THE CURY OF LOSEYNS.

Incoming Signals links to a BBC story hyping a medieval recipe for what is alleged to be lasagna. There are a number of interesting things about the recipe, but before we get to that, a couple of reflections on the story, a typical heavy-breathing and -handed example of silly-season journalism. Here’s the start:

Britain lays claim to lasagne
Italy may be a land of lazy lunches and sun-kissed siestas, but challenge its reputation for home-grown cuisine at your peril.
With the Battle of Parma Ham not two months over the nation is facing an even more audacious claim.
Lasagne is British.
It’s so British the court of Richard II was making it in the 14th Century and most likely serving it up to ravenous knights in oak-panelled banqueting halls.
The claim has been made by researchers studying a medieval cookbook, The Forme of Cury, in the British Museum.
A spokesman for the Berkeley Castle medieval festival, with whom the experts were working, said: “I defy anyone to disprove it because it appeared in the first cookery book ever written.”…
The recipe book does not mention meat – a staple of a good lasagne.
And such an early use of tomatoes in food would have had medieval cooks spluttering into their espressos.
But it does describe making a base of pasta and laying cheese over the top.
It calls this “loseyns”, which is apparently pronounced “lasan”, although it fails to mention whether it should be followed with a sweet tiramasu and a glass of Amaretto.

First off, it’s interesting that the Brits say (or rather write) “lasagne” where we Yanks have “lasagna”; anybody know the history behind the divergence? (Yes, I know one is singular and the other plural in Italian, but both sides of the Atlantic use the plural “spaghetti,” to take a parallel example.) And what’s the Canadian usage? Second, I think Apicius would have something to say about the absurd “first cookery book ever written” claim. And finally, the only reason to mention meat and tomatoes (not present in the recipe) is to hype the “lasagna” story (which seems to be based mainly on the chance resemblance of the word to “loseyn”).
Having disposed of the BBC, let’s get to the recipe. Incoming Signals kindly adds a link to a facsimile of the recipe itself, with which you can compare the Project Gutenberg version (the entire book; search on “loseyns,” and note that the superscript p, q, r, s in the facsimile are footnotes from the 1780 printing, not medieval abbreviations):

Loseyns. XX II. IX.
Take gode broth and do in an erthen pot, take flour of payndemayn and
make therof past with water. and make therof thynne foyles as paper
with a roller, drye it harde and seeth it in broth take Chese ruayn
grated and lay it in disshes with powdour douce. and lay theron
loseyns isode as hoole as thou mizt. and above powdour and chese,
and so twyse or thryse, & serue it forth.

A little glossary: do ‘put’; payn-demayn ‘good white bread’ [AF. pain demeine, med.L. panis dominicus 'lord's bread']; foyles ‘leaves’ (ie, of the paste/pasta); seethe ‘boil’; chese ruayn ‘Rouen (?) cheese’ (the OED is no help on “ruayn,” but this site says “Autumn cheese, made after the cattle had fed on the second growth. This was apparently a semi-soft cheese, but not as soft as a ripe modern Brie… It appears to be the same cheese that in France today is called fromage de gaing“); i-sode ‘boiled’ (past participle of “seethe,” replaced by “sodden”); hoole ‘whole, intact’; mizt ‘mightest’ (the z is clearly a misunderstanding of the medieval yogh symbol, but the lack of the second-person ending surprises me—perhaps a superscript symbol was left out of the printed version?). You notice I’ve omitted the word “loseyns,” which is the crux of the matter. What was a loseyn? The OED has it s.v. “lozen,” under definition 1: “Cookery. ? A thin cake of pastry. Obs.” The only citations are:

?c1390 Form of Cury (1780) 21 Take obleys other wafrous [wafrons] in stede of lozeyns and cowche in dysshes. Ibid. 46, 61, 62. c1420 Liber Cocorum (1862) 40 Lay ther in thy loseyns abofe the chese with wynne.. those loysyns er harde to make in fay.

