A Fire-Breathing Boar’s Head

Back to the Mondseer Kochbuch again. This is an interesting recipe:

Detail from the Marriage Feast at Cana courtesy of wikimedia commons

121 A boar’s head with hellish flames

If you want to prepare the head of a wild boar so that hellish flames emerge from it, first boil it until it is done, and when it is boiled, put it on a griddle and roast it until it is brown. Cut it in squares (würfflacht), but so that it stays whole (i.e. cut squares into the skin) and strew ginger all over it on the outside. Take a sauce bowl full of distilled liquor (geprantes weines) with ginger in it. Pour half of it down its throat (in den hals) and drizzle the rest over it on the outside. Take dry bread the size of a (wal-)nut and make a hole in the middle of it. Put a glowing pebble the size of a bean into it. Do this as you are about to serve it, and thrust that into its throat. Hold its mouth open (sperre im das maul auf) with a red apple and let it be brought in quickly. When people touch it because they want to eat it, it catches fire from the liquor and from the pebble so that hellish fire emerges from it, green and blue. It smells of violets and does no harm.

This is an interesting party trick and I wonder if it actually works. Parboiling, cutting and roasting a boar’s head was the standard preparation method. Here, the head is then served booby-trapped: As diners touch the liquor-soaked head, a red-hot pebble is dislodged from a secure bed of bread and ignites the alcohol. Spectacular, but harmless flames will emerge from the mouth and engulf the entire dish.

Playing with fire was a recurring theme in late medieval and Renaissance fine dining, where showy display was prized. This piece is an example of rather robust humour, but alcohol burns at a low temperature and is unlikely to cause damage. We find a similar dish depicted in the Marriage Feast at Cana attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (see picture). Here, though, the fire is lit before the head is served and emerges from the mouth only. The principle is the same.

The Mondseer Kochbuch is a recipe collection bound with a set of manuscript texts on grammar, dietetics, wine, and theology. There is a note inside that part of the book was completed in 1439 and, in a different place, that it was gifted to the abbot of the monastery at Mondsee (Austria). It is not certain whether the manuscript already included the recipes at that point, but it is likely. The entire codex was bound in leather in the second half of the fifteenth century, so at this point the recipe collection must have been part of it. The book was held at the monastery until it passed into the Vienna court library, now the national library of Austria, where it is now Cod 4995.

The collection shows clear parallels with the Buoch von guoter Spise. Many of its recipes are complex and call for expensive ingredients, and some give unusually precise quantities and measurements. It is edited in Doris Aichholzer’s “Wildu machen ayn guet essen…” Drei mittelhochdeutsche Kochbücher: Edition, Übersetzung, Quellenkommentar, Peter Lang, Berne et al. 1999

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