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Clarissa Dickson Wright and the Art of Medieval Food


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The late Clarissa Dickson Wright is known to the English-speaking countries of the world as one of The Two Fat Ladies – the middle-aged motorcycling cooks who zipped around the English, Welsh and Irish countryside, one at the wheel of a Triumph Thunderbird, the other stuffed into the sidecar wearing what appeared to be a Biggles pilot helmet.  Jennifer Paterson, the elder, learned to cook in Benghazi and London as a saucy au pair for the upper classes.  After she tired of minding the kiddies, she appeared as a regular on the British Candid Camera and as the cook for the Spectator Magazine’s weekly lunches.   She was fired from the Spectator when she chucked all the kitchen crockery out of an upper floor window because the accountants left dirty tea cups in the sink.  Her culinary talents must have been formidable because she was retained long after she had tickled Enoch Powell’s bald spot during one lunch while girlishly cooing “koochie koo!” at the thunderstruck MP.  Hospitalized in 1999 and told she had a month or so to live, she was asked if she wanted to speak with a social worker.  “No,” she boomed, “I’m watching a Fred Astaire film.”

Clarissa Dickson Wright, although as insouciant as her other half, was a different kettle of medieval fish.  Born to an Australian heiress and the Queen’s surgeon, Arthur Dickson Wright, she grew up in London amid the upper classes of Scotland, Ireland, England and Oz.  Both her parents were connoisseurs of fine food and drink and during a time of strict food rationing her father was importing pigeon from the Middle East and caviar from Iran.  In this lavish environment, Clarissa learned to appreciate beautifully prepared food and drink but choose the law as her profession.  At 21, she became the youngest person called to the bar, working as a barrister at the Inns of Court.  Those who have read her hilarious and chagrined autobiographies “Spilling the Beans” and “Riffling Through My Drawers,” know that upon her beloved mother’s death, she collapsed into a sybaritic existence that decimated the family fortune and landed her penniless and drunk in a London jail with only Saki’s short stories as company.  Once sober, she rebuilt her life around food and its preparation, employed as a cook in private homes and as manageress of the well-known shop in Portobello Road called “Books for Cooks.”  In 1996, she and Jennifer came under the eagle eye of a sharp-witted BBC producer who decided to pair the women in a television program centered around their many talents.  These included Paterson’s basso profundo singing style, cocktail-shaking and motorcycling skills.  Dickson Wright brought her sharp wit and extensive knowledge of the history of English food.  “Two Fat Ladies” became an instant hit that was sadly cut short after its fourth season when Jennifer was struck down by cancer.

Dickson Wright, happily, went on to a solo television career bringing her knowledge of not only food but of country life to the British Isles.  Unfortunately, the programs were not available to Americans until fans of Clarissa uploaded them onto You Tube.  Two wonderful shows – 2008’s “Clarissa Dickson Wright and the King’s Cookbook” and 2014’s “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” – are there for the viewing.  Both explore the long history of cooking in England and push back against notions of bland food prepared by a garlic-phobic nation.  She makes a grand case that English food during the 14th Century achieved an artistic level that could rival France.

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Dash Barber as the young King Richard II in “Clarissa and the King’s Cookbook”

“The King’s Cookbook” takes us into the world of Richard II (1367-1400) and his lavish lifestyle at table.  Deep within the British Library, we are shown the original Forme of Cury (translation:  Method of Cooking), Richard’s compilation of 196 recipes complete with food stains and marginalia.  We are shown directions for making blancmange (originally made with capon), salad (with nary a piece of lettuce in sight) and blubbery roasted porpoise.  We learn that he employed over 300 kitchen staff.  These included saucers, milkers, boners, choppers, spit boy, roasters and scribes who sat in a vestibule writing down “receipts.”  All of them (with the exception of the scribes) were half naked because of the intense heat.  They struggled mightily under the aegis of the Master Chef who sat upon a throne in the kitchen overseeing the work.  They were expected to maintain rigid sanitary conditions.  In an extension of these rules – which would benefit most Waffle Houses in the USA – he demanded his guests be provided with spoons and napkins and prohibited them from eating with fingers or belching, farting and fighting.    In an interesting aside, Clarissa notes that while medieval cooking compilations do not include vegetable recipes, they were always included in meals and feasts.  Herbs and vegetables were foraged in the wild and/or grown in private kitchen gardens.  They were simply picked daily without much thought to recording how they were used.  In the program “Lunch,” we see a lamb pottage (“in a pot”) being cooked over an open fire by docents and volunteers in medieval dress.  As they peer into the bubbling pot, Clarissa laments today’s lack of available mutton which was once so popular and has lost favor among modern people because of its gaminess.*  We are also disabused of that most pernicious notion of the medieval era that expensive and rare imported spices were used to cover up the smell and taste of rotten meat.  Nothing could be further from the truth as several historians interviewed note with vehemence.  Medieval cooks, like our modern chefs, knew how to use ingredients economically and intelligently.  As they point out, only chilies would have disguised the taste of bad meat and they had not yet been imported from the Americas.

