Italian Blackberry Sauce, c. 1464

There is no shortage of 15th century Italian recipes thanks to Maestro Martino de Rossi, a well known and influential “celebrity” chef who worked in some of the greatest kitchens of late Medieval/Renaissance Italy. In 1464/65 he wrote Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), which is widely considered to be the first modern cookbook and possibly the best historical record of Italian cuisine.

There are a lot of sauce recipes in Libro de Arte Coquinaria but I was especially intrigued by what is commonly known as “Heavenly Blue Summer Sauce” or “Summertime Cerulean Blue Sauce” thanks to an English translation found in the book The Medieval Kitchen (1998) by Edward Schneider.

This particular recipe is made with blackberries, which are harvested during the summer.  According to Medieval folklore blackberries are never to be eaten after Michaelmas (a very old Catholic holiday) on September 29th. They are poison! Story goes, the Archangel Michael and Lucifer had a big fight in Heaven. Lucifer lost and plunged to Hell, landing in a blackberry bush. He cursed the berries, but not before spitting and possibly urinating on the bush.


The Recipe

Sapor celeste de estate. Piglia de li moroni salvatiche che nascono in le fratte, et un poche de amondole ben piste, con un pocho de zenzevero. Et queste cose distemperarai con agresto et passarale per la stamegnia.

The following translation is a blend of two separate translations by Jeremy Parzen and Edward Schneider:

Heavenly Summertime Sauce. Take blackberries that grow in the thickets/shrubs, and a small amount of almonds, well grounded, with a little ginger. Thin these things with verjuice and pass through a stamine/sieve

**Note on the translation

Every modernized redaction of this recipe I found calls it “Heavenly Blue Summer Sauce.” The blackberry sauce did not turn out blue for me or for anyone else, it seems, who has tried making it. This prompted a good look at the original Italian-Latin text, which I noticed doesn’t contain a word for blue (blu or caeruleus). I am an amateur at best when it comes to Latin, but Sapor celeste de estate could be loosely translated to mean “Heavenly taste of Summer.” My initial theory that this recipe may have been mistranslated was backed up by a 2005 English Edition of The Art of Cooking by Luigi Ballerini and Jeremy Parzen.  I decided to go with Parzen’s recipe title: “Heavenly Summertime Sauce.”


Heavenly Summertime Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 package (1.5-2 cups) blackberries
  • 2 tbsp. blanched almonds, finely ground
  • 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
  • 1-2 tbsp. verjuice (apple cider vinegar is an appropriate substitute)
  • 1 tsp. sugar, additional sugar to taste

Step ONE

Take blackberries that grow in the thickets/shrubs, and a small amount of almonds, well grounded, with a little ginger.

Crush blackberries in a mortar or puree in a food processor or blender. If you’re happy with a thick puree, stir in your almonds and ginger. Otherwise, strain the blackberries to remove seeds and simply use the juice before adding the other ingredients.

Step TWO

Thin these things with verjuice and pass through a stamine/sieve

Add the verjuice or cider vinegar to your mixture. 15th-century purees were made by forcing the mixture through a sieve, but you’ll save some time and energy using a blender or food processor. If desired, run your sauce through a strainer but be aware that it will take some work to push it all through. I divided my mixture into two parts to try both methods. I started with the strainer but ended up transferring most of it to the blender. The point is to turn your puree into a sauce, so at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter which method you use. The sauce will be thick.

Step THREE

Adjust flavors and serve over meat.

The resulting sauce will be slightly sour and slightly sweet. I thought the sauce was a bit dull and it needed to favor either sour or sweet. So I added a touch more sugar, but only a pinch at a time until I was satisfied with the balance of flavors.

Sauces like this one would have been paired with a white meat like veal or chicken. Birds were a favorite meat source during the summer months so your most authentic dish served with blackberry sauce would likely be poached chicken.


I enjoyed this sauce. It was unique and certainly different from modern sauces but it went well with some shredded chicken and, surprisingly, with pork. It also tasted pretty good on a homemade roll. Of all the family members who tried it, the biggest fan was my 12 year-old nephew!

Working with blackberries can be very messy but this sauce is easy to make. I encourage even the beginner cooks out there to give it a try and let me know what you think!


Sources

Featured Image photo by Photofarmer.

