Friday, 25 October 2019

Arabic: Madira (Al-Baghdadi)

This is a delicious medieval arab recipe from the excellent book: "Medieval Arab cookery" by Maxime Rodinson.

served with barberry cous cous

Madira is a main-course meat dish comprising mainly of cooked meat with leeks and spices and with yoghurt mixed in.

Basic recipe (quick overview - step-by-step is below)

Madira recipe
  1. Cut the meat into middling pieces with the tail, if chickens are used quarter them
  2. Put into saucepan with a little salt, cover with water and boil, removing the scum.
  3. When almost boiled, take large onions and Nabatean leeks (small leeks). peel, cut off the tails, wash in salt and water, dry and put into the pot.
  4. Add dry coriander, cumin mastic and cinnamon, ground fine.
  5. When cooked, and the juices are dried up, so that only the oil remains, ladle out into a large bowl.
  6. Now take persian milk (curdled milk) as required, and put into the saucepan added salted lemon and fresh mint.
  7. Leave to boil then take off the fire stirring.
  8. When the boiling has subsided, put back the meat and herbs.
  9. Cover the saucepan, wipe it's sides, and leave to settle over the fire, then remove.


1. Cut the meat into middling pieces with the tail, if chickens are used quarter them

"Cut meat into middling pieces: if chickens are used, quarter them"

I just bought chicken thighs... already "quartered"

2. Put into saucepan with a little salt...

"put into the saucepan with a little salt"

...cover with water and boil, removing the scum.

"cover with water and boil, removing the scum"

Here I've just covered the meat with water and am putting it on to boil. i didn't bother removing the scum... it didn't seem to be particularly scummy and didn't affect the flavour at all.

3. When almost boiled, take large onions and Nabatean leeks (small leeks)...

"take large onions and nabatean leeks"

From reading elsewhere in the book, nabtean leeks were small ones... luckily my grocer happened to have baby leeks, which were perfect. In years since I've grown my own and I'm an expert in growing non-full-sized leeks now ;) (AKA I can't get them to grow beyond a certain size before they bolt) so that's just perfect!

...peel, cut off the tails, wash in salt and water, dry and put into the pot.

"cut off the tails, wash in salt and water"

The recipe calls for them just to be tailed and put into the pot. It doesn't say anything about chopping them smallers... so I chose to put them in whole because I thought that'd be cool.

It was cool while cooking, and looked interesting on the plate, but it was annoying while eating as they come out in huge big long fibrous mats. Next time I'll chop them at least in half/thirds so they're less clumpy.

4. Add dry coriander, cumin, mastic, and cinnamon, ground fine.

"add dry coriander, mastic, cumin and cinnamon ground fine"

I took "dry coriander" to mean "seed not leaf", and bought ground spices from my favourite spice-shop.

I like Herbies spices, BTW - they're really good flavours and have very good plastic bags made for long-term storage. They also have a wide range of "interesting" spices like mastic. I've always been able to find the odd medieval spices there... cubebs, grains of paradise etc... all off-the-shelf. and it's a lovely little shop to visit.

PS - totally not affiliated I just think they're awesome.

"ground fine"

The recipe doesn't have amounts, so I'm guessing based on my own past experimentation with similar recipes. This is how much i used of each.

I've never used mastic before and had to guess how much to use. I went and looked at other recipes and from guesstimations figured that a half a teaspoon would do.

The recipe calls for grinding, but only the mastic needed grinding this time around - the rest I had pre-ground spices for ease of convenience. Pre-ground spices don't last as long, of course.

5. When cooked, and the juices are dried up, so that only the oil remains, ladle out into a large bowl.

cooking cooking cooking - progress photos... you can imagine the montage-muzak yourself.

cooking so far... juices not dried up yet.
cooking so far...
"when cooked and so the juices are dried up, ladle out into a large bowl"

And finally it looks enough like the juices have dried up for me to ladle the stuff out into a bowl...

6. Now take persian milk (curdled milk) as required, and put into the saucepan added salted lemon and fresh mint.

"salted lemon and fresh mint"

Here I've chopped up the fresh mint and am about to prepare the salted lemon.

