Glossary of Period Cooking Terms

This page lists some of the unusual cooking terms found in period recipes. It covers only terms that Rosemary has used in her cooking column so far, so this list is not comprehensive. This list will be updated periodically.

Commonly called “black lovage”, scientifically Smyrnium Olisatrum (LINN.).  Herb which looks a lot like angelica, but tastes very different.  Very difficult to substitute well for; try a mix of strong celery leaves and pepper.

A herb used for coloring foods. Also called "dyer's bugloss", and provides a bright carmine dye.

Almond milk:
A milky extraction from almonds pounded or ground in water, occasionally with a slight sweetening of honey or sugar. It is now commercially available at health food stores and some large membership chain store clubs, from the Blue Diamond Grower's Co-op under the name "Almond Breeze". However, be careful which carton you pick up; it comes in three flavors. The original mild almond is the one to cook with. From the list of ingredients, it appears to be a vegan product, and is sold as a lactose-free milk substitute.

Ambared Sugar:
Crumbly non-gem-grade amber (which is nothing but tree sap, after all) ground with sugar, often melted smooth and crystallized. It is sweet with a fragrant and resinous overtone. Cannot be found today, to my knowledge, and too expensive and too much trouble to make. Substitute crystallized flavored sugar.

Modernly spelled “Ambergris”. It is another substance like musk, whose source is best left undescribed, except to say that its source is the sperm whale. It is also not available today.

Washed and ground wheat starch. Wheat was soaked, pounded, hulls floated off, soaked and washed some more, then strained and dried thoroughly and finally ground into flour. It was as close to bran-less flour as the medievals could get. Substitute modern white all-purpose or pastry flour.

Common European name for the vegetable the English called “eggplant”, because the original vegetable was the size, shape and color of an egg.

Blanched almonds:
Almonds with the brown outer skin removed. To blanch almonds, pour a generous amount of boiling water over shelled nuts. Let stand 1-2 minutes, drain. Handled hot, the skins should slip off to a gentle pressure. As they cool, you may need to repeat the process, but do not soak the nuts too long.

Box leaves:
Leaves from a hedge of boxwood. These leaves are for decorative purposes, and were probably picked off and discarded when the sweet was eaten. You may use almost any small stiff leaf, about the size of your little fingernail or so. However, if you raid one of your hedges, please be sure the plant is non-toxic.

Verb, to grind in a mortar.

Bullace plums:
A small wild hedgerow plum (Prunus instititia), black like the sloe, but larger, and sweeter at an earlier stage.

A sauce of ginger, cinnamon, saffron and half a nutmeg, moistened with wine. Thickening was from white breadcrumbs moistened in water and pounded smooth in a mortar. In winter the sauce was boiled with brown sugar; in summer they mixed it the same way, but the sauce was not boiled, making it somewhat milder.

One of the many names for cinnamon. Also spelled "cannelle", "cannel", or as many ways as you can think to spell it. There were no dictionaries in those days!

For those of you less familiar with traditional farm life, a capon is a neutered rooster. Its compensation for a life without hens is that its sole job is to eat itself plump on gourmet grains, until rotund enough to grace some fortunate person's dinner table. A capon can usually be found in the frozen poultry section of most supermarkets. Since roosters grow bigger than hens, a dressed capon will usually be between five and eight pounds, and will serve eight.

Stiff. Usually used in connection with some sort of comparative standard - such as, "stiff enough to be sliced."

Small pies of meat or fish.

Small onions. The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, describes them as "A species of onion known also as Stone Leek, Rock Onion or Welsh Onion, in appearance between the onion and the leek." It is supposedly analogous to the Italian cipolla, onion. Italian cippolini are a flat, button-shaped, thick-fleshed, very sweet onion. Walla Walla Sweet onions would be a good substitute, if you can't find the real thing.

Cloves; in most recipes, "whole cloves" probably ground with other spices

Medieval term for a pie crust; May be used covered (double crust) or uncovered (single crust); usually the top crust was only for keeping ashes out of the contents, and frequently was removed and thrown away rather than eaten. Being good "trenchermen", of course, we usually eat ours.

A small piece or slice of food, especially of meat.

Candied seeds, some as small as a lightly coated caraway or anise seed, some approaching the size of a small jaw-breaker, depending on your taste. Often flavored with orange-, rose-, violet-, or lavender-flower waters. A sweet made from a seed or piece of preserved fruit coated in sugar, Digbie includes several recipes for comfits made from seeds. The usual technique was to boil a scented sugar syrup until it spins a thread, stir an amount into a batch of seeds, spread then until they are separate, let cool and break apart. Repeat until the comfit is as large as you find pleasant; the sugar coating gets thicker with each treatment. There are some commercial varieties available that have been coated until each seed is as big as a coffee bean.

The dried unripe berry of a tropical shrub (Piper cubeba) of the pepper family that is crushed and used as seasoning.  Taste is a piney, peppery taste, rather like chewing on pepper while sniffing a Christmas tree.

Latin measure of about 1/12 pint; researchers estimate at about 1½ tablespoons.

A weight measure, in cooking measured as one-sixteenth of an ounce. It's about the same weight as a pre-1980 penny. Modern pennies weigh about one-fourth less.

Duke's Powder:
Standard spelling causes a problem here as well. A number of translators of "Le Menagier de Paris" identify this as "poudre douce" or sweet powder, which is another common medieval seasoning.

In most medieval recipes, this word means "egg". If there any linguists out there, it is derived from the German plural for "eggs". However, the word occasionally means not "eggs", but "air". The words would have been pronounced almost identically in most places in England; you have to get the meaning from the context.

Glaze with beaten yolks of egg, painted on with a brush or a feather. Medievals loved color, and the yolks were frequently colored with herbs, such as with saffron.

Eryngium maritimum
, or Sea Holly, is a plant much used in the middle ages as a confection, the roots and peeled stems of which were candied and eaten much like angelica.

Faire vessell:
"Faire" anything in a medieval recipe means clean or unbroken. You will see reference to "faire water", "faire young beef", "faire bread", etc. Best translated as "the best ya got."

Fire shovel:
An implement almost like an antique soldering iron, heated to red-hot in the fire and used to toast surfaces of dishes where the whole thing could not be broiled. Modernly called a "salamander", IF you can find one!

In the middle ages, called "garum" or "liquamen". It was a fermented liquid condiment based on herring or anchovies. If your taste rums that way, use modern Vietnamese ngoc mai or nam pla to substitute. If your taste is not so adventurous, modern Worcestershire is also based on fish at its heart, but is many ingredients removed from its Vietnamese or Roman relatives.

A variety of custard pie.

A rhizome similar to ginger (Alpinia galanga or Alpinia officinarum). Dried galingale can be found in Indian or Chinese markets. The former, also called greater galingale, is used mostly for cooking. The latter, lesser galingale, is used in oriental medicine.

From old North French gambon, or ham, from gambe, leg. In British usage, the lower end of a side of bacon. Also called "gammon".

Foods were frequently coated with real gold and silver leaf for show, and the gilding was eaten right along with the food gilded. This tradition is maintained in the Middle East and India even today, and edible gold leaf can be found with a little searching. However, DON'T BE TEMPTED TO TRY THIS WITH ARTIST'S LEAF. I haven't asked an authority, but I'm sure it is not approved for human consumption.

Grains of paradise:
Seeds of Afromomum melegueta. Also called "Melegueta pepper" or "guinea grains", it is a sharp spice similar, but unrelated to, cardamom. I recommend searching for these, if you want a quest; they are out there, but not easy to find. You can use about 2/3 pepper and 1/3 cardamom, for a very inadequate substitute.

Generic term for shortening or oil. You may use anything to your taste, keeping your health in mind. Don't be afraid of the term "white grease", if you see it. That meant butter, not lard, which was referred to as "barrow's grease".

Stefan’s Florilegium
defines this implement as “a kind of implement for stirring./beating food.  Its description and the meaning of its name are unknown.  It appears in those recipes in which the food (such as boiled gourds and eggplant) is to be so well-stirred that it is nearly pureed, with not a lump remaining.”

Latin measure of about one-half pint; researchers estimate more precisely 7.4 ounces.

“Lebkuchen” are a Christmas gingerbread-type cookie.  They are generally round and made with syrup or honey and lots of spices, including cinnamon, cardamom and allspice. They are then often coated with chocolate (in the modern days) or sugar icing.  Quite a number of the Northern European countries have some version of this cookie.  “Lebhaftig” in German means “lively”, so this can be seen as a “lively-tasting” cookie.  This is a very similar usage to the medieval “gingerbread” which contained pepper rather than ginger, but was sharp in taste.

To slice. Variants include "y-leched" - sliced, and "leche" as a noun. All this means is "a food which is served in slices". Could be meat, could be sweet, could even be poultry or fish. The only thing you can rely on is that it will be served in strips.

The medieval term for the process of sealing a pot lid with dough to make it air-tight.

Manchet bread: 
Commonest bread of the Middle Ages, used to make trenchers for serving, and by the lower classes for virtually everything.  To substitute, use 50% fine-ground mixed-grain or whole wheat flour in any bread recipe.

Almond paste. Also call marzipan, both in its molded and unmolded form.

Mastic is the dried sap of one of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus). It is a clear crystal available in Middle Eastern specialty shops. You can either buy the crystals and grind them in a mortar, or if you are lucky, the shop may have the powdered spice. It is very common in Middle Eastern recipes. If you just chew some, it has a rather pine-y character. If a pilgrimage to find the ingredient is not in the cards, try adding about ½ cup of pine nuts.

Measure of Beziers, Carcassonne, or Montpelier:
These three cities are in the region of France known as Languedoc (Also called Midi), on the west side of the Rhone River from Provence. The pound in use in the Midi only had thirteen ounces, instead of sixteen.

Meche ginger:
Also called Mecca Ginger. Le Viandier de Taillevent calls it gingenbre de mesche. There were many varieties of ginger current in the middle ages, usually based on quality.

An excretion from glands of the civet cat. The smell is very strong, and “musky”, but in minuscule amounts mixed into a sweet, adds a very attractive overtone to foods. The civet cat is endangered and protected today, so musk is not available. To get a picture of what the extract does to taste, try a really over-ripe cantaloupe, remembering they were originally called “muskmelons”.

The expressed juice of fruit, and especially grapes, before and during fermentation; also : the pulp and skins of the crushed grapes.

There are a number of things this ingredient could be. In the early middle ages, this ingredient usually referred to a spice brought from India. There are a number of European and American substitutes for this ingredient, all probably different (and inferior) in taste from the original.

A sweetmeat made largely with honey and almonds. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the following derivation: "French, from Provençal, from Old Provençal nogat, from noga nut, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin nuca, from Latin nuc-, nux- or nut." Generally made in two varieties, "black nougat" made with honey and nuts only, and "white nougat" made with the addition of beaten egg whites.

Inwards of a deer or other large “red-meat” animal, such as a pig or sheep. Also written “umbles”, or “humbles”. Not,however, to be confused with the inwards of a fowl, which were known in the period as “garbage”. Neither term was pejorative, and both sorts of organ meats were highly valued as tasty dishes.

Pain de mayne:
Bread of the nobility, lighter, whiter, and more purely wheaten than the “cheat” bread, or coarse bread of mixed grains eaten by the poor.

From The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, "a young leek or onion; a scallion." For the linguists in the crowd, it is derived from the Old French poret, leek, with a diminutive suffix; a "little leek".

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, defines "posset" as "a drink composed of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor, often with sugar, spices, or other ingredients; formerly much used as a delicacy, or as a remedy for colds or other affections." Its use predates Digbie by a couple hundred years; it was referenced in the mid-1400's by J. Baker's Boke of Nurture. It said, "Milke, crayme,, and cruddes, and eke the Ioncate, they close a mannes stomake and so doth the possate." (Translation: "Milk, cream, and curds, and also the junket, they close a man's stomach, and so doth the posset.") In earthier terms, they remedied diarrhea.

A liquid measure of about a pint.

Pouder fort:
literally “strong powders”. A mixture of spices kept on hand that varied with the cook’s preference, and usually contained cinnamon, but also some of the stronger spices like pepper, cardamom, cloves, and grains of paradise or cubebs.

Poudre marchand:
"Marchand" is French for "shopkeeper". Uncertain translation, but assumed to be "powdered spices of your choice", or perhaps "whatever the spicer has on hand".

Fork; an implement capable of "pricking" something.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed. describes a pugil as "etymologically, a handful; but from the 17th century defined as 'as much as can be taken up between the thumb and the next two (or sometimes three) fingers'; a little handful or big pinch." It comes from the same Latin root as "pugilist" (a fist-fighter). Pick up a pugil of sand and look at the shape of your hand. That explains the derivation.

If you have not used chemicals on your garden, this is the same nasty weed you have been digging out (probably while cursing, if you are so inclined) for years. Get your revenge by eating it for dinner! Or substitute another lemony herb, perhaps marjoram or lemon balm.

