Saturday, March 1, 2014

The doctor's blancmange: Medieval recipes from medical texts

If you are unfamiliar with Medieval food, you may only know blancmange as a sweet pudding. But it began its life in the West as something like a stew, often made of chicken (presumably the white meat) with rice or crushed almonds. Such food was called “white food”, which is essentially the meaning of the word, though more literally, if colloquially, it might be translated as “white eats”.

While recipes for blancmange appear in a number of period cookbooks, the first widespread mention of it in the West was not by a cook, but by a doctor: Arnaldus de Villanova (Arnaud de Villeneuve, in French; 1238 – 1311/1313). [UPDATE 1-11-2015 - Thanks to Regula Ysewijn for making me aware of an earlier, if far more obscure, reference to the dish - see the comments; or if you want to try your medieval Danish, the original recipe.] Villanova also was the first to mention marzipan and “royal paste” (a period confection which was essentially candied ginger). He has often been said as well to have been the first in the West to mention alcohol, though that idea now seems to be discredited, as has been the idea that he was an alchemist. Still he was at the least a doctor and an astrologer; but not a cook. Yet the plethora of works attributed to him includes not only medical texts which describe foods, but passages which are essentially culinary, even if their ultimate concern is the effect of food on health.

Villanova was not the only doctor in the time to provide some semblance of recipes. The principles of dietetics so closely linked food and health that it is often difficult for a modern reader to differentiate between a medical and a culinary recipe. Aldebrandino of Siena (active 1277, d. 1296-1299) left the Régime du corps which largely consists of an inventory of different foods and their effects on health. If he provides few actual recipes, he does give hints of how to prepare certain foods which are not much less explicit than the laconic recipes of the period's cooks.

Thaddeus of Florence (1215-1295) is a more obscure figure, but was well-known enough to appear in Dante's Divine Comedy. As it happens, having looked at the Sun during an eclipse, he developed eye problems and as a result interested himself in “oculism” (early opthamology). In a text recording one of his consultations, he also left recipes which, if distinctly medical in intent, sometimes are meant to be used during meals. Thaddeus' work today is barely known and can fairly be taken as an example of numerous other lesser-known practitioners who also defined food for their patients, but have not retained the reputation of Villanova or Aldebrandino.

[NOTE: All translations are my own.]

Thaddeus of Florence (Taddeo Alderotti)

Thaddeus left at least one major work, the Consilia medicinalia, which does not currently appear to be available in print. However, in a 1901 article in Janus, Patella extracted some of the passages concerning oculism. These are essentially prescriptions and most are strictly medical. But Thaddeus left enough directions for meals to interest food historians.

Be WARNED: some of the ingredients thirteenth century doctors found acceptable for their patients today are considered toxic. If you are considering trying any of these recipes, be careful to only use ingredients, or substitutes, you know to be safe. In the following instructions for a powder, for instance, Thaddeus includes celandine (Chelidonium majus), which is still used in herbal medicine, but should be regarded with caution. This recipe also includes mountain lasserwort (laserpitium siler), a version of the old Roman spice laser, as well as eyebright (euphrasia), whose name echoes its use as an ocular remedy.

Thaddeus specifically says this seasoning can be used with food, even if it is primarily intended to help with eye problems:
Pomegranate wine and rosewater with this powder in which are included, 3 oz each of nutmeg, aloe-wood, mountain lasserwort, eyebright, [mastic], rue, celandine, caraway, saffron, anise, fennel, dill, and half an oz each of ginger, long and black pepper, and use this same powder with broths and greens.
Some of his advice is more concise: “You can use broth of chick peas cooked with sage and savory or mint; always be careful of over-using broth.” Or in these very general instructions, which include enula, that is, elecampane, which some fourteenth century Belgian monks used in a standard drink: “Use foods made with sage and elecampane and rue and with savory and fresh or dried thyme.”

One of his most complete recipes is frustrating in that the initial ingredient, accoro, cannot be identified (it may even be a transcription error): “Take accoros and boil them in vinegar and verjuice and pomegranate wine until half reduced, then mix with their vinegar these spices, that is ginger, cinnamon, clove, cubeb, long and black pepper.”

