of lard and grease, three tons of salted venison, fifty swans, two hundred forty geese, fifty high-fat capons, eight dozen capons, sixty dozen hens, four hundred large rabbits, four pheasants, five herons, six young goats, five dozen pullets for jelly, twelve dozen pullets for roasting, one hundred dozen pigeons, twelve dozen partridges, eight dozen rabbits, twelve dozen curlews, twelve cranes, wild fowl, one hundred twenty gallons of milk, twelve gallons of cream, twelve gallons of curds, twelve bushels of apples, and eleven thousand eggs”
A large pig is being bled in preparation for slaughter ( Public Domain )
Competition for the French
The Forme of Cury was doubtless a cookbook for the rich and famous. Along with the hundreds of animals needed, several rare and valuable (at the time) spices are called for that could only have been acquired through import or trade, such as nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, pepper, and caraway. Some recipes include ingredients strange even to modern readers, such as cranes, herons, curlews, whales, seals, and dolphins. The manuscript is also the first instance in English writing to mention olive oil and cloves.
- Treatise on Make-up and Jam: A Bestselling Cookbook by Nostradamus
- 1,000-year-old Middle Eastern recipe book claims to have the ultimate hangover cure
In addition to impressing his subjects, King Richard II most certainly wanted to amaze the French, England’s historic enemy. In 1300, a French cookbook had been produced, Le Viandier of Taillevent, that quickly became the standard of fine Medieval dining. The Forme of Cury was intended to compete with the French cookbook. Yet, it still acknowledges French preeminence in the culinary arts in the title, which is French for The Proper Method of Cooking (cuire in Middle French means ‘to cook’).
Le Viandier de Taillevant, from a 15th-century edition. ( Public Domain )
The book was written on a scroll made of vellum, an expensive parchment made of fine calfskin. According to the preamble, the 196 recipes in the cookbook were written with the “assent and avysement of Maisters and phisik and of philosophie at dwelled in his court” (“approval and consent of the masters of medicine and of philosophy that dwelt in his [King Richard II's] court”).
Page from Forme of Cury. ( Public Domain )
This statement attests to the ancient belief in the connection between food and medicine. The introduction also explains how the manuscript desires to teach the reader how to make ordinary dishes for everyday consumption - “Common pottages and common meats for the household, as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely” – as well as extravagant dishes for special occasions - “curious potages and meetes and sotiltees for alle maner of States bothe hye and lowe” (“sotiltees” or subtleties are the elaborate, edible sculptures that always feature on banquet tables. They are usually made of sugar pastes, jelly, and waxes). Many of the recipes include meat but 33 are for fish or for vegetarian meals that can be eaten during periods of religious fasting.
- Marcus Gavius Apicius: Top Gourmand of the Roman World
- English Nursery Rhymes with Unexpected and Sometimes Disturbing Historical Origins
- The Strange Story of the Black Prince of Canterbury
King Richard II was eventually deposed by Henry of Bolingbroke, the Duke of Lancaster’s eldest son. The 33-year-old King died of hunger in prison in the year 1400. Many modern adaptations of the medieval recipes can be found, including this one of a dessert known as Pears in Confection, taken from Cook Books a-la-Carte.