Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium L.) has been used as a culinary and medicinal herb since antiquity. One of its popular English synonyms 'Pudding Grass' clearly indicates that this mint-like herb was a popular ingredient in certain kinds of puddings. It is still used in some regional versions of black pudding, such as those made in Bury in Lancashire. However, the popularity of pennyroyal as a kitchen herb waned during the course of the nineteenth century and nowadays it is rarely used in a domestic context. This is almost certainly due to two rather worrying factors. The first of these was the traditional folk belief that the plant could be used to induce abortions and should therefore be avoided at all costs by pregnant women. The second was the more recent discovery that the essential oil of pennyroyal is highly toxic and its consumption has frequently proved fatal to both humans and animals - and probably to insects too, as over the centuries the plant was widely used to discourage fleas, lice and other six legged pests. It should not come as a surprise then that nowadays it is not to be found on the supermarket herb and spice shelf. However, the dried herb can be obtained from herb suppliers and some still make a tisane from it, the consumption of which in moderate quantities is considered to be pretty harmless, as is its inclusion in small quantities in black puddings.
Pennyroyal was also once employed as a flavouring for other members of the pudding family, including an unusual herb dumpling, a recipe for which was included in Charlotte Mason's The Lady's Assistant (London: 1773).
|Like many other puddings, Mrs Mason's pennyroyal dumplings were boiled in cloths.|
Mrs Mason's pennyroyal dumpling is closely related to another commonly made pudding called 'green pudding'. Some think that this was consumed as a spring tonic, rather like the herb pancake known as a tansy. Green puddings were certainly designed to be eaten during Lent and at Easter. Pennyroyal is frequently an ingredient, though it is often just one of a medley of different garden and wild herbs. The late seventeenth century recipe below also includes spinage, savory and thyme.
Although Elizabeth Rainbow's recipe called for the green puddings to be fried, they were more usually boiled in a cloth, like Mason's pennyroyal dumplings. However, the recipe below from the manuscript receipt book of Elizabeth Birkett (aka Brown) dated 1699, specifically instructs us to boil her pudding in a bag, rather than a cloth. Her recipe does not include pennyroyal and is flavoured with strawberry leaves, violet leaves, thyme and marjoram. Like Mason's and Rainbow's dishes, the basis of the pudding is grated bread.
|A green pudding recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Elizabeth Birkett (1699) of Townend Farm, Troutbeck, Cumbria. Photo courtesy of Kendal Public Record Office.|
|Elizabeth Birkett's' Greene Pudding' 1699. This pudding was wrapped in a caul before being boiled in a bag|
Both Elizabeth Rainbow and Elizabeth Birkett wrote their recipe collections in the late seventeenth century in the English Lake District, a part of the world where green or herb puddings are still made today, most usually at Easter. To some Cumbrian locals these latter day paschal puddings are known as 'Easter Ledge Pudding', 'Easter Ledges' or 'Easter May Giants'. These curious terms are also local vernacular names for bistort (Persicaria bistorta (L.) Samp.), one of the main ingredients of the dish. Incidentally another regional name for bistort is 'pudding grass'. Other herbs included in the mix are alpine lady's mantle, nettle leaves, giant bellflowers and black currant leaves. However, I have not yet come across a modern Lakeland recipe which calls for pennyroyal. Both Rainbow, a bishop's wife and Birkett, the wife of a yeoman farmer, used wheaten bread as a basis for their herb puddings. But in their day only the well-off could afford white bread, because wheat was very difficult to cultivate in the wet, cool climate of the Lake District. Oats and barley were the staple cereals for the poorer farmers. The surviving modern Cumbrian recipes for herb pudding are made with a base of either oatmeal or pearl barley, so it is likely that they have evolved from a more low status version of the dish, rather than the somewhat genteel puddings described by the two Elizabeths. This may well also explain why modern versions of Easter Ledges Pudding are made from foraged wild plants, which are free, rather than the Mediterranean herbs that were grown in the gentlewoman's herb garden. As green puddings became unfashionable among the increasingly more sophisticated gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the conservative Lake District peasantry continued to make their version of the dish, which has survived to this day among the farming community. Though of course there seem to be no surviving printed recipes for their dish earlier than the twentieth century.