He defines this powder to use in pills: “Take clove, cut up cubeb, bishop's weed, peony seeds, mountain lasserwort, cut liquorice, cut ginger, all in equal amounts; seedless raisins in the same amount as all,” but then adds that “after the meal one can use pears, quince, medlars, sorbs, rolled in the above powder.”

From these few samples, it seems likely that the full Consilia medicinalia includes even more recipes that are as culinary as they are medical.

Aldebrandino de Siena

Aldebrandino was an Italian – possibly from Florence or Siena – who was living in France by 1277 and wrote the first medical work in the French vernacular. He called it a Book of Physic (that is, of medicine), but it is best known today as the Régime du corps (“Regimen for the body”). It is often said to have been composed for Beatrice of Savoy, but Jacquart says an inscription to that effect was added, apocryphally, later.

The work is yet another dietetic in the classic sense; that is, it includes information on health beyond diet per se. But as a practical matter, it is largely a catalog of foods. Included in this catalog, every so often and in what appears to be an arbitrary way, are instructions for preparing them. While these are often incomplete, they are not uninteresting. For instance, he may be the first to mention cameline sauce in writing.

Cameline sauce can be made in various ways, but its defining ingredient is cinnamon. Here for instance is a recipe for it from the fifteenth century version of Taillevent's Viandier:
To make a quart of cameline, brown bread in front of a good red fire, without burning it. Then soak it in very pure red Burgundy wine in a new pot, or a dish. Once it is soaked, strain through a cloth with red Burgundy wine. Then take a pint of vinegar and a quarter pound of true cinnamon, an ounce of ginger and a quarter of an ounce of assorted spices, and salt it well. Strain the bread and spices through the cloth, and put in a nice pot.
Aldebrandino does not give specific instructions for making it but he says that “the right seasoning with which one must eat [pheasant] is cameline sauce where there is enough cinnamon and cardamon.” The simple fact that he mentions cardomom as being used in the sauce is interesting.

Where he does give specific instructions, they are very succinct. For lentils, he says to boil them once, discard the water, then “put mint, parsley, sage, and cumin in the second water.” Care to eat some eyes? You are told here to flavor them with ginger, pepper and cinnamon.

What's more, his instructions often, in effect, trail off into a vague idea of “other things.” For broad beans, he recommends using mint, parsley, and sage, with powder of pepper, cinnamon and saffron "and other similar things which can amend their harm". For brain (yes, people still eat it), “vinegar, and pepper, and ginger, and cinnamon, and mint, and parsley and other similar things.” He suggests that tongue be eaten with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and vinegar and "similar spices". After one has eaten figs, his instructions are to use anise, bishop's weed, ginger, fennel seed "and other things to take away the windiness".

This is true even for his slightly more complete instructions. He suggests cooking parsnips in two or three different waters, then to have them with pepper, cinnamon and other “warm” spices. One of his most complete instructions is for mushrooms, which are to be cooked with calamint and pepper, then the water discarded, more put in and, after they are cooked again, eaten with pepper, ginger, caraway, calamint, oregano, cinnamon "and other similar spices".

Some of his preparations straddle medical and culinary purposes. This preparation is said to be good for the stomach, "windiness" and coarse humors due to cold, but also to "cook meat well" (in the stomach or in the pot?): “Take cloves and fennel seed, and boil it in wine, drink the wine after.” For cardamon, he offers a sauce to prevent vomiting, but also to provoke appetite: cardamon powder, mint, parsley and vinegar.

Geese, he writes, “are made in various ways, cooked on the coals, and fried, and in water, and eaten with onions, and pepper, and cumin, and in brewet with meat” but are best cooked with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and with meat.

His most complete recipe is for a kind of gruel, using candi (probably candied seeds or other sugared preserves) and penidia, an early form of barley sugar: “Take oat and spelt flour and mix it with the color of wheat bran in hot water and with candi, and with penidia, and with 4 egg yolks, and cook it like gruel.”

