“Pottage is not so much used in all Christendom as it is used in England”– Andrew Boorde, Dyetary (I542)
Pottage in England, came from the Old French pottage, meaning simply ‘potted dish’. I’m not sure how extensively Mr. Boorde had travelled in Ireland, but here it was craibechan for a stew and anraith for a soup, while porridge was leite, and any of them could be made in the same ‘potted dish’ method.
We’re talking one pot peasant food here, the type that starts with a single pot over an open fire, with anything that is to hand thrown in, and cooked for hours til it’s reduced to mush. The next day more water is added, more of whatever’s handy, and more mush ensues. In fairness, it’s tasty, tasty mush, and this type of soup or stew is still eaten in Ireland, and there’s never a truer word spoken than when someone smacks their lips, pats their belly, and says “It always tastes better the next day”.
This was a staple all through Europe, probably from Neolithic times at least, but definitely through the Middle Ages, because we’ve got the references and recipes to prove it.
There are records from the English Beaulieu Abbey, in I270, specifying daily allowances for the lay gardeners: “a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls of the convent pottage”. There is a line in ‘Piers Plowman’ (c. 1377) which says: “Had ye pottage and pain (bread) enough, and penny-ale to drink . . . ye had right enough”. And in the 1500’s, the Fromond list of ‘Herbys necessary for a gardyn’ included no less than 49 herbs deemed suitable for pottage.
To make the pottage, the large metal pot or cauldron was hung over the hearthfire, filled with water or the stock from boiled meat, fish or foul, as available, and various other items added. John Harvey (Vegetables in the Middle Ages) details:
“It is various species of herbs that are consistently mentioned as ‘good pottagers’. In the pottage (‘porray’ or ‘sewe’) were usually cooked one or more of several vegetable foodstuffs, notably the leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), both of them grown in the garden; or the field crops peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba).”(Harvey)
He references a Friar Henry Daniel, who frequently comments on ‘good pottagers’, e.g. borage (Borago officinalis), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), mallows (edible Malvaceae), several forms of orach (edible Atriplex), and turnip (Brassica rapa).
The cabbage and it’s cousins (Brassicae) frequently appear under various names such as Cale, Kale, Wild Cabbage, Colewort, Worts, Worties and Braisech in Irish. It’s interesting to note that Langland’s first version of Piers Plowman, written about I362, says; “I have porrets (young leeks) and parsley and many cole plants”, while in the version from about thirty years after we see what might indicate a diversification in the diet (or a move up in the author’s social status?), with the line changed to; “And I have porret plants, parsley and scallions; Chibols and chervils, and cherries”. Cherries, if you don’t mind!
In England the most common pottage flavouring was certainly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which carries not only huge health benefits, but also a stack of Medieval lore and superstition round it. In Ireland the Nettle (Urtica dioica) was most common and used regularly for its tremendous health benefits. That bit (health benefits) is, admittedly, supposition on my part, because Nettles taste of very little – other than slightly metallic and a little rank if you don’t get the fresh young tops. So I reckon the popularity must be attributed to medicinal rather than culinary value.
Wild Garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum or Creamh in Irish) on the other hand tastes divine. There’s little evidence of cultivation in Ireland, but sure there was no need to. Wild Garlic grows best in damp woodland areas and, well, that was most of Ireland. PW Joyce noted in 1906 that it was a common pot-herb, saying: “The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used”.
How To Make Pottage
A recipe for this one really isn’t necessary. It depends on what you have available that was common in the Medieval country of your choice. Start with a stock or broth, add in some chopped meat (beef, mutton, pork, goat, venison, chicken, goose or duck – take your pick!) for a higher status feed. Finely chop some cabbage or kale, onions, leeks, wild garlic. A bit of turnip and a few peas or broad beans wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re going very posh you could add pepper, ground coriander or cardamom. Sage, rosemary and thyme were common enough though, so feel free to throw those in to taste, then some parsley or nettle tops, and let it boil softly for a few hours.
Try it with authentic Irish Soda Bread, but most importantly… don’t forget that it always tastes better the next day!
- Boorde, A., “Dyetary”: (ed. I870), xii.262
- Harvey, John H., “Vegetables in the Middle Ages”: Garden History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 89-99
- Langland, William, “Piers Plowman”, B .xv 31o (c. 1377).
- Joyce, P.W., “A smaller social history of Ancient Ireland”: 1906