A history of blancmange

As Guildhall Library prepares to host a panel discussion covering the history of English food and cuisine from Roman Britain to the celebrity chefs of the present-day, this week’s post features a much smaller segment of food history: the history of blancmange…

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One of the earliest extant cookery books is The Forme of cury – meaning ‘the proper method of cookery’. It has been attributed to the cooks employed by Richard II and, in its original form, may have been compiled as early as 1390. Of the approximately 200 recipes it contains – many of which are highly coloured – one looks particularly familiar.

The blank maunger recalls that much loathed staple of my childhood birthday parties – blancmange – but in the medieval period, this recipe, literally meaning ‘white food’ consisted of rice and capons with almond milk and ‘almandes fryed in white grece’ and was probably derived from an Arabic dish. This was a blander, less heavily spiced concoction than many medieval dishes and may have been used to tempt the appetite of invalids.

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Its transition through the centuries has been charted by C. Anne Wilson, who noted that by Elizabethan times a meatless version existed, made with cream, sugar and rosewater and thickened with egg yolks or beaten egg whites.

Both versions are given in Robert May’s The accomplisht cook, first published in 1660. Wilson thinks that by the 17th century the English were starting to lose interest in this ancient survival of a dish, and that its renaissance started in France with a new approach. A capon or hen and a calves foot were boiled together, and the stock drawn off and strained. Before it set, beaten chickenflesh, rosewater, ground almonds and breadcrumbs were added, creating a thick jelly.

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Another version was based on jelly made from hartshorn shavings, coloured with cream and ground almonds, and it was this variant that became 18th century English blancmange. The compleat city and country cook: or, accomplish’d housewife by Charles Carter (2nd edn., 1736) has the following recipe for blemange of isinglass:

Take three Calves-feet and split them, put in a Gallon of Water, two Ounces of Eringo-roots candy’d, two Blades of Mace, one Stick of Cinnamon, boil this until it comes to three Quarts, then strain it off, put in six Ounces of Loaf-sugar, half a Pint of Cream, four Ounces of Almonds pounded very fine and strain’d, a little Rose or Orange Flower Water, then strain very fine into your Dish or Cups, and let it stand until cold; garnish with bitter Almond Bisket.

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Carter also has a recipe for blancmange layered in different colours, using saffron, cochineal, syrup of clove-gilly-flowers, spinach juice and pistachio kernels as colouring. Eliza Acton in Modern cookery, in all its branches (14th edn., 1854), similarly uses spinach, cochineal and saffron but also chocolate in her recipe for blamange rubané (striped blancmange).

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The final transformation of blancmange came via the Atlantic with the introduction of arrowroot into Britain as a thickening agent. Boiling milk, sweetened and seasoned with cinnamon and lemon peel, was poured on a solution of arrowroot and stirred till it thickened. Put into a blancmange mould, it could then be turned out when ready to be served, making what William Mead described rather uncharitably as a ‘gelatinous composition served with a sweetened sauce’.

All the publications mentioned above can be found at Guildhall Library among our internationally renowned collection of books on food and wine.

Val Hart
Assistant Librarian

If this has whet your appetite, join us for a panel discussion covering the history of English food and cuisine, that also explores the question – why does nobody eat in books?
Wednesday 22nd May, 6pm-8pm
Cost: £5 – includes a glass of wine
Advance booking required on 020 7332 1868 / 020 7332 1870 or via guildhall.library@cityoflondon.gov.uk
Lawrence Norfolk, author of John Saturnall’s Feast (and three previous novels) and Kate Colquhoun, author of Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, will be discussing the history of English food and cuisine from Roman Britain to the celebrity chefs of the present-day as well as addressing that enigmatic question of why nobody ever seems to eat in books. Lawrence’s novel, featuring food and cooking at the heart of the story, is set during the time of England’s Civil War and was inspired by Kate’s book.

 

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