Medieval Mutton Stew

I am an archaeologist who specialises in the study of animal bones. Since most of these finds are the debris from food preparation and consumption, it follows that knowledge of contemporary culinary practices is a useful aid to interpretation.

The medieval nobility and royalty of Europe were closely linked, so the surviving cookery books of the period show common themes aimed at catering for a similar clientele. However there were regional constraints on the available ingredients, as may be seen from these recipes for what is essentially the same dish.

French, late 15th Century: Le Menagier de Paris:Hericot of Mutton.

Cut it into small pieces. Then boil it for a moment, and fry it in lard, and fry with it some onions finely cut up and cooked, and moisten with beef broth, and add mace, parsley, hyssop, and sage, and boil it together.

French, mid 15th Century: Vivendier: To make an Haricoc of Mutton.

Set it raw, in chunks, to sautee in good rendered lard, along with finely chopped onions, wine, verjuice and good bouillon; at the end, add in pennyroyal and hyssop. Boil everything well together.

I tried both of these recipes in the summer of 2000 when, as Rent a Peasant, we were doing cookery displays at Aydon Castle in Northumberland. As the recipe below suggests, vinegar is an acceptable alternative if verjuice is not obtainable. Both recipes gave a very tasty result.

English, mid 15th Century: Harleian MS 4016:Stewed Mutton.

Take fair mutton that has been roasted, and mince it fair; put it into a possenet (saucepan) or else between two silver dishes; cast thereto fair parsley, and onions small minced; then cast thereto wine, and a little vinegar or verjuice, powder of pepper, cinnamon, salt and saffron, and let it stew on the fair coals, and then serve it forth; if you have no wine nor vinegar, take ale, mustard, and a quantity of verjuice, and do this instead of wine or vinegar.

I have not experimented with this recipe yet as I never seem to have enough left over roast mutton. I am interested in contrasting the wine based francophile version with the anglicised ale and mustard alternative.

English, late C14th:Forme of Cury

This recipe is slightly earlier and differs from the previous examples in the absence of onion.

Alaunder of Mutton. Take mutton of the leg, and seethe (simmer) it tender by itself, and when it is seethen take and bray (pound) it in a mortar, or hew (chop) it small with a knife, and put it in a pot and boil it with the same broth; and take saffron, and powder of cloves, and of cinnamon, and put thereto, and seethe it, and serve it forth.

Modern, generally American, interpretations of these Medieval cookery books usually fail to address these recipes for mutton, on the grounds that real mutton is so hard to obtain. Since I have my own flock of sheep, this is not a problem for Rent a Peasant cookery displays. The French editors of the Menagier de Paris also have no such problem, so here is their modernised version of the Hericot in English translation:

 

  • 1.5lbs boneless shoulder or leg of mutton cut into threequarter inch cubes
  • 3 medium-large onions
  • 3 cups beef broth (c. threequarter litre) (tinned consomme is useful)
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of lard
  • 4 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 5 or 6 leaves fresh sage, chopped
  • quarter teaspoon ground mace
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh hyssop, or 1 teaspoon dried hyssop, or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

Peel the onions and cut them into three eighths inch slices, then simmer or steam them for 5 to 7 minutes, until crisp-tender. Briefly plunge the mutton into boiling water, until it turns grey, then drain it well. Melt the lard in a casserole over medium heat; add the mutton and brown it lightly on all sides. Add the onions and saute until lightly golden, then add broth just to cover, plus the herbs, the mace, and salt to taste. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and cook gently, covered, for an hour to 90 minutes. When the meat is very tender, check the sauce for seasoning and serve.

The original medieval texts suggest a robust approach to dicing the meat, a standard phrase is “smite hem into gobbetts”. It was necessary for the cook to dice the meat as forks were not used. Instead diners would use fingers to help themselves from a communal dish and to eat with. The word “gobbett” means a bite size chunk. Salt was not added to food while it was cooking. Salt was placed on the dining table for those who “were worth their salt”, those seated “below the salt” went without. Pepper was also expensive, it was used in the kitchen but not placed on the table.

I hope these recipes stimulate some experimentation with the old combinations of flavouring when cooking mutton. Note there was no association of rosemary with mutton at this time.

 

If these recipes interested you, there is a Medieval Cookery Book List which may be of interest to you

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