This is a meager collection of recipes or quasi-recipes, but nonetheless offers enough specific suggestions that a creative cook could eke out some unique, but not off-putting, dishes from them. This information is also interesting to compare with that in later, more complete texts.

Arnaldus de Villanova

With Villanova, the picture is very different, not least because of the sheer volume of texts attributed to him. His work is primarily medical, but some of his texts address food so specifically that their medical intent seems secondary. Anything like a full inventory of his recipes, whatever their original purpose, would be quite extensive.

UPDATE 1.13.2016 Since writing this, I have been informed that a number of the works credited to Villanova in my 1585 source are in fact by different authors. Time does not allow me to puzzle out which just now, but anyone who may want to cite these should verify the authorship and dates of each specific text. Thanks to Sebastià Giralt (who also provides a comprehensive bibliography of Villanova on his web site).

Villanova stands out, too, for having named foods that would soon be standard, but do not appear to have previously been recorded. Foremost among these is blancmange.

Villanova offers several recipes for albo comestio. One is similar to later examples:
But you can often take the white food of chicken, provided however it is not from the stringy flesh, but delicately cut from the side, and after crushed and bound only with almond milk, or if with starch or rice flour only a little.
Several dishes of this name are listed in a section whose whole subject is treating patients whose disease is hard to diagnose; it is not clear in these cases if these are separate recipes, or steps in one, or in fact a combination of the two:
A medium amount of the meat of cocks with the combs removed or chickens cooked with parsley and seven or eight [sic] saffron by itself, or their strained residue, similarly of a chick of eight or ten months.
White food made of the strainings of the said meat and the strained residue of bran or barley or oats or spelt.
The said meat in pasties with coriander and just a few small strips of bacon, with verjuiced [sic] milk over it, as above.
The said meats larded and moderately roasted, and immersed in the said milk and taken without bacon.
Several of these are not for chicken, but camerotes, which were probably crayfish or large shrimp:
White eating of the strained meat of crayfish and cooked to a moderate consistency with three parts of almond milk.
Locustelli, which country folk call camerotes, boiled like crabs and taken in the same way.
Said crayfish fried without their shells, and cleaned with vinegar, and so taken boiled.
White food made from this boiling, either not strained or strained.


Villanova describes a number of sauces, some in a specific section dedicated to that subject, others in the course of discussing other subjects (foods or cures). These include several which would become classics. He does not name the cinnamon-based sauce here, but it is effectively a variety of cameline:
If there were dry meats which however you must be take care to avoid, [use] a little salt with a modest amount of diluted wine, but... you can make a seasoning from choice cinnamon and almonds and vinegar that suits all roasts not only of quadrupeds, but also fish and in winter you can add a little ginger.
He offers several recipes for green sauce, which has endured until the present:
For the boiled meat of castrated animals..., and likewise for veal and kid the proper seasoning is green sauce. In summer this is of vinegar and verjuice, with very little spices, or garlic with a little parsley, white ginger, verjuice, vinegar and a little toasted bread, infused with vinegar or verjuice. And in winter do the same with several spices, a little garlic, the best wine, and a little verjuice; or enough white mustard and mustard.
Also roasts of quadrupeds if it pleases you add salt to other flavors join salt to enough white mustard as prepared as above [meaning squeezed and boiled?], or green sauce made only with vinegar and almonds and parsley and a little mint or cinnamon
“White mustard” here is one translation of eruca, which might refer to eruca alba (today considered synonymous with sinapis alba, white mustard), but might also refer to eruca sativa (which is rocket), or even several other variants. Since Villanova typically pairs it with mustard (probably meaning black mustard), it seems most likely to have the first meaning.

He qualifies several preparations as “rustic”, which might imply that they were meant for people of simpler means, except that pepper, for instance, was still expensive in this period:
Rustic sauce: for pepper mixed with broad beans and peas. Similarly with toast, with beer or wine and with pepper make black sauce like the porridge [sic] called pepper, and thus put it on meat or fish.
Garlic from which is made a rustic sauce: mix this with soft cheese and milk stirring in the garlic and thus eat with food, whether roasted, or boiled, or as sauce, or sweet, and with hard [boiled] eggs.
Beer is not often mentioned in sauces; the use here of cheese in a sauce is also very unusual for the period.

