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Dutch cheese biscuits, surprisingly familiar…

Those blue cheese biscuits from this entry? The ones I said were made from a recipe by Nigella Lawson, but I didn’t particularly care? This morning I was reading Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and Noble Food), or UB Gent 1035, as transcribed and translated by Christianne Muusers over on Coquinaria, when I came across recipe 1.21, Deegh om pypesen te makene, dough to make pipes. 

‘Take cheese from Gouda and eggs. Grind together with white flour. Lay it on dry flour and make small biscuits of it.’

Compare this with Nigella’s (paraphrased, abbreviated and innuendo removed):

Mix the cheese, butter and egg yolk together and work in the flour (and the optional cornmeal and salt which I didn’t use) just enough to form a soft dough. Let rest in the fridge, dust a surface with flour, roll out the pastry and cut whatever shapes you like. (Domestic Goddess p.64)

Granted, the cheeses used are different, the latter recipe is enriched with butter and yolks rather than whole eggs, but otherwise the recipe is basically the same. This really illustrates my own cooking philosophy. According to it, even if we do use a modern recipe, provided that we use period ingredients and period methods, someone somewhere probably already made it in Period.

Ordinary dishes with period echoes

My husband says that the Finns and the rest of the Nordic types just never stopped eating Medieval. He may have something going on here. Trouble with Finnish cooking in particular is that the earliest surviving cookery book in Finnish comes from the early 19th century. I haven’t researched Swedish (which used to be the language of the rulers) materials, so it’s possible that actual period recipes exist, which may have been used also by the high-ups in Eastland. Otherwise, however, we are rather dependent on the archaeological record. So we’ll know what they ate and, based on the evidence of the cooking equipment, roughly how they cooked it, but we don’t know the exact procedures. Yet, by far most and most of Finland would have been inhabited by illiterate peasants, so they would not have read or written cookery books anyway.

At some point I’ll have to write a blog post on the history of the traditional massive multi-oven/fireplace system that is a feature of most older farmhouses. Baked and roasted dishes would have been usual, particularly in the East, contrary to the situation elsewhere in Europe, where peasant houses did not tend to have ovens. 

This lengthy musing attempted to provide some background to why I think the dishes I cooked at the weekend may have their roots far in history, or, at the very least, why they could be included in SCA menus. All the things that I made are very common day-to-day dishes in Finland, and I grew up eating them regularly.

Baked barley porridge. Frumenty by any other name. Apparently ‘frumenty’ comes from the word for ‘grain’, so although most recipes for it today use wheat, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use barley. The Finnish ones would be made using full fat cow’s milk; but as an experiment I decided to use Alpro’s ‘New!’ (um) almond milk available at my local supermarket. I washed pearl barley and soaked it in water for two hours, although this was probably unnecessary; then boiled it for about half another in water and in some of the almond milk. Finally I tipped the puffed up grains into an oven dish and poured the rest of the almond milk in. Here I used too little liquid. Next time I will use closer to two litres of almond milk. I cooked it in 150 C degrees for two hours and a bit. The overall result was very good, although, as I implied, a little bit too dry for the dish to be called porridgy. The skin, which should be the best part, was greyer and looked less appetising than when the porridge is cooked using cow’s milk. It tasted fine, though, although not as delicious as in the traditional version. You could eat this dish sweet or savoury.

To go with the barley, I made some fruit soup. We always hear how fruit and other plant matter in Period were either considered totally harmful or harmful when uncooked, but I cannot believe that they wouldn’t have been used. For a start, you don’t write dietary advice against the eating of something if that something isn’t being eaten. Also, berries in particular are so deeply rooted in the Nordic psyche, that I’m gonna argue that they’ve been eaten with gusto as long as Scandinavia has had human habitation. For this soup, I used a frozen supermarket summer fruit mix tipped into blackcurrant juice and some sugar. I thickened it a little with cornflour. I should really look into Period thickeners, assuming any existed. The texture of the barley porridge goes beautifully with this. It also works very nicely as a cool, thick beverage or a cold soup. I’ve a mind to make a vat of this for some event and leave it in the hall for people’s consumption as they wish. 

