Apr 102016


Today is the Anglican commemoration of William of Ockham (also Occam) c. 1287 – 1347, an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century. He is commonly known for Occam’s razor, the methodological principle that bears his name, and also produced significant works on logic, physics, and theology.


William of Ockham joined the Franciscan order at an early age. It is believed that he studied theology at the University of Oxford from 1309 to 1321, but while he completed all the requirements for a master’s degree in theology (the English 14th century equivalent of a doctorate), he was never made regent master. During the Middle Ages, theologian Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1150) had become a standard work of theology, and many ambitious theological scholars wrote commentaries on it. William of Ockham was among these scholarly commentators and his works were heavily criticized leading to charges of heresy.

It is generally believed that these charges were levied by Oxford chancellor John Lutterell. The Franciscan Minister General, Michael of Cesena, had been summoned to Avignon, to answer charges of heresy. A theological commission had been asked to review his Commentary on the Sentences, and it was during this that Ockham found himself involved in a different debate. Michael of Cesena had asked Ockham to review arguments surrounding Apostolic poverty. The Franciscans believed that Jesus and his apostles owned no property either individually or in common, and The Rule of Saint Francis commanded members of the order to follow this practice. This brought them into conflict with Pope John XXII. Fans of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose will be familiar with this debate. Tough one – should the church and its leaders get rich or not?


Because of the pope’s attack on the Rule of Saint Francis, Ockham, Michael of Cesena and other leading Franciscans fled Avignon on 26 May 1328, and eventually took refuge in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria, who was also engaged in dispute with the papacy, and became Ockham’s patron. After studying the works of John XXII and previous papal statements, Ockham agreed with the Minister General. In return for protection and patronage Ockham wrote treatises that argued for emperor Louis to have supreme control over church and state in the Holy Roman Empire. On June 6, 1328, Ockham was officially excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission, and Ockham argued that John XXII was a heretic for attacking the doctrine of Apostolic poverty and the Rule of Saint Francis, which had been endorsed by previous popes. Despite his excommunication, Ockham’s philosophy was never officially condemned as heretical.

He spent much of the remainder of his life writing about political issues, including the relative authority and rights of the spiritual and temporal powers. After Michael of Cesena’s death in 1342, William became the leader of the small band of Franciscan dissidents living in exile with Louis IV. Ockham died (prior to the outbreak of the plague, or Black Death) on 9 April 1347. He was officially rehabilitated by Innocent VI in 1359.


William of Ockham believed,

only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.

Ockham’s theism was based solely on private revelation and faith (fideism). He believed that science was a matter of discovery. Therefore in the modern world his importance lies in his strongly developed interest in logical method.

In inquiry, Ockham advocated for a reform both in method and in content, the aim of which was simplification. Ockham incorporated much of the work of some previous theologians, especially John Duns Scotus. From Scotus, Ockham derived his view of divine omnipotence, his view of grace and justification, much of his epistemology and ethical convictions. However, he also reacted to and against Scotus in the areas of predestination, penance, his understanding of universals.

Discussion of Ockham’s philosophy and theology will get us into deep waters very quickly.  I will say, though, that his ideas are still discussed. His view of parsimony which became known as Occam’s Razor, is certainly his best known tenet, but unfortunately it bears his name undeservedly. The idea can easily be traced to Pythagoras and Aristotle.

The term “Occam’s razor” first appeared in 1852 in the works of Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet (1788–1856) Its association with Ockham is probably be due to the frequency and effectiveness with which he used it. Ockham stated the principle in various ways, but the most popular version, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate) was formulated by the Irish Franciscan philosopher John Punch in his 1639 commentary on the works of Duns Scotus (from whom Ockham derived it).

I usually phrase the principle informally thus: “If two competing hypotheses have equal merit, choose the simplest.” It is not a rule of logic or science, but merely a guideline for inquiry. Its force lies in the simple notion that if you are trying to develop a scientific theory, the fewer assumptions you make in deriving the theory, the better. Well and good. But as my mentor and friend, Rodney Needham (professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University from 1976 to 1990) pointed out, the principle of parsimony is not useful in all fields of inquiry. You don’t want an analysis of Hamlet, for example, reduced to a few simple sentences: just the opposite. The more complex, the better.

So . . . what about cooking? Can we apply Occam’s razor to recipes? Here we have a matter of personal choice. Longtime readers here will recall my incredibly convoluted recipes, as well as my simplest. Which is better? This question strikes at the heart of evolving culinary traditions. Fads come and go. Generally I prefer simplicity, but I’m not averse to dishes that involve days-long preparation, using myriad ingredients.

Here is a traditional recipe for Surrey fish pudding which I think serves for simplicity, is delicious, and comes from Ockham’s home county. There’s no telling, but it might have been made in his day.


Surrey Fish Pudding


1½ lb cooked firm fish
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup whole milk
1 oz butter, melted
anchovy paste
chopped parsley
salt and pepper


Break up the fish as finely as possible in a bowl. Mix in the breadcrumbs, then fold in the rest of the ingredients (anchovy paste, parsley, salt and pepper to taste).

Place the ingredients in a buttered mould and steam for 45 minutes.


Oct 142013

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of Duke William II of Normandy and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, during the Norman conquest of England. It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) north-west of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.

The background to the battle was the death of the childless King Edward the Confessor in January 1066, which set up a succession struggle between several claimants to his throne. Harold was crowned king shortly after Edward’s death, but faced invasions by William, his own brother Tostig, and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (Harold III of Norway). Hardrada and Tostig defeated a hastily gathered army of Englishmen at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066, and were in turn defeated by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge five days later. The deaths of Tostig and Hardrada at Stamford left William as Harold’s only serious opponent. While Harold and his forces were recovering from Stamford, William landed his invasion forces in the south of England at Pevensey on 28 September 1066 and established a beachhead for his conquest of the kingdom. Harold was forced to march south swiftly, gathering forces as he went.


The exact numbers present at the battle are unknown; estimates are around 10,000 for William and about 7000 for Harold. The composition of the forces is clearer; the English army was composed almost entirely of infantry and had few archers, whereas about half of the invading force was infantry, the rest split equally between cavalry and archers. Harold appears to have tried to surprise William, but scouts found his army and reported its arrival to William, who marched from Hastings to the battlefield to confront Harold. The battle lasted from about 9 am to dusk. Early efforts of the invaders to break the English battle lines had little effect, therefore the Normans adopted the tactic of pretending to flee in panic and then turning on their pursuers. Harold’s death, probably near the end of the battle, led to the retreat and defeat of most of his army.


After further marching and some skirmishes, William was crowned as king on Christmas Day 1066.

Although there continued to be rebellions and resistance to William’s rule, Hastings effectively marked the culmination of William’s conquest of England. Casualty figures are hard to come by, but some historians estimate that 2000 invaders died along with about twice that number of Englishmen. William founded a monastery at the site of the battle, the high altar of the abbey church supposedly placed at the spot where Harold died.


One of the ultimate effects of the Norman conquest was linguistic (with a culinary twist).  The actual dialect history is complicated so I will oversimplify and use modern spellings for Old English and Old Norman words.  When William conquered England the English nobility was largely replaced by Norman barons.  So there developed a class divide that was both cultural and linguistic.  The nobility spoke Old French, and the underclasses spoke Old English. (Both had several dialects which is why it’s too complicated to explain here).  Old French persisted among the nobility well into the thirteenth century, not least because the kings of England retained the title of Duke of Normandy, sometimes living more in Normandy than in France. Over time, Old English acquired a large number of words from Old French, and the language eventually evolved into Middle English (Chaucer’s language) and then Modern English.  Hence English often has two words for the same thing – one from Old French and one from Old English; “woodland” (English) and “forest” (French), for example.  When it comes to meats things get interesting.  Generally European languages use the same word for the animal and its meat.  English does this with lamb and chicken.  But not so with beef, pork, and mutton, which come from cows, pigs, and sheep.  The words for the animals are Old English in origin, and the words for the meats are from the Old French words for the animals/meat (modernized: boeuf, porc, mouton).  This is because it was Anglo-Saxon peasants who tended the animals, but Norman nobility who ate them.  Animals in the field had English names; animals on the plate had French ones.

Parts of Normandy, now as of old, consist of rolling countryside typified by pasture for dairy cattle and apple orchards. A wide range of dairy products are produced and exported. Norman cheeses include Camembert, Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, Brillat-Savarin, Neufchâtel, Petit Suisse and Boursin. Normandy butter and Normandy cream are lavishly used in gastronomic specialties.


Normandy is also a major cider-producing region – European cider, that is, not what people in the U.S. think of.  Perry (like cider but from pears) is also produced, but in less significant quantities. Apple brandy, of which the most famous variety is calvados, is also popular. The mealtime trou normand, or “Norman hole,” is a pause between meal courses in which diners partake of a glassful of calvados in order to improve the appetite and make room for the next course – still observed in many homes and restaurants. Pommeau is an apéritif produced by blending unfermented cider and apple brandy. Another aperitif is the kir normand, a measure of crème de cassis topped up with cider. Bénédictine (why God made monks) is produced in Fécamp.

Apples are widely used in cooking: for example, moules à la normande are mussels cooked with apples and cream, bourdelots are apples baked in pastry, partridges are flamed with reinette apples, and localities all over the province have their own variation of apple tart (baked upside down), tarte tatin.

Cattle and apple products also combine in the legendary tripes à la mode de caen (tripe caen style),  perhaps the most regal, most famous, and most daunting of all tripe dishes.  I promise after this I will leave my tripe fetish alone for a while.

I’ve slaved hour after hour, day after day at home to try to come up with a serviceable recipe.  I think I now have it, but I want to begin with a fair warning to all cooks who want to try to replicate this dish at home – DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS RECIPE WITHOUT A SAFETY NET.    I’ve had to eat (or pitch out) an awful lot of failures.  The huge problem is that for the dish to be successful the cooking pot must be sealed as tightly as possible to ensure that none of the juices escape during the long slow cooking process.  So you basically have to put it in the oven and simply forget it until your previous experience tells you it’s ready.  But . . . too little cooking time or too slow an oven and the meat is chewy and the sauce thin; too long cooking or too high a flame and you have a gelatinous, soggy, unappetizing mess.  Believe me, I’ve seen it all.  So, my best advice is to save up your pennies and take a gustatory trip to a specialty restaurant or two in Normandy.

Acquiring even remotely close to the proper ingredients for tripes à la mode de Caen is a tricky (if not impossible) business.  Strictly speaking the offal parts should be from oxen.  Ox feet are essential to provide enough gelatinous and fatty material to make the sauce thick and silky.  The ox tripe should consist of selections from all four stomachs chambers, and not simply the ubiquitous honeycomb tripe.  There are specialized butchers that can get rumen (blanket) and omasum (bible) tripe with some effort, so it’s worth a try.  Chinese butchers often have bible tripe. You are most especially supposed to use fully raw tripe so that it can accept the long slow cooking process, and so you get the true meaty richness that is missing from the generally available parboiled and bleached samples.

I am going to give two recipes here.  The first, a “traditional” version, assumes you can get all the necessary ingredients and that you have the patience for the long effort.  The second, my “cheaters’” version, is for those cooks who have to make do with what they can gather from local supermarkets.  Whichever you choose, this is a big dish and needs lots of hungry eaters.


©Tripes à la Mode de Caen

Traditional Recipe


4 ½ lbs of ox tripe including rumen, honeycomb, omasum, and reed.
1 whole ox foot split lengthways
1 lb beef fat
5 medium onions
5 medium carrots
3 small leeks
2 pints French cider (or English)
¼ cup Calvados
fresh thyme sprigs
fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
4 peeled garlic cloves
salt and pepper
flour paste


Use an ovenproof casserole (preferably earthenware), that will hold all the ingredients compactly.  Peel and slice the onions and carrots into bite sized pieces and use them to line the base of the casserole.  Put the ox foot halves on top of the vegetables.  Cut the tripe into 2” squares and layer them into the casserole.   Make a bundle of herbs (bouquet garni) by tying together 2 sprigs of parsley, with 4 sprigs of thyme and two bay leaves.   Trim the coarse leaves and roots from the leeks, and make sure they are scrubbed thoroughly to remove all traces of dirt.  Tie them in a bundle.  Insert the herbs, garlic, and leeks in among the tripe.  Season with salt and pepper, plus a pinch of allspice.  Slice the beef fat thinly and make a layer that covers the tripe completely.  Pour in the Calvados and then add the cider to cover the meat completely.  The amount given here is approximate and will vary according to the type of vessel used.  (Some cooks use water instead of cider because the cider darkens the tripe too much for their tastes.) Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid that has been hermetically sealed with a paste made from flour and a little water.  Bake at 275°F/135°C for about 12 hours.

At the end of the cooking time remove the lid of the casserole and discard the flour paste.  Strain off the gravy and skim off the fat carefully.  Remove the vegetables and herbs.  Bone the ox foot and place it in an earthenware serving dish along with the tripe pieces.  Pour over the gravy and serve.

Serves 10.

Cheaters’ Version


4 ½ lbs parboiled tripe (honeycomb and bible if possible)
1 whole ox foot split lengthways (or two calves’ feet, split)
5 medium onions
5 medium carrots
3 leeks
2 pints hard cider
¼ cup applejack
fresh thyme sprigs
fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
4 peeled garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cloves
salt and pepper


Use a casserole with a tight fitting lid.  Peel and dice the onions and carrots.  Clean the leeks thoroughly, removing the roots and tough leaves, and slice them thickly.  Make a bed of all these vegetables at the base of the casserole.  Cut the tripe into 2” squares and place it over the vegetables along with the ox foot.  Make a bundle of herbs out of the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves using 3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, and 1 or 2 of parsley.  Tuck the herbs in the tripe layer in the casserole along with the garlic and cloves.  Season with salt and pepper to your taste.  Pour in the applejack and enough cider to completely cover the tripe.  Close the lid tightly and give the whole casserole a double wrapping of aluminum foil so that it is as hermetically sealed as possible.  Bake in a 300°F/150°C oven for about 3 hours.

Serve in the same manner as the traditional version with the boned ox foot and tripe covered with the degreased gravy.  It is good to serve it with nice crusty bread and a steaming bowl of freshly boiled new potatoes.

Serves 10-12