15 Deeply Strange Old English Recipes That You Won’t Want To Try At Home

There were no supermarkets in the past, but that’s no excuse for eating badger ham and sparrows on toast. H/T to The Curious Cookbook and Supersizers.

1. Cockentrice

The cockentrice was a cheerfully OTT medieval recipe that called for a castrated rooster (capon) to be boiled, cut in half and sewn to the rear end of a young pig. It was then stuffed, put it on a spit and roasted, gilded with egg yolks, saffron and occasionally gold leaf before being served to the king and queen as a ‘ryal mete’ (that’s royal meat, to you and me. They couldn’t afford vowels in medieval times).

2. Viper Soup

One of the earliest English recipes for snake (yes, there’s more than one) comes from Professor Richard Bradley’s concisely named 1736 cookbook, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director in the Management of a House, and the Delights and Profits of a Farm. “Take Vipers, alive and cut off their Heads; then cut them in pieces, about two Inches in length, and boil them, with their Hearts. Garnish with slices of Lemon.”

Because without the lemon this would be unpleasant.

3. Live Frog Pie

To surprise and entertain guests at medieval banquets, some cooks would hide live animals inside empty pie crusts. The most popular choices were frogs and birds, but as time went on the practice got more and more competitive. One cook filled a pie with barking dogs, while another hid an entire musical group and a poetry reading dwarf inside a giant crust. Someone should really do that on Come Dine With Me.

4. Badger ham

Via Mary Evans Picture Library

Badger has never been eaten widely in England, but it was considered a delicacy in some rural areas. A recipe in The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director by Richard ‘Viper Soup’ Bradley states: “The Badger is one of the cleanest Creatures, in its Food, of any in the World. When a Badger is killed, cut off the Gammons, and strip them; then lay them in a Brine of Salt and Water for a Week or ten Days; then boil it for four or five Hours, and then roast it. Serve it hot with some Lemon in slices.”

He just can’t get enough of that lemon.

5. Cock Ale

Have you ever wished that chicken soup got you drunk? If so, you should definitely make some cock ale: a type of 17th century beer flavoured with a skinned cockerel and various spices. To make cock ale, you ‘take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates and put to them two quarts of the best Sack (wine), stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it.’ It was great for colds, probably.

6. Calf Ear Fritters

Nothing went to waste in the gluttonous yet strangely frugal Victorian era. Entire calves’ heads were boiled for supper and their brains were made into a buttery sauce. It must have been like going for dinner at Hannibal Lecter’s house. Even the calves’ ears were shaved, boiled and then fried as a distressingly rubbery side dish. The result? Just check out Giles Coren’s face. HORROR.

7. Poisonous purple pears

In the 18th century, successful cookery writer Hannah Glasse invented what she considered to be a charming and theatrical recipe for pears cooked in a saucepan with a pewter plate on top. The acid in the pears would react with the lead in the pewter dish, causing a chemical reaction that turned the pears purple. It may have looked pretty but the dish was poisonous and would kill anyone who ate enough.

Still, at least it wasn’t viper soup.

8. Paraffin cake

During the second world war, rationing meant that meat, eggs and animal fats were in short supply so many Britons started substituting liquid paraffin for butter or lard when making cakes. Unfortunately, paraffin isn’t that great for you (it’s a petroleum byproduct) meaning that the people who ate these cakes often suffered some- er- ‘unexpected gastric effects’*. If you ever run out of butter, there’s a recipe for paraffin cake here. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

*explosive pooping.

9. Sparrows on toast

commons.wikimedia.org / Via Creative Commons

Despite the fact that they’ve got less meat on them than Victoria Beckham, the humble sparrow was used as a source of food until at least the 19th century in Britain. Enterprising householders would hang ceramic ‘sparrow pots’ from roof eaves to attract nesting birds. Once the babies had hatched, people would reach in, harvest the offspring, stew the sparrow chicks and serve them on toast. Nice.

10. Roasted Udder

People have been eating udders ever since cows were first invented. Romans used to eat udder pâté, which - if this clip is anything to go by- tastes like vomit flavoured leather. 18th century English diarist Parson James Woodforde agreed, writing: “I dined at the Chaplain’s table with Pickering and Waring, upon a roasted Tongue and Udder. N.B. I shall not dine on an Udder again soon”. If you happen to have a spare cow’s udder lying around and don’t mind the thought of eating something that tastes like rubber gloves filled with old cheese, there’s a 1683 recipe here.

11. Nettle pudding

In 2007, academics from the University of Wales unveiled the oldest recorded recipe: a stodgy and flavourless 8000 year old concoction called nettle pudding. Neolithic hunter gatherers combined crushed nettle leaves with barley flour and water to make a dough that was then boiled over a fire. The pudding wouldn’t have injured the people eating it as the plants lose their sting in the first 30 seconds of cooking, but it wouldn’t have tasted great either. Nettle gloop, anyone?

12. Cheese with live maggots

During his tour around Britain in the 1720s, the English writer, journalist and spy Daniel Defoe stopped off in the cheesemaking town of Stilton. He was served a plate of cheese with maggots around it so thick that a spoon had to be brought for him to eat them with. The cheese also contained smaller bugs called cheese mites. As presenter Sue Perkins says in this clip: “this kind of insect fun park isn’t my idea of a great dining experience.” Us either.

13. Heron pudding

Although it’s now illegal to kill and eat herons, heron pudding is featured in the imaginatively named British Home Cookery Book by May Byron in 1914. She suggests making sure that “no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, makes the whole bird taste of fish. This fluid, however, is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts.”

Because eating fishy bone fluid is weird, but rubbing it on wounds isn’t.

14. Calf’s Foot Jelly

Until the invention of mass market soluble jelly cubes, one of the most popular ways to make jelly involved boiling a calf’s foot to extract the natural gelatin. In Victorian times these slightly depressing jellies were served unsweetened to invalids as they were considered to be highly nutritious. These flavourless antique jellies were - in the words of Sue Perkins - ‘the colour of sadness’.

15. Porpoise porridge

The Forme of Cury is one of the oldest known English cookery manuscripts and was written by King Richard II’s cooks in or around 1399. It contains 196 recipes, one of which is for porpoise furmenty: a type of sweet, spicy wheat porridge. “Take clene whete and bete it small in a morter and fanne out clene the dust. Waisthe it and boile it tyl it be tendre. Take the mylk of Almonds & boile them. Take up the porpays out of the Furmente & leshe hem in a dishe with hot water.” Translation: boil some wheat with almond milk and bung a porpoise in it.

Sadly, there’s no record of what Richard II made of this sickly, nutty, fishy meal.

Many thanks to the excellent Foods of England website, Mary Evans Picture Library and historical recipe site Godecookery.com

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