"take persian milk as required"

Persian milk is basically runny yoghurt. I've got potted-yoghurt here - fairly stiff, so I add a little milk later to make it runny. Plus I roughly chopped the mint and lemon.

"take persian milk as required and add it to the saucepan"

All plopped into the pot together

persian milk consistency

And this is the consistency once it's all mixed in.

7. Leave to boil then take off the fire stirring.

"leave to boil then take it off the fire, stirring"

So here I'm mixing the yoghurt and mint together and bringing it up to temperature again.

8. When the boiling has subsided, put back the meat and herbs.

"when the boiling has subsided put back the meat and herbs"

So now I add back the meat and "herbs" to the pot and basically mix it all in together.

9. Cover the saucepan, wipe it's sides, and leave to settle over the fire, then remove.

served with barberry cous cous

Here it is all done, and served with cous-cous to which I've added barberries. Nom.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Roman: Frontonian chicken (Apicius)

At one time I decided to try working my way through my copy of Apicius and trying all the recipes... Someday I'll actually do that. In reality what I did was have a go at the first one that looked easy and delicious - and stopped, because it was both; and because I had a baby and no more brain cells to rub together... so here I present: That time I got Organised Enough to Take Photos of me having a bash at Frontonian Chicken... which is Both Easy and Delicious.


The original recipe (in latin)

[6.8.12] pullum Frontonianum: pullum praedura, condies liquamine oleo mixto, cui mittis fasciculum aneti porri satureiae et coriandri uiridis, et quoques. ubi coctus fuerit leuabis eum, in lance defrito perungues, piper aspargis et inferes.
-- from Apicius

The translation:

TRANSLATION: 6.8.12. Frontonian chicken : Sear the outside of the chicken, flavour with a mixture of liquamen and oil, to which you add a bundle of dill, leek, savory and green coriander and cook it. When it is cooked, lift it out, drizzle defrutum over it on the serving dish, sprinkle with pepper and serve
-- from Apicius

My redaction

Note that my version uses substitutions, doesn't have all the herbs, and uses my own previous attempt at defrutum. I'll present reasonable alternatives where I know them.


  • 4 chicken pieces (legs work well)
  • liquamen (or equivalent eg anchovies/paste)
  • oil (for frying)
  • leek
  • savory
  • fresh/green coriander (leaves, not seeds)
  • pepper (to taste)
  • defrutum (or equivalent eg Maggie Beer Vino Cotto is a great substitute)
Frontonian chicken: ingredients


  • One heavy pot and/or frypan with a lid
  • Stirring utensils

Basic recipe (quick overview - full method is below)

  1. Prep: Slice the leeks
  2. Prep: make up oil/liquamen mixture
  3. Sear chicken in oil
  4. Add leeks and herbs
  5. Cook over low heat until chicken and leek are thoroughly cooked
  6. Drizzle defrutum over it and add pepper to taste
  7. Eat and enjoy!

Prep: slice the leeks

I sliced normal leeks into long thin vertical slices - just for an interesting noodly texture. You can also use whole baby-leeks - which are delicious and easy to use. I found the long leeks a bit hard to fry and also to eat, at this size. I would probably slice them into shorter sections in future.


Prep: make up oil/liquamen mixture

I chopped the anchovies finely and mixed into some oil. This makes a reasonable substitute for liquamen. The anchovies liquidise further upon cooking and melt into the dish. You really can't taste them at all - the dish is not fishy in any way. I've had die-hard fish-haters be extremely surprised to find out it had anchovies in it... it just adds salt and umami to the end result - and is offset by the sweet/sour of the defrutum.

liquamen and oil
Mix oil and liquamen

Sear chicken in oil

In this photo series I actually used duck legs that I'd cooked earlier (in bulk), so you won't see them actually cooking here - but they did need a good searing to give them a delicious browning.