Almond Milk the Medieval Way: Pt. 2

This is part two of a three-part series of medieval almond milk recipes. Part One includes some background information about the important role that almond milk played in medieval cooking. If you haven’t done so already, I highly suggest reading  Almond Milk the Medieval Way.

 

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Today’s almond milk recipe comes from a medieval cookbook called Du Fait de Cuisine (On Cookery), written in 1420 by Maistre Chiquart.

Here is a digital version of the original manuscript: Du Fait de Cuisine, Médiathèque du Valais

Lucky for us there are English translations! I relied on this translation by Elizabeth Cook.


The Recipe

“And again, flans of almond milk: according to the quantity of flans which you are making take the quantity of almonds, have them well and cleanly blanched and washed and then have them very well brayed; and take very clean fair water and let him strain his almond milk into a bowl or a cornue which is fair and clean according to the quantity of flans which he should make….” – Du Fait de Cuisine (E. Cook translation).

Don’t be fooled by Maistre Chiquart’s wording here. This method of making almond milk is almost exactly the same as the one found in Le Viandier de Taillevent (1300). This is actually an excerpt from a flan recipe that calls for almond milk, not a stand-alone recipe.

You will need:

  • Almonds (blanched)
  • Water
  • Strainer or sieve 

Step ONE: Prep the Almonds

“And again, flans of almond milk: according to the quantity of flans which you are making take the quantity of almonds, have them well and cleanly blanched and washed and then have them very well brayed;”

This time around I used blanched almonds as suggested. If you have never blanched almonds before and would like to learn how, click here.  Because Maistre Chiquart told me to use measurements calculated according to the “quantity of flans” I am making (I am making 0 flans), I just used the same ratios as last time. 1 cup of almonds to 2 cups of water.

I ground/crushed (“brayed“) them up into a floury paste. You can do this by hand with a mortar and pestle like a true medieval food enthusiast or save time by using a blender or a spice grinder.

 

Step TWO: Boil and Steep

“…and take very clean fair water…”

The directions regarding the steeping process are vague. It is likely that Chiquart would have assumed that any cooks reading his book would have had a basic understanding of almond milking. So I drew on my experience with my recreation from Le Viandier de Taillevent and the redaction by Medieval Cookery to determine exactly how I should complete this step.

I boiled two cups of water and poured it over the almond paste. I then let the almond water steep for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. It is worth noting here the use of the word fair in medieval recipes, which could mean clean, fresh or even the quantity. If referring to quantity, “fair” would be a moderate amount. In this context, “fair” probably means “fresh.”

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Step THREE: Strain

“…and let him strain his almond milk into a bowl or a cornue which is fair and clean according to the quantity of flans which he should make….”

Once my almond milk was good and steeped, I poured it through a fine strainer into a bowl. Medieval kitchens did have sieves and strainers, so we know they didn’t just use cheesecloth to strain out the almond pulp. And if you were curious, I did some research and discovered that a cornue is a small bowl with handles.

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If you are the resourceful type, you can keep the almond pulp and use it in other recipes, like marzipan or almond flour. The options are endless, really.

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Don’t throw away your almond pulp!


This almond milk was very similar to the last one, but I definitely prefer the flavor of blanched almonds over the natural. I also much prefer using a strainer instead of cheesecloth, though the cheesecloth is probably more effective. I suspect that letting the ground almond steep a few extra minutes helped infuse the flavors a bit more.

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Overall, the milk is thin (closer to water than cow’s milk in consistency) and has a stronger almond flavor than the commercial products. The texture is still a touch chalky, but I really didn’t mind it at all. If you want to sweeten it up feel free to add some sugar, vanilla or agave, whatever your preferences are.

Stay tuned for Part Three, which will be a recreation of a sweetened almond milk recipe from the 15th century.

 

 

 

Almond Milk the Medieval Way

When I first discovered that every medieval cookbook calls for almond milk, I’ll admit I was surprised. Almond milk is a regular part of my diet but I suppose I always assumed it was a newer alternative food for people on restricted or health-conscious diets. Turns out almond milk was an extremely popular and necessary part of medieval life!

dsc_0029There are two major reasons why almond milk was such a huge deal during the Middle Ages:

  1. Cow’s milk wasn’t particularly safe. Unless the family had a cow and used its milk right after milking, dairy was risky.  There was no refrigeration or pasteurization, so milk would have to be used immediately. If a person were to purchase milk at the market there was no way to know for sure how fresh it was or whether it had been watered down by a dishonest vendor. Medieval folks weren’t dumb, so they relied on safer and more dependable milk alternatives.
  2. Fish Days. The Church had strict rules about which days of the week a person was allowed to eat meat. Meatless days basically prohibited anything that came from a warm-blooded animal: milk, eggs, meat, dairy. When a huge chunk of a person’s life is spent begrudgingly avoiding dairy and meat, the result is having to eat a LOT of fish. Hence the nickname Fish Days. Almond milk quickly became a household staple because it was used in place of cow’s milk 2-3 days every week.