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Clarissa Dickson Wright at the British Library with the original Forme of Cury

The louche King Richard continued his wanton ways, taxing and spending his country into anarchy all to please his exquisite palate and discriminating taste.  “I will not dismiss one scallion from my kitchen on the grounds that Parliament asked me to, ” he famously sneered, much like a medieval Richard Olney faced with a shipment of bad wine.  Of course, as is usually the case with tyrants and run-away budgets, the citizenry was soon fed up and hankering for a change.  In 1399, he was brought to heel by the usual aggressive and ambitious upstarts that tended to gather around the edges of powerful Yorkists.  In this case, it was Henry Bolingbroke, who after a false promise of freedom confined Richard to Pontefract Castle with neither a napkin nor spoon in sight.  He then proceeded to starve the king to death in an ironic execution that mirrored the death several decades later of alcoholic George, Duke of Clarence, who was supposedly drowned in a butt of Malmsey.  Mordant Lancastrian wit!

So ended the life of the first foodie king who, at least, never burned a cake unlike a certain predecessor.  Instead, he left us with one of the earliest English-language cookbooks in western history which is offered free-of-charge on Kindle.

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“I give this heavy weight off my head, and this unwieldly sceptre from my hand”

Two recipes are mentioned in “The King’s Cookbook” from The Forme of Cury.  One is Goose Madame or Goose in Sauce Madame.  The other is the simple and delicious:

Pears in Red Wine

2 Pears, 2 cups of good red wine, 1/2-1 cup of sugar depending on taste, orange zest, 1 cinnamon stick, star anise (optional).

Cut the bottoms off of peeled pears so that they stand up.  Place in a deep saucepan and pour in the red wine.  Add all other ingredients and simmer until pears are a deep jewel-like red and easily pierced with a knife.  Cool and serve on a white plate with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sweetened ricotta.


The website Coquinaria, devoted to medieval cuisine, has a recipe for Goose Madame in which it is advised that it be served at Christmastime.  We are now in the midst of high summer but perhaps it can be tucked away for later in the year or read for pure amazement at the list of ingredients that would delight Yotam Ottolenghi:

Stuff Goose Sauce Madame

1 large goose

For the stuffing: 2-4 tart apples, 2 pears, 2 Tbs. chopped parsley and 1 tsp. of sage and savory, 2 garlic cloves, chopped, 20-30 grapes, skinned.

For the sauce:  1 Tbsp of goose fat, 1 small onion, chopped, 1/2 liter (2 cups) of dark stock, 1/4 cup red wine, 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar, white breadcrumbs, galingale (or ginger), cinnamon mace, cloves, cubebs (a type of peppercorn), salt to taste, giblets.

Salt to taste

the neck and giblets of the goose

Stuffing prep:  Boil the unpeeled apples for an hour in water.  Drain and cool.  Peel pears, decore them.  Cut them in small pieces.  Mix in the chopped herbs, garlic and peeled grapes.

Put the stock in a boiling pan, add the giblets.  Bring to a boil, let simmer a couple of hours.  Strain through a fine sieve.

Sauce:  Heat some of the goose fat and fry the onion in it.  Add the strained stock and red wine and the bread crumbs.  Let this simmer a short while until thickened.  Now add the stuffing from the goose, spices and wine vinegar.  Bring to the boil once more.

Set the temperature at 180C or 350F.  Stuff the goose, secure the filling and place goose on a rack.  Baste regularly and after about two to three hours, take it out and let it rest for 10-15 minutes for the juices to redistribute.  This can be served whole or sliced with stuffing and sauce.



Goose with Sauce Madame

*One of New York City’s oldest chop houses, Keen’s Steakhouse, no longer serves mutton although it is still advertised.  What you smell the minute you enter this wood-paneled old restaurant are giant lamb chops sizzling on the platter.