(That last sentence is remarkably modern-sounding, once you realize fay = faith: “Damn, those lozens are hard to make!”) I can’t say the definition impresses me; “thin cake of pastry” simply doesn’t match the recipe. “Layered dish of pasta and cheese” is more like it. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the same word as the later “losan, losen, lozen” meaning ‘lozenge’ with which they lump it.
So what about the book itself, The Form of Cury? No, that’s not an amazingly early “curry”: cury is an old work for ‘cooking’ or ‘cooked food’ [OF. queuerie 'cookery, kitchen,' f. keu, queu, coeu: L. coquus, cocus 'cook']. And the whole thing is online in facsimile as well as the Gutenberg transcription. Lovers of medieval cooking as well as Middle English should rejoice.
Addendum. UJG has done some excellent etymological spadework on “lasagna.”

Comments

  1. Out of interest, it is “lasagne” in Australia.

  2. After wondering what _powdour douce_ was, I found a receipt: http://www.thorngrove.net/athenaeum/powder.htm#douce
    Sounds delicous and make a difference to what might otherwise end up being multi-decker cheese on toast!

  3. Ah, I had meant to look that up and forgot—thanks!

  4. Of course, this recipe couldn’t have tomatoes in it, because tomatoes are a New World plant. (See: http://www.tomato-cages.com/tomato-history.html)

  5. Oh, by the way — it’s 3-1 in favor of ‘lasagna’ over ‘lasagne’ searching Canadian websites on google.ca.

  6. I guess I always assumed that that was a frenchified spelling, and indeed French does seem to use la lasagne, les lasagnes. Of course many pastas have inconsistant names in English, e.g. fetuccini/fetuccine… maybe in Italian too, but I don’t feel like looking into that right now (of course I saw cazzini di angeli marketed under several different names in Italy ;) )
    If we’re going to count loseyns as lasagna, then surely we have to count the Ancient Roman lagana as well. Those do appear in Apicius (which, as you say, better deserves the rather broadly phrased title of “first cookery book ever written”), though I think only as an ingredient, with no description given. Nevertheless they are known from other sources to be some sort of fried wafer (or possibly a chip or maybe even a kind of pancake), and they are believed at least linguistically to be the ancestor of lasagna.
    Incidentally, I strongly advise those interested in Apicius to stay away from the Vehling translation, as well as the Edwards. Try, rather, the (very hard to get) Flowers and Rosenbaum translation or possibly the (forthcoming) Dalby and Grainger translation. In the meantime try joining the Apicius list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/apicius/), which unfortunately has had very little activity for the last couple of years.
    (By the way, now your site is removing my links altogether!)

  7. I’ve transcribed some etymologies back home. About whether to use the plural or the singular forms: since Italian has strange number morphology, at least compared to other Romance languages and English, I just figured there was bound to be problems. How do most anglophones pronounce fettucine? Like fettucini, and thus confusing the matter and making it a masculine plural. (Likewise, with salame / salami.) And don’t get me started with the raviolis and spaghettis.

  8. When jim says “back home,” he means back home. I don’t know if it’s mistyping on his part or if my comments box hates people whose names start with “j” (see previous comment). And jim, why don’t you do a post about Italian pasta plurals? Sounds interesting to me. (I’d already addended your entry — check your trackbacks!)

  9. LH– You’ve got me! Not sure what happened to the URL. Some kind of cut and paste error. And, I think I will do an Italian pasta plural entry.
    Justin– The Apicius group is quite a blast. I’ve been looking for the F&R translation for a while now.

  10. 1295
    Marco Polo torna dalla Cina e tra le tante meraviglie di quel paese cita anche delle lasagne, fatte con «farina di alberi, che sono molto buone»; ci verrebbe da aggiungere per sfatare la leggenda della provenienza cinese della pasta, «buone quanto quelle che ho mangiato tante volte in Italia». In altre parole le lasagne sono citate nel Milione tra le meraviglie del mondo probabilmente solo perché ha destato stupore e, appunto, meraviglia, il fatto che anche in un paese tanto lontano e così diverso dal nostro ci fosse il costume di mangiare un cibo simile a quello così diffuso nella madre patria di Marco Polo.

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