Greens for porry

Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Jean-Marc Bulit

Soup, broth, sop, porry, porray, porée, greens for porry, vegetable soup... in Medieval Europe.

Porry is the name for the dish of an Age, which consisted of a thick porridge-like soup made of green leaves, onion and bread, cooked a long time, in a caldron on the embers. There were more refined porries with almond milk or meat; some were green, others black, or white for the delicate palates. Porry simply stood for the meal sometimes, according to Les Bonnes herbes du Moyen Âge, Laetitia Cornu, Publisud 1999.

The word porry which was in use between the 12th and the 16th century is derived from the Latin porrum, allium porrum being the scientific name for leek. Actually leeks and chards were the 2 main vegetables for porry. And leeks and chards were already put together by Apicius in the category Pulmentarium ad ventrem (Liber III – II, soup for the stomach).

Porry can actually be a soup, a broth or a mash. But in medieval times, broth designated the vegetable or the meat cooked in the pot. Recipes for porry in the Ménagier de Paris are found under the topic ordinary soups with no spices and thin, while cinnamon broth (102) or hare stew (116) are under other thickened fatty soups.

Though all mashed greens weren’t called porry (Menestra d’herbette, Martino 146), porry was in fact a mash of greens.

Its composition would vary depending on social class: a mix of garden vegetables and wild herbs with sop bread for the humblest, a more sophisticated mix, thickened with bread or almond milk, with meat or sausages and added spices for the richer ones.

Its colour would also vary depending on composition: porry is white if you make it with leek stems, it is green when made with chard or spinach leaves or with other greens (in which case it is recommended to esverder the leaves, i.e. to chop them and soak them in cold water to make the porry greener), and it becomes black when diced bacon is mixed in.

The thickness of porry could range from that of a soup to that of a mash depending on the recipe. The Menagier de Paris specifies in a recipe for white porry (50):

Nota que aucunement a poreaulx l’en fait lyoison de pain (note that a liaison with bread is sometimes made for the leeks). Which implies that the recipe without the liaison must be rather thin. The Tuscan treatise Ricette d’un libro di cucina del buon secolo della lingua proposes porrata bianca (21) with the following: questa vivanda vuol esere bianca et bene spessai (this dish must be white and thick). The liaison here is made with 2 lbs of almonds for 4 bunches of leek.

The Ménagier de Paris also spoke of cabbage porry. When a housecook prepares vegetable soup today, she doesn’t necessarily indicate all that’s in it. Vegetable soup implies a classical base (leek, potato – nowadays) to which seasonal vegetables are added. It appears it was the same for medieval porry. A few base vegetables are stated in some of the recipes: leek, Swiss chard, orache or spinach, sometimes borage or watercress. But porry is open to all kinds of wild pot herbs and green vegetables. Several of the wild plants are cousins of spinach, chenopodioideae family, gradually let down for spinach. Orache, borage and Good King Henry are actually forgotten plants that can be rediscovered in specialized seed stores.

The greens for porry

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Oldcook: Greens for porry, soup, broth, sop, porray - Borage, photo François Couplan

Photo: François Couplan
Retrouvez les légumes oubliés
Flammarion / La Maison Rustique, 1986

Borage: family boraginaceae, genus borago officinalis.

Borage originated in Asia Minor. It grows in the wild, mainly in the Mediterranean regions and in Southern Europe, but has acclimatized up to Central Europe, and can be grown in vegetable gardens all the way up to Great Britain. The plant is furry all over. It is the young leaves, which are harvested from spring to fall, that are eaten. Borage leaves can be added in salad or cooked in porry or fritters. They were formerly used in Greece to wrap meatballs. Robert de Nola mixed up spinach, chard and borage in his potatge modern and Maestro Martino recommended chard and borage leaves, with a touch of parsley and mint for his Menestra d’herbette.

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Good King Henry

Oldcook: Greens for porry, soup, broth, sop, porray - Good King Henry photo François Couplan

Photo: François Couplan
Retrouvez les légumes oubliés
Flammarion / La Maison Rustique, 1986

Good King Henry: family chenopodiaceae,
genus chenopodium bonus-henricus.

Chenopodium is Greek for goosefoot. Good King Henry is a weed of the goosefoot species, also called Lincolnshire spinach (like spinach, it has always been of repute for its nutritive qualities). The young leaves are harvested from spring to the end of fall. They can be eaten in salads or cooked, prepared like spinach. You can also roast and grind the seeds and mix with meal to fix porridge or cookies.

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Oldcook: Greens for porry, soup, broth, sop, porray - Leeks

Photo: Jacques Bouchut

Leeks: family liliaceae, genus allium porrum

20 out of 25 recipes for meat or vegetable stock, found on a cuneiform Mesopatamian clay tablet (tablet A of Yale), have leeks in them, generally associated with garlic, onions and aromatic herbs. This tablet would be dated 1700 BC, according to Jean Bottéro. Garlic (allium sativum), onion (allium cepa) and leek (allium porrum) all come from wild garlic, maybe allium ampeloprasum or vine leek which grows in the wild all around the Mediterrannean, which improved and differentiated from prehistoric times on. Apicius gave us several recipes for leeks, which were either big or bulbous (porrus capitatus). Leeks are naturally included in Charlemagne’s capitulary and they are the main constituents for porry, along with chard.

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Orache (also called saltbush)

Oldcook: Greens for porry, soup, broth, sop, porray - Orache

Atriplex: Orache Platearius,
le livre des simples médecines (extract),
French manuscript 12322 Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

Orache: family chenopodiaceae, genus atriplex hortensis

Orache originated in Central Asia and then propagated throughout Europe, where it grows in the wild. Orache was known by the Romans but no recipes by Apicius have them. Orache is one of the greens for porry that was eventually taken over by spinach. It is listed in Charlemagne’s capitulary (at a time when spinach was still unknown in the Christian West). In the Liber de Coquina, it is found in a common recipe with spinach: de spiniargiis et atriplicibus (spinach and orache). It is also, in the Middle Ages, a medicinal plant for the treatment of jaundice and epilepsy.

Orache has practically sinked into oblivion for the past 100 years. It is a plant complementary to spinach: the spinach leaves are harvested in the spring and the fall (as it suffers from too much heat), while Orache can be harvested all summer long starting in mai. Orache is eaten the same way as spinach.

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Spinach: family chenopodiaceae, genus spinaccia oleracea

Origin: Turkestan and Afghanistan. From there it was brought to Persia. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans knew of spinach. It is traced back to Syria in the 4th century and developed throughout the Arabic world before reaching the West through Arabic Spain. The Arabs call it isfanakh or isbinakh, which gave espinaca in Spanish.

Spinach was considered a medicinal plant by the Arabs and was of frequent use in Arabo-Persian and Arabo-Andalousian cookery. Spinach is not listed in Charlemagne’s capitulary, but there is a recipe for spinargia in the Liber de Coquina, end of 13th century, and 3 more recipes with espinachs in the Sent Sovi, beginning of the 14th century. Italian cookery of the 14th century had several recipes for spinach also. And the Ménagier de Paris recommended sowing the spinach in February or July, describing its leaf as oblong and jagged like oakleaf.

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Swiss chard

Oldcook: Greens for porry, soup, broth, sop, porray - Swiss chard

Beta: Blette Platearius,
le livre des simples médecines (extract),
French manuscript 12322 Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

Swiss chard: family chenopodiaceae, genus beta vulgaris.

Chard or Swiss Chard, also known as Silverbeet, Perpetual Spinach or Mangold, is one of the cultivated descendants of the sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima), which grows spontaneously along the shores of the Mediterranean regions. The leaves of chards (Beta vulgaris cicla) were smaller than today throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Chard is basically a leaf vegetable with white or redish veins. Apicius gave several recipes for betas (Liber III – II, soup for the stomach), and chards were served as a side dish in several other of his recipes (patina au lait, crème barrique ou porcelet à la jardinière). The betas are listed in Charlemagne’s capitulary. And blette or becte are at the core of the recipes for porry in the Ménagier de Paris.

Selective breeding of chard led to beet (beta vulgaris hortensis, probable origin: 15th century Germany). But Olivier de Serres, in 1600, in the Théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs speaks of it in these terms: one species of root is the beet-root, which came to us from Italy, not long ago. Then three different kinds of beet were developed: mangel (for cattle feed), beet (the garden beetroot: a purple-red winter vegetable that you buy ready cooked at the supermarket) and sugarbeet. The sweetness of the beet root had already been noticed by Olivier de Serre, but not until 1745 did German chemist Marggraf succeed to extract sugar from the beet and solidify it. The development of large scale cultivation of the sugarbeet in the north of France was favored by Napoleon’s 1806 Continental Blockade, as it deprived France of its sugar cane shipments from the French West Indies.

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Watercress: family cruciferae.

Watercress (Nasturnium officinale), Early Winter Cress (Barbarea verna) and Garden Cress (Lepidium sativum) are all three edible but from a different genus. The latter two grow in dry places. The word cress comes from the Franconian kresso.

Watercress is a wild plant of shallow waters, found on all continents. Cultivation of watercress undoubtedly already existed in 1286 since the French word cressonnière for cress field dates that far back.

Garden Cress originated in the Middle East and grows in the wild throughout Europe. It was already eaten by the Greeks and the Romans and was considered a remedy for rabies [in the Middle Ages].

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Les herbes à porée