First Catch Your Unicorn

After reading a depressing story about the number of songbirds illegally netted on the British RAF bases in Cyprus, in order to create a dish sanctified (as the hunters claim) by centuries of Cypriot ‘culture’, I was thinking back to the dotterel and the other birds eaten during the medieval period, from roasted swan down to raw quail (feathers and all) and larks’ tongues.

Courtly education for boys included instruction on how to carve each variety and present it correctly.

The woodcut at the opening of The Boke of Kervynge.

Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge (Enprynted by wynkyn de worde at London in fletestrete at the sygne of the sonne The yere of our lorde god. M.CCCCC.xiij.) gives details not only about birds but also about other dainties which might appear on a noble table: ‘Here begynneth the boke of kervynge and servynge / and all the feestes in the yere for the servyce of a prynce or ony other estate as ye shall fynde eche offyce the servyce accordynge in this boke folowynge.’

The list of carving terms. (Credit: Cambridge University Library)

‘Termes of a kerver: Breke that dere / lesche the brawne / rere that goose / lyfte that swanne / sauce that capon / spoyle that henne / fruche that chekyn / unbrace that malarde / unlace that conye / dysmembre that heron / dysplaye that crane / dysfygure that pecocke / unioynt that bytture / untache that curlewe / alaye that fesande / wynge that partryche / wynge that quayle / mynce that plover / thye that pygyon / border that pasty / thye that woodcocke / thye all maner small byrdes / tymbre that fyre / tyere that egge / chynne that samon / strynge that lamprey / splatte that pyke / sauce that place / sauce that tenche / splaye that breme / syde that haddocke / tuske that barbell / culpon that troute / fyne that cheuen / traffene that ele / traunche that sturgyo/ undertraunche that purpos / tayme that crabbe / barbe that lopster. Here endeth the goodly termes.’

Disfiguring a peacock and undertraunching a porpoise (it’s not clear if this means a porpoise or simply any large sea fish) seem to be among the more daunting activities, though taming a crab or barbing a lobster might not have been fun either.

Attacking a monster fish washed up ashore, in a Bosch-like image by Peter Brueghel the Elder. The Latin caption means ‘Little fish are the food for bigger fish’ – there is probably a political connotation.

Plovers were ‘mynced’: did this also apply to dotterels, or were they among the ‘all maner small byrdes’ that were ‘thyed’?

It is interesting to look at this list in conjunction with The Forme of Cury, a Roll of Antient English Cookery Compiled, about AD 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II, transcribed and edited by the Revd Samuel Pegge (1704–96) and published in 1780 (about which I have written before). Ordained in 1730 and elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1751, Pegge approached his antiquarian task with great gusto, and his introduction is worth reading, even if you get no further.

He dedicated his work to ‘Gustavus Brander, Esq. F.R.S. F.S.A., and Cur. Brit. Mus.’ as follows:

Brander (1720–87) was the descendant of a Swedish merchant family, a successful businessman, the inheritor of a fortune from his mother’s brother, and, from 1761–79, a director of the Bank of England. As Pegge’s dedication suggests, he was a Trustee (though not a curator) of the British Museum, and was interested in natural as well as historical history.

The priory church at Christchurch in a 1930s postcard, with ruins of the monastic buildings in the foreground.

When he moved to Hampshire (he bought the site of Christchurch priory to build a home on, and bequeathed money to the church to buy an organ, some pipes of which apparently remain after subsequent rebuildings), he started collecting the local fossils, and published his finds as Fossilia Hantoniensia collecta, et in Museo Britannico deposita, à Gustavo Brander in 1766, the descriptions of the fossils being written by no less a scholar than Daniel Solander himself. (The fossils are still in the Natural History Museum.)

The original manuscript of The Forme of Cury is now in the British Library (Add MS 5016): it had been presented by Edward Stafford, 3rd Baron Stafford (Plantagenet descendant, diplomat and possible Spanish spy), to Queen Elizabeth I in 1586, after which it entered the Harley collection, from whence Thomas Hearne, the Oxford antiquary, borrowed and transcribed it in 1727. It was purchased by Brander from the estate of James West (1703–72), politician and antiquary, who had been responsible for the transactions by which the Harleian manuscripts arrived at the British Museum; Brander himself donated it to the Museum on 10 May 1782.

One of the points Pegge makes about the recipes in the Forme of Cury is that they are, by and large, sloppy, and clearly meant to be eaten with a spoon. Meat and fish are cut up small (e.g. ‘Take Tenches and smyte hem to pecys’) and served in a sauce;

Smyting things to pecys, from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1340). (Credit: the British Library.)

and the majority of the recipes supply most detail about the preparations of sauces, frumenties, and sweet dishes, rather than what we would today regard as the basic (i.e. protein) ingredient of the dish.

There is virtually no roasting, so not much scope for the subsequent display of carving virtuosity – is this because roasting, whether on a spit or on a grill (not in an oven at this period), was such a self-evident activity (cook it until it’s cooked) that it didn’t have to be written down in any detail?

Spit-roasting small animals in front of a fire, also from the Luttrell Psalter, fo. 206v. (Credit: the British Library)

Even when pork is roasted (‘Take Pork, and rost it tyl the blode be tryed out’), this is a preliminary to turning it into a galantine by shredding the cooked flesh. Likewise, though breads of various kinds are a frequent ingredient in a dish, there are no instructions for baking.

I recently I came across (again on the British Library website) an even earlier cookbook, apparently written by one Geoffrey Fule, cook to Queen Philippa (1314–69), wife of King Edward III, which takes the biscuit in terms of the eating of rare animals. This contains recipes not only for blackbirds (nooo!)

The first version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ involving blackbirds is from 1780: in the 1740s, the line referred to ‘four-and-twenty naughty boys’.

and hedgehogs (nooooo!!!)

Hedgehogs pre-garnishing themselves. A French recipe instructs: ‘Hedgehog should have its throat cut, be singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water, and then it will straighten itself’.

but also for a unicorn (which presumably you have first caught with the aid of a maiden).

An Allegory of Chastity, formerly attributed to Giorgione. (Credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

There are illustrations showing the grilling, the serving of the head (also by a maiden), and, apparently, the disposal of the remains.

Cook the unicorn on a gridiron, like St Lawrence.

Serve the unicorn with dignity …

… and dispose of the remains.

How precisely it was carved does not seem to be revealed – something Wynkyn de Worde ought perhaps to have rectified in a second edition.

Caroline

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