Yesterday I made stuffed cabbage rolls. Stuffed vegetables seem to originate in the area of the Eastern Mediterranean, and I seem to recall I read somewhere that as an idea of a dish these arrived in Finland quite late. For Finland, they might be non-period, but certainly not so elsewhere. I boiled a cabbage upside down in a saucepan until they leaves softened and plucked them off. I made a mixture of fried small cabbage leaves, onion, beef mince, some of the cooked barley from the porridge (typical recipes use cooked rice) and various spices (some recipes include an egg for coherency, I didn’t use it), placed a little in the middle of each large cabbage leaf and folded the leaves into cushions. I placed a knob of butter on top of each cushion, drizzled treacle over the whole lot, and baked them also in 150 C for just over two hours. They came out very good, although next time I’ll use white cabbage instead of green. These should be eaten with red currant or lingonberry jam; we went for the former. 

Finally, today I cooked grated roots to go with the rest of the cabbage rolls. I prepared and grated some carrots, a small turnip and a parsnip, tossed them in a large amount of butter in a saucepan until they’d softened for a bit, and then simmered them in chicken stock for a few minutes. Added salt and pepper, as they seemed to be necessary. 

A satisfying selection of dishes, although my contentment is somewhat marred by the fact that our hob seems to be giving up the ghost. 


The new event year kicked off with a day event, Pen and Sword, held by my own shire, Dun in Mara. This was fairly small and fairly casual, but everyone did well and we managed to fit in archery, heavy fighting, fencing, A&S and even a small feast. Attendees seemed to have fun and the newbies brought along to the event enjoyed themselves. I was in charge of the A&S end of things. Stefano, visiting from Eplaheimr, taught tablet weaving in the morning and in the afternoon. I gave a class on the bardic arts in the morning, and we gave small performances at the feast. There was a display of people’s projects, varying from a luxurious reproduction of a Renaissance fan to a wonderful little wooden carving of a horse.

For the day, I donated blue cheese biscuits and non-alcoholic drinks. The site was dry, so I figured that we could use something beyond water and fruit juices – although nobody, in the end, seemed to have brought juices. The biscuits were done using a modern recipe (Nigella Lawson’s, if you must know, from the Domestic Goddess), once I had established that blue cheese was indeed Period. Apparently Charlemagne was quite a fan. Otherwise the biscuits only required butter, egg yolks and flour.

My mother had visited me from Finland during the holidays, and I’d got her to bring some kits for kotikalja, known elsewhere as svagdricka, or kvas, or smallbeer. It makes a malt drink, only slightly fermented, good enough to give to children. I made six litres of this. It was, however, superseded in popularity by a traditional Finnish drink, sima. It’s often translated into English as ‘mead’, although the most common recipe doesn’t use honey and it’s not alcoholic. I found at least one recipe that did use honey, so I will experiment with that at some point. I can’t say anything else about the periodness or otherwise of this drink, except that all the ingredients are period and I can’t imagine that the preparation method would have changed a lot either. This is how you make it.

For four litres of sima, bring two litres of water to boil and pour it over 250g of white and 250g of dark muscovado sugar. Mix in the juice squeezed from two lemons and another two litres of cold or cool water. Mix in about half of a 7g bag of dried yeast. (I experimentally used fast action since I couldn’t find anything else, it worked fine). The water must be warm for the yeast to awaken, but not too hot so it doesn’t die – about 40-42 degrees is the ideal. I also washed and sliced the squeezed lemons and added them to the mix. Stir and let it rest in room temperature for 24-48 hours. I used a very large saucepan for all this.

Sieve and bottle the sima. In each bottle, add a teaspoon of sugar and several raisins. Do not quite fill the bottles and do not close them too tightly, as the pressure within will grow as the fermentation process continues. When all the raisins have risen to the surface, the sima is ready. Serve cool. You can adjust the colour of the sima by adjusting the mix of dark and white sugars, or solely use one or the other. This recipe gives quite an ale-esque taste – do not think that what you get at the end is anything like a lemonade!