Sear the outside of the... chicken?
Sear the chicken
Lightly seared
Lightly seared

Add leeks and herbs

The savory I had was dried and the coriander was mush - so i didn't bother with "bundling". I also dislike dill so didn't add it.

add the leeks and "bundle" of spices
Add leeks and herbs

Cook over low heat until chicken and leek are thoroughly cooked

I added the lid and cooked on low for about 25 min.

and added a lid.
Add lid and cook

I left it to cook long enough for the leeks to fully wilt and to caramelise a little. As mentioned before, my duck was already cooked, so your cooking time might be longer. You will need to check the chicken is thoroughly cooked into the middle with the "prick and test for pink juice" test.

and done
and done

Drizzle defrutum over it and add pepper to taste, eat and enjoy!

This is the "to taste" section. I added a couple of tablespoons of my defrutum. You need enough so that the sweet of this counterbalances the salty anchovies. It shouldn't be too sickly sweet - it's an enhancement, not the main flavour profile.

Then add pepper to taste and enjoy!

The result!
The result!




Relevant page to this recipe: p232/p233

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Bochet: making black mead from caramelised honey

Being a description of how to make a "black mead" - which is a mead made from caramelised-honey. The modern description for this kind of mead is a "bochet", but I prefer to call it "black mead"(more on my thoughts on this later), which requires that you cook the honey down into toffee before mixing up the mead. I will be using the "bochet" recipe from Le Menagier de Paris (1393), which I took (including an English translation) from: Mead before Digby (2003)


The original recipe (translated from old french)

TRANSLATION: to make six sesters of bochet, take six pints of good sweet honey and put it in a cauldron on the fire. And let it boil and stir as as long as it continues to rise up, and you see that it throws off bubbles like little globules which burst and when they burst they emit a little bit of smoke that is rather blackish. And then move it, and add seven sesters of water and let it boil so much that it goes back to being six sesters, and always stir it. And then put it in a tub to let it cool until it is just lukewarm; and then pour it through a cloth-seive, and then put it in a little barrel and add a cup of beer yeast because that is what makes it piquant (and if you use bread yeast, it is just as good for the flavour, but the colour will be more dull) and cover it well and warmly so it can work.
-- from Mead before Digby

My redaction


  • 1.5 kg Nice dark honey (not the light stuff you buy on the supermarket)
  • Ale yeast
  • Hot water to make up a gallon


  • A large heavy pot - at least 4 litres of capacity
  • A vessel that can easily contain and pour about 4 litres of *hot* water
  • A spoon that will not melt (no nylon spoons, silicon is best, but metal will do as long as the handle is not metal)
  • A 1 gallon (around 5.7lt) brewing carboy
  • two cold saucers - to test the toffee
  • a teaspoon to help with the above
Safety equipment
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • heavy rubber gloves (toffee soaks through fabric)
  • Safety glasses/goggles (seriously! you don't want this stuff to splash into your eyes and it really will)
  • Closed shoes on your feet (in case it splashes onto the floor)
Highly recommended
  • A funnel to help with pouring into the carboy
  • A fine seive - or even some muslin (doesn't need to be heat-proof)

Basic recipe (quick overview - full method is below)

  1. Put saucers in fridge, start your yeast according to the packet (if necessary)
  2. Put honey directly into heavy pot with no other ingredients. Boil until it turns to hard toffee (about 1hr 30min, but check it periodically by spooning toffee onto your cold saucers)
  3. When the toffee is ready, prep your water (make sure it's *hot*), put your safety equipment on, and rapidly mix the water into the toffee. It *will* splash up high, so be careful!
  4. When thoroughly mixed, allow to cool to body temperature, add yeast and pour into carboy, add an airlock and it's ready to go.

In the section that follows, I'll show you step-by-step what I did, including pictures so you can see the colour of the honey-toffee as I went along. If you're new to brewing, and especially if you've never made toffee before - I strongly recommend reading through all this before trying it yourself.

In total, the cooking-time is about 2 hours. That includes prep and cleanup. Most of that will not require your constant attention - the honey will boil away on its own with minimal supervision and stirring for about an hour... most of the activity will happen in the last 30-45min.