He mentions one in discussing the use of sage:
Sage which is made as a sauce for roast goose or [in cooking it]. In general fill either roast goose or piglets with sage to remove superfluous moisture or viscosity, and the smell of sage remains in the geese or piglets; but after roasting remove the sage and do not eat it.
Similarly from sage is made a sauce eaten by country folk or commoners in eating goose: rubbing garlic with sage on the goose to give it some garlic flavor.
Several are intended for specific types of animals:
This sauce is suited to pork, especially in winter; and mustard may be enough, or white mustard. But when eating white mustard, you must pound it with almonds and mix it with verjuice in summer and the best wine in winter: you can also eat cold pork with vinegar and parsley at the beginning of the meal; also put on the same meats in pasties white garlic, or sweet spices, with buttery cheese. Of roasts however, partridge, pheasant and turtle doves require no seasoning but salt.
With roasts of birds also in summer it is enough for seasoning to crumble a little salt in a mixture of wine and a great deal of rosewater.
The seasoning ... of boiled beef is [made] from pepper and toast, meat broth and a little verjuice.
Note universally that for meat as for fish, for meat is even more viscous than fish, of a more difficult nature, they greatly need hot and sharp seasonings, such as peppered, etc. [For] boiled chickens however, hyssop, parsley and saffron; [for] roasted the drippings suffice as flavorings.
His instructions for cooking eels are particularly detailed and include yet another, very general, recipe for green sauce:
It is good because of their sliminess to submerge them alive in the best wine and they may be there until they are dead, from there prepare broth with the best spices that the greatest master chefs are accustomed to make. It is good however to preboil them first with two boilings in wine and water, take them out when perfectly ready and make gelatine [this is essentially a galentine] or pasties or grilled with the right sauce, or with green sauce with strong spices and wine in winter, and with weaker spices and verjuice and vinegar in summer.
One of his more interesting remarks concerns fish in general:
It should also be noted not to roast fish in linseed oil, but with wine, wherein salt is dissolved. If fried or a great deal of linseed oil is used while broiling it is much better not to take the skin. In fact, universally the skin of fish should be avoided, and their fat.
Linseed oil is often mentioned in the period, but it is rarely referenced in cooking. Otherwise, his warning about fish skin is not unique; Anthimus (in the sixth century) also warned against eating salmon skin and Brother Leonard would warn against fish skin cooked in too much oil in the next century.

He also pays special attention to citrus tinged sauces:
Item almond milk made with verjuice, or with pomegranate juice or oranges [either] let it be a common seasoning, or common sauce for roasting meat, or with fish, and a great deal of almonds and vinegar and in winter you can add a little ginger.
Flavor made of the astringency of lemon mixed with spices dissolved by boiling and sugar added, that is needed for purifications used all year, and it is a wise [sic] sauce. And again what is made in the pan from a piece of fried meat with pomegranate wine, vinegar and verjuice and a little wine and the proper amount of sugar.
A few of his sauces are specifically noted as to be used on pasties (Villanova may also be the first to mention these):
Item as to how to make a sauce whose powder is used in your pasties in a small quantity: Take 2 ounces of ginger, ? ounces coriander boiled in vinegar and dried, clove, 3 oz saffron, 6 ounces choice cinnamon, make a sauce of their powder with pounded almonds, to which you can add a little vinegar or verjuice. Or flavor pasties with a little of this, or all through the summer put on pasties when taking them out of the oven.
...[Use] the following powder – 2 oz very white ginger 1 oz coriander boiled in vinegar and dried, 8 [?] oz each of cardamom, root of centaury, 2 oz grated white lotus, 1 oz each of clove, saffron, 6 oz choice cinnamon made into powder, and make sauce from this ​​with pounded almonds ... a little verjuice or vinegar can be added. Season pasties with a moderate amount of this and all summer put on pasties taken from the oven almond milk ​​with verjuice or pomegranate juice or lemon or oranges commonly called arangiae … One can guard against the [harshness] of this astringency when put on pasties if a whole egg is strongly beaten with it and after put on the pasty when it comes out of the oven. Similarly if roasts are sprinkled with almond milk made with this said [tart sauce], they always do less harm.
One of these is slightly confused:
Similarly squeeze white mustard, when its pasty is cooked a long time in plain water, when therefore cooking cow meat, then pound it with a little almond, mix with a little vinegar adding nothing but a little cinnamon.
This seems to mean when making a pasty, with beef (of cow) to squeeze white mustard, cook it a long time in plain water, then pound it with a little almond moistened with a little vinegar, adding nothing but a little cinnamon. Alternately, but less logically it would mean to squeeze white mustard (or possibly rocket), cooking it a long time in a pasty in water, then cook beef and pound it with the almond mix. The idea of cooking a small pasty (basically a dumpling) in liquid is not completely unknown; it is specifically mentioned a century later in Liège. But it is very rare.

