Is There a Place for Modern Historical Cooking?

I once read an article that was very adamant in that you must never make Hippocras if it isn't syrupy and full of vast quantities of sugar, like the original. Another was quite particular about the original ratios of ingredients to make Jumbles, the twisty, chewy Tudor biscuit. And God forbid if you want to make Maids of Honour using shop-bought shortcrust pastry. 


Photo by Sorin Gheorghita on Unsplash 

I have other ideas. 

There is a difference between taking inspiration from historical foods and food archaeology. 

The aim of food archaeology is to recreate a recipe as close to the original as we can, so that we might all be educated about what a sixteenth-century Marchpane tasted like, or a Saxon pie crust. This is really important, and can reveal a lot about the way people seasoned their food, the ingredients they used and the kind of tastes and flavours they enjoyed. It's usually done using authentic cookware, historical cooking methods and the closest ingredients we can get to the types eaten back then. You might see this sort of historical cooking on your days out at palaces and stately homes, costumed cooks forming pie crusts with their hands, filling them with melted chocolate in wooden jugs and sliding them into 200-year old ovens. 

This is so important for historical learning and research and a sense of compassion and a link from us to our ancestors. Fascinating. I love it. 

But honestly, don't we sometimes just want to have a bit of fun? 

I take inspiration from historical cookbooks a lot, in my cooking at home, for my family. Yes, I use shop-bought pastry for my Maids of Honour because it's easy and quick. Yes, they're not historically accurate, but then I don't pretend that they are. And of course pastry is better when it's home-made, but my kids keep asking for a trayful of these lemon-scented pies, still warm from the oven and it's easier than getting pastry to mix, rest in the fridge and then get rolled out on a floury worktop. 

Not everyone wants to make their own pastry, or hand-raise their pies. Pastry tins were invented to make that job easier. 

Not everyone wants to add massive quantities of sugar to their Medieval drinks because of taste preferences or maybe health reasons. 

Not everyone wants to bake dinner in a wood-fired oven - or squatting over a small bonfire in the garden. 

Does that mean that historical recipes are off-limits to them, all in the sake of historical accuracy? 

Of course not. 

Making rules about historical cooking is - for the rest of us that just want to have fun with it and aren't doing research - a bit like artists saying that you should always draw out perspective lines or guidelines for the structure of a face. Picasso didn't paint portraits with accuracy in mind. Salvador Dali painted Elephants with thin, spindly, tall legs. And DuChamp - well, he put his signature on a urinal and exhibited it in a posh gallery. 

Be inspired by cooking from the past, and don't feel intimidated that you're somehow not doing it properly. If a beautifully spiced Beef-Y-Stwyd slowly simmered in your electric slow cooker is enjoyed by the family on a Sunday evening then that's perfect. Being curious about historical food and trying out old ingredient combinations is really exciting. And I'm all for getting historical cooking back in the kitchen and onto our plates, even if it involves the use of foil, a little less sugar and a twentieth-century appliance or three. Tastes change over time, cooking methods are developed and new ingredients are brought into the market all the time.

Be inspired by the past, and bring history into your kitchen. Have fun with it. 

You might discover something new. 

Any thoughts? Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

Enjoyed this? You might also like Tudor Maids of Honour, A Tudor Breakfast and The History of the Sandwich. You can find all my historic recipes here

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