13 good reasons why chocolate mousse isn’t medieval.
A heavily disguised lesson in some aspects of medieval cuisine
For some reason, if I ask the Herald for suggestions as to what I should make for a potluck, he usually says “Chocolate mousse.” To which I invariably answer “It isn’t period,” or, occasionally, “It’s not period, dammit!!” I am sometimes tempted to assume that the Herald’s harping on this theme is deliberately unhelpful and designed merely to irritate. However, mature reflection suggests that such a chivalrous and noble individual could never stoop to those depths. He must therefore be sorely afflicted with (a) a liking for chocolate mousse, and (b) ignorance. While I am unable to indulge (a) within the scope of this society, I can certainly address (b), which I do below, at some length.
As an added bonus, at no extra charge, and for purposes of discussion, I reproduce below my favourite Chocolate Mousse recipe. But straitly do I charge all gentles of the Shire to pray remember that it is a bastard and upstart recipe, having no place in our Current Middle Ages; for reasons which I hope I shall be able to demonstrate.
VERY UNMEDIEVAL CHOCOLATE MOUSSE250ml caster sugar
250 ml cocoa powder
125ml strong black coffee
250 ml cream
dash of rum or brandy
50g walnuts or pecan nuts
Stir sugar, coffee and cocoa over low heat until well mixed and smooth. Beat egg yolks until pale and thick and beat in chocolate mix. Cool to room temperature. Whip cream to soft peaks and fold into chocolate mixture with nuts and rum/brandy (nuts and alcohol are optional). Beat half of egg whites until stiff and fold into chocolate mixture (also optional). Refigerate and allow to set.
Other variations on the chocolate mousse concept use chocolate instead of cocoa, or set the mix with gelatine.
This discussion is based on my experience of medieval cookery, which I define for my own purposes as ending somewhere around late 15th century or early 16th. From the 16th century onwards, the development of cooking techniques brings the recipes and concepts much closer to our familiar modern cuisine, and they lose their distinctive medieval character to some extent. Chocolate mousse has perhaps the most in common with an Elizabethan illusion food called “A dysshe of Snowe”, but I don’t define that as a medieval dish. (I’ve reproduced it at the end of this article, just for fun).
Chocolate mousse? It’s not medieval. Here’s why:
1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “mousse” appeared first in the late 19th century (1892, a recipe for Chestnut Mousse in an Encyclopedia of Cookery). The OED isn’t great on cookbooks, and there are probably earlier examples that they haven’t found, but not that much earlier: 1892 is very far out of our period indeed. The OED suggests that the word “mousse” developed from “moss”, which is “a kind of fine sugar work, made by confectioners, in imitation of moss” (Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words, 1706). So we could have a mousse in the 19th century or a moss in the 18th and probably 17th. Still way out of the SCA period.
2. Chocolate. This was discovered in South America by the Spanish explorers of the early sixteenth century; to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge chocolate or cocoa do not appear as an ingredient in any cookery books of our period. Cortez and the boys were familiar with it, but it took a while to permeate to the rest of society. In 1604 a dictionary definition describes it as a drink of the South American Indians; it has appeared as a Western confectionary by 1659, at six shillings and sixpence per pound for the best sort. It would have been far too expensive for extensive use as an ingredient in sweet dishes.
3. Cocoa powder. This is the crushed cocoa bean with the fat and moisture removed. When chocolate did start to become known in the West, it was as a drink. The Mayans used to drink chocolate with boiling water and spices, including chilli; these were added to a crushed paste of the beans. Spanish missionaries added sugar, cream and vanilla to the cocoa bean paste, producing the cocoa drink beloved of the seventeenth and eighteenth century nobility, who drank it in the morning when they woke up. Cocoa powder is a comparatively modern invention, and its original users would not have known it flavoured with sugar.
4. Caster sugar is a modern concept: while finely-ground sugar was undoubtedly known to the medieval cook, any recipe requiring it would specify that it needed to be specially ground and sifted to make it finer. In my experience of medieval cooking, finely-ground sugar is generally used only in later-period or Renaissance recipes for sweets such as sugar plate.