Candied preserves

Villanova has a whole section on candied foods, then still a new concept, since sugar was a relatively recent arrival in France. This section is of particular interest in food history because he mentions marzipan (marcepan) for the first time in France. He does not however seem to be describing how to make it, unless one considers that it is meant to be composed of the ingredients listed just before it:
Confections... in which more is to be found in the nature of nourishment, they are pine nuts and pistachios, rose-colored sugar. and the confection called marcepan, similarly filberts preserved with the best refined honey, and a few spices, preserved dates.
Villanova was not the first in Europe to mention something like marzipan; Anthimus had already advised using honey with crushed almonds in the sixth century. But he is the first to use the word in writing and probably the first as well to treat the combination as a separate item.

He also mentions “ginger. preserved with sugar, which is called royal paste.” Pâte royale would later be one of the standard medieval candies (NOTE: the term had a completely different meaning in the nineteenth century, when it referred to a kind of pastry dough).

Villanova mentions a number of candied preserves. He puts particular emphasis on candied coriander:
Item I frequently praise using prepared coriander, preserved or only taken preserved without sugar before dinner, or after dinner and after supper not drinking anything on top of it, whose properties are proven: coriander boiled in vinegar and dried, if taken with a meal, first strengthens the stomach's orifice and moderately closes it.
Overall, he writes:
That the best preserves which are in use are as follows: ginger preserved with sugar, or with honey, pine nuts or pistachios, preserved filberts, preserved anise, preserved coriander, powders, and tablets, and the like.
Note that he offers honey as an alternative for candying foods. Why did Europeans then wait for sugar to start creating such candies? It would seem the idea simply had not occurred to them until after the Crusades.

Porridges had been a Roman and a Germanic favorite and would remain popular, sometimes even among the upper classes, for centuries to come. Here are two of Villanova's:
Porridge of barley flour first cooked in one boiling, cooked in water with fennel root, from which with the double of [its own volume] in almond milk.
Porridge of millet flour cooked first with water from cooking sweet plums, with chicken broth, then [put] with twice [its own volume] of almond milk.

He also offers recipes based on legumes:
White lentils simply preboiled, then cooked until soft, after which in [twice their volume] of almond milk.
The said lentils after boiling cooked until soft with white onion, and oil of young olives, or sweet almonds and a little vinegar, and coriander.
Water of cooked white peas twice brought to a boil, with saffron, and coriander, making crumbs or balls of the crumb of the bread recalled above.
Water of white chick peas cooked on three heats, with parsley root, and saffron, and white onion, in which put bread, as in the pea water.
These are again, from the section devoted to patients with unknown ailments. That section begins with these items, which may be meant to be used on their own, but seem to be referenced as well by later items:
White of the very best bread.
White of the best biscuits, softened in water, or very clear white wine.
Almond milk, slightly boiled, or made with boiling water, poured as said above into the said milk.

Pastry and butter
Villanova rarely mentions anything like a pastry, but this item, from the same section, sounds like one: “Tourtes of raised dough made with pounded almonds, and sugar”. The mention of raised (leavened) dough here is unusual, since the shells for pasties, tarts, etc seem to have typically been unleavened.

