When I first discovered that every medieval cookbook calls for almond milk, I’ll admit I was surprised. Almond milk is a regular part of my diet but I suppose I always assumed it was a newer alternative food for people on restricted or health-conscious diets. Turns out almond milk was an extremely popular and necessary part of medieval life!
There are two major reasons why almond milk was such a huge deal during the Middle Ages:
- Cow’s milk wasn’t particularly safe. Unless the family had a cow and used its milk right after milking, dairy was risky. There was no refrigeration or pasteurization, so milk would have to be used immediately. If a person were to purchase milk at the market there was no way to know for sure how fresh it was or whether it had been watered down by a dishonest vendor. Medieval folks weren’t dumb, so they relied on safer and more dependable milk alternatives.
- Fish Days. The Church had strict rules about which days of the week a person was allowed to eat meat. Meatless days basically prohibited anything that came from a warm-blooded animal: milk, eggs, meat, dairy. When a huge chunk of a person’s life is spent begrudgingly avoiding dairy and meat, the result is having to eat a LOT of fish. Hence the nickname Fish Days. Almond milk quickly became a household staple because it was used in place of cow’s milk 2-3 days every week.
There are a number of old manuscripts that contain recipes for almond milk. I found three versions from cookbooks that interest me: Le Viandier de Taillevent (c. 1300), Du Fait de Cuisine (1420), and Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books (1430-1450). I will eventually try them all, but first I will begin with the most basic and the oldest of the three, from Le Viandier de Taillevent.
“Take peeled almonds, crush very well in a mortar, steep in water boiled and cooled to lukewarm, strain through cheesecloth and boil your almond milk on a few coals for an instant or two.”
– Le Viandier de Taillevent
The manuscripts have been translated from French into English by Terence Scully and combined into one cookbook attributed to Guillaume Tirel (1310-1381), the Master Chef to King Charles VI. There’s reason to believe Tirel didn’t write all of the recipes in these manuscripts and they were in fact written as early as 1300 by someone else.
All you’ll need is 1 cup of almonds, 2 cups of water and a cheesecloth.
Step ONE- Prep the Almonds
“Take peeled almonds, crush very well in a mortar”
You could use whole natural almonds or blanched almonds to make this milk. The benefit of using blanched almonds is a milk that is lighter in color and easier to sieve (no skin residue). Blanching is recommended but not mandatory. If you don’t want to blanch them yourself you can buy them pre-peeled.
I used 1 cup of natural almonds and pulverized most in a blender and crushed the rest with the mortar and pestle. The goal was creating flour (almost a paste) without any hard chunks. If you want to do it the authentic way by hand, certainly feel free to use the mortar from start to finish. It’s much quicker to use the blender or a spice grinder and the results are pretty much the same.
Step TWO- Boil and Steep
“Steep in water boiled and cooled to lukewarm”
In researching almond milking methods, I’ve found the standard ratio of almonds to water is 1:2. So I boiled 2 cups of water and poured it over the almond powder/paste. Let it steep until lukewarm, around 10 minutes.
Step THREE- Strain
“Strain through cheesecloth and boil your almond milk on a few coals for an instant or two.”
I strained half of my milk through a cheesecloth to remove the almond grains, or at least as much of it as I could. The almond pulp was very thick so this took a little while and wasn’t a very smooth process considering this was my first attempt at milking almonds. Make sure you squeeze your cheesecloth to get all of the liquid out before you throw the pulp away (or use for something else if you’re so inclined). Let it boil on the stove for a few seconds if you want it to thicken. The longer you heat it, the thicker and creamier your milk will be.
For the other half of the milk, I decided to follow the redaction created by A Boke of Gode Cookery and blend it rather than strain. I blended it up until all the grains appeared to be absorbed. This is not a step in the original recipe for obvious reasons, but ultimately we’re going for creating something that tastes good.
The result was two distinctly different almond milks. The strained version had a great milky texture, almost like the store-bought stuff but not as flavorful. The blended version was richer and tasted better, but was still very grainy. It would be excellent in a recipe or blended up in a smoothie but I don’t recommend drinking it straight like regular milk. There is no reason you couldn’t sweeten your milk with sugar or honey. In fact, you may really want to. I’ll be recreating