It is pretty obvious that the food eaten at the battlefield of St. Crispin’s eve in 1415 were not the delicious seed cakes, which were traditional fare at the end of October when sowing was finished. But dreamed they must have done…
“And then at that time we thought of nothing else but this: that after the eight days assigned for march had expired and our provisions had run out, the enemy, craftily hastening on ahead and laying waste the countryside in advance, would impose on us, hungry as we should be, a really dire need of food, and at the head of the river, if God did not provide otherwise, would, with their great and countless host and the engines of war and devices available to them, overwhelm us, so very few as we were and made faint with great weariness and week from lack of food” (From Gesta Henrici Quinti. Quoted from: The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations. By Anne Curry p. 31)
As tradition has it, modern seed cakes are of the sumptuous variety: pound to pound of butter, sugar and flour plus six eggs; or less fat, more milk and a bit of baking powder as in the “lean version” of the 21st century. However, this was not the medieval version, which probably was more like a baked pudding made of oatmeal or barley soaked in milk (1 kilo to 2 litres of milk). This mixture was set aside the evening before the oven was prepared for baking. In the morning this pudding was then mixed with six whipped eggs plus dried pears or apples and a dip of salt. To the more sumptuous and luxurious version spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and perhaps caraway seeds could be added – hence the name Seed Cake. To this mixture might also be added a bit of whole-grain flour, if the cake was meant to keep a bit longer. Poured into a common clay bowl, the mixture would go into the oven to be baked for as long as the bread.
It is probably such a cake, which Chaucer tells us that the lecherous summoner has brought with him on his travels
A gerland hadde he set upon his heed
As greet as it were for an ale-stake.
A bokeleer hadde he maad hym of a cake
(Chaucer, General Prologue verse 667 – 9. A buckler was a small shield,15 to 45 cm. This is a huge cake…)
What we know of such seed cakes are that they were traditional fare handed out to the workers, when the autumn ploughing, harrowing and and sowing was done; probably as cold and wet labour as that of covering on a battlefield on the eve of St. Crispins in a wet and muddy field in Northern France.
Traditional Recipe (from Denmark):
- 1l milk
- ½ kilo oatmeal
- 3 eggs
- 125 g sugar
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 dl raisins
- 1 lemon
Boil the milk and mix with the oatmeal. Set it aside in a cold place for at least 6 -8 hours. Whip the eggs with the sugar and mix this with the “porridge”. Add cinnamon, cardamom, salt, grated lemon and the lemon-juice. Gently turn the raisins into the mixture and bake it in an oven for two hours at 175 0 C in a water basin. When the cake is cooled off, it is cut into slices, fried in butter and served with applesauce, syrup, honey and more cinnamon.