A notable little cookery book: Introduction

The first printed edition of a book on cooking in Dutch “Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen” was published in Brussels towards the year 1514. Books published between 1500 and 1540 are called postincunabel. Only one specimen of that cookbook did survive. It’s kept in the archives of the Bavarian State library in Munich. Martinus Nijhof published the first facsimile edition of this unique specimen. It contained no introduction, nor any explanatory notes.

The comprehensive title promotes its contents. Books were costly, prompting the publishers to advertise convincingly on the title page. According to its title, this book contains recipes for wedding occasions, banquets and other festivities. In an advertising way it’s said that the book is indispensable with to anyone who wishes to make an impression on those particular occasions.
Its very title clearly indicates the publisher’s intended readers. They unmistakably belong to the well to do classes, such as the rich, the town’s notables, and the higher echelons of the clergy. That soon emerges from the written recipes, prescribing all sorts of expensive ingredients.

Thomas VanderNoot is the printer of the Notabel Boecxken, although it’s not known whether he too was the author, or the editor. Thomas VanderNoot, who probably lived from 1475 to 1525, was a distinguished man in the cultural history of Brussels. He came from a well to do patrician family and he had learnt his profession in Paris and Lyon.
From 1504 onwards he left his tracks in the book business, settling in Brussels in 1508. At the time Brussels hadn’t had a book-press for decades. It was there that Thomas VanderNoot successfully struck a promising market. Apart from a vast number of religious works, the largest part of his fund consists of Artes literature. These are the books of practical knowledge: an astronomical/astrological calendar, health rules, the oldest arithmetic book in Dutch, collections of ideas and tricks (so-called art books), medical, pharmaceutical and gynecological manuals etc.

The author comes straight to business: no prologue after its title, no testimonial, no credits of the author, or source(s), as VanderNoot usually did.

  • Without further ado the first recipe is introduced: a white sauce for fowl. 

  • Next 174 recipes follow in a random fashion. As can be seen from its (contemporary) contents, the book commences with sauces and jellies. 

  • Then, haphazardly, some forty ways to cook fish, all sorts of meat, poultry and game, mostly a sauce to go with the dish. 

  • Than more sauces and a colorful mix of sweet dairy meals, fish, wholesome drinks for the sick, cake- and egg dishes. 

  • Another collection of recipes for 23 pastries, 16 tarts and other paste preparations follow, describing again the most diverse dishes (sometimes for the 2nd time): varying from pheasants, peacocks and all sorts of fish, eggs and kinds of sugar, to (again) sauces and jelly. 

  • Finally, it contains a comprehensive collection of wine recipes and three instructions to sweeten quinces and ginger. These three recipes are chronologically correct: the technique of sweetening, coming from Italy was indeed a novelty. The previous172 recipes exclusively fit in the mediaeval tradition.

Recipes during and beyond the fasting period
From a religious point of view this book has two kinds of recipes: those during and those beyond the fast period. The liturgical calendar consisted of a consecution of days of feasts and fasting, abundance was followed by severe fasting. For every Friday and Saturday it was not allowed to eat meat; fasting was obligatory during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Eastern, on quarter temper days and the days of the Cross-during the Advent.

People were only allowed to eat bread, vegetables and fish during the greater part of these days, totaling more than five months per year, the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products were not allowed at all. For compensation, they sought for nutritious meals. Therefore all cookbooks contain a number of recipes, which are said to belong explicitly to the fasting period.

It’s obvious that the lack of structure indicates borrowings from different sources. 

  • The most eminent source was borrowed from the Viandier period around 1490. From this French cooking book, 61 recipes were literally translated, mostly preserving in pairs the order of Viandier: e.g. our recipes 29 to 34, 32 to 52, 96 to 115 and so on. 

  • They also borrowed freely from a Ghent manuscript (ed. Braekman), inserting 61 recipes. Unless it was the other way around, suggesting that the composer of the script cookbook copied from the Notabel boexcken?

  • Meanwhile, in 1968 W.F. Daems had already referred to a direct borrowing of eight wine recipes (nos. 165 to 172) from a script kept in the Library of the Leiden University. We finally retrieved, word by word, 113 out of 175 recipes in Vorselman’s cookbook that was published 50 years later.

