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Irish Medieval Cooking – Worties

Irish Cabbage for Medieval Cooking

‘Worties’ was the common name in Ireland, from the English ‘wortes’, which were vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens, leeks, wild garlic leaves and so on, as well as some of the leafy herbs used for seasonings, like borage, parsley, and sage.

When cooked together with butter, and the leftover bread added to soften and soak up the flavoured butter, a delicious mess of goodness is created, and this we still call Worties.

Believe it or not, this was a very popular dish at our living history re-enactments, particularly with the kids! They just can’t get enough of it, even the ones whose parents swear they wouldn’t let a green leaf touch their lips at home. I guess when you cook anything in enough butter it’s going to taste good.

From England in the 1400s, we see the description of “A Dish of Cooked Greens”. The original recipe runs like this:

“Buttered Wortes. Take al manor of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid; putte hem on þe fire with faire water; put þer-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynough, salt hem; late none otemele come ther-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powre on þe wortes, and serue hem forth.”
(by Thomas Austin, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016)

In other words, it can be read:

Buttered Greens. Take all manner of good herbs you may get, and do them as is forsaid; put them on the fire with clean water, and add a large quantity of clarified butter. When they have been boiled enough, salt them, let no oatmeal come in. Dice bread small into dishes, and pour on the greens, and serve them forth.

Our recipe uses 2 sweetheart cabbages, shredded or chopped to bite-size pieces, and a whole bulb of garlic, with each clove peeled and finely chopped. We get a large pot over an open fire (but your stove top will do just fine), melt a block of butter (about a lb) in there, and add the garlic to simmer. Throw in the cabbage, and sure if you’ve any other stray green leaves to use up you can toss them in there too. You could season with a little salt, but unless your butter is unsalted to start with, the extra is not really necessary.

Once the greens are softening but not mushy, we’d take a whole loaf of bread, break or chop it up, take the pot of greens off the heat and stir the bread right in with them. Tip it all out into a big serving bowl, or individual portions, and you’re done.

Worties!

I should probably note a few things:

  • Sweetheart Cabbage is a soft, fresh, green leafy variety grown here.
  • Our butter is salted and what’s called ‘grass-fed’ in the States; all our dairy is grass fed here in Ireland.
  • The bread we get the best results with is brown or white soda bread – a yeast free loaf baked with buttermilk, which you can find a recipe for HERE.

Worties would have been served as a side for meats in a main meal, and as a lunchtime or even breakfast meal to use up the previous day’s bread.

Indeed, there’s many a working man and woman who was coming home to some variation of the Worties dish after a hard day’s work in Ireland right up til the 1900s, and I’m sure it’s served up on Irish lunch and dinner tables even to this day!


 

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Lora O'Brien

Irish Author and Guide to Ireland

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