The Portable Sauces of Medieval Germany
Volker Bach continues his occasional series on German historical recipes.
The recipe collection of Master Hans, court cook at Wurttemberg (Maister Hannsen des von Wirtenberg Koch1) preserves a number of interesting and often enticing recipes and anecdotes. Written in 1460, this manuscript is one of the most important and most readable sources for the culinary world of late medieval German courts. Experts think its author was personal chef (koch zer kamer i.e. cook of the chamber) to Count Ulrich V of Wurttemberg (1433-1480), and the character of the recipes – rich, extravagant, often playful and luxurious – fits this interpretation. If it is true, Count Ulrich was well served.
Among the recipes for sauces, we find an interesting take on the familiar green sauce that dominated the European middle ages:
To make a sauce (to last) over a year, make it thus: If you want to make a sauce that lasts over the year. In May, take parsley, pfefferkraut (probably lepidium latifolium) and sage and the leaves or herbage of young white chards and chop it all and mingle it all together. Take a cloth and catch some dew before the sun rises, then take the herbs and pass them through the cloth together with the dew as often as you can. Put that into a small trough and place it in the sun. Thus it goes (is put) into a bladder by thrusts (i.e. is pushed in). And whenever in the year you want, moisten it with wine and vinegar, just like any other sauce.
The details suggest that this recipe reflects experience and common practice. Using dew rather than well water would have reduced the risk of contamination, and storing the powder in a dried bladder suspended from a string was a common method of keeping things dry that was often used for pigments. A similar recipe for a more elaborate sauce, but missing the detailed preparation instructions, occurs earlier in the collection.
Make a green sauce this way, and keep it: Take sage with onions, parsley, and old and young sorrel. Gather the herbs, wash them and dry them in the sun. Take with it pepper, galingale, ginger, cinnamon, anise, coriander, cubebs, cloves, mace, grains of paradise, and a little artickel [the editor suggests artichoke], that makes the sage nice. Take dried white bread, and make a powder of all of this. When you wish to eat it, temper it with wine or vinegar, and keep this as long as you want.
Its placement so much earlier in the text does not signify anything – the manuscript is very disorganised. Interestingly, a far more systematic gathering of recipes from the kuchenmaistrey (Art of the Master Cook), the first printed German cookbook dating to around 14902, lists very similar instructions for preserving dried herbs:
Item the abovementioned herbs that belong with sauces. If you wish to keep them over the year so that they do not lose their strength and good flavour, catch dew water with a clean, freshly washed linen cloth that you move back and forth over a meadow. Press it out into a clean pitcher and steep the herbs in it, be it sage, parsley, or whatever other herb it may be, for one day and one night. Then take them out, let them dry off very well and dry them in a baking oven. Keep them up in the house (in the attic i.e. a dry and airy place) in a basket. And when you wish to make the sauce, steep them with wine or vinegar and grind them up with bread as is proper for the sauce that you want.
It is hard to see what practical purpose collecting dew serves here, though using it may simply be down to tradition. A dry powder version without detailed instructions is listed on the same page:
Item if the herbs are gathered in May such as sage, parsley, pennyroyal, deyment (probably thyme), rue, that are all fit and noble, dry them in an oven (and) grind them well into a powder. You may keep them over the year and use them with all kinds of food.
Anyone eager to try this recipe should bear in mind that pennyroyal and rue can cause health problems if eaten in quantity and especially should not be served to pregnant women. At any rate, the keeping qualities praised here are often mentioned in sauce recipes from medieval Germany. The same collection suggests that a wet version of herb sauce can also be stored throughout the year:
If you wish to make good green sauce of herbs, pick pfefferkraut (probably lepidium latifolium), deyment (probably thyme), chard and sorrel. Strip off the stalks and get a glazed pot with a lid. Take white bread, steep that very well in wine or in vinegar, grate lebkuchen (a spicy kind of gingerbread), grind up the herbs, and grind this all together very well. Pass it through a cloth with vinegar and wine in which the bread was steeped, season it with spices, try the sauce and keep it in the glazed pot over the year.
Stating that they will keep for a long time is a common remark in recipes from a number of sources, suggesting that a long shelf life was prized in sauces. This particular case, however, raises the question why a cook would go through the trouble of steeping and drying herbs if made sauce would keep just as well. Quite possibly, it simply did not. However, there are other recipes from the same books that suggest a different purpose for the powders. Portability may have been an important consideration, as in this recipe for instant vinegar from the kuchenmaistrey:
If you want to carry vinegar in your bag with you on overland journeys, so that you have ready vinegar wherever you come to, take the seeds from the wine press, clean and dry them, and grind them to powder. Pour good vinegar on the powder and stir it well, then let it stand so the powder can settle at the bottom and pour off the vinegar. Dry the powder in the sun and repeat this three times. When you want to have vinegar on hand quickly, wherever you are, take the powder and strew a bit of it into a cup of wine, and you have vinegar.
This seems to be a trick that German cooks spent a lot of time and thought on. We find several other processes mentioned in the same collection (including steel quenched in vinegar or bread soaked and dried repeatedly), and Master Hans writes:
Again, of vinegar: If you want to make even stronger vinegar, take adders’ tongues (this may refer to adder’s tongue fern ophioglossum vulgatum, to fossilised sharks’ teeth, or to the actual tongues of snakes) and suspend them in the vinegar. Never did you find stronger vinegar, the longer, the better, and the vinegar grows a skin as it ages. Many wonderful things are made from that skin. You make very strong vinegar with it. You also create vinegar at the table with it as is described hereafter: Item, take the skin that is called fortissim(um) and put it into a small glazed vessel and let it dry. Then grind it as finely as flour and put it into a clean box or bag. Carry this with you wherever you wish, and when you want to eat it, put the powder into a small bowl and add wine. This is good vinegar, better than the common kind.
Not only is this an interesting bit of kitchen folklore, it suggests that people would carry a kind of instant vinegar with them so as not to go without when they travelled. The fact that it shows up in two separate sources means this is not just the personal hobby horse of Master Hans, who devotes a lot of attention to the practicalities of keeping travellers well-fed. His instructions for transporting grated bread, a staple ingredient of medieval German cookery, would also be practical for powdered sauce bases:
Dry white bread, grate it through a sieve and keep it in a leather bag so it does not get wet. When you want to eat it, take it out and add fat, eggs, pepper sauce, or whatever else you want to thicken.
Spices, at least, were carried in leather bags, and by the sixteenth century, sets of small drawstring pouches attached to a central wooden handle show up in pictures. These contained the spice collection of travelling cooks. It is certainly not implausible that sauces would have travelled in a similar manner. Being able to transport them would have been helpful on occasions like one described by Master Hans when the kitchen staff of his master was forced to turn a single calf into a variety of courtly dishes (#190-191). The resulting spread – including a roast, blood pudding, headcheese, boiled tripe, liver sausage, a blood-thickened pan dish, lung omelette, boiled veal, bread pudding and pan-fried meat slices – would have required a number of expensive ingredients that the cooks surely carried with them to a place so far off the beaten track its market offered no more than a single calf.
Moreover, green herb sauces were not the only kind that German cooks developed ‘instant’ versions of. A small collection of recipes preserved as a manuscript fragment in the Munich state library contains instructions for preparing a sweet mustard that could be made on demand simply by adding wine3:
For good mustard take mustard seed and dry it clean. Grind it very finely in a mortar and pass it through a fine cloth. (Grind) cassia buds, add them to the mustard and stir it together with honey, just like (the consistency of) wax. And whenever you want it, take a little of this and rub it with wine; thus you have good mild mustard
(Cgm 384 I #12)
This is interesting not just for the use of cassia buds (czinmit pluot i.e. Zimtblüte), a spice we rarely find documented outside of Germany, but also because it offers an interesting twist on the sweet mustard sauces we know from just about every recipe collection of the era. It does not say specifically that this was meant to travel, but the application seems obvious, especially since the vinegar recipes, too, are intended for mixing with wine. That, it seems, could be expected to be available just about anywhere.
None of this amounts to proof that travellers across Germany carried instant sauces with them. It is hard to imagine, though, that recipes like these would have served only to keep sauce bases at home, especially since finished sauces are also lauded for their good keeping qualities without taking the trouble of rendering them portable. With inns customarily serving travellers simple fare at a common table, the ability to add zest to one’s food looks like an attractive proposition. A humorous tale from the sixteenth-century Eulenspiegel collection4 describes that a guest at an inn would make himself roast apples to add to his meal, so the idea of having some special delicacy to oneself at the table d’hôte was not unknown. Neither, the joke implies, was a feeling of envy and occasionally theft, here discouraged through malicious tampering. The ability to carry the sauces of a rich table around in one’s pocket fits this culture neatly.
1. Maister Hannsen des von wirtemberg koch, trsl. and ed. Trude Ehlert, Tupperware, Frankfurt 1996
3. Ehlert, Trude (ed.): Münchener Kochbuchhandschriften aus dem 15. Jahrhundert, Tupperware, Frankfurt/Main 1999
4. Bote, Hermann: Ein kurzweiliges Buch von Till Eulenspiegel aus dem Lande Braunschweig. Wie er sein Leben vollbracht hat. Sechundneunzig seinerGeschichten. Herausgegeben, in die Sprache unserer Zeit übertragen und mit Anmerkungen versehen von Siegfried H. Sichtermann, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt 1978, p. 225. In this case the apple is stuffed with dead flies and midges to play a prank.