The most time-critical step is the part between when the toffee is ready, and when you pour in the water. Toffee goes from "nearly done" to "burnt now" in only about a minute - so it's especially critical that you prepare your equipment (especially safety equipment) ahead of time.

Through the following section, I'll also discuss my choices and why I made them, some further information about the recipe in period, and some alternatives to use if you don't have access to what I used. This is a pretty simple recipe, when it comes down to it, so you've got a fair bit of flexibility in your alternatives.

Note: please take the safety equipment seriously - this stuff splashes high *every* time you do the water-mixing step. In fact, if you have the option to do this outside, that would be best, but be prepared for a fair bit of cleanup, and keep children and animals well away.

My Method

Start with prep.

Put your two saucers into the fridge to cool. We'll be using those later to test the viscosity of the toffee.

Check your yeast. If it requires preparation, you will need to start that now. It may even mean you need to start your toffee in a few hours' time... follow the directions on the package for the best results.

Prepare your safety equipment and lay it out within arms reach of your stove - you want this stuff available at an instant!

"take six pints of good honey"

Choosing your honey is probably "step 0" of the process. I chose a nice, dark leatherwood honey, rich in flavour (not random supermarket stuff). Honey-choice is really important in making good mead - it's worth paying a little extra for the better quality. The pale stuff you get from the supermarket is often cut with flavourless glucose (it's sweet, but that's all) to make the honey easy to pour. That's great if you want your honey to run easy onto your cereal, but if you want a nice, rich black mead, you'll need to choose something with a bit more body to it. Pick something up from a whole-foods place, or, better yet, find your local beekeepers hobby-group and buy some from there.

Now, I didn't use six pints of honey... because I have a standard 1-gallon carboy, and I wanted it to fit nicely. In period, they would have used whatever brewing vessel of whatever size they felt like... but I've adjusted the recipe to fit 1 gallon to be convenient. So I used 1.5kg of honey. I used Pichon's estimate for the size of a sester (as described in Mead before Digby), which translates to approximately three pounds of honey per gallon which in metric measurements is just under 1.5kg.

"put it in a cauldron on the fire. And let it boil and stir it"

So, I put the honey on a big hotplate on low (1-2). No added water, just honey all by itself. It took about 30min to start bubbling like the picture. I know it went slower than if I'd put it on a higher temp, but I figured I should let it go *slooow*

Notice I'm using a *big* heavy pot. Heavy so the honey doesn't burn on, *big* because it swells up a *LOT* when boiling. You can see that it is now almost 3/4 filling the heavy pot - that's 1.5kg of honey in a 6 litre pot.

I didn't have to continuously stir it, just every now and then while I was continuing to prep dinner.

"and stir it"
Let it boil


The next picture is about 1 hour into the cooking. You can see the honey is getting darker in the picture below. The longer-chain sugars in the honey break down into shorter-chain ones, and the colour changes as well - this is called "caramelisation", and it has been going on for a while, but by now it's becoming obvious. It's also just beginning to smell of toffee at this stage. 1 hour sounds like a long time, but I wasn't having to stir it much at all - just let it bubble away while I got on with other things (nearby, you don't want to leave it unattended).

"it throws of bubbles like little globules that burst"

At about 1hr 15mins it starts to change... when I stir it now, it doesn't rise up in the same smooth way, but has started to boil in blobby sections like the picture below. I consider these things might be "globules" that are mentioned in the text. No sign of smoke...

I figure things are probably going to change reasonably quickly now, so I make sure I'm standing around nearby and watching and stirring.

"it throws of bubbles like little globules that burst"
Little globules that burst?

The toffee-test

So it's been a few more minutes, and now it's time to test whether the honey has turned into toffee yet. I took one of the saucers from the fridge, and dribbled a tiny dip of a teaspoon's worth of the honey onto a plate, it's now the consistency of soft toffee. It wrinkles when I blow on it.

Soft honey toffee
The toffee test

When it cools, I try dipping my finger into it to manually test the viscosity... the result: goopy

This is a good start, and it won't be long now.

honey toffee - nom
Goopy honey-toffee

"as long as it continues to rise"

The recipe calls for black puffs of smoke... so I leave the honey on for a bit longer.

In the next photo, it's 1 hr 30mins into the process and you can see the honey is now very dark. When I stir it now, it takes a long time for the honey to rise again, and it does form those globules of big popping bubbles as it does so.

It's "any minute now" territory... so it's time to put on your long-sleeve shirt. You can put the glasses and gloves on at the last minute, but a shirt takes a little time to put on, and this is the last calm before the storm.

After that, you should get your 4 litres of hot water ready - in your easy-to-pour vessel. Have it close to hand.

"as long as it continues to rise"
Dark honey-toffee

I do another toffee-test on the second saucer

The toffee is now rock-hard when it drops on the plate. Still no black smoke, and it does *eventually* rise after stirring... but I figure I don't really want it to taste like charcoal, so for me, this is good enough.

rock hard
hard honey-toffee

"then move it and add seven sesters of water"

Now, switch the stove off and if possible, move the pot to another (cold) hotplate. You are about to pour the hot water into it.

Toffee and water (even hot water) don't mix very well. In this case, the first bit I poured in made it furiously explode hot toffee all over the stovetop (it jumped 25cm above the edge of the pot). I was unprepared for the viciousness of this bubbling, and I lucked out... but you are forewarned and should take all possible precautions so as not to lose an eye, or scald yourself into the ER. I've heard enough stories from people trying to make this stuff to be thoroughly convinced that serious safety precautions are in order.

Put on your safety glasses and your heavy gloves now.

Keep your face and hands as away as you can as you pour in half of the 4 litres of hot water. It *will* splash up a lot (it will leap over the edge of the pot). As soon as it settles, stir - if possible, stir immediately after pouring the hot water. This would be easier if there were two of you doing this - and then stir in the rest of the hot water.

When I did this, it boiled and splashed up everywhere, and I was concerned that the toffee would harden and not mix in, but after the first pour, the mixing went fairly well, and you can see it mixed in nicely.

"then move it and add seven sesters of water"
Water and toffee don't mix easily

"let it boil... [until] it goes back to six sesters"

You can see the colour of it: it's dark and rich.

I chose not to boil it until it lost a seventh of itself. I just added a little less water to begin with. My decision was based on the fact that I don't need to purify my drinking water (I'm not using random river water) - and I didn't want any more charcoal-flavours from more cooking... so I just reduced the amount of water to add by a little instead.

I did bring it back to the boil for a few minutes. This ensures a sterilised brew, which gives the yeast a free run to get established.

"let it boil... [until] it goes back to six sesters"
Black mead

"let it cool... then pour it through a cloth seive"

Let it cool! This is an important step - as the brew will currently be too hot to pour directly into the carboy. if it's glass, it may crack, if it's plastic, it'll melt - either way, not a fun experience. Likewise, the heat will kill your yeast... So, wait until it's body-temperature before beginning this step.

I actually forgot to pour it through a cloth sieve. That actually would have been a good idea. You can see little particles of crud sticking to the funnel - presumably the proteins in the honey all coagulated. But you can do it. Put some muslin into the funnel and pour the brew slowly through it, in order to remove the fine particles.

In my case, the extra crud didn't change the flavour, but I had more lees to rack (including a few annoying fine granules that didn't settle out easily).

Note: boiling honey (and skimming the scum which rises) was a common part of period mead recipes. The scum tends to be the honey proteins, which are normally suspended in the mead, but boiling it off causes them to coagulate, and removing them tends to lead to a clearer resulting mead. So if I'm right about the granules being the same stuff - straining them out might make the mead clearer... though the end-product of this recipe is so dark you can hardly see through it without a torch anyway, so it's up to you.

"let it cool... then pour it through a cloth seive"
the pour

"put it in a barrel and add a cup of beer yeast"

Well, I had been going to add ale yeast (one of the wyeast smack-packets), but turns out I didn't remember to get it started until way too late... and they really do need a warm-up period. So instead, I added my usual favourite: Lalvin EC1118. I like it because it's clean-tasting and quick and easy to use - it will start without preparation. It's also a very dominant species of yeast that will kill anything it its path (which makes it great when you use fruit which may have wild strains of yeast and bacteria that could lead to off flavours).

The downside to EC1118 is that it's very high attenuation - which means it can put up with a high level of alcohol - which in turn means it turns a lot of sugars into alcohol... which means that your result will be quite dry.

It was, however, the only thing I had to hand that could be added instantly and Just Work.

In a pinch, you could likewise use a Safale yeast or other dried packet - most of which are usually pretty good at starting from scratch (rather than requiring a starter), but if you have time to prep - then it's best to do so and let the yeast get ready before throwing it in.

"cover it well and warmly so it can work"

I popped an airlock on and left it in my kitchen, covered in a towel to keep it warm overnight.

Here it is in the bottle the next morning. It's very dark. I really think this should be called "black mead".

The modern terminology for a caramelised-honey mead is "bochet", but there are two other "bochet" recipes from "Le Menagier" listed in Mead before Digby that do not caramelise the honey at all. The author also points out that in period, "bochet" just meant a fermented honey drink (ie a mead) (you can see this discussion in the photograph in the sources section below).

It seems that it is only in the modern-day that we use the term "bochet" specifically to refer to the caramelised version.

In my (totally unresearched) opinion, I would have called this stuff "black mead" which I think is more apt. In modern usage "black mead" refers to melomel with black-currants in it... but it would not have had this connotation in period (at least, I've seen no recipes for such in any of our period sources, and melomels were only just barely in period)... and yet black mead was known at this time... so my guess it that *this* is a more likely candidate for the name.

Final result

I left it in the bottle for about six months, and it is the most delicious-tasting thing - it tastes like caramel/toffee in a bottle. Really lovely, and a brew that I will repeat!

"cover it well and warmly so it can work"
Black mead

The full set of photos is in my Bochet album on flickr

What I'd do differently

1. Safety equipment

I'd use it

I know I've harped on about this already a bit, but I have made toffee many times before... and even I was shocked at the ferocity of the water-mixing stage of this recipe. This time I lucked out... you are not likely to, and neither am I a second time.. so next time (and every time thereafter) I will use proper safety equipment.

2. Yeast choice

I'd use some ale yeast, or at least a lower attenuation yeast

When I compared the end-sweetness of this recipe to my "normal" mead... I found it even dryer than usual. My (totally unresearched) opinion on this is that I suspect that the toffee-making process changes the availability of various sugars - it breaks long-chain sugars into shorter-chain sugars, and short chain sugars are much easier for yeast to digest. Thus the strong variety of yeast I used simply ate it all up. The result was nice, but I think it'd be even nicer if it were a little sweeter (toffee should be sweet, after all).

3. More of it

I'd make more!

This was a really tasty brew... and totally different to all the other stuff I've made. I would make it again, and possibly see if I could make it in larger quantities. That would require some more logistical issues - given the way it boils up... but the result is worth it :)


Mead before Digby

Christina M Krupp and Bill Gillen(2003)
Making medieval Mead or, Mead before Digby (Compleat Anachronist #120)
The Society For Creative Anachronism Inc

Relevant page to this recipe: p29

Bochet recipe
Original Bochet recipe taken from Mead before Digby

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Roman: Defrutum (Apicius)

Defrutum is a roman syrup made by boiling down grape juice with fruit, used as a condiment, to add some syrupy fruity flavours to a wide variety of dishes.

I took the recipe from the appendices of my book of Apicius[1], which describes it as being boiled with either quinces or figs, and that the best defrutum was boiled down to one half its original volume.

So I bought fresh figs, and dried, and added both to 2 litres of grape juice, and boiled them together until it was reduced to 1 litre.

Fresh figs and grape juice
Ingredients: fresh figs and grape juice

The fresh figs unfortunately suffered a tragic bout of shrinkage (nomnomnom) prior to arriving in the saucepan... but three fresh and three dried was more than enough to make it fruity and figgy.