There are a number of old manuscripts that contain recipes for almond milk. I found three versions from cookbooks that interest me: Le Viandier de Taillevent (c. 1300), Du Fait de Cuisine (1420), and Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books (1430-1450). I will eventually try them all, but first I will begin with the most basic and the oldest of the three, from Le Viandier de Taillevent.


The Recipe

“Take peeled almonds, crush very well in a mortar, steep in water boiled and cooled to lukewarm, strain through cheesecloth and boil your almond milk on a few coals for an instant or two.”
– Le Viandier de Taillevent

Original manuscript

The manuscripts have been translated from French into English by Terence Scully and combined into one cookbook attributed to Guillaume Tirel (1310-1381), the Master Chef to King Charles VI. There’s reason to believe Tirel didn’t write all of the recipes in these manuscripts and they were in fact written as early as 1300 by someone else.

All you’ll need is 1 cup of almonds, 2 cups of water and a cheesecloth.

Step ONE- Prep the Almonds

“Take peeled almonds, crush very well in a mortar”

You could use whole natural almonds or blanched almonds to make this milk. The benefit of using blanched almonds is a milk that is lighter in color and easier to sieve (no skin residue). Blanching is recommended but not mandatory. If you don’t want to blanch them yourself you can buy them pre-peeled.

mortarpestle

I used 1 cup of natural almonds and pulverized most in a blender and crushed the rest with the mortar and pestle. The goal was creating flour (almost a paste) without any hard chunks. If you want to do it the authentic way by hand, certainly feel free to use the mortar from start to finish. It’s much quicker to use the blender or a spice grinder and the results are pretty much the same.

Step TWO- Boil and Steep

“Steep in water boiled and cooled to lukewarm”

In researching almond milking methods, I’ve found the standard ratio of almonds to water is 1:2. So I boiled 2 cups of water and poured it over the almond powder/paste. Let it steep until lukewarm, around 10 minutes.

Step THREE- Strain

“Strain through cheesecloth and boil your almond milk on a few coals for an instant or two.”

I strained half of my milk through a cheesecloth to remove the almond grains, or at least as much of it as I could. The almond pulp was very thick so this took a little while and wasn’t a very smooth process considering this was my first attempt at milking almonds. Make sure you squeeze your cheesecloth to get all of the liquid out before you throw the pulp away (or use for something else if you’re so inclined). Let it boil on the stove for a few seconds if you want it to thicken. The longer you heat it, the thicker and creamier your milk will be.

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For the other half of the milk, I decided to follow the redaction created by A Boke of Gode Cookery and blend it rather than strain. I blended it up until all the grains appeared to be absorbed. This is not a step in the original recipe for obvious reasons, but ultimately we’re going for creating something that tastes good.

The result was two distinctly different almond milks. The strained version had a great milky texture, almost like the store-bought stuff but not as flavorful. The blended version was richer and tasted better, but was still very grainy. It would be excellent in a recipe or blended up in a smoothie but I don’t recommend drinking it straight like regular milk. There is no reason you couldn’t sweeten your milk with sugar or honey. In fact, you may really want to. I’ll be recreating a 15th century sweetened almond milk recipe in the near future, so stay tuned!

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Homemade almond milk can be stored at room temperature for about a week, and around three weeks in the refrigerator. No wonder medieval cooks always had some on hand!

There is very little about this recipe that is different from any modern version. The same basic rules apply, though modern recipes usually call for soaking the almonds and adding a wider variety of flavors like vanilla and nutmeg.

It’s very easy to make, but it does take a little bit of work to make homemade almond milk. There is a lot of room for experimentation so once you find the right version for your tastebuds you may never want to go back to the commercial products! Not only can you now tell your friends that you know how to make 14th century almond milk, but you can give yourself an extra pat on the back for avoiding all of those preservatives. Well done! Continue reading →