Both “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner” and “Clarissa and The King’s Cookbook” are available in sections on You Tube.

Recommended reading:  all are available on Amazon:

A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Clarissa’s England:  A Gamely Gallop through the English Counties

Feast Days: Recipes from “The Spectator” by Jennifer Paterson.  Miss Paterson follows the Catholic liturgical calendar with recipes and amusing comments on the more eccentric saints of the Church.




Galangal – The Spice of Life

galangal 5Mulahwajah*

“Anything green that grew out of mould was an excellent herb to our fathers of old”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling when describing the English medieval addiction to herbs and spices – the more exotic the better.  And surely there is none more exotic than Alpinia officinarum, or lesser Galangale, now simply known as galangal although, in reality, there are actually four different varieties of the herb.  A knobby, sallow root that grows from the rhizomes of the ginger family (zingiberaceae), it appears to have travelled from China to Arabia and was then introduced into Europe either as early as the tenth century or in the late eleventh century.  In 1179, St. Hildegard of Bingen, the famed German herbalist and mystic, refers to it as “catarrh root” and “the spice of life” in her seminal work “Physica”.  She provides a snuff-like treatment for the relief of colds and sinus inflammation and considering its powerful scent – a spicy mixture of ginger and mustard with a hot, bitterly medicinal taste – it’s fairly obvious that it would apply quite a shock to the olfactory system.

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She also pressed galangal, along with pellitory (a perennial that resembles chamomile) and white pepper into pill form for heart pain.  But, like ginger, she used it primarily as a digestive and relief of upset stomach and seasickness.  Today, homeopaths used it both for stomach complaints and in aiding blood circulation.

For culinary purposes, both the French and English medieval people incorporated galangal in prepared dishes but it seems to have been mainly used as an ingredient in a sauce called “Rapeye.”    This sauce is thickened with dried fruit, boiled in wine and various spices and served with meat or fish.  Rapeye also was used in meat or fish pasties.  Some modern cookbooks suggest adding it in dishes for its mustardy depth of flavor.

Today, galangal is primarily used in Asian cookery – particularly Thai and Indonesian cuisines.  In Europe, it seems mostly confined to a flavoring for alcohol in Lithuania and Estonia.  Russia has a galangal vodka called Nastoika.  And last but not least, the artisanal soft drink community – from Baghdad to London to Brooklyn – has now introduced a new soda with a kick that would surely have pleased our medieval ancestors.

galangal soda

Here are two medieval recipes that might be adapted for the modern palate:

From The Forme of Cury, 1390


Take half fyges and half raisins pike them and waisshe them in water skalde them in wine.  Bray them in a morter, and draw them through a strainer.  Cast them in a pot and therwith powder of pepper and oother good powders.  Alay it up with flour of Rice.  And colour it with sanders (sandalwood), salt it and present it forth.

rapeye fillingRapeye filling for pasties

From Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Pelner Cosman:

Arbolettys (A spiced cheese dish)

4 eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup of milk

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup ricotta or cottage cheese

1 teaspoon fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon ground sage

3/4 teaspoon finely grated candied ginger

1/4 teaspoon galingale


1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon sugar

Beat the eggs and salt with a fork and set aside.  In a large enameled pot, gently heat the milk, butter and cheese, stirring intermittently until the mixture is smooth and slowly simmering.  Slowly beat 1/2 cup of the hot liquid into eggs, stirring constantly to avoid curdling.  Add the eggs to pot and stir; simmer for two minutes, stirring while custard thickens.  Remove from heat.  Mix parsley, sage, ginger and galingale and stir into the pot.  Spoon into one large serving dish and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top.  Serve warm.

Galangal can be found at Asian food markets.  It is not recommended as a substitute for ginger.

arbolettys11A version of Arbolettys served with toast

*The dish shown in the delightful painting at the top is called “Mulahwajah” – an Arab word meaning “hasty.”  It is a quickly prepared lamb dish made with galangal and various spices including what appears to be leeks and garlic.

Special thanks to Kitchen Doctor, “Galangal” by Ingred Naiman

The Apothecary, Herbs and the Herb Garret….


For anyone who may be interested in Apothecaries and what they did, I have just come upon the following:, by Kevin Flude and Paul Herbert. It is well worth reading, although the Recipe for Snail Water at the end is a little disgusting. Its only saving grace would be if it worked!.

