"Translation of ancient recipes can be difficult," said Amanda Herbert, assistant director for fellowships at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. "It's almost impossible to recreate a recipe precisely the way early modern people would have done it."
Herbert is one of four editors — the team includes people from Germany, Canada and the U.K. — who work on a digital humanities project called The Recipes Project. The website is a place for scholars to post about the work they do with recipes, including recreating recipes from long, long ago.
Part of Herbert's contribution to The Recipes Project is to "excavate early modern recipes and other texts out of the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection." Early modern is the phrase scholars use to describe the period roughly from 1450-1750.
It's interesting to note that the words "recipe" and "receipt" didn't always refer to food and drink only. Recipes were also used to make medicines, conduct scientific experiments, create paints and other decorative arts, and undertake acts of magic, according to Herbert. Our interview focused on the re-creation of food and drink recipes.
The challenges of translation
The challenges of translating a recipe from a book like this one from the 1790s go beyond language. The preciseness of ingredients and directions we expect today were not recorded then. (Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library)
"One challenge," said Herbert, "is whether or not to make a recipe translation accurate, or even determine what accurate means. It's difficult for us to approximate early modern recipes. We don't have access to some ingredients, and even if we do, they are so different. Eggs now are twice the size as early modern eggs and their moisture content different. There's a completely different process from farm to table now."
Flour is another ingredient that has changed. Modern strains of wheat and other grains are different than they used to be.
"They have different protein levels," said Herbert. "We've bred them to be more uniform."
Added to the difficulty of accessing ingredients is the way recipes were written long ago.
"Recipes weren't in the same format. They didn't put ingredients first, and they didn't list amounts of most ingredients," Herbert said. "And they almost never included a degree temperature because they did a lot of hearth cooking."
If any temperature instructions are given at all, they'll usually be written in terms of fire.
"A soft fire means low temperature," she said. "How do you translate that to oven temperature?"
In addition to ingredients and cooking methods being different, taste preferences aren't the same. "Our own sense of taste is so marked by what we're used to eating," said Herbert. "Ninety-nine percent of the early modern foods I've tried to recreate don't taste good to me, but they may have to early modern people. They had different palates."
Foods were often combined differently than we're accustomed to. There was a lot of combining of sweet and savory and an extensive use of spices.
"They'd combine lots and lots of every kind of spice you could think of," said Herbert. "That punch of spiciness is not something that is appealing to us today."
Some scholars are totally committed to being as accurate as they can be. But, given the challenges, Herbert's aim is to make early modern recipes work for the modern American palate.
"It's never going to be a perfect recreation. I try my best to put something on my table that will make my family and friends happy," she said.
One recipe that Herbert has adapted for modern American palates is the Grenville Sweet Potato Pudding found in a recipe collection kept by the Grenville family from 1640-1750.
I've included a link to that recipe and several other early modern or ancient recipes below that others have done the work of translating. I imagine if it's difficult to translate recipes that go to the 1450s, it's even more difficult to translate recipes that go back even further. All of the recipes I'm including here are adapted for modern ingredients and kitchens.
Grenville Sweet Potato Pudding
This recipe isn't so different from many of the sweet potato puddings or casseroles made today. Instead of sugar to add a little sweetness, it uses sherry (the original recipe called for sweet wine from Spain). The Grenville Sweet Potato Pudding is delicious, according to Herbert.
Ancient Roman Pork with Apples
Even the ancient Romans needed ideas for using up leftovers. (Photo: TalyaAL/Shutterstock)
Translated from Latin and adapted by Laura Kelley of The Silk Road Gourmet, Ancient Roman Pork with Apples is a way to use leftover pork. It calls for defrutum, grape juice that has been boiled down and made into a syrup, which was a common sweetener used in that time. It seems to be an example of the sweet and savory combo that Herbert spoke about. Kelley says the recipe "balances sweet, sour, salty and bitter" and the "unami factor is through the roof."
Gastrin (ancient baklava)
This recipe for Gastrin on The Spruce calls for a sweetener called petimezi, which is very much like the defrutum above. This baklava-like dessert can be traced back thousands of years, and may have had its origins with the Assyrians or the Turks or the Greeks. This particular ancient Greek recipe calls for sesame seeds and poppy seeds along with the nuts we're used to in modern baklava. But its dough is not the layered phyllo we use today and shown in the photo above.
Here's another example of a sweet and savory combination that isn't something we'd probably put together today. Broad beans, also known as fava beans, are combined into a cake with honey. The ancient Anglo Saxon recipe recreated on Cookit! creates a crisp cake that can be eaten hot or cold.
Since about 300 B.C., variations of these Italian cookies have been made. They're one of the earliest recorded cookies, and they've become a traditional Christmas cookie in modern times. Originally sweetened with mosto cotto (cooked grape must), modern versions use sugar or honey. It seems each region of Italy adds its own twist to mostaccioli, including covering the cookies with chocolate. The Mostaccioli di Mamma cookies from She loves Biscotti are filled with cocoa, almonds and honey and covered in a chocolate coating.
Legend has it that Pope Alexander III served this cake in 1177 when he consecrated the Assumption Cathedral in Rab, Croatia. This Croatian rab cake, or Rapska sorta from Croatia Week, is shaped like a spiral and filled with almonds and Maraschino liqueur. The icing sugar, or confectioners sugar, sprinkled on top may not be traditional, but the flavors inside are.
Hummus certainly didn't stay in the ancient world. It's immensely popular today and variations on the original, including sweet dessert hummus, abound. The original recipe for hummus goes back 10,000 years to the Middle East, according to Nanoosh, and calls for four ingredients: chickpeas, tahini, lemon and garlic. Modern versions of the original often throw in olive oil, and my favorite version is Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, with a little paprika and salt added to the traditional ingredients.