A friend and neighbour of mine, who gathers her Easter Ledges from the same stream-side in our village as I do, recently showed me two precious family heirlooms - the pudding bags used by her mother and grandmother in which they boiled the Easter herb pudding mix. These venerable 'clouts' are made from 'ticking', a strong weave of textile used for making mattresses and pillows. They are stained with the juice of generations of herbs. Both bear a few campaign scars which have been neatly repaired. I suspect that the 'bag' mentioned in Elizabeth Birkett's greene pudding recipe must have looked just like these hoary veterans.
|Two well-used veteran Westmorland herb pudding bags. Photo courtesy of Jean Scott-Smith|
So herb puddings could be fried in butter, or boiled in a cloth or bag. In Elizabeth Birkett's recipe for green pudding she tells us 'to wrap it in a mutton caul' before you boil it in a bag. The caul fat of calves and lambs was much used in the early modern period for holding fragile ingredients together in dishes of this kind. The caul or omentum, is the inner lining of the animal's abdomen and its anastomising network of veins of fat on a thin transparent membrane give it the appearance of very delicate lace. Not only does it work very well as a wrapping, but the fat also bastes the outside of the pudding. In some regions of England caul is still used for making a fatty jacket for wrapping the little pork offal 'puddings' known as faggots or savoury ducks.
'Caule of veale, or lamb' turns up in another of Elizabeth Rainbow's recipes, this time in a pie filled with little round puddings flavoured with herbs, including pennyroyal. The recipe is acknowledged as one contributed to Elizabeth by a Lady Sedley. This was Catherine Sedley, daughter of John Savage, Earl of Rivers, who married Sir Charles Sedley the poet and courtier in 1657. A surviving book of receipts (mainly medical) dated 1686 by Lady Sedley survives in the library of the Royal College of Physicians. Lady Sedley's husband, a favourite companion of Charles II was noted for his drunken, often lewd behaviour.
A lumbard pye, sometimes known as a lumber pie, was a pie filled with meat balls, or as in this rare example, miniature green puddings. In fact, the small caul wrapped puddings in Lady Sedley's Lumbard Pye are very similar to Charlotte Mason's pennyroyal dumplings cited earlier in this post. Both have pennyroyal as a principal flavouring and both contain currants. However, Lady Sedley's little pennyroyal dumplings are wrapped in caul and baked in a pie with butter, marrow and dates. The pie is later filled with a 'caudle' made of wine, egg yolks and sugar. Unlike most of the lumber pie recipes from this period, the filling contains no meat. Lady Sedley's little pie-baked puddings are not a hundred miles away from the modern butcher's faggot in construction, if not in ingredients. Lumber pies however, were luxury dishes found only at the tables of the rich.
Elizabeth Rainbow also gives a recipe for a more conventional Lumbard Pye, this time filled with 'round balles' made of minced lamb or 'the brawn of a cold Capon' (cooked chicken's breast). Unusually each ball contains a 'soft centre' in the form of an egg yolk and a 'good piece of marrow'. Each one is wrapped in an endive and/or? sorrel leaf before they are baked with a rich assortment of artichoke hearts, skirrets, potatoes, chestnuts, dates, hard egg yolks, marrow, barberries, grapes, preserved orange peel, apricots or other preserved fruit. Like Lady Sedley's, the pie is filled after baking with a caudle and put back in the oven to warm through. I will be making both of these lumbard pies over the next few weeks and will eventually post an article about the full process.
The author of the above recipe was Elizabeth Nodes (b.1648), who married Charles Fane, the 3rd Earl of Westmorland in 1665. She probably met Elizabeth Rainbow in London, most likely at Suffolk House, the London home of the Earls of Suffolk. Little is known about Lady Westmorland, but a fine portrait of her was painted by John Michael Wright.
|Elizabeth, wife of Charles Fane, 3rd Earl of Westmorland, by John Michael Wright|
'Lumber pie, made of Flesh or Fish minced and made in Balls‥with Eggs‥and so Baked in a Pye with Butter'.
Over the course of the past three decades I have made many different lumber pies. It is my favourite English pie of the early modern period. On my Pie and Pastry course I frequently teach my students to make one of Robert May's versions of the dish, usually from the recipe below, though over the years we have also made two of his fish based lumber pies - one of sturgeon and the other with salmon.
To Make a Lumber Pye
Take some grated bread, and beef-suet cut into bits like great dice, and some cloves and mace, then some veal or capon minced small with beef suet, sweet herbs, fair sugar, the yolks of six eggs boil’d hard and cut in quarters, put them to the other ingredients, with some barberries, some yolks of raw eggs, and a little cream, work up all together and put it in the caul of veal like little sausages; then bake them in a dish, and being half baked have a pie made and dried in the oven ; put these puddings into it with some butter, verjuyce sugar, some dates on them, large mace, grapes, or barberries, and marrow - being baked, serve it with a cut cover on it, and scrape sugar on it.
From Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660).
