Food from the Middle Ages

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First aired on As It Happens (12/06/12)

When thousands of the world's greatest athletes arrive in London for the Summer Olympic Games, they'll get a taste of British hospitality and British cuisine. And if history is any indication, these cats know how to throw a party.

Peter Ross, chief librarian at London's Guildhall Library, has written a new book about unusual food from England's culinary past. In The Curious Cookbook, Ross walks us through how to make something called Live Frog Pie. Sounds, uh, delicious?

"The live frog pie actually dates back to the 17th century, and it's basically an entertainment," he told CBC's Carol Off during a recent interview. "In the middle of the meal, this is going to be a high-class meal, you have your servant bring in a pie and, unbeknownst to all your guests, it was just a pie crust on top of a dish. So when you invite one of your guests to cut into it, the frogs would jump out of the pie and basically break the ice at parties. There's a description in the book from the 17th century that says it will make the ladies scream and run away from the table, etc."

curious-cookbook.jpgApparently, the well-to-do Brits of the past enjoyed theatrical dinners, which could explain why some of the most popular proteins of the day were exotic (some now endangered) animals, like swans, porpoises and otters.

"Barbecued otter is a very unusual recipe and I probably looked at nearly every cookery book published or produced between 1390 and about 1800. And that's the only recipe for otter in any English cookery book, so it was exceptionally unusual. And hunting of otters was legal in the British Isles until the 20th century, so you could have obtained it, but that's the only recipe I've ever come across."

It's probably best that most of these dishes are left in the past. Besides eating unsustainable meats, some of the food was downright deadly. Take the recipe for Poison Purple Pears, for instance. It was made famous by a highly successful 18th-century cookbook author named Hannah Glasse.

"She had a recipe in which she cooked pears, and she cooked them in the saucepan with a pewter plate on top. And what's happening is that the acid of the pears reacts with the lead in the pewter plate, causes the chemical reaction which turns the pears purple, which she thought was delightful. But what she didn't understand at the time, and we recognize now is that that purple colouring is actually poison coming out of the lead. Eventually, if you ate it enough, it would kill you."


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