Many of us today still consume animal parts which don’t always consist of just the meat or muscle. Even so, many of the ingredients that used to be included in some recipes can still make us shudder. Some of the recipes below include ingredients like a pigeon’s gizzard (which grinds their food) and ox gall (digestive fluid or bile produced in the small intestine).
Some ingredients also call for certain animals that, for many in the UK, are family pets rather than food. A recipe to cure convulsive fits uses a ‘whelp’s liver’ – the liver of a puppy. This seems not only somewhat barbaric to our modern sensibilities, but also useless. However, many of these recipes rely on a different system of medicine that we now understand. While they may sound strange to us, using ram testicles and crab eyes, or cooking recipes in a hare’s womb was believed to cure a range of ailments.
One of the recipes for a pretty cream (a dessert) includes ambergris. Ambergris is often used as an ingredient in historical perfumes; it is a waxy substance which originates from the intestine of a sperm whale. It’s thought to act as a protective membrane against the sharp beaks of squid and cuttlefish. Fresh ambergris has a faecal stench but as it ages becomes a sweeter, muskier smell. It can be passed through the anus or regurgitated.
Some recipes call for soap. Commercially, there were two main types of soap used from the late medieval period: hard and soft. Hard soap was made using tallow (animal fat) and lye. It was solid at room temperature and was held in frames while it congealed after boiling before being cut into bars to be sold. There were two different types of hard soap in sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century England and the most preferred was white soap. White soap was imported from Spain and France and is often referred to in recipes as ‘Castile’. Grey soap was also a hard variety and was more mottled because it often retained metals. Soft soap was made with oils and lye made of pearl ash or potash. Soft soap was semi-liquid and so was sold in barrels or pots. There were also two types of black soap. One was made of fish and whale oil and so was incredibly cheap to buy. It also retained a rancid stench from its raw products. Another was again imported, made of materials like olive and rape seed oils. These were more preferable (and smelled sweeter!). Whichever variety used, it still wasn’t something you’d want to consume. It was more likely used to bind ingredients together than as an actual cure itself.