Bringing up the Saffron


Pare saffron plot,

forget it not. 

His dwelling made trim,

look shortly for him. 

When harvest is gone,

then saffron comes on. 

A little of ground,

Brings Saffron a Pound

The history of saffron, that exotic spice of the Levant, spans three millennia, landing in England some time in the mid-14th century – although certainly there are hints of its somewhat limited existence before that found in the household accounts of nobility.  In 1240, physician Gilbert of England mentions it as an aid in mental illness.  (Today there is ongoing research into saffron as a source of helping in depression which the early 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, may have dourly acknowledged in his admonition that saffron caused “some to have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter which ended in death”.)  There is a legend that sometime during the reign of Edward the Third, a pilgrim returning to Essex from the Middle East brought a Crocus bulb (the source of saffron) hidden in his staff thus starting the saffron industry.  In truth, it probably was returning Crusaders from Asia Minor who introduced saffron to the upper classes who, in turn, encouraged its cultivation in England, primarily Essex and Norfolk.  And just in time to benefit the population devastated by the Black Death in 1348 and during its re-ocurrence thirty-three years later.  Its medicinal qualities (such as it was thought) included halting hemorrhages, vomiting and headache while guarding against colic, cough and scabies.  In other words, a myriad of claims that is often made about most herbs and spices – today as well as in the medieval period.  In actuality, it was often used as a dye in the wool trade and as a bright paint for illustrations of religious texts and murals.  According to Essex saffron farmer, David Smale, England was the largest producer of saffron during the medieval period.

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Saffron is the stigma of the Crocus – not the springtime harbinger of better times and weather but, instead, of the autumn flower.  Called Crocus sativus Linnaeus, it is a descendent of the wildflower Crocus cartwrightianus.   Thought to have originated in Persia, its brilliant red-orange stigmas were not only used in paint and medicine but also food coloration and for its pungent flavor and hay-like aroma.  And no one was more color or flavor conscious than the noble classes and royalty of medieval England!  The amount of stigma (or the less prized white styles) that must be collected to make even a small amount of saffron has made it the costliest spice in the world.  The most recent estimate is that it takes over 200,000 crocus flowers to obtain 450 grams of saffron.  Today, several farmers in Essex (particularly the market town aptly named Saffron Walden) and Norfolk are reintroducing this fascinating spice into their landscape but because of cost and labor, one gram (0.035 ounces) sells for 75 pounds.  Just a brief scroll through to see the prices of the finest saffron of Iran and Spain is enough to make one clutch the wallet a little tighter.

saffron 2In challenging the belief that saffron was introduced to England in the 14th century, we have the 13th century accounts book of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester (Eleanor Plantagenet), the wife of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester.  Her immense household (centered at Dover Castle) purchased modest amounts of the spice – only one pound at a time as compared to six of cinnamon.  She paid between 10s. and 14s. a pound for saffron while spices such as pepper and ginger were purchased for much less.  A little bit of saffron goes a long way and one can’t help but wonder whether her husband, de Montfort, had not developed a taste for the strong-tasting strands of gold while enjoying his rice pilafs during his two crusades to Syria and the Holy Land.  If the de Montfort family saffron was not purchased in England, it is likely that it would have been imported from Spain and Venice – two top importers during this period.

Sadly, the interest in saffron began to wane in the 18th century in Great Britain when sweet flavors such as vanilla began to supplant the somewhat bitter saffron.  Nonetheless, it still has its place in English cookery and I include a link to the famous Cornish Saffron Cake (or bun) for those cooks who tire of throwing a few precious strands of sunburst into the rice while cooking up their Chicken Tikka Masala and might prefer something a little bit more cozy.  As always, the BBC includes the Imperial measurements for us benighted types.


And here is a medieval recipe for mulled wine borrowed from “Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony” by Madeleine Pelner Cosman.  Perfect for a simple holiday meal for 300 guests:

Maumenye Bastarde

“Bastarde” refers to a popular medieval wine.

2 Quarts of clarified honey

1 Pound of Pine Nuts

1 Pound of Currents

1 Pound of Sandalwood

1 Pound of Powdered Cinnamon

2 Gallons of Wine or Ale

Plus: 3 pounds of Almond

1 Gallon of Vinegar

Saffron, Powdered Ginger and Salt to taste.

Mix these in a gigantic medieval pot.  Heat for ten minutes and then strew powdered ginger on the surface.

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Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David

Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton


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