How to Cook Medieval-Style Fig and Raisin Compote

Maeve L'Estrange

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.


Among the artefacts excavated in 2007 from the remains of a deserted medieval settlement in Mullaghmast in Co. Kildare, was a pipkin.

Archeologists were investigating the site as part of the M9/M10 Kilcullen-to-Waterford national road scheme. Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) shared what they found – including this pottery medieval cooking vessel.

The remains of these pot-bellied three-legged cooking pots, or pipkins, turn up from time to time in excavations.

To my knowledge, matching lids weren’t found. It’s possible they once had wooden lids, which wouldn’t have survived.

Pipkins have an intriguing shape. They could be put directly over charcoal or wood, potentially adding smokiness to the dish. They may also have been used to keep food warm.

We don’t know what was cooked in these interesting pots. Sauces, perhaps. Or, medieval stews, known as pottages. Regardless, I find them aesthetically pleasing.

Remains of pipkins turn up in excavations throughout Europe. Another of the many Irish samples was found during one of Dublin’s most controversial excavations in living memory at Wood Quay in the 1970s.

Dublin Corporation, as the city’s governing body was called at the time, was planning its new headquarters on the site. Archeologists uncovered land rich in Viking artefacts. Some 20,000 activists marched through the capital, demanding the site be protected as a national monument.

The public campaign was unsuccessful. But one positive is that the National Museum of Ireland now has a fine Viking exhibition, made up of these artefacts.

Pipkins. Photo by Maeve L'Estrange.

But back to the pipkins. Those found at Mullaghmast and Wood Quay were local to their resting sites. The Mullaghmast pipkin is Kildare-type ware, the Wood Quay one is Dublin-type ware. This isn’t surprising. Cooking pots were made to be used and discarded. They were simple domestic ware for use over an indoor or outdoor fire.

This month’s recipe is from a fourteenth-century culinary manuscript called Curye on Inglysch. It could have been made in a pipkin. It’s a sweet dish, but not a dessert. Sweet and savoury were served together at the medieval table.

Here’s how the recipe, originally called “rapey”, was written:

“Rapey. Take half fyges and half raisouns; pike hem and waishe hem in water. Skalde hem in wyne, bray hem in a morter, and drawe hem through a straynour. Cast hem in a pot and therwith powdur of peper and oother good powdours; alay it vp with flour of rys, and colour it with saundres. Salt it; seeth it and mess it forth.” (Curye on Inglysch, IV.85)

The “saundres” refer to red sandalwood, or Pterocarpus santalinus, which was used as a red colorant. I substituted red liquid food colouring.

To complement the dried fruit, I poach pears in red wine sweetened by honey, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, and a pinch of saffron. Edible flowers are pretty decoration, too.

I’ve even used a pipkin-style pot too, a reproduction made by Graham Taylor of Potted History.

Fig and Raisin Compote

Ingredients

  • 275 ml/10 fl oz red wine
  • 125 g/4 oz dried figs
  • 125 g/4 oz stoned raisins
  • Good pinch of ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • 3 tsps rice flour
  • A drop or two of red food colouring
  • Rice flour
  • Honey to taste
  • Salt to taste

Method

In a cooking pan, heat the wine to simmering point. Remove from the heat and add the dried fruit. Allow the fruit to steep in the wine while it cools. When cold, remove the fruit from the wine, reserving the liquid, and pound to a paste in a pestle and mortar. If the mixture is too thick, loosen it with a little of the reserved wine.

Pass the mixture through a sieve. Add the black pepper, cinnamon and cloves and stir through. Mix the rice flour with three tablespoons of the remaining wine and add to the paste. Place the paste and wine back into the pan, and simmer until it thickens.

Season with honey and salt.

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Maeve L'Estrange: Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.

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