Biting, alive, sharp, you might even say "lively".

Raisins of Corinth:
Dried currants such as we find in our stores, which are not true currants at all, but raising of wine-type grapes. Or, chop up regular or golden raisins instead.

A slice, or serving of slices, of bacon or ham, usually broiled or fried.

Rocambole garlic: 
A hard-neck variety of garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) which grows a single row of cloves around a hard stalk.  Cannot be braided for storage, but can range from mild to VERY sharp and burning.  Substitute a large clove of any supermarket garlic.

A sweet sherry made in Spain. The sherry was brewed sweet, and additional sugar was added by the merchant (and more each time it changed hands), and even more by the user, if they could afford it.

Sandalwood. Medieval cooks colored with ground herbs, like saffron for yellow, turnsole for blue, and spinach for green. You really CAN color this with red sandalwood powder, if you hunt it down from an incense shop. However, I have tried it, and it does nothing for (and much TO) the taste.

This term as used does not mean what goes under your tea cup, but the spoon used to "sauce" or "baste" your roast.

Rendered chicken fat. While schmalz can be purchased in any Jewish market, it is easy to prepare fresh at home. Combine chopped fresh chicken fat and skin with a little water in a small frying pan over medium-low heat until the fat is liquid and the solids have shrunk to very small, crunchy bits. Strain the bits from the fat and use for other recipes. Watch carefully while rendering so the bits don't burn. Refrigerate the fat.

verb, "to sift." A cautionary note here is that for FINE sifters, of the kind used in the middle ages to bolt flour from bran, and mustard flour from mustard hull, the substance was vibrated through fabric like muslin, not through wire mesh like modern sifters.

Broth or juices from a cooked dish.

Translation somewhat uncertain. Most likely related to "cibblings" (defined previously in the glossary), the Welsh onion. The Scots called this onion "cibol" with the "l" frequently not pronounced. "Sibboulets" probably meant chopped or small cibols. Like many other medieval words, there were as many spellings as there were spellers.

Small pieces of toasted or dried bread, designed to soak up juices , soup, or gravy. Toast a slice of bread, trim the crusts, and cut in triangles. Serve with or in soup.

Fruit of the Blackthorn shrub (Prunus spinosa), also called the wild plum or sloe-plum. The fruit is about one-half inch in diameter, very dark purple to black, with a silver bloom like a blueberry when ripe. It is extraordinarily sour and astringent until it has “seen three frosts”, after which it becomes edible, but probably not tasty by today’s standards.

Asparagus. Also called "spear-grass" or "spargel".


Fat from the tail of the sheep most often seen in Middle East, which are a special breed, Damara or Karakul sheep (often called “fat-tail sheep”) with such a fat tail that it might drag on the ground if not docked. The tail is a prized source of cooking fat.  It is a natural fat-storage mechanism like a camel’s hump, and renders with very little “cracklin’” residue.

Mix thoroughly, which will thin or lighten a mixture somewhat.

To "point up":
To sharpen flavors by adding a very small quantity of vinegar or verjuice. If you can taste the vinegar as an identifiable ingredient in a dish you have "pointed up", you added too much.

Town Cresses:
Upland cress. This is a watercress-like plant that grows on drier land than watercress. You can buy upland cress plants if you want to grow it yourself, but watercress or any other peppery green will do. Watercress is frequently available with the herbs at supermarkets.

A loaf of manchet bread, trimmed of crust and sliced crosswise into “plates”.  A trencher was not to be eaten, but was to protect the tablecloth from sauces from foods not designed to be eaten in a less pervious bowl.  Trenchers were usually collected and given to the poor.  To be called a “trencherman”, an eater of everything including the trencher, was not a compliment, but an insult.  You were being called not only greedy, but irreligious.

"Until it be enough":
"Until it is done". There are no cooking times or oven temperatures in medieval recipes.

Painters will recognize vermilion as a red coloration, originally derived from cochineal, a critter ground up for dye. However, today DO NOT USE VERMILION PIGMENT to color any foodstuff! Modern vermilion is mercuric sulfide, derived from cinnabar. Please, no mercury compounds in food!

Yellow Pepper Sauce:
A sauce that was “peppery” from ginger and saffron, but actually contained no pepper. Thickening was from breadcrumbs soaked in broth of meat or vegetables, and sharpened with vinegar after it boiled.