Give me a 17th century Tansy over a savoury Tourte any day!

I was excited to see recipes for vegetables. For despite a wealth of fruit varietals and recipes for fruit in books of the period in England, one rarely finds recipes for leafy greens or mention of them. Vegetables didn't take place of honour on seventeenth century tables it seemed. Mind you, Pepys, in his diary entry of 26 March 1662, did mention a "Tanzy." But this is an afterthought, hidden within a long list of dishes, including a "brace of stewed Carps, six roasted chicken, and a Jowle of salmon hot, for the first course -- a Tanzy and two neat's tongues and cheese the second" (See Driver and Berriedale-Johnson's Pepys at Table, p.36). 

French agronomist Nicolas de Bonnefons changed all this. He first penned a book on gardening and then a cookbook that gave vegetables a chance to shine in their own right. And this was why I was excited about trying one of his vegetable recipes. But what I discovered was that the Nicolas de Bonnefons was not exactly revolutionary. Mistakenly, I had expected "Tourte d'Herbes" to be a kind of vegetable quiche, with subtle flavours to complement the leafy greens, the way an orchestra modulates volume for the featured soprano. Not so. To our twenty-first century palate, "Tourte d'Herbes" is all about the tourte and very little about the herbs-- at least if one chooses to make the savoury rather than the sweet version.

The recipe begins with the featured veggies -- spinach, chard, and garden orache or mountain spinach -- that need to be cooked and chopped. No quantities were given. In winter Montreal, I was able to find spinach and kale, but no chard. Because of pesticide residue on leafy greens, I selected organic. So far so good.

Next, one adds butter, eggs, "crème en farce" or "Patte de Maccarron" along with lemon rind and spice. This is where the weight of conventional cooking techniques of the period come in and quickly put emphasis on everything other than the "herbs" themselves. What exactly does he mean by "crème en farce"? The answer appears on page 28, chapter XXVI, and involves a heavy mixture that transforms milk into something of more substance. At base, it involves -- and I give the original spelling here because of the poetry of the double meanings -- a "demy litron de fleur." According to my friend Fiona Lucas, that is 1 and 2/3 cup flour or 405ml in pre-1840 French measures. To which one adds 8 eggs, one pint of milk, a "quarteron" or 4 ounces (300 ml) of butter. Instructions say to cook the farce for 15 minutes taking care not to burn it. This last point is key, since anyone familiar with making a roue quickly learns flour's tendency to lump.

Disappointed by the prospect of a heavy flour-laden filling, I considered the alternative offered. But what did he mean by "Patte de Maccarron," as he spelled it? The answer appears on page 19, Chapter X, and is a variation of what we would understand to be almond paste. That is, almonds rather than flour are used to thicken the liquid. This alternative sounded interesting and involved cooking a pound of almonds in water with rosewater and a pound of powdered sugar. Subsequently, one adds 4 beaten egg whites. Altogether a much lighter accompaniment to the leafy greens, although the sweeter taste would be an unusual one to our palate more used to savoury than sweet accompaniments for green vegetables. Unfortunately, I was out of time and without a full pound of almonds at my fingertips, so couldn't try this second method since there was still pastry to be made. 

Before turning to the pastry, however, I wanted to find out exactly what spices he was suggesting, since de Bonnefons is known to have modulated seasonings in his own cuisine. But what I found was a very specific and relatively traditional mixture of spices, although he does leave the quantity of spice mix to be added to the discretion of the cook. Chapter XXIX specifies 3 quarterons of pepper to 1 quarteron of ginger, one ounce each of cinnamon (4t or 60 ml), clove and nutmeg, and a whopping 5 livres of salt (2500 grams). Altogether, pretty heavy on pepper and ginger, and even heavier on salt. I added relatively little of the mixture, hoping not to overpower the spinach too too much. And I can't imagine including this in the sweet version of the tourte, although the instructions seem to suggest one would.

Now, the pastry.

 De Bonnefons calls for puff pastry or "tourte de Patte de feuilletage." I did consider making his recipe for tart pastry, from Chapitre XIX, but couldn't get my head around the quantities: "un Boilleau de fleur" or a bushel of flour, to 6 pounds of butter and 20 eggs! But his puff pastry recipe on page 18, Chapter XVIII, was equally daunting. Again a bushel of flour, this time to 12 eggs and moistened with cold water.  The effect of the puff pastry is created by adding butter between the layers -- not melted butter, but butter softened and applied to the pastry by hand.

But I was still not done. Yet again, the recipe sent me to a previous one to describe the method of cooking the pastry. In Chapter XXVIII, Tourte de Mouelle, he described a method for cooking the pie shell blind that includes adding rose water and sprinkling it with sugar about half way through the cooking process, presumably to provide a kind of glazing. No indication that this was for the sweet version of the tart only, so I proceeded accordingly.

Conclusions? The almond paste variant might really complement the glazing technique and provide an unusual taste complement to spinach and chard as long as one went easy on the spice mixture. But the crème en farce option was inferior to adding plain old cream with a couple of eggs, as one would do today for a quiche.

My own conclusion was that the tourte I had prepared would be ill received at the dinner party, so I quickly made up a Tansy with the remaining greens, following the modernized recipe provided by Driver and Berriedale-Johnson (spinach, water, butter, 6 eggs, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, pepper and whipping cream, cooked as an omelette then broiled briefly to cook the top). This omelette variant, familiar to seventeenth century tables, provided a light and relatively pleasant dish. Good source of protein and leaf vegetables, without all the salt and flour. 

Give me a 17th century Tansy over a savoury Tourte any day!

Nathalie  Cooke is a professor of Canadian literature and food historian. She is the editor of What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, September 2009 and is also the editor of CuiZine. See . You can follow her on twitter @CookeNathalie.