The Forme of Cury
The Forme of Cury (‘The Method of Cooking’ ) is an extensive 14th-century collection of medieval English recipes. Although the original manuscript is lost , the text appears in nine other incomplete documents from different eras, the most famous of which is in the form of a scroll with a headnote citing it as the work of ‘the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II’. The name ‘The Forme of Cury’ is generally used for the family of recipes rather than any single manuscript text. The collection was so named by Samuel Pegge, who published an edition of one of the manuscripts in 1780 for the curator of the British Museum, Gustavus Brander (Dickson Wright, 2011, 46, 50-52). As a collection, it forms one of the oldest extant, and probably the best-known medieval guide, to cooking written in English. Its origin may have been partly to compete with ‘Le Viandier of Taillevent’, another incomplete manuscript in French created around the same time. The idea that the Forme of Cury was intended to be better and even more royal than Le Viandier of Taillevent suggests banquets were considered symbols of power and prestige for kings and great medieval lords (Hieatt & Butler, 1985).
Contents of the book
As with most books, the Forme of Cury begins with an introduction. In this preamble, the authors explain it is a compilation of recipes meant to teach a cook how to make both common dishes as well as unusual or extravagant banquet dishes. It notes the recipes were written with the agreement and advice of the ‘masters in medicine and philosophy’ who served England’s King Richard II .
As with many cookbooks on medieval cuisine, there is no clear and consistent layout. It seems the authors recorded recipes as they encountered them. So, soups and roasted meats or meats in sauces are mixed with recipes for vegetables (peas, beans, lettuce, leeks, etc.) and recipes for eggs. Some of the sweetened dishes, analogous to desserts today, are found mixed with salted recipes such as ‘pynnonade’, ‘rosee’ (rose petals), ‘payn ragoun’, ‘appulmoy’, ‘sowpes dorry’, ‘fygey’, and ‘tostee’. Next are included some fish and soup recipes followed by those for 10 sauces and then recipes for fritters, pies, tarts, (‘sambocade’, a tart made from elderberries, is classified with salted tarts). The manuscript concludes with two blancmange recipes, two sweetened tarts recipes and some recipes for ‘ypocras’, claret, and a unique beer made with honey. This approach can be confusing for modern readers more familiar with defined chapters and themed sections.
The Forme of Cury is the first known English cookbook to mention ingredients such as cloves, olive oil, mace, and gourds. Many recipes contain what were at the time rare and valuable spices, including nutmeg, caraway, ginger, pepper, ‘canell’ (cinnamon), and cardamom. In addition to imparting flavour, many of the spices were included specifically to impart rich colours to the finished dishes for the purpose of, as Samual Pegge states, ’gratifying the sight.’ There is a particular emphasis on yellows, reds, and greens, but gilding and silvering was also used in several of the recipes (Pegge). Yellow was achieved through the use of saffron or egg yolk, red through ’sanders‘ (sandalwood), alkanet, or blood, and green often through minced parsley (Woolgar, 2018). The Forme of Cury also includes instructions for preparing many different types of animals not normally encountered, for very good reasons, in modern texts. These include whale, crane, curlew, heron, seal and porpoise (Woolgar, 2018).
Alongside the more exotic ingredients, the recipes clearly reveal influences from beyond England’s shores. Interestingly, Mediæval English cuisine seems to identify more with that of southern Europe than with their close cousins, the French. There are about ten vegetable recipes, including a rare one for a vinaigrette salad, that it is thought must originate in Portugal and Spain as the French cooks of that time rarely used vegetables. The relationship to southern cuisine is equally evident because of the presence of almonds and almond oil in 19% of the recipes, (compared to 12% from the recipes of Le Viandier). This percentage rose to 45% in the cookbooks of the 15th-century. Remembering that the Forme of Cury seems determined to outdo Le Viandier, the former includes the use of large quantities of saffron as in southern cuisine, 40% compared to 29% in Le Viandier.
Some recipes in The Forme of Cury appear to be influenced by the Liber de Coquina, itself influenced by Arabic cuisine. For example, the recipe for ‘mawmenee’ corresponds to the Arabic ‘mamouniye’, a roasted semolina cream dessert . The confectionery-like ‘payn ragoun’ uses an Arab technique of cooking in a soft boil syrup. It also confirms a connection with Sicily, whose cuisine had been heavily influenced by Arab, Catalan and Norman rulers (Pegge). There are also several pasta dishes, evidence of an Italian influence, such as ‘losyns’, ‘rauioles’ (raviole), ‘makerouns’ (maccaroons), ‘raphioles’, and sweetened mustard ‘lombardes’ as found in Italian and Catalan recipes.
The recipes recorded in the Forme of Cury were clearly intended to impress as one might expect of a king’s cookbook. Drawing on influences from far and wide, the dishes represent English regal power and prestige, and appear aimed at surpassing the culinary collections of rival kings. Whether this was its sole purpose, the Forme of Cury provides good evidence that English gastronomy in the 14th-century was clearly the equal of French cuisine.
Bouchut, Marie Josèphe Moncorgé; Bailey, Ian (trans.); Hunt, Leah (trans.), ‘Oldcook: Forme of Cury and cookery books in English’, Available online (accessed June 15th, 2020).
Dickson Wright, C., (2011), ‘A History of English Food’, London: Random House.
Hieatt, C. B. & Butler, S., (1985), ‘Curye on Inglysch’, Early English Text Society, London: Oxford University Press.
Pegge, Samuel (1704-1796), ‘The forme of cury, a roll of Ancient English cookery: compiled, about AD 1390, by the master-cooks of King Richard II’, Cambridge University Press.
Woolgar, C.M., (2018), ‘Medieval food and colour’, Journal of Medieval History, 44 (1): 10.
1. ‘Cury’ comes from the Middle French word cuire meaning ‘to cook’.
2. According to Constance B. Hieatt, the Forme of Cury can be categorised as four different manuscripts (Hieatt and Butler, 1985):
a. Manuscript A, from the British Library, is the text printed in 1780 by Pegge and contains 196 recipes. Hieatt questions the utility of this text as a comprehensive reference because its editors were unaware of the existence of other manuscripts. That said the majority of the recipes presented in the ‘Curye on Inglysch’ can be found in Manuscript A.
b. Manuscript B, from the Pierpont Morgan Library of New York, is very damaged and in the form of a scroll. It includes 180 recipes.
c. Manuscript H, also from the British Library, comprises 133 recipes compiled by Harley in 1605.
d. Manuscript M, from the John Rylands University of Manchester, is missing the first few pages but contains 194 recipes.
3. Richard II succeeded to the throne at the tender age of nine, and thus, in 1390, he was only 23 years old and thus still a very young king. Historians describe the two years of Richard’s reign between 1397 and 1399 as his ‘tyranny’. In June 1399, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of the recently deceased John of Gaunt, invaded England with a small force that quickly grew in numbers. Meeting little resistance, he deposed Richard and had himself crowned king. Richard is thought to have been starved to death in captivity, although questions remain regarding his final fate.
4. Mamouniye, also called mamounia, mamounieh or mamouniyeh, is served for breakfast in places like Syria, and is also served at weddings and special occasions.