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.”