A lumber pie made on a recent pie and pastry course from Robert May's recipe above. Each meat ball has been wrapped in caul. The bright red berries are barberries.
|May tells us to finish the pie with a cut lid scraped with sugar|
Designs for the pastry cases for lumber pies abound in seventeenth and early eighteenth century cookery books. Many were quite elaborate and often had very eccentric shapes, as those reproduced below.
|Lumber pie designs from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660)|
Above: a rather crude lumber pie design from T.P., The Accomplish'd Lady's Delight (London: 1675). Below: Edward Kidder, in Receipts of Pastry and Cookery (London: nd. c.1720) offers this much more neatly delineated version of the same design.
However, one lumber pie design in particular seems to have been popular, as it is illustrated in at least three different sources. A 3D version of the design was even published on a playing card! This remarkable and rare pack of playing cards was illustrated with directions for carving various foods. It was issued in 1676/77 by the London printers Joseph and James Moxon. All of the cards belonging to the clubs illustrate the modus operandi for carving up pies and pasties. The six of clubs shows a lumber pie in the same form as the design published the previous year in The Accomplish'd Lady's Delight, but much more skilfully drawn and showing dissection marks used for cutting up the lid. Time after time, recipes for these early modern pies instruct us to cut up the lid. This card shows how it was actually undertaken with a lumber pie. This is by far the most detailed illustration of the form of a lumber pie and is the one I will be using when I make Lady Westmorland's version of the dish later this month - watch this space!
|The Moxon's six of clubs with its Lomber or Lumber Pie|
|The label on Moxon's pack of carving cards|
Have you come across any explanation to the fanciful shapes of pies from this period over the course of your research? They are all very interesting, but they hardly seem like the shape you'd end up working with out of pragmatism alone. You've got quite a few examples of these shapes on your blog; I am particularly intrigued by the mince pies that appeared some time back (how long ago, I'm unsure: I've made my way through all the posts on this blog -- such fascinating reading!) Or, alternatively, are these fanciful pie shapes just the reflection of contemporary fashion, which, as today, have very little reason or pragmatism to underlie them?ReplyDelete
There is enough evidence to demonstrate that pies and custards were made in these complex forms in other European cultures as well as England at this period, most notably Austria. Conrad Hagger, master cook to the Archbishop of Salzburg published hundreds of very elaborate designs in his cookery book of 1719, details of which can be found in some of my other posts. Seventeenth century French, Italian and Spanish recipe collections are full of recipes for pies, but I have not yet found illustrations of fancy shaped pies or directions for making them in any of the cookery books written in these languages.Delete
However, there are a few rare appearances of shaped pies of this kind in some Netherlandish paintings, most notably in a table still-life by a follower of the Antwerp artist Osias Beert. I have written about the rabbit pie depicted in this painting and have added it as an extra illustration to this post (see above). It is very similar to other rabbit pie designs from England and Austria and makes me wonder if there was some kind of convention which helped the diners know the pie's content because of its shape. However, this is pure conjecture, though the similarity in the lumber pie shapes illustrated above would support this argument, though there is very little other evidence.
Making these pie cases is very demanding and requires a lot of skill and experience, but the art can be mastered. I suspect it was just another way in which the cooks of the period could show off their skills. The growth in pastry and cookery schools in the late seventeenth century where professional males taught ladies how to make these eccentric pastries indicate that they were popular.
I have pennyroyal in my garden and love its sweet scent. I must tell you –– it can't be that toxic since thrips seem to enjoy eating it. I rinse them off frequently. I can imagine pennyroyal would be delightful in a pudding. The one recipe reminded me a bit of the Italian gnudi.ReplyDelete
Yes. I grow pennyroyal too and have used it in recipes for years. The toxic element in the essential oil is present in the leaves, flowers and stems of the plant in minute quantities. But I suspect that the fact that the oil is known to be extremely harmful, and it really has caused a large number of deaths, has put many off using the herb. I have never tested the folk belief that it is a good insecticide.
I would be very interested to know if the pennyroyal you grow in your garden is the same one I have in mine. I cultivate European pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium L.). I have frequently seen American or Kentucky Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides
(L.) Pers.) in US gardens. The two are quite different plants and I do not think Hedeoma pulegioides is toxic. Are we growing the same pennyroyal?
