May 142017

Interesting day for Louis XIII of France. He came to the throne on this date in 1610, at the age of 8, when Henry IV of France, his father, was assassinated. He also died on this date in 1643. I’ve occasionally talked about people who died on their birthdays, but never celebrated a ruler who died on the anniversary of coming to power. I’ll spend a little time talking about the importance of his reign, but, since this is (in theory) a foodie blog, I’ll concentrate on changes in the culinary scene in France during his reign.

Louis was king at a time when Europe was in turmoil politically and religiously. His father was raised a Huguenot who had to struggle with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics both within his own realm and with his neighbors. Henry IV was the first king in the Bourbon line, and both his reign and that of his son saw the ascendancy of the Bourbons over the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria. Henry survived several assassination attempts before he finally succumbed to a Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, who stabbed him in the Rue de la Ferronnerie when his coach was stopped by traffic congestion related to his queen’s coronation ceremony. Henry’s problem was that he had been raised Protestant by his mother, but had to (nominally) convert to Catholicism twice: first to be king of Navarre, and then to be king of France. So, he was hated by some Protestants as a traitor and by some Catholics as a Protestant sympathizer. There’s a fundamental rule here – try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one.

Because Louis was a minor when he became king, his mother, Marie de’ Medici, became regent for him.  Marie got embroiled in numerous court intrigues, not least because her husband had kept a number of mistresses – quite publicly – and they all insisted on a piece of the action especially after Henry’s death. She also kept a large following of Italian favorites at court which led the young king Louis to take power in 1617 by exiling his mother and executing her followers, including Concino Concini, the most influential Italian at the French court.

Louis XIII was described as taciturn and suspicious, some of which may have come from the fact that he had a serious congenital speech impediment. The ambassador of King James I of England to the court of France, Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, who presented his credentials to Louis XIII in 1619, remarked:

I presented to the King [Louis] a letter of credence from the King [James] my master: the King [Louis] assured me of a reciprocal affection to the King [James] my master, and of my particular welcome to his Court: his words were never many, as being so extream a stutterer that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he could speak so much as one word; he had besides a double row of teeth . . .

Perhaps as a consequence of these speech problems, Louis relied heavily on his chief ministers, first Charles d’Albert, duc de Luynes then Cardinal Richelieu, to govern the kingdom of France. King and cardinal are remembered for establishing the Académie française, and ending the revolt of the French nobility. The reign of Louis “the Just” was also marked by the struggles against Huguenots and Habsburg Spain.

France’s greatest victory in the conflicts against the Habsburg Empire during the period 1635–59 came at the Battle of Rocroi (1643), five days after Louis’s death caused by apparent complications of intestinal tuberculosis. This battle marked the end of Spain’s military ascendancy in Europe and foreshadowed French dominance in Europe under Louis XIV, his son and successor.

I covered much of this territory here so I will not repeat myself. Let’s move on to cooking. The exile and execution of the Italians in the French court had a major impact on courtly manners, including cuisine. At the time there were two major threads to French cuisine: (1) Classic Medieval cooking involving fruits and meats mixed together with an abundance of spices, and (2) Italian cooking styles which, to that point, were the most revolutionary in Europe. French cooking broke with both traditions and embarked on a new course that evolved into the haute cuisine we are all familiar with. The results of the new experiments in French cooking styles are laid out in Le Cuisinier françois (1651) by François Pierre de la Varenne, which became an extremely influential cookbook along with others he wrote before and after (on confiture and patisserie).

Le Cuisinier françois was the first book to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner. La Varenne introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce (although the latter is disputed; he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the thickener for sauces, and lard with butter; and he introduced the terms bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, as well as the use of egg whites for clarifying stocks. In addition, he did away with a lot of heavy spices in favor of fresh garden herbs, and separated savory dishes from sweet ones. The book also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. He deals at length with the cooking of vegetables, which was an unusual departure from standard cookbooks of previous generations. In his recipe for a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of Hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”

Potage à la Reyne is possibly la Varenne’s most famous recipe, certainly the most frequently posted online – usually with modern attempts to recreate it. You’ll find coxcombs readily enough in Chinese supermarkets; I’m not sure about the West. Never seen them. Partridges are not that common either, but you can get capons easily enough. I took the recipe from here where you will also find a discussion about the purported history of the soup, plus a modern adaptation. The translation is mostly my own.  The part that baffles me is why you need to pass a red hot shovel over the soup before garnishing and serving. Have you ever broiled soup?