One of his random mentions is striking in that it appears to mention something common to us now, but never mentioned specifically in this period: using melted butter: “But it is sufficiently appropriate as a condiment, as well as oil, so long as butter is made into warm oil, and very wet, it must not be greatly cooked, lest it lose its force.”

Finally he mentions a great variety of prepared wines, though most are for specific medical purposes. Several are called “juleps” a word which would have a medical connotation for a long time before referring to a social drink: “Syrup of wine julep from wine, that is to put two pounds of sugar in three pounds of good wine, make it into syrup and take it with water.”

He describes a number of wines made from particular foods. As seen above, pomegranate wine is one also used in recipes: “pomegranate wine, squeeze the juice of pomegranate seeds not tending to rot with a cloth, and mix with good wine up to the middle, or more or less,...or mix it with other flavors, and choose those with an acid taste.”

One which appears to be a pure indulgence – inspiring unwonted enthusiasm in the writer – was a common drink in this period, along with similar drinks such as hypocras and piment:
The wine called nectar, these are the steps to make a weight of it, for a sester [about 8 pints in this case?] take 2 ounces each of choice ginger, clove and cinnamon, 1 oz of paradise seed, make it with the best wine, or Greek, which is better and instead of honey put in sugar with musk seed and it is superb [“the noblest”].
It is interesting too that, centuries after Roman domination, Greek wine was still considered some of the very best.

These are hardly all of Villanova's recipes; several of his chapters might each provide a long list on their own. Nor were the doctors named here the only ones whose works might be mined for recipes. The border between food and medicine in this period was a faint one and, as should be plain by now, easily crossed. No doubt a number of intriguing period recipes, buried in such texts, await discovery.

Are you a cook? Have you tried adapting any of the recipes above? 
Why not share your recipe in the Comments section? 

UPDATE 3/5/2104
Since rather casually translating some recipes from early copies of Villanova's work, I have been made aware of a whole field of "Arnaldian" study which examines his work under multiple lights. In fact, there is currently an effort to produce modern versions of his work:

Prácticas culturales, saberes y patrimonio en espacios urbanos: música, ciencia, medicina: El Proyecto AVOMO

Among other things, this may be the place to look for a concise idea of which works attributed to him are still accepted as such (a question beyond my own abilities to address above).

Otherwise, for readers of a more academic bent, the following resources on these efforts might be of interest:

Special issue of Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO) dedicated to Villanova

McVaugh, Michael R., "Coriandri bulliti in aceto et exciccati: An arnaldian touchstone?", Arxiu de Textos Catalans Antics, 21 (2002), 659-663.

Giralt, Sebastià, "The legend of Arnau de Vilanova, from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Times", Micrologus, XXI (2013), 411-444
[for members of]

Giralt, Sebastià, "The consilia attributed to Arnau de Vilanova", Early science and medicine, 7/4 (2002), 311-356.

Giralt, Sebastià, "Nota sobre alguns ictiònims d'origen occità en textos mèdics d'Arnau de Vilanova i d'altres autors medievals", Estudis Romànics, 24 (2002), 103-108.

[for members of]



  1. Hello, just wondering if you think the recipe for Blancmange in a Danish cookbook, written by Henrik Harpestræng, who died in 1244, is not the earliest one? I assumed this was the earliest mention. Sadly I haven't been able to track down the book to check the source. But I have seen Wikipedia seems to think Harpestræng was the first to mention it too... Best regards

  2. Interesting. First I've heard of it and it's hard to check without seeing that document.

    Here's the original source:'Blanc%20Manger'&pg=PA33#v=onepage&q&f=false

    I'll see what I can find, but this document doesn't seem to be on-line.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  3. No, I've been searching for ages as I'm writing a book about the history of the pudding in British cuisine. The book you're linking to here 'Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays' is also very hard to find a printed copy from that doesn't cost over 300 euros!
    I find it difficult to use the Henrik Harpestræng source as I haven't seen it, I assume you too. But good to know you are puzzled too and not sure, it could be the first mention, it could be not... Eager to find out!!

    1. You can find it online here:

      and here: