By Samuel Fatzinger
As I was transcribing a recipe manuscript by Elizabeth Bulckley, “A Booke of Hearbes and Receipts,” (compiled in 1627, Wellcome Library) I came across a page title “The Vertues of Rosemary.” While apparently Rosemary can perform many medical miracles, what really piqued my interest was a brief sentence at the bottom of the page (12r):
Also rosemarie comforteth the braine
the memory, the inward senses, & restoreth
speech to them that are posessed with adumbe
What did this mean, a conserve of this? A conserve of rosemary, certainly. But made out of what? A conserve, distinctly form other forms of preserving food, usually contains pieces of fruit (presumably because many fruits, especially their rinds or skins, contain pectin, which works as a congealing agent when it is prepared), and rosemary is certainly not a fruit.
The idea of a rosemary conserve brings something into question that I find very interesting about early modern recipes. Recipes are generally written in the imperative, but in the case of early modern recipes, many recipes direct the reader to perform tasks that have an implied understanding such as: still, make it up, candy it. These directions point toward an understanding within cooking culture at the time that was taken for granted. Unlike modern recipes that direct the user to use certain temperatures when cooking in the oven, early modern recipes might suggest an oven that is quick, slow, or covered. At other times, heat directions find common ground, such as place on a slow fire (in modern terms, low to medium heat). Measurement directions work on the same principal. A recipe might direct the user to add a quantity of product according to a handful or spoonful. We still use a similar application in modern recipes, but at other times a recipe might direct the user to add a “quantity.” Recipes, then as much as today, fall in that valley between exact science and intuition (baking is usually the exception).
So, some boundaries in cooking are porous, either by default or understanding. There are some cooking practices on the other hand that are strictly differentiated, like that of conserves, preserves, waters, and syrups. This makes sense given the times. Lacking convenient modern preservation methods, early modern cooking required many differing forms of preserving foods. Having differing methods for preserving foods based on strict methods worked for both varying an otherwise limited degree of flavor profiles, as well as allowing similar cultural groups to share recipes and cooking methods with a knowledge of what the preparation and outcome of that recipe was supposed to be (see: implied understandings).
This difference between the strict and porous boundary is exactly why I became curious about a rosemary conserve. So I decided to make it, and some variations too. For the rosemary conserve, I made a rosemary water that reduced by about half (it was very pungent), and then made a syrup out of some of that water by adding sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio and then let it reduce by about a third. The result had the consistency of honey, but with a rich rosemary aroma and flavor (the needles were strained before adding the sugar). I also made a conserve out of grapefruit and cranberries (it’s about that time of year) that was based on two recipes for making a conserve of barberries (a mid-17th century recipe from Nicholas Webster and an anonymous early 18th century recipe, both from the Folger Library) and a conserve of strawberries and lemon rind. To both I added the rosemary water instead of plain water in order to give it flavor. These jellied much better, certainly due to the addition of pectin from the citrus fruits. But I still cannot figure out why Bulckley would assume that a rosemary conserve, without giving its recipe, is not a strange thing – that by mentioning it, the reader would know not only what it is, but how to create it. A thorough search of the Folger and Wellcome of a rosemary conserve were fruitless (please let me know if you find something otherwise!).
You might be thinking that it would be easy to simply add powdered pectin to a rosemary solution similar to what I concocted, but powdered pectin wasn’t isolated (much less distributed) until the mid-19th century. I’m still not sure what Bulckley meant, but (see video below) I was more than happy to explore the idea in my own kitchen.
Samuel Fatzinger is a former restaurant cook and current MA candidate, University of Texas, Arlington