On this day in 1552, in Cheapside, (the old market area of London) a man was pilloried for cheating the customers who bought his strawberries. He had filled out the pots with too much fern for the amount of berries.
“The furst of July ther was a man and a woman on the pelere [pillory] in Chepe-syd [Cheapside]; the man sold potts of straberries, the whyche the pott was not alff fulle, but fylled with forne [fern]”
Legislation to protect the customer from unscrupulous food merchants is not new, although the nature of the penalties has changed somewhat. The most regulated food, from earliest times, was the Staff of Life – bread. In 1266 in England, King Henry III revived an ancient statute that determined the price of a loaf of bread and a quantity of ale in relation to the price of wheat. This Assize of Bread and Ale remained on the statute books in England until 1863! The aim of the Assize was to fix the size (weight) of a loaf of bread, regardless of the cost of wheat (called ‘corn’ in those days). Loaves were sold at a farthing, a half-penny, or a penny. As the price of corn went up, the size of the loaf purchased for a particular price went down. The limits were set once a year at harvest time, after the Feast of St Michael on September 29, but were occasionally modified during the year if the price of corn varied significantly.
There are of course, unscrupulous members of every profession. Dishonest medieval bakers developed some creative ways of cheating both the public and the official Bread Examiners. An obvious technique was to keep the full-weight loaves on the shelves when the Examiners were due, and hide the low-weight ones out the back. Another method was to hide coins or bits of metal in the dough, which were presumably taken out once the bread was weighed. Even more creatively, in the sixteenth century there is a record of some bakers found to have been soaking stale bread in water and mixing it with the new dough 'to the great abuse and scandall of their Mysterie [their Trade] , and the wrong of his Majesties' subjects.'
I don’t need to give you a recipe for medieval bread – there is no essential difference from modern bread. Basic bread has always been made from grain plus a leavening agent plus water – all other ingredients are optional embellishments. Instead I give you a wonderful custard recipe from half a century before the strawberry offence which kicked off this story – and very nice indeed it would be with some of those berries. It is from A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde, a manuscript written in the year 1500. Basic custard hasn’t changed much either. This one is a ‘standing’ (thick, sliceable) version, made as it is today with cream and eggs and sugar – but marvellously coloured and flavoured with saffron and decorated with borage flowers.
To mak creme buyle.
To mak creme buile tak cow creme and yolks of eggs drawe and well bet that it be stonding and put
ther to sugur and colour it with saffron and salt it then lesk it in dyshes and plant ther in floures of
borage and serue it.
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