  • Here we should ask ourselves whether Vorselman pillaged the Notabel boexcken, or whether they were both drinking from the same source. The first assumption is probably the most likely one. 

So far, we’ve been unable to find the sources of 25 recipes. Sometimes you may recognize a typical element of Brussels: the 'willocxen' (whelk: a kind of seasnail), recipe 19 is still sold from special stalls and these are popularly known as 'caricollen': in recipe 149, the 'stuer van Uccle' (Ukkel in Dutch), Uccle is one of Brussels’ suburbs.

Apart from its title the prescribed use of so many costly ingredients presents an unquestionable clue towards the intended customers.
Only the very rich could afford white bread as a means to thicken sauces. They also used Oriental spices lavishly, eating peacock and swan.
With the exception of the fasting period, they consumed vast amounts of meat and fish. The combination of fowl and pork is regularly described, to a lesser degree in a combination with veal.
Apparently, capon and hen had the preference. They occur in 34 recipes.
Beef and wether were two more favoured meats, in addition to rabbit, hare and game.
Besides fowl, there’s a great variety of poultry: pigeons, larks, geese, wild ducks, black birds, herons, swans, partridges, peacocks, and pheasants. They were stewed, baked, cooked, or stuffed in pastries in every possible way.
There’s even a recipe for a pastry of sparrows, albeit that not a single sparrow is to be found in it.

The great variety of fish is astonishing: pike, barbell, lamprey, carp, eel, tench, porpoise, ray, sprat, shad, cod, salt cod, halibut, gurnard, haddock, herring, bream and salmon; they all appear in one or more recipes. Not a bit of fish and meat were wasted; head (eyes included!) intestines, testicles, udder, gullet, kidney fat, spawn, fish cheeks and heads...

The abundant use of dairy products such as butter, cream, milk and cheese is striking. It may be an indication as to its origins, or it may implicate an adjustment by the translator.
Seventeen recipes prescribe butter, whereas ten times milk and four times cream are mentioned. Lard, being the usual cooking fat in the foreign cuisine, is also often mentioned in our book. This is not surprising, considering the many borrowings, among others, from a French cookbook.

Spices were added to nearly every dish. As mentioned before, they were all very costly, probably serving more as a class symbol than an appetizer for connoisseurs. They were indistinctively blended: ginger, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, galingale, mace, pepper, saffron and nutmeg. The combination sweet and sour is common. 
Almost every recipe contains sugar. That was expensive too. Instead, the ordinary people used honey to sweeten their food.

Sauces are quite important, not only for the sake of taste, but also for the look of it. Sauces can be made in all shades of colours. Often a fair quantity of ‘verjus’ (literally green juice) is added, or vinegar.
From a dietary point of view, that was not at all an unwise thing to do, although they might not have been aware of the fact. For, the effect of it is that fat becomes more digestible. 

It’s remarkable that the subtropical fruits that were highly appreciated at the time, hardly ever occur in this cookbook, whereas in other recipe collections of the time, dates, currants, raisins, figs, lime, and arrangi-apples occur abundantly. Almonds on the other hand, occur frequently, either minced or not, in a substance of milk, or butter, as a thickening for sauces, as marzipan etc. It’s on rare occasions that we come across raisins, currants or figs. 

Again and again it has been suggested that medieval man used so many spices to camouflage the taste of stale meat and fish.
Of course they didn’t have refrigerators, but they knew very well how to prevent their food from decaying.
They pickled it! That explains why most cookbooks hardly ever mention salt as an ingredient, because that would have been superfluous. In that respect the Notabel Boecxken is very forthcoming and therefore quite interesting. Contrary to other cookbooks it offers double recipes for salted and unsalted meat, or fish at various spots.

There are many more facts to tell about the views on medical practice in those days, the various methods of preparations in the kitchen, the kitchen-utensils they used, the many clues for meal-directions and, quite unusual at the time, the sheer absence of entertaining presentations of dishes and so forth.
The last word about this has not yet been said, but the fact remains; this 'boexcken' is indeed NOTABLE...

More glossaries on cookery terms

Thanks to J.B. Hendrix for translating this introduction into English.


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