It’s December 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on. The Society for Creative Anachronism last week announced that we can’t hold any events until after May 31, 2021 – and that’s if a vaccine is widely distributed and taken by a large number of the population. I’m not holding my breath here, but I have a tiny bit of hope.
And I still have medieval activities to do. When I last posted, I was talking about learning to play the citole. That is proceeding. And just after Thanksgiving, I received a two-shaft rigid heddle kiddie loom from China to try my hand at weaving, since I spin so much yarn and I can’t possibly knit it all. Verdict: Well guess I’m going to find a real desk loom and get even better at it. I may even remove the heddle cards and the reed from the kiddie loom, sidle up to woodworking friends, and ask them to make me finer dent heddles and a beater so I can go really fine with my weaving, a greater number of threads per inch. This may be really good for making wide-band trims. We’ll see.
And I am still cooking. I watch a lot of culinary shows on YouTube while doing handicrafts, mostly historical documentary kinds of things. So today I clicked on Max Miller’s “What Did Medieval Peasants Eat?” and watched him talk about making “Makke” from The Forme of Cury.
I suddenly sat very straight up and said, “Ugh! I am such an idiot!” Because for years, I had overlooked something in Sicilian cooking that once upon a time, everyone ate, but is now considered a peasant food: Maccu, or mashed fava beans.
The Forme of Cury is one of the oldest known cookbooks, from 14th century England. It consists of recipes from the court of Richard II (to the left you can see the recipe as written in the manuscript in the John Rylands Library, Manchester).
Both the words “makke” and “maccu” stem from the Latin maccare, to mash. Both are made from fava beans – the only bean varietal available in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Form of Curye recipe calls for light-colored favas that are ground until they are “as white as milk.” Today’s readily available favas are dark brownish in color when dried and bright green when fresh. But there’s a very old varietal of fava bean in England called “Martock beans” that apparently vary in color, from black to brown to white. It’s also possible that there was a white variety that was cultivated but has been long lost as favas are very aggressive cross-pollinators. (Update: Doing a Google search for “white broad beans” yielded this cultivar, White Hangdown, which is either very pale green or white. So, there are white broad bean cultivars available to the modern cook.)
There are some differences between makke and a traditional maccu. For one thing, makke calls for the addition of beer or wine after the beans are cooked and as you mash them. Makke also calls for fried onions put on it before serving. Maccu at its most basic is fava beans cooked with fennel seeds or fennel fronds, olive oil, and salt. Fennel grows wild in Sicily so for a hungry peasant, a bulb of fennel or even dried fennel seeds can be foraged up pretty quickly. But onions and garlic are other optional things to add to the dish, and some versions of the recipe do call for them. These days it’s most traditionally made at the end of winter for St. Joseph’s Day.
So with similar names and with fava beans being grown in both England and Sicily, where did makke/maccu originate? The Sicilian claim is that the dish has been eaten on the island since Roman times. There are no 12th century Norman medieval Sicilian cookbooks so it’s not like I can check there. But there have been some very extraordinary ties between Norman Sicily and Plantagenet England. The most significant is Joan of England, daughter of Henry II, being queen of Sicily. She was married to William II. You can read more about the life of Joan of England here in an essay by the scholar Jacqueline Alio. She came with a horde of ladies in waiting, churchmen, and servants; and later her older brother Richard II spent a year occupying Messina with his soldiers.
Incidentally, the cathedral of Monreale has one of the earliest surviving depictions of Saint Thomas a Becket, not very long after Henry II’s nobles murdered him.
During the reign of Henry III, grandson of Henry II and Joan’s nephew, the king was allied with Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, who had married Henry’s sister. After Frederick’s death, Pope Innocent VI made an offer to Henry III to place his son Edmund Crouchback on the Sicilian throne; Henry threw a huge amount of money at the enterprise but was unable to secure it. Rebecca Star Brown details the circumstances in an interesting post.
This was about 100 years before Richard II was even born, and according to the historian GA Loud, even in the 1250s Sicily was seen as an exotic and foreign place, despite the shared Norman ancestry of the royal houses. But maybe all those servants and cooks who went along with Joan and Richard II brought something back to England when they returned; a recipe for a dish of mashed fava beans, and passed it on, to others who enriched it with ale or wine. While Richard III’s cooks felt it was worthy of a king, “maccu” became considered peasant food in Sicily.
So when I get to cook a feast again, I am going to make maccu and makke, and let people decide which they like better. And if I have enough leftover maccu, I’ll chill it, bread it, and fry it, because that’s supposed to be delicious too.