Potage à la Reyne.
Prenez des amandes, les battez & les mettez bouïllir auec bon bouïllon, vn bouquet, & vn morceau du dedans d’vn citron, vn peu de mie de pain, pu[i]s les assaisonnez; prenez bien garde qu’elles ne bruslent, remuez les fort souuent, puis les passez. Prenez ensuite vostre pain & le faites mitonner auec le meilleur bouïllon, qui se fait ainsi; Apres que vous aurez desossé quelque perdrix ou chapon rosty prenez les os & les battez bien dedans vn mortier, puis prenez du bon bouïllon, faites cuire tous ces os auec vn peu de champignons, & passez le tout. & de ce bouïllon mitonnez vostre pain, & à mesure qu’il mitonne arrosez le dit bouïllon d’amende & ius, puis y mettez vn peu de achis bien delié, soit de perdrix ou de chapon; & tousiours à mesure qu íl mitonne mettez y du bouïllon d’amende iusques à ce qu’il soit plein.
Prenez en suite la paëlle du feu, la faite rougir, & la passez par dessus. Garnissez de crestes, pistaches, grenades & ius, puis seruez.
The Queen’s soup.
Take some almonds, grind them and put them on to boil with good bouillon, with a bouquet [of herbs], a piece of citron pulp, and a few breadcrumbs; then season them. Take good care that they don’t burn, stirring them quite often, then strain them. Then take your bread and simmer it in the best bouillon, that is made like this: after you have deboned some roasted partridges or capons take the bones and pound them well in a mortar. Then take some good bouillon, cook all of the bones with a few mushrooms, and strain everything. Simmer your bread in this bouillon and, as it is simmering, sprinkle it with the said almond bouillon and meat stock, then add in a little finely chopped partridge flesh or capon, always in such a way that it keeps simmering. Add almond bouillon until it is full. Then get the fire shovel, heat it to red hot and pass it over the top. Garnish with cockscombs, pistachios, pomegranate seeds and meat stock, then serve.

For comparison here is an English version/translation from John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (London:1723), showing the influence of la Varenne:

BEAT Almonds, and boil them in good Broth, a few Crums of Bread, the Inside of a Lemon, and a Bunch of sweet Herbs, stir them often, strain them, then soak Bread in the best Broth, which is to be thus made; Bone a Capon or Partridge, pownd the Bones in a Mortar, then boil them in strong Broth, with Mushrooms, then strain them through a Linnencloth ; with this Broth soak your Bread; as it soaks, sprinkle it with the Almond-broth. Then put a little minced Meat to it, either of Partridge or Capon, and still as it is soaking, put in more Almond-broth, until it be full, then hold a red-hot iron over it; garnish the Dish with Pomegranates, Pistaches, and Cocks-combs.

Mar 182016


Today is the feast of Saint Anselm of Lucca (Latin: Anselmus; Italian: Anselmo; 1036 – March 18, 1086), born Anselm of Baggio (Anselmo da Baggio), which is a major holiday in Mantua because he is the patron saint of the town. Normally I would consider Anselm too minor a figure to be worth a post, but I live in Mantua, so he counts as a bigger deal than usual.

Anselm was a medieval bishop of Lucca in Italy and a prominent figure in the Investiture Controversy amid the fighting in central Italy between Matilda, countess of Tuscany, and Emperor Henry IV. His uncle Anselm preceded him as bishop of Lucca before being elected to the papacy as Pope Alexander II; owing to this, he is sometimes distinguished as Anselm the Younger or Anselm II.


Anselm’s birthplace is disputed and his date of birth is unknown. Sources are divided as to whether he was born in Milan or Mantua. General sentiment in Italy favors Mantua as his birthplace because of his close association with the town. His uncle, Anselm of Lucca the Elder, became Pope Alexander II in 1061 and designated Anselm to succeed him in his former position as Bishop of Lucca (1071), sending him to take investiture from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.


Anselm traveled to meet Henry, but was loath to receive the insignia of spiritual power from a temporal ruler and returned without investiture. In 1073, Alexander’s successor Pope Gregory VII, again appointed Anselm as bishop of Lucca, but advised him not to accept investiture from Henry. For some reason, Anselm did so this time around despite the pope’s injunction, but soon felt such remorse that he resigned his bishopric, and entered the Benedictine Order at Padilirone, a Cluniac monastery near Mantua. This was the beginning of the Investiture Controversy which pitted church against state concerning authority in church matters, and which was ultimately a key factor in the Protestant Reformation.

In the 11th century, temporal rulers chafed at the authority of the papacy to appoint high ranking church officials in their lands, whereas popes wanted the prerogative to appoint bishops and cardinals without local interference. As always, it comes down to money, power, and control. In the 16th century the issue came to such a head that German, Swiss, and English monarchs simply broke with Rome and took the power from the papacy. In the 11th and 12th centuries things simmered down after some judicious compromising on both sides.


Gregory VII ordered Anselm to return to Lucca, and he reluctantly obeyed, but continued to lead the life of a monk. In the years 1077–79, he accepted the transfer of several castles from Countess Matilda, in preparation for Henry’s expected campaign against Italy, which was carried out in 1081–84. Meanwhile, he attempted to impose stricter monastic discipline upon the canons of his cathedral. Most of the canons refused to submit to the new regulations and Anselm was expelled from Lucca in 1081.


Anselm fled first to the shelter of Moriana, an episcopal stronghold only a few miles up the Arno from Lucca— accompanied by Bardo, a priest who later wrote his vita—then retired to Canossa as spiritual guide to Countess Matilda. Bishop Benzo of Alba, Henry IV’s fiercely partisan supporter, tells how Matilda and Anselm stripped the monasteries to send gold and silver to Gregory in Rome. His biographer Rangerius, who succeeded him as bishop of Lucca, ascribed the rout of Matilda’s forces and the other enemies of Gregory VII to Anselm’s prayers, which is why he is sometimes depicted in art as standing before an army in confusion – the age old question, “which side are you on?”

Some time later pope Victor III made Anselm papal legate to Lombardy, with authorization to rule over all the dioceses which had been left without bishops due to the conflict between pope and emperor.


Anselm was both a Biblical scholar and a canon lawyer. He wrote some significant works attacking lay investiture and defending pope Gregory against antipope Guibert. He spent his last years assembling a collection of ecclesiastical law canons in 13 books, which formed the earliest of the collections of canons (Collectio canonum) supporting the Gregorian reforms, which afterwards were incorporated into the Decretum of the jurist Gratian.

Anselm died in Mantua on March 18, 1086, and is the town’s patron saint.

Mantua is famous as a culinary center. Some of the local specialties include bigoli con le sardelle, pasta with sardines, stracotto d’asino, donkey stew, salame con l’aglio, garlic sausage, luccio in salsa, pike in sauce, tortelli di zucca, pumpkin tortelli, and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake. I’m going to reprise what I used to write when I was living in China. If you want authentic Mantuan food, come to Mantua. I’ll give you an idea about preparing bigoli con le sardelle, but without local pasta and fish, it won’t be the same. Bigoli is much like spaghetti only thicker and coarser which holds the sauce well; the sardines are caught in Italian waters. “Sardine” is not a well defined category of fish. Any small member of the herring family can qualify. Do the best you can, but be sure to use fresh fish, not canned. This is a good dish for Lent.


Bigoli con le Sardelle alla Mantovana


150 g sardine fillets
400 g fresh bigoli
1 onion, chopped
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper


Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and gently brown the onions. Add the sardine fillets and cook until soft. Add the garlic. With the back of a wooden spoon, mash the fish into the olive oil until the sauce is creamy.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce in the skillet. Mix thoroughly and serve on a heated platter (garnished with parsley if you wish).

Jan 062016


Today is the birthday (1367) of Richard II, also known as Richard of Bordeaux, king of England from 1377 until he was deposed on 30 September 1399. Richard, a son of Edward, the Black Prince, was born during the reign of his grandfather, Edward III. Richard was the younger brother of Edward of Angoulême. Upon the death of this elder brother, Richard—at four years of age—became second in line to the throne after his father. Then, upon the death of Richard’s father prior to the death of Edward III, Richard, by primogeniture, became the heir apparent to the throne. With Edward III’s death the following year, Richard succeeded to the throne at the age of ten.

John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt

During Richard’s first years as king, government was in the hands of a series of councils. Most of the aristocracy preferred this to a regency led by the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, yet Gaunt remained highly influential. The first major challenge of the reign was the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. (see ) The young king played a major part in the successful suppression (through false promises and brutality) of this crisis. In the following years, however, the king’s dependence on a small number of courtiers caused discontent among the influential, and in 1387 control of government was taken over by a group of aristocrats known as the Lords Appellant. By 1389 Richard (aged 22) had regained control, and for the next eight years governed in relative harmony with his former opponents.


In 1397, Richard took his revenge on the Appellants, most of whom were executed or exiled (without trial). The next two years have been described by historians as Richard’s “tyranny.” In 1399, after John of Gaunt died, the king disinherited Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, who had previously been exiled. Henry invaded England in June 1399 with a small force that quickly grew in numbers. Claiming initially that his goal was only to reclaim his patrimony, it soon became clear that he intended to take the throne for himself. Meeting little resistance, Bolingbroke deposed Richard and had himself crowned as King Henry IV. Richard died in captivity in February 1400. He is thought to have been starved to death, though questions remain regarding his final fate.


Richard’s posthumous reputation has to a large extent been shaped by Shakespeare, whose play Richard II portrays Richard’s misrule and his deposition by Bolingbroke as responsible for the 15th century Wars of the Roses. Modern historians do not accept this interpretation, however, but neither do they exonerate Richard from responsibility for his own deposition. Most scholars agree that, even though his policies were not unprecedented or entirely unrealistic, the way in which he carried them out was unacceptable to the political establishment, and this led to his downfall.

Let me start my own evaluation of Richard with this excerpt from one of Richard’s soliloquies in Richard II Act 3, Scene 2:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Fine words, and a fair summation of the fate of Medieval kings, leading me to express my sentiments bluntly: I don’t give a toss about the lives of these self-indulgent, indolent thugs. Medieval English history is replete with the ruthless conniving of this petty few, fighting and killing one another for supremacy and riches. What of the vast majority of the population who labored as slaves for masters who took everything from them and had them killed if they rebelled, or used them as cannon fodder in their wars of appropriation and enrichment? I am opposed to warfare on principle, but at least modern warfare has a veneer of justification in moral principles (extremely thin veneer). Medieval warfare had no such justification. It was all about land and power, and nothing else. So . . . Richard II was hard done by? Too [expletive deleted] bad !!! I have no sympathy or time to waste on lamenting his fate. Let us concern ourselves more with the lives of the peasants and serfs whose names go mostly unrecorded, but whose crushing burden of labor kept the precious few nobles rich and in power.


Here’s an excerpt from the bill of fare of a feast given by the bishop of Durham in London for Richard and John of Gaunt in 1387:

The First Course

   Veneson with Frumenty – Venison with a thick, sweet porridge of wheat
   A pottage called viaundbruse – A Stew Of Soft Meat
   Hedes of Bores – Boars Heads
   Grete Flessh – Roast Oxen
   Swannes roasted – Roast Swan
   Pigges roasted – Roast Pigs
   Crustarde lumbard in paste – Sweet Pastry Custards Of Wine, Dates & Honey
   And a Sotelte – And A Subtlety

The Second Course
   A pottage called Gele – A Stew called Jelly
   A pottage de blandesore – A White Soup
   Pigges Roasted – Roast Pigs
   Cranes roasted – Roast Cranes
   Fesauntes roasted – Roast Pheasants
   Herons roasted – Roast Herons
   Chekens endored – Chickens Glazed with Gold Leaf
   Breme – Bream
   Tartes – Tarts
   Broke braune – Jellied Brawn Of A Deer
   Conyngges roasted – Roast Rabbits
   And a sotelte – And A Subtlety

The Third Course

   Potage. Bruete of Almonds – Sweet Stew Of Almonds, Honey & Eggs
   Stwde lumbarde – Sweet Syrup Of Honey, Dates & Wine
   Venyson roasted – Roast Venison
   Chekenes Roasted – Roast Chickens
   Rabettes Roasted – Roast Rabbits
   Partrich Roasted – Roast Partridge
   Peions roasted – Roast Pigeons
   Quailes roasted – Roast Quail
   Larkes roasted – Roasted Larks
   Payne puff – Pan Puff
   A dissh of Gely – A Dish Of Jelly
   Longe Frutours – Long Fritters
   And a sotelte – And A Subtlety

Not peasant fare !! There are a few things to note. First, the feast is heavily laden with roast meats of all kinds – many more types of meat than are customary in the modern kitchen. Second, there is no mention of sauces, but they are all amply attested in contemporary records. Third, each course had its “sotelte.” A subtlety was a magnificent show piece. They are not detailed here, but elsewhere we read of peacocks roasted and served with their tail feathers, or hedgehogs elaborately carved from sugar paste.


Our main source of 14th century recipes is Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking), an extensive recipe collection whose authors are given as “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” The original roll was written in late Middle English (circa 1390) on vellum and gives 205 recipes. You can find it here:

It’s a great resource to peruse at leisure. I do notice that more often than not recipes for roast poultry or small animals begin by roasting the bird or animal whole then disjointing it and finishing the cooking by simmering in broth. The resultant broth is then made into a sauce to accompany the meat. Saffron, pepper, and cloves are very common spices. Here’s one I like:


Take Capons and rost hem right hoot þat þey be not half y nouhz and hewe hem to gobettes and cast hem in a pot, do þerto clene broth, seeþ hem þat þey be tendre. take brede and þe self broth and drawe it up yferer [together], take strong Powdour and Safroun and Salt and cast þer to. take ayrenn [eggs] and seeþ hem harde. take out the zolkes and hewe the whyte þerinne, take the Pot fro þe fyre and cast the whyte þerinne. messe the disshes þerwith and lay the zolkes hool and flour it with clowes.

Easy enough to understand, I hope. In simple language – roast the capons halfway, then chop them in pieces and simmer them in broth until tender. Remove the meat from the broth and keep it warm. Thicken the broth with breadcrumbs (other recipes call for rice flour), and season it with “strong powder,” saffron and salt. Strong powder was variable, but a mix of pepper and ginger (or cinnamon) was common. Hard boil some eggs, remove the yolks whole, and mince the whites. Mix the whites into the sauce. Serve the capon with the sauce, garnished with whole egg yolks and sprinkled with powdered cloves. Nothing to it.