Medieval Gelatin Powder, and the Next Book Project

Today, I finished translating the recipes in the Meister Hans collection a few of which I posted years ago. Unlike the Kuchenmaistrey, very little about this work is self-explanatory, so I plan to eventually turn it into a book with a good deal of cross-referencing, parallel sources, and historical background. That is why I must ask everyone to be patient – this could take a while. But the core stands, it will happen.

While I am on the topic of Meister Hans, the collection includes a lot of interesting recipes including this gem:

Beef, Tacuinum Sanitatis courtesy of wikimedia commons

Recipe #285 Von ein sulcz ze machn das sy gern gestee

To cause a galantine to gel readily

Item take calves’ feet and boil them until they can be stirred to pieces (sich zer treibn lassen) like a spoon dish (muoß). Remove the bones and place it in a glazed dish, and let it harden like glue (laim). When you wish to have galantine (sullcz), take from the same powder and throw it in whenever you want in the year. Thus the galantine will gel.

This recipe is a reminder not to underestimate the ingenuity of our ancestors. There are many recipes for sulcz or galray in the German corpus, and, like their modern cognates Sülze and Gallert, these can refer to aspics, though they do not always mean that. Here, the intent is clearly to produce a gelatin-based aspic. This seems to have been a novelty dish at the time, and technically challenging. Cooks circulated a number of foolproof methods to ensure it would set. It remind me a bit of the mystique of the soufflé in classical French cuisine.

Using calves’ feet, the go-to base for gelatin in early modern times, was not unusual in itself. What is interesting here is that the gelatin is not prepared fresly as it is needed, but made in advance, dried, and reduced to a powder that could be usaed as needed. The promise that it would cause the dish to gel “whenever you want in the year” suggests good keeping qualities. That is not really surprising in what is basically bone glue. Moreover, it signals a great deal of confidence. Having gelatin set in summer was always a dicey proposition without artificial refrigeration. But most interestingly, it seems that some medieval cooks really could just grab gelatin powder off the shelf, even if they had first made it themselves.

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