Friday, July 02, 2010

Naughty Bakers.

Medieval punishments such as we considered yesterday were frequently made to fit the crime in a marvellously creative way that would not be possible in our modern criminal justice system. As was pointed out yesterday, the most important foodstuff at that time was bread, and as a consequence, bread-crimes were taken very seriously.

In medieval times, only the grandest houses had their own ovens. Most ordinary housewives took their own dough to the local baker, where for a small fee it would be cooked in the residual heat of the oven, after the baker had baked his own bread. Those bakers who did get caught cheating their customers were punished in a variety of ways. In England they were initially fined. After three offenses they could be sent to the pillory, or to gaol, or even lose their occupation. The pillory or ‘stretch neck’ was a very public humiliation. The accused was locked with head (sometimes shaved) and hands fixed in holes made between two horizontal boards set up in the market place where he or she could be pelted by disgruntled customers with anything noxious that came to hand.

The prize for the most creative deceit (and most appropriate punishment) must go to bakers at a public bakehouse in 1327. There were secret cavities built under the moulding boards from which an assistant would reach up and pinch off a chunk of the dough from a customer’s loaf, and over the course of the day built up a nice supply for themselves. The offending bakers in this instance were placed in the pillory with slabs of the dough around their necks. In other instances, bakers were forced to sell the underweight loaves at a loss (which was a gain for the previoius ‘victims.’)

In other parts of the bread-eating world the punishments varied. In Vienna, bakers caught selling underweight bread were put in the baeckerschupfen – a sort of cage which was then plunged into the river several times. In Turkey, a bad baker was stretched out on his own kneading table and the bastinado (foot-beating with a stick) was administered. Perhaps the most public and painful punishment was in ancient Egypt, were an offending baker could be nailed by the ear to the door of his shop, where no doubt his customers gave him even more abuse.

Cookery manuscripts and cookery books of early times contained recipes suitable for the wealthy, and did not include bread-making instructions. It would not have been considered necessary. Every large household had its own bakehouse. The bakers and bakehouse were quite separate (in several ways) from the kitchens and cooks, and bakers did not need written instructions for the various types of bread for the various ranks of persons within the household. Instead of a medieval ‘recipe’ for bread, I therefore give you, from the same source as yesterday, a nice recipe for stewed chicken. This sounds quite delicious, and quite Middle Eastern (although the source is unequivocally English)  – the chicken is stuffed with herbs, and braised in wine, and flavoured with saffron, ginger, sugar, and cinnamon, with the final sauce containing dates and currants.

A stewed capon.
To stew a capon tak parsly saige ysope rosmary and brek them between your handes and stop the capon ther with and colour it with saffron and couch it in an erthen pot and lay splentes under nethe and about the sides of the pot and straw erbes about the capon and put ther to a quart of wyn and non other licour then couer the pot close that no brothe passe out then set it on a charcole fyere and stew it softly and when it is enoughe set it on a wispe of strawe that it touche not the ground for brekinge then tak out the capon with a prik and luk yf it be enoughe or els stewe it better and mak a ceripe of good wyne mynced dates and canelle anld draw it with the same wyne put ther to raissins of corands sugur saffron and salt and guinger and wyn then lay the capon in a dysshe and put the fat of the sew to the ceripe and poure it on the capon and serue it.
A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde (1500)

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