Medieval bread

With fennel and bacon

Field with fennel plants, from a Tacuinum SanitatisBreadrecipes from the distant past are rare. The recipe on this page was inspired on the description in the Nyeuwen cooc boeck (New Cook Book) by Gheeraert Vorselman (Cockx-Indestege 1971 p.105). Actually this is a description of a kind of flat, unleavened bread, but I added yeast to it.

On the picture on the left you see a man in a field with fennel-plants. In the Middle Ages the seeds were often sugar-coated and served with other sweets at the end of a meal, together with hippocras (spiced wine). Fennel seeds were also used in pies, and the leafy part as herb in for example a summer stew with fish. The stalks were prepared as a vegetable, and there are even recipes for fennel blossom. The white bulbous finocchio was developed in Italy in the seventeenth century.

Gheraert Vorsselman, Eenen nyeuwen coock boeck (1560, A New Cookery Book)

Title page of 'Eenen nyeuwen cookc boeck' (1560)Vorselman was from the medical profession, not a cook. He was born in Groot-Zundert, an area in the province of Brabant which is now divided by the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. The Nyeuwen cooc boeck was published in 1560, but many sources Vorsselman used for his cookbook date from much earlier, so you can serve this bread without qualms at medieval meals. Among the sources are the Notabel boecxken van cokeryen from 1514 and the first volume of the convolute Gent KANTL 15 (around 1500). Vorsselman also used French and Latin texts, mainly De honeste voluptate et valetudine (1468/1474) from Bartolomeo Sacchi (1421-1481), better known as Platina, an Italian humanist. The bread recipe on this page was also borrowed by Vorsselman from Platina (DHVeV book I, recipe 15, 'De Placentis'), so you can serve this bread without qualms at medieval meals. Vorselman has omitted Platina's mention of long buns made with leavened dough, and the variation in which the buns are filled with figpeckers and small birds, or fresh cheese.
The lard in the recipe is not melted, but chopped. I have used streaked bacon, chopped in small chunks and fried.
See also Roman bread. A modern recipe: Christmas Bread.

The original recipe
From the Nyeuwen cooc boeck by Gheeraert Vorselman (edition p.105).

Van coeck te backen
Neemt tarwenmeel oft bloemen met warmen watere also vele als ghi behoeft, ende wercket een luttel samen, dan neemt venckelsaet ende spec ghesneden terlincxwijse ende doeget int deech ende wercket wel tsamen tot tay deech ende maect eenen ronden coec ende bacten in den oven metten brode oft op den heert, &c. Inde plaetse vanden spec moech dy nemen boter oft olijfoly. Men bact ooc coec onder de asschencolen, mer sonder spec, met sout, venckel ende olie.
To bake cake
Take wheat meal or flour with warm water, as much as you need, and blend it a little. Then take fennel seed and diced lard. Add it to the dough and knead together into a tough (elastic?) dough. Make a round cake and bake that in the oven [together] with the bread or on the hearth, etc. You can also use butter or olive oil instead of lard. One also bakes cake under the ashes of the coals, but without lard, with salt, fennel and oil.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
The pork fat mentioned by Vorselman (and Platina), is not melted lard, but diced bacon. I have chosen to fry these first, before adding to the dough. The buckwheat grits are my addition to the original recipe. I had them somewhere in a kitchen cupboard and used trhem to give the bread more 'bite'. But feel free to leave them out if you do not agree with my adptation.

Ingredients for a two-pound loaf
250 gram (2 cups) whole wheat flour
250 gram (2 cups) white flour
4 Tbsp. honey
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. soft butter
1 Tbsp. fennel saad
60 gram (1/4 cup) buckwheat grits
2 3/4 deciliter (1 1/8 cup) lukewarm water
150 gram (1/3 pound or 5 ounces) bacon, diced
4 tsp. (about 12 gram) dry yeast or 40 gram (1 1/2 ounces) compressed baker's yeast

Preparation in advance
Fry the diced bacon on a small flame, drain them on kitchen towels..
If you use fresh yeast, crumble it in a little warm water with a spoonful of flour and let it stand for fifteen minutes. Then add it to the flour with the rest of the water.
If you use dry yeast, mix it with the flour together with the salt.

Mix salt, dry yeast when you use that, grits and fennel seeds through the flour and whole wheat flour. Stir the honey into the warm water and add it to the flour. If you use fresh yeast, mix the water/flour/yeast through the rest of the water with the honey and add it to the flour. Knead until you have a nice supple but firm dough. Put the dough in a large bowl and cover it with a moist cloth. Let the dough rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. Then add the fried bacon, knead again shortly, and let the dough rise for another 30 minutes.
Now give the bread any shape you want and let it rise another 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C/390F to 220C/425F.

Put the bread in the middle of the oven and let it bake for 45 minutes. If you want to make sure the bread is done, tap it with a wooden spoon. If the bread sounds hollow, it is done. Take the bread out of the oven and let it cool on a grid. If you baked it in a form, remove it after five minutes, If you don't, the breadcrust will become soggy because the excess moisture can't escape.

To serve
This bread is really hefty. You can serve it with medieval or renaissance meals, but it also tastes good at breakfeast. Or with pea soup.

All descriptions of ingredients

Buckwheat - This is not a cereal, but a plant from the same family as rhubarb and sorrel. Buckwheat is native to the Far East, the temperate climate zone. Buckwheat has come to Europe by two ways: it first reached Europe by way of Russia, during the fifteenth century the plant was introduced in Germany. Later the plant reached Southern Europe through the Middle East (hence the French name for this plant: Sarassin). Btw, the English name buckwheat is derived from the Dutch boekweit, litt. 'beech wheat', because of its resemblance to beech nuts.
Since buckwheat contains no gluten, you can't bake bread with it. Famous dishes with buckwheat are blinis (Russian pancakes) and soba (Japanese noodles).
Because of the use of buckwheat grits this bread can only be served in an authentic way at meals from the fifteenth century and later. If you use rolled oats or something like that it can also be served at earlier meals.

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