Today is the birthday (1603) of Sir Kenelm Digby whose name may not ring a bell with you. In his day he was a noted courtier and diplomat, for both Charles I and II, and was a noted astrologer and natural philosopher. Or, as he is described in John Pointer’s Oxoniensis Academia (1749), he was the “Magazine of all Arts and Sciences, or (as one stiles him) the Ornament of this Nation.” Not faint praise by any means. But, like so many of his contemporaries who had their time in the sun when they were alive, his sun has now set. He might even be completely forgotten nowadays were it not for the volume, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, published from his notes after his death by his servant. The book is a great lens into cooking styles of the seventeenth century, not only in England but also across Europe. Fans of this blog will remember it from past posts.
Digby was born at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. His father, Sir Everard, who owned Gayhurst Manor, was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Digby was raised Catholic, which hindered some of his political ambitions in life, but his father’s deeds did not adversely affect his career given that he was only 3 years old at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. In fact, he was sufficiently in favor with James I to be proposed as a member of Edmund Bolton’s projected Royal Academy (with George Chapman, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Selden and Sir Henry Wotton). He went to Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, in 1618, where he was taught by Thomas Allen, but left without taking a degree. In time, Allen bequeathed to his library to Digby, which he eventually donated to the Bodleian Library.
He spent three years on the Continent between 1620 and 1623, where Marie de Medici fell madly in love with him (according to his journal !!). Around 1625, he married Venetia Stanley. He had also become a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. Due to his Roman Catholicism being a hindrance in being appointed to government office, he converted to Anglicanism.
Digby became a privateer in 1627. Sailing his flagship, the Eagle (later renamed Arabella), he arrived off Gibraltar on 18th January and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From 15th February to 27th March he remained at anchor off Algiers due to illness among his crew, and extracted a promise from authorities of better treatment of the English ships. Among other things, he persuaded the city governors to free 50 English slaves (yes, indeed, White slavery was alive and well in the 17th century). He seized a Dutch vessel near Majorca, and after other adventures gained a victory over the French and Venetian ships in the harbor of Iskanderun on 11th June. His successes, however, brought upon the English merchants the risk of reprisals, and he was urged to depart. He returned to become a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House.
His wife Venetia died suddenly in 1633, prompting a famous deathbed portrait by Van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Jonson. (Digby was later Jonson’s literary executor. Jonson’s poem about Venetia is now partially lost, because of the loss of the center sheet of a leaf of papers which held the only copy.) Digby, stricken with grief, secluded himself in Gresham College and attempted to forget his personal woes through scientific experimentation and a return to Catholicism. At Gresham College he held an unofficial post, receiving no payment from the College. Digby, alongside Hungarian chemist Johannes Banfi Hunyades, constructed a laboratory under the lodgings of Gresham Professor of Divinity where the two conducted botanical experiments.
After becoming a Catholic once more in 1635, he went into voluntary exile in Paris, where he spent most of his time until 1660. He did return to England to support Charles I in his struggle to establish episcopacy in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars), and, in response, found himself increasingly unpopular with the growing Puritan party. He left England for France again in 1641. Following an incident in which he killed a French nobleman, Mont le Ros, in a duel, he returned to England via Flanders in 1642, and was jailed by the House of Commons. He was eventually released at the intervention of Anne of Austria, and went back again to France. He remained there during the remainder of the English Civil War.
Queen Henrietta Maria had fled England in 1644, and he became her Chancellor. He was then engaged in unsuccessful attempts to solicit support for the English monarchy from Pope Innocent X. His son, also called Kenelm, was killed at the Battle of St Neots, 1648. Following the establishment of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, Digby was received by the government as a sort of unofficial representative of English Roman Catholics, and was sent in 1655 on a mission to the Papacy to try to reach an understanding. This again proved unsuccessful.
At the Restoration, Digby was also restored to favor with the new regime due to his ties with Henrietta Maria. However, he was often in trouble with Charles II, and was once even banished from Court. Nonetheless, he was generally highly regarded until his death in 1665.