I LOVE the taste. My mother had a recipe for a steamed pennyroyal "Season pudding" she got from her grandma but I lost the recipe. I do believe with this information I will be able to get a close resemblance to that scrumptious wet dumpling consistency. My mom warned me to make sure never to serve it to pregnant women as it can cause miscarriage. But the taste is melt in your mouth heaven. I lost my mom but I want to make this for Christmas. She would serve it with the turkey brown gravy. Cant wait to re-invent gramma's recipe.Delete
Loved reading this post-thankyou so much for sharing :-)....haven't discovered wild pennyroyal yet.....but I am sure that I will.ReplyDelete
This is fabulous. And the pies beautiful. I never realized pennyroyal is toxic. Now I want some! KenReplyDelete
Fascinating. There is a lot of confusion around pennyroyal, especially in connection with the Italian mentuccia, which is often mistakenly "translated" as pennyroyal. The scare quotes are to indicate that, as with US and European "pennyroyal" a common name means little when identifying a particular plant species.ReplyDelete
I think the evidence for Mentha pulegium being both an insecticide and an abortifacient is pretty good.
Thank you Jeremy. I have read your interesting article about pennyroyal and mentuccia. Here is a link if other readers would like to see it on Jeremy's weblog - http://www.jeremycherfas.net/2013/02/23/mentuccia-is-not-pennyroyal/ReplyDelete
On a related note, I'm wondering if the barberries you use are the same as the ones we have here in the US; a low growing shrub, thorny, with red berries maturing in autumn?ReplyDelete
When we bought our home, they had been planted by a path to an outside stair where they caught at your legs and scratched or tore your clothes, so we dug them up. Since then a volunteer appeared on the the other side of the house at the edge of the woods. Guess I'll have to try a berry to see if it's edible! I have never heard of them being eaten in the US.
The barberry once used in Britain in confectionery and cookery was Berberis vulgaris L.. I know that this plant is naturalised in some parts of the US, but you will need to check that the one in your garden is this particular barberry, because there are many others in the genus. It is rarely used in Britain nowadays, but is used still in cookery in Iran and Russia. In England it was grown widely in gardens, but in the early 19th century was found to be a vector of wheat rust and people were discouraged from cultivating it.Delete
First, what is an appropriate volume or weight measure for the crumbs of a penny loaf? I usually put in enough to make the mix look right, but I'd like to have a more historically accurate sense of this ingredient from someone knowledgeable. English measures, please!!ReplyDelete
Second, I am a bit confused about the proper use of suet. I have never had trouble getting fresh suet, and my practice has been to clean it of membrane (carefully and tediously) and then chop it finely (or send it through the grater of the food processor). I freeze any extra for later use. Lately, I've begun to wonder if a more accurate approach would be to render it first and then grate the hard block of clean, pure suet. Rendering would save a lot of space in the freezer, but long ago, I read that the "correct" or best use of suet was to shred the fresh, cleaned but unrendered fat. Was that even correct? Is one method or the other more historically accurate? Does one or the other produce a better pudding or, more importantly for me, a better crust?
Any thoughts on either of these questions would be appreciated.
I just came back to take another look at this posting, and I noticed that the first part of my comment is somehow cut off, which makes me sound rather rude. I'm not sure why I'm having such trouble in posting today.ReplyDelete
I meant to begin by saying that this post raised a couple of questions that have been on my mind for some time. Sorry for the oddness of my first posting.
Your questions were fine and did not sound rude at all. The first one on the size of a penny loaf is a difficult one though. In fact it is the question of questions! Since the 13th century, the size of loaves of bread was linked to the price of grain by a statute known as the assize of bread. When the cost of corn went up, the bakers changed the size of a penny loaf accordingly. Without going into a great deal of detail they had complicated tables to help calculate how large their loaves should be when they was a fall or rise in the price of wheat. So the size of a penny loaf and all the other loaves made by professional bakers was literally a movable feast. It varied. So the very common direction of 'take the crumb of a penny loaf' was almost certainly intended as an approximation anyway because the author's who used the phrase would all have had experience of the variability of the size of a loaf. In any given recipe, I tend to use, as you do, an amount that works with the other ingredient quantities. I suspect that is what was done in the past too.
As far as suet is concerned. Rendered suet is often mentioned in recipes, but as far as I know usually only in the contexts of making raised pie pastry and frying. I am sure that when we are instructed to chop or mince suet for pie fillings, puddings etc, that the suet has to be divested of its membranes and sinews, then minced with a knife. I find that a little bit of flour strewn on the suet helps to stop the knife from sticking. Considering how much was used in English recipes, this must have been a common activity in every kitchen in the land.
I grow pennyroyal from Otto Richer's Herbs. One day I decided to test it's effectiveness as a natural flea repellent. I picked a lot and placed it in the dogs' houses along with their usual hay. None of the dogs would go in their houses.ReplyDelete
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