5. There is a lot of sugar in this recipe. In the bulk of medieval recipes, sugar is treated more as a spice than an ingredient; for example, it is one of the components of the spice mix known as poudre douce (the Goodman of Paris’s version has sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and grains of paradise). Most recipes calling for large quantities of sugar, such as sugar plate, seem to be Renaissance or Elizabethan dishes; these are much closer to modern cuisine, and are not true medieval foods.
6. Coffee. This was known in the West in our period, as a strange concoction drunk by the Turks. It was only in the seventeenth century that it became a fashionable drink. It spread pretty quickly: Samuel Pepys describes frequent trips to coffee houses in his diary of 1664 (in one such visit he records drinking “chocolata” as well as coffee). But coffee does not appear as an ingredient in any medieval recipe I have ever seen, and even as a beverage its use is much later than our period of interest.
7. Rum or brandy. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat maintains that distilled spirits were known to the Arabs for centuries before the West caught on; perhaps as early as 450 A.D. She also claims that the eau-de-vie made by the French in the fifteen century was a distilled essence of wine, while the Irish were doing something similar with cereal products. These were not widely drunk, however, and I have certainly never come across a medieval recipe of any sort which calls for a spirit ingredient. I suspect the stuff was too precious.
8. The melting of the cocoa and sugar in the liquid of the coffee is unlike any method I’ve ever met in medieval cooking, with the exception of some 14th-century Andalusian recipes for lemon or pomegranate syrup (as a beverage). In period dishes of my experience, a heated syrup is far more likely to be honey than a sugar syrup. Also, cocoa beans were roasted and ground and boiling water added to make the seventeenth century beverage; the powder was not heated in the water.
9. Beat the egg yolks until pale and thick? Whisk the whites until stiff? This method of introducing air into a mix was apparently unknown to the medieval cook. The most we have is an instruction to pass the egg through a strainer, and this doesn’t seem to introduce air at all. The OED records the use of a “whisk” for beating egg whites, but the earliest mention - 1666 - was Boyle’s Origine of Formes and Qualities, a basic physics text rather than a culinary treatise. It’s only with Hannah Glass’s cookbook in 1747 that we have an injunction to “beat the whites of the eggs up well with a whisk”. Not in our period.
10. While egg yolks and whites were often separated, it was usually only in order to use one or the other. There seems to be no concept of separating the egg only to whisk the white and re-combine them, in the body of medieval recipes.
11. Folding? Most medieval recipes require mixing or beating; they don’t ever specify the very careful and specific process of folding an aerated substance back into the mixture so as not to flatten the introduced air. If air is to be introduced into a mixture, it’s by prolongued beating of the whole mix, sometimes for hours; not by whisking and folding. (A good example of a beaten mixture is Prince-Bisket (Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies, 1609), a light, aniseed-flavoured cookie with a texture like rather tough and glutinous meringue).
12. Some mousse recipes call for gelatine. While there are jellies described in the medieval recipe books, these are meat jellies, using the natural gelatinised broth of the meat (e.g. Harleian MS. 279 - Gelye de chare, a fancy dish of jellied pork and chicken; there are also several recipes for meat jellies in the 14th century Goodman of Paris). The only jelly-like sweet recipes I know are dishes known as a leach or leche, effectively a milk jelly (e.g. A leche of divers colours, from Murrell’s Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1617). They are set with isinglass, a gelatine made from the bladders of fish (yech), and they are Elizabethan rather than medieval recipes.
13. Chocolate mousse is a dessert. This means it’s a light, sweet dish served at the end of a meal, either on its own or with other light, sweet dishes. This was not a characteristic meal order in the Middle Ages. Sweet dishes - fruit tarts, cream custards, etc - tended to be served as part of a meat course. The closest we have to a dessert course is the final course, which usually consisted of spiced wine, nuts, oranges, and wafers (a sort of a cross between a waffle and a biscuit - a sweet or savoury batter cooked on a hot plate to make a thin, crispy biscuit).
An Elizabethan mousse-like thingThe closest thing to a mousse in the Elizabethan cookbooks is an illusion food that recreates a snow-covered bush; it is made with cream, sugar and egg whites whisked together.
To make a dyschefull of snowe
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food.
Madge Lorwin, Dining with William Shakespeare
The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
The Goodman of Paris (1393), tr. Eileen Power.
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