“Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library,” announced the British Library in their Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog, in a news story dated 01 April 2012.
It’s a nice piece of work, and the illustrations are charming. Lo here:
A long-lost medieval cookbook, containing recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds and even unicorns, has been discovered at the British Library. Professor Brian Trump of the British Medieval Cookbook Project described the find as near-miraculous. “We’ve been hunting for this book for years. The moment I first set my eyes on it was spine-tingling.”Geoffrey Fule’s wife was no doubt named Aprille. I expect she hung out with lady-in-waiting Philippa de Roet, who coincidentally was also married to a guy named Geoffrey.
Experts believe that the cookbook was compiled by Geoffrey Fule, who worked in the kitchens of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England (1328-1369).
The nameless experts the story cites are to be congratulated on their knowledge of 14th C. employment records, as are Professor Brian Trump and the British Medieval Cookbook Project for their successful unicorn hunt.
Geoffrey had a reputation for blending unusual flavours — one scholar has called him “the Heston Blumenthal of his day” — and everything points to his hand being behind the compilation.If we knew this much about a prominent cook of that period, right down to his seasoning preferences, there would already be a scholarly industry devoted to studying him, and he’d be the main character in a series of modern mystery novels.
After recipes for herring, tripe and codswallop (fish stew, a popular dish in the Middle Ages) —Herring as in red herring, tripe as in tripe, and codswallop as in the modern phrase, “a load of codswallop.”
— comes that beginning “Taketh one unicorne”.Grammatically, that would be the second-person dubious.
The recipe calls for the beast to be marinaded in cloves and garlic, and then roasted on a griddle.This is careless. One doesn’t roast on a griddle. Also, the illustration mistakenly depicts the unicorn (which hasn’t been properly cleaned and gutted) being martyred by being grilled on a gridiron in the style of St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the patron saints of cooks.
(Lawrence is notably one of the saints whose colorful Life was probably generated by a typo. When not shown being cooked, he’s generally shown standing around with his gridiron: a reminder to home barbecue enthusiasts that if you don’t keep those things clean, stuff sticks to them. But I digress.)
The cookbook’s compiler, doubtless Geoffrey Fule himself, added pictures in its margins, —It’s wonderful how they can tell that.
— depicting the unicorn being prepared and then served. Sarah J Biggs, a British Library expert on medieval decoration, commented that “the images are extraordinary, almost exactly as we’d expect them to be, if not better”.That last line is splendidly impossible. There are no illustrated cookbooks from that period, and darn few pictures of cooking of any sort, so it’s hard to see how Ms. Biggs or anyone else could have had expectations of them. It’s also a remarkable achievement for the illustrations to simultaneously be extraordinary, exactly as expected, and better than that. “Pick one,” as I used to say in my copyediting days.
The recipe for cooking blackbirds is believed to be the origin of the traditional English nursery rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence / A pocket full of rye / Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie.”There are various theories about the origins of this nursery rhyme, none of them especially good. (See Wikipedia, The Straight Dope, and Snopes.com.) As the Wikipedia entry says (in a withering remark which I think they lifted from The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes),
No corroborative evidence has been found to support these theories, and given that the earliest version [printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, London, c. 1744] has only one verse and mentions “naughty boys” and not blackbirds, they can only be applicable if it is assumed that more recently printed versions accurately preserve an older tradition.Inventing one more dubious theory about the origins of that nursery rhyme is like inventing one more spurious prophecy attributed to Thomas of Ercildoune. There’s no risk of contaminating a field of scholarship with an unkillable story if it won’t make the subject any more of a mess than it already is.
Professor Trump added that he was tempted to try some of the recipes, but suspected that sourcing ingredients would be challenging. “Unfortunately, they don’t stock unicorn in my local branch of Tesco.”In popular writing about medieval cooking, that last bit is the equivalent of ending a thumb-sucking news story with “Only time will tell.”
The final illustration is particularly good.
(See also The Arbroath Bestiary: De vombato.)