It’s also possible to add to or replace the lemons with other fruit or berries, but I haven’t tried this yet. At some point I will try out raspberry sima. In Finland, the lemon sima is a traditional drink for Vappu, the first of May.

Insulae Draconis Coronet & Yuletide University

Last weekend, the Insulae Draconis Coronet and Yuletide University took place in Glen Rathlin. Aodh has written about it elsewhere in detail. For this blog, its interest mainly lies in the gingerbread subtlety that I presented at the feast. I had carefully written documentation for it in advance, but discovered on the site that no A&S display or competition was being held this time. Not to worry; that is what the blog is for. 

Below is the documentation I would have presented. 



1. Description

 A stylized castle incorporating heraldic elements of Drachenwald, Insulae Draconis and Glen Rathlin, all made from gingerbread dough, put together with melted sugar, decorated with edible gold paint, sugar paste, sugared almonds, cinder toffee and spices. Presented as a subtlety at the feast accompanied by a story written by me.

2. Concept of subtlety in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 A subtlety/sotelty/soteltie was the English term for entremets (between meals), an elaborate entertainment consisting of a display piece made from edible materials, wood or canvas, and, additionally, in more sumptuous settings, automatons or live performers.[i] Besides entertainment, entremets served purposes of allegory and honouring of important people or events. Sweet subtleties could be made from materials such as pastry, butter, marzipan and sugar paste. We know that subtleties were made in shape of buildings; for example, at the enthronement of William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1505, one of the subtleties was in the shape of the interior of an abbey church.[ii] We also know that display castles were made from pastry and decorated and/or filled with sweets and/or savouries, as the example of chastletes shows.[iii] Subtleties went out of fashion in mid- to late 16th century.

3. Gingerbread (Lebküchen/pfeffernüsser/speculaas/leckerli/pepparkakor/piparkakut) dough in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

 The history of spiced biscuits that have become one of European Christmas specialities stretches back to the Middle Ages. We cannot pinpoint their origin, but it is thought that the first ones would have been made in German monasteries.[iv] As an interesting detail, a 13th-century Provencal poem of Flamenca states that at Christmas tide the best trade is plied on spices, so we might argue that spiced biscuits at Christmas/Yuletide table have a very early justification.[v] A 16th-century German recipe calls for honey, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and pepper.[vi] In late Medieval England, honey and breadcrumbs were used, sometimes coloured with saffron or sanders (powdered sandalwood), with cinnamon and pepper for flavor. Decoration was used, as an example of box leaves held in place with gilded cloves shows.[vii] In the 17th century, breadcrumbs were replaced by flour, honey by treacle, and butter, eggs and raising agents added to enrich the dough.

4. Method

In order to incorporate the Period concept, ingredients and flavor with the methods of modern cookery, I used an adaptation of a recipe for German honiglebküchen available from Petruksen Piparkakut, a carefully researched Finnish-language blog on historical biscuits and gingerbreads. I left out the cocoa and replaced the unobtainable raising agent with commercial baking soda. Other ingredients of the dough include: honey, sugar, butter, lard, egg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, allspice, rye flour and wheat flour. As I could find no suitable Period illustrations, I used a freely available non-Period pattern. The heraldic pieces I drew myself, freehand, first on paper and then traced the design on rolled out dough. The pieces of the castle are stuck together using melted sugar and the decoration is done using Period ingredients as far as possible. Sim (2005: 153-7) notes that the art of sugarcraft was very developed in the 16th century and she documents the use of sugar paste and how to dye it in different colours.[iii] The sugared almonds and cinder toffee used were made by Lady Fianna Rua Nic Mhathúna.

[i] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (OCF), First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999: 760

[ii] Alison Sim, Food & Feast in Tudor England, The History Press, 2005: 11, 152

[iii] Constance Hieatt et al, Pleyn Delit, Second Edition, University of Toronto Press 1996: Recipe 140

[iv] OCF: 446

[v] OCF: 493

[vi] OCF: 447

[vii] OCF: 338


Here is the subtlety at the feast, presented to Their Highnesses Prince Richard and Princess Lena. The photo was taken by Stefano de Mohac.