Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A sweet tisane

Le Menagier de Paris was published in 1393 and contains a wide range of advice and information on almost every aspect of life in the 14th century.
Book 2, article five includes recipes for the ill (Buvrages pour les malades), and one of these recipes is for a sweet tisane.

Tizanne doulce. Prenez de l’eaue et faites boulir, puis mettez pour chascun sextier d’eaue une escuelle d’orge largement, et ne chault s’elle est à toute l’escorce, et pour deux parisis de réglisse, item, des figues, et soit tant bouly que l’orge crève; puis soit coulée en deux ou trois toiles, et mis en chascun gobelet grant foison de succre en roche. Puis est bonne icelle orge à donner à mengier à la poulaille pour engressier.
Nota que la bonne réglisse est la plus nouvelle, et est en la taille de vive couleur vergaie, et la vieille est de plus fade et morte, et sèche.

My translation:
Sweet Tisane. Take fresh running water and bring it to boil, then for every one sextier1 of fresh water a generous porringer of barley, and it is not important if it has husks, and for two parisis2 of licorice, similarly, figs, and then boil it until the barley bursts and then strain it through two or three layers of cloth, and put in each goblet an abundant amount of rock sugar. This barley is then good to give to poultry to fatten it.

Note: that good licorice is the newest, and is in size a bright color and ridged3, and the old is more pale and dead and dry.

The challenging and interesting part of this recipe interpretation wise, for me is the figs. From first reading it appeared that the amount of figs would appear to be the same as the licorice, but as that comes out at less than half a fig, and the recipe clearly uses the plural, that cannot be the case.

One could simply instead say it means “some figs” and randomly put an amount in. But the use of the latin word “item” which does not mean “item” but “similarly” gives me the thought that in fact, we do have some direction as to quantity – that the “similarly” refers us back to the earlier part of the sentence, and the amount of barley. Whilst this may seem a bit of a leap in our modern punctuated sensibility, it does make a lot more sense in quantity. I have therefore used a porringer of figs as well – approximately 7 soft dried figs. I used dried figs, because although the recipe does not specify, limiting this recipe to fresh figs would make it essentially useless for the times of year when people are most likely to be ill – winter! Both fresh and dried figs were commonly available in Europe in the medieval and renaissance.

My recipe

3.7 litres water
160g barley
7 dried figs - chopped into quarters
4 grams licorice – this is the dried stalk of the licorice plant (you might find this in an Indian supplies shop)
Rock sugar

Bring the water to the boil in a large pot.  Add the barley, figs, and licorice stick. Boil gently till the barley bursts (about 45 minutes). Strain through cloth (you might find it easier to do a first draining through a colander) and pour the liquid hot into goblets, into which a small lump of rock sugar has been ground. 

This recipe makes a warming, somehow soft tasting tisane which is both soothing and pleasant.  Give it a try! 

1  In old French a sestier is a measure of wine – approximately one gallon/3.7 litres – I have concluded with research, that sextier is simply an alternative spelling of sestier.

2  A Parisii is a small coin (like a half penny). Searching, I have found that they generally seem to have weighed between 1.6 and 1.8 grams

3  My dictionary of Old French does not contain the word vergaie. I note that another translator of this recipe Jane Hinson (The Goodman of Paris, published 1992) translates vergaie as “greenish”.  The word vergier in old French has a few meanings including young trees, border, strip, cut groove in, ridged and embossed and as good quality reglisse (licorice) has deep grooves along the length of the surface, my decision was to lean towards this interpretation of the word.  I would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on this!


  1. How did you determine the amount of licorice?

    Ari Fisher

    1. So that is a good question. Where the recipe says "two Parisis of licorice" is it talking about the weight of two parisis or how much licorice two parisis would buy?

      I went for weight.

    2. What do you think it could be? I am always interested to hear other people's infestations!

    3. I thought it had to do with how much 2 parisi's would buy

  2. How did you determine the amount of licorice?

    Ari Fisher

  3. I think, in retrospect, you may well be right, and you have just sent me down the rabbit hole of trying to find out how much licorice 2 Parisis would buy. AAAAARGH!!