Digby’s Closet Opened is a treasure trove of recipes for the historical enthusiast. The complete book can be found here:
Browse at your leisure. There are no illustrations nor lengthy introductions – just recipe after recipe, many of which are for alcoholic drinks (over 100 pages at the beginning). Foreign influence can be seen in recipes such as “Pan Cotto, as the Cardinals use in Rome” and “A savoury and nourishing boiled Capon, Del Conte di Trino, a Milano:”
A SAVOURY AND NOURISHING BOILED CAPON DEL CONTE DI TRINO, À MILANO
Take a fat and fleshy Capon, or a like Hen; Dress it in the ordinary manner, and cleanse it within from the guts, &c. Then put in the fat again into the belly, and split the bones of the legs and wings (as far as you may, not to deface the fowl) so as the Marrow may distil out of them. Add a little fresh Butter and Marrow to it; season it with Salt, Pepper, and, what other Spice you like, as also savoury herbs. Put the Capon with all these condiments into a large strong sound bladder of an Ox (first well washed and scoured with Red-wine) and tie it very close and fast to the top, that nothing may ouse out, nor any water get in (and there must be void space in the bladder, that the flesh may have room to swell and ferment in; therefore it must be a large one). Put this to boil for a couple of hours in a Kettle of water, or till you find by touching the Bladder, that the Capon is tender and boiled enough. Then serve it up in a dish, in the Bladder (dry wiped) which when you cut, you will find a precious and nourishing liquor to eat with bread, and the Capon will be short, tender, most savoury and full of juyce, and very nourishing.
I conceive, that if you put enough Ox-marrow, you need no butter; and that it may do well to add Ambergreece, Dates-sliced and pithed, Raisins, Currants, and a little Sugar.
Peradventure this might be done well in a Silver-flagon close luted, set in Balneo bulliente, as I make the nourishing broth or gelly of Mutton or Chickens, &c.
I find his reflections on mince pies to be especially fascinating given that in modern times cooks occasionally wonder why the filling is called mincemeat. This is why:
MY LADY OF PORTLAND’S MINCED PYES
Take four pounds of Beef, Veal or Neats-Tongues, and eight pounds of Suet; and mince both the meat and Suet very small, befor you put them together. Then mingle them well together and mince it very small, and put to it six pounds of Currants washed and picked very clean. Then take the Peel of two Limons, and half a score of Pippins, and mince them very small. Then take above an Ounce of Nutmegs, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, some Cloves and Cinnamon, and put them together, and sweeten them with Rose-water and Sugar. And when you are ready to put them into your Paste, take Citron and Orangiadoe, and slice them very thin, and lay them upon the meat. If you please, put dates upon the top of them. And put amongst the meat an Ounce of Caraway seeds. Be sure you have very fine Paste.
My Lady of Portland told me since, that she finds Neats-tongues to be the best flesh for Pies. Parboil them first. For the proportion of the Ingredients she likes best to take equal parts of flesh, of suet, of currants and of Raisins of the Sun. The other things in proportion as is said above. You may either put the Raisins in whole, or stone the greatest part, and Mince them with the Meat. Keep some whole ones, to lay a bed of them at the top of the Pye, when all is in. You will do well to stick the Candid Orange-peel, and green Citron-peel into the meat. You may put a little Sack or Greek Muscadine into each Pye. A little Amber-sugar doth well here. A pound of flesh, and proportionably of all things else, is enough for once in a large family.
Here are two more recipes for mince pies, in case the first does not suit you.
ANOTHER WAY OF MAKING EXCELLENT MINCED PYES OF MY LADY PORTLANDS
Parboil Neats-tongues. Then Peel and hash them with as much as they weigh of Beef-suet, and stoned Raisins and picked Currants. Chop all exceeding small, that it be like Pap. Employ therein at least an hour more, then ordinarily is used. Then mingle a very little Sugar with them, and a little wine, and thrust in up and down some thin slices of green Candyed Citron-peel. And put this into coffins of fine light well reared crust. Half an hour baking will be enough. If you strew a few Carvi comfits on the top, it will not be amiss.
My Lady Lasson makes her finest minced Pyes of Neats-tongues; But she holdeth the most savoury ones to be of Veal and Mutton equal parts very small minced. Her finest crust is made by sprinkling the flower (as much as it needeth) with cold water, and then working the past with little pieces of raw Butter in good quantity. So that she useth neither hot water, nor melted butter in them; And this makes the crust short and light. After all the meat and seasoning, and Plums and Citron Peel, &c. is in the Coffin, she puts a little Ambered-sugar upon it, thus; Grind much two grains of Ambergreece and half a one of Musk, with a little piece of hard loaf Sugar. This will serve six or eight pyes, strewed all over the top. Then cover it with the Liddle, and set it in the oven.
Amber(ed) sugar is brown rock sugar in crystals which is quite different from ambergris – both of which are mentioned in these recipes. Ambergris is extremely expensive because it is rare – produced occasionally in the digestive system of sperm whales, and highly prized by perfume makers.
Meanwhile — here is a modern attempt at making Digby’s tosted cheese: