The Forme of Cury Is a Mediaeval Cookbook, Written Around 1390, Comprising Circa 196 Recipes Based On Local Food And Imported Spices.

The Forme of Cury was written in c 1390 by Richard II chefs

The Forme of Cury, was written in Middle English, and literally translates to “The Method of Cooking.” But it’s more than a medieval cookbook; it’s a window into the vegetables, culinary and social landscape of 14th-century England. Though the original manuscript is lost, its recipes survive through nine copies, the most famous being a scroll attributed to the “chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.”

The Forme of Cury Is A Historical Gem

Composed around 1390, The Forme of Cury stands as one of the oldest surviving English cookery books. It sits alongside a French cookery book, Le Viandier de Taillevant, which as written in around 1300, so perhaps was written to better the French book. Cury isnt a portent of Indian curry which came centuries later but comes from the Old French term quererie .. cookery. The Forme of Cury gives us a glimpse into the opulent world of the royal court, showcasing the culinary expertise employed to impress the king and his guests. The recipes often call for rare and expensive ingredients like spices, reflecting the wealth and power associated with the royal table. And perhaps that is where cury and curry come together over the centuries as both use spices. And in the case of the medieval recipes I suspect many readers will be surprised that the manuscript lists the following …

Common” Spices:

  • Pepper: This ubiquitous spice, used for both heat and flavour, was probably the most commonly used spice in the book.
  • Ginger: Both fresh and dried ginger found their way into many dishes, adding warmth and a distinctive flavour profile.
  • Cinnamon: This fragrant spice, often referred to as “canell” in the recipes, was used in both savory and sweet dishes.
  • Nutmeg: This prized spice, originating from Southeast Asia, added a rich, nutty flavor to various dishes.
  • Cloves: These aromatic cloves were used whole or ground, adding a warm and pungent note to savory dishes.

Less Common, And Even More Luxurious Spices Mentioned

  • Cardamom: This aromatic spice, native to South Asia, offered a complex and slightly sweet flavour profile.
  • Mace: The delicate outer layer of nutmeg, mace provided a subtle and slightly sweeter flavour compared to its inner core.
  • Saffron: The most expensive spice on the list, saffron was used sparingly to add a vibrant yellow colour and a unique floral aroma to dishes. Though incredibly expensive, saffron was at least grown in England .. and still is. How to grow saffron can be found by following this link.
  • “Sanders” (Sandalwood): Although not technically a spice, sandalwood was used for its vibrant red colour to enhance the visual appeal of dishes. I’ll write more on how dishes were coloured in another post.
  • Galiyngale: a spice I use mostly in Thai cookery today. But used in the 14th century sawse madame recipe I show below.

Significance of the Forme of Cury

Beyond its historical value, The Forme of Cury is, to me, important for the following reasons:

  • Gardening Insights: From reading the recipes it impossible to see what was being grown in English gardens. For example though salads (salats) are mentioned there are few other mentions of letys .. aka lettuce. Interestingly let’s sits alongside violets and primroses as salat ingredients
  • Unique Culinary Insights: It provides invaluable information about medieval cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavours. The recipes offer clues about the prevalent spices, cooking methods like stewing and roasting (roosting), and the importance of visual appeal through colour and presentation.
  • Evolution of Cuisine: By comparing these recipes with later cookbooks, we can trace the development of English cuisine and understand how it evolved over time. A typical recipe calls for ingredients to be “put to the fire”. There were no air fryers, sous vide or similar equipment! It was all cooked with an open fire at its centre.
  • Social Commentary: The emphasis on exotic spices and elaborate presentations hints at the social hierarchy and the desire of the elite to display their wealth and status through their food.
  • Global Commerce: look at the list of spices and it is obvious that trade links existed between England and Asia as long ago as the 14th century. Spices such as cardamon, nutmeg, mace and others would have been traded along the Spice Route, which accounted for their high cost. There was no putting a pallet of pepper or turmeric on a returning aircraft in those days.

The Forme of Cury – Content

The Forme of Cury boasts around 200 recipes, the exact number depends on the manuscript version you read .. it varies between 180 – 200. These encompass a wide range of dishes, from meat-based main courses like “Mortrews” (a savoury meat and bread stew) to sweet delicacies like “Blancmange” (a milk and almond-based dessert). Interestingly, the cookbook mentions ingredients like olive oil, gourds, and spices like mace and cloves, which were relatively new introductions to English cuisine at the time.

The recipes themselves are not merely lists of ingredients; they offer detailed, though brief, instructions, often specifying cooking times and methods. However, deciphering these instructions requires an understanding of medieval terminology and measurements, which can be challenging for cooks and chefs a metric world.

A Favourite Forme of Cury Recipe

Sawse madame. Take sawge, persel, ysope and saueray, quinces and peeres, garlek and grapes, and fylle the gees þerwith; and sowe the hole þat no grece come out, and roost hem wel, and kepe the grece þat fallith þerof. Take galytyne and grece and do in a possynet. Whan the gees buth rosted ynouh, take hem of & smyte hem on pecys, and take þat þat is withinne and do it in a possynet and put þerinne wyne, if it be to thyk; do þerto powdour of galyngale, powdour douce, and salt and boyle the sawse, and dresse þe gees in disshes & lay þe sowe onoward

I’ll explain this in a future recipe post. I like it with duck rather than goose.

The Forme of Cury – Final Thoughts

The Forme of Cury is more than a collection of recipes; it’s a historical and cultural treasure trove. It transports us back to a bygone era, giving us an insight into the flavours and social customs of medieval England. While the recipes themselves may not be readily adaptable to modern kitchens, they offer a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of culinary practices and the enduring connection between food, history, and culture.

Having said that, I know of readers that use The Forme of Cury as an inspiration and cook from it. For myself I have taken three recipes that, when subtly modified, are a perfect menu for when we have guests to dinner. And with the menu they provide there is plenty to talk about.

The Forme of Cury is not the only cook book of the period and I’ll be writing about them in future. In the meantime look out for my favourite recipes, that can be cooked today, from this manuscript.

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