I boiled it for a bit over an hour - until the volume had reduced by half.

Boiling the figs in grape juice
Boiling the figs in grape juice

Then strained it and funnelled it into a pop-top bottle, which I now keep in my fridge.

and done!
Strained and bottled

I have since used this in a number of Roman recipes (also taken from Apicius) which I will link to when I get around to putting them up here on my blog :)

I also should point out that I happily ate "figs boiled in grape juice with yoghurt" for dessert that night and it was really yummy!

I find that it is a sweet, fruity syrup that has no real modern substitute that I know of. It is a great condiment to add to offset salty dishes and add depth and sweetness.

The full set of photos is in my Defrutum album on flickr


The lovely Leoba of Mordenvale has pointed out that Maggi Beer's "Vino cotto" might be a plausible modern substitute. I haven't tried it yet, but it is made of boiled-down grape must and a little red wine vinegar. The latter would make it slightly more sour than the defrutum recipe (I suspect), but it would most likely keep longer. Given that this is not boiled with figs, it would be more fittingly a replacement for roman sapa (which was likewise grape must boiled down, but with no fruit), but Leoba also informs me that Maggie Beer make a version boiled with figs: Fig Vino Cotto and also Quince vino cotto, which I think I'll try too...


"Vino cotto" is a great substitute. It's not exactly the same - I found my hand-made one to be far sweeter. But it's still got the fruity/sweet balance that is necessary - and it;'s far easily available to people not wanting to hand-make. Plus who knows if original roman defrutum might have used grapes that were tarter.

[1] Apicius

Cristopher Grocock and Sally Grainger(2006) Apicius
Prospect Books ISBN 1-903018-13-7

Relevent page to this recipe: p345

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Knitted Garters - the Lochac Largesse Project

knitted silk garter at Boston Museum of Fine Arts

I've been having fun with knitting stockings recently, and so when I spotted these knitted silk garters I just knew that had to be added to my "must have" list.

Then, along came the Lochac largesse swap project - which is kind of like "secret santa" where a bunch of people join, and each of them gets the name of another person to make a present for within a certain timeperiod.

I figured it was the perfect excuse, and began planning.

Closeup of the red garter
Closeup of the red garter


Medieval Silkwork has an article on some publications of the York Archaeological Trust that includes a scanned page from the book "The archeology of York" - which shows three bent, extant metal knitting needles (copper alloy) found in the archaeological layer measured to be from the late 14th century.

The rods are between 1.9mm and 2.6mm wide, showing that metal needles of quite a fine gauge were in use at the time.

The garters above are knitted in fine silk. I sourced my silk from Handweavers studio in London. The silk is "30/2" weight - which I chose by the process outlined below.

The original piece is measured at 4cm wide (presumably at the wider sections), and looking closely I counted the numbers of columns of stitching. The widest motif was 23 columns of stitches wide, and I estimated 2-3 columns of stitching on either side of that, making around 27 stitches for 4cm of width.

I knitted up four test swatches using the smallest needles I had (1.25mm and 1.5mm) and two weights of silk... and decided that the closest match to the look of the original piece was the 1.25mm needles (size 0000 in US needles) with the "30/2" weight silk.

The original piece was in dark red and cream... but the recipient of my largesse piece had arms in red and silver - thus why I chose the alternative colours.

The original piece had both garters knitted in the same colour-scheme (red with white patterning)... but I didn't have quite enough of the red silk to do two garters that way (it took a *lot* of silk), so I particoloured, in order to finish them both without running out of thread.

Closeup of the two-birds motif

Charting the patterns

First step was to pains-takingly chart each of the patterns. This was accomplished with a zoom closeup of the originals and some graph-paper... They're on the flickr album (see last section).

Some of the patterns repeat, and I noticed that some of the "same" motifs had very slight variations of each other. I have no way of telling if these were actual differences in patterning, or if they are simply repairs or if the stitching has pulled in ways as to make it seem different... either way I picked one variant that I liked for each and used them consistently in my own knitting.

I noticed that in the narrow "tie" sections, the patterning is consistent (diamond-triangle-grid-diamond-flower) on *most* of the ties... but not all. I didn't notice that myself until after I'd started knitting my first tie (and got the variation slightly different on that one)... so at least my inconsistency is somewhat consistent with the original inconsistency there ;)

Closeup of Flowers and chalice
Flower-vase and chalice motif


In the picture, the garters are clearly double-sided (the patterns are equally on both sides). However they're also incredibly flat. I looked closely, and to the best of my ability to zoom-in they appear to be stocking-stitch on *both* sides (the "straight" edges of all the knitted motifs have v-shapes on *both* sides of the knitting - which is only every found on the stocking-stitch side of knitting, not the perl-side). I really wasn't sure how to achieve this effect easily without doing circular knitting, or doing the patterns twice and stitching them together.

It's plausible that the stocking-stitch assumption is incorrect - that it's actually knitted in garter-stitch but the picture is too poor a quality to accurately reflect what it looks like. It's also plausible, that the pattern-motifs *aren't* knitted-in via intaglio, but were actually embroidered on afterwards... in any case - I chose to knit the patterns in. Partly because it would be more fun.

I decided not to drive myself crazy(er?) and knit with circular knitting - but to knit it flat then stitch it up afterwards. This meant that it doesn't sit as nicely flat due to one side having a seam... but was *much* quicker to knit.

I knitted an average of an hour per day for six months in order to finish the garter - for a total of about 200 hours of work (including finishing). I woefully underestimated how much work was involved in these - and TBH, I'm glad I did or I'd have never started this project... and I'm glad I did. it took so much time because - even though the garters are very narrow... they are 27 stitches wide... and double sides, making 54 stitches per row... and they are 165cm long... which is roughly 1113 rows. And there's two of the garters.

Man with spear
Little man with either a spear, or maybe a tall, narrow tree - there was one of these at the very centre of each garter.



I joined the seam with an invisible seam technique that I leartn when I was a kid, but which I googled and you can find an article here where it's called mattress stitch. This meant that even though it doesn't quite sit flat - you can't really *see* the seam from the outside, and it looks just like it was knitted in the round.

Fleurs de lys
Fleurs-de-lys motif... and here you can see the seam a bit (bottom edge)


The final piece was the tassles. These were easy to make... I was going to use a simple four-part braid for the thread holding each one on, but on closer inspection of the originals, I noticed that the colours were vertical stripes... so in the end I used a simple kumihimo technique (doing it freehand) where you simply swap the alternate colours, but one pair goes clockwise, and the other anti-clockwise, thus twining each around the other, and locking the other into place. This looked identical to the originals, so I assume it's what they used.

the one thing I didn't do like the originals was use an embroidered bead between the ends of the garters and the set of tassles... something that I think would have greatly improved the look of the garter's ends - which otherwise look a bit stumpy to me.... ah well.

tassle-making... and helpful cat

What I'd do differently

I didn't leave enough seam-allowance in order for the garters to look balanced - especially in the narrowly-defined section that increases from the ties to the wider parts. I left only 2 extra stitches, which seemed like a lot during the knitting, but didn't quite stretch over the extra width of the seam. Technically I only needed one stitch to be stitched into the seam, but the bend of the knitted fabric around the seam caused some extra in-drawing of the fabric. An extra stitch would have made the two sides *look* more even.

If I were to do this again, I'd figure out how to make the embroidery-covered beads to make the ends look less like they just... end.

Really, I'd like to actually go to Boston and look at the originals and see how they were really made. Check my assumptions and fix any errors there.I'd especially like to see how they were really made flat - whether the motifs were actually knitted-in at all.

More pics... and patterns

For more pics, I have set up a knitted garters album on flickr. I'll keep adding my pics there as I get around to uploading them.

The album includes photos of the graphed patterns of the motifs (not prettified, just raw).

Sadly, I no longer have the garters in my possession. They were given to Janet Coath as her largesse project. I'd love to see pictures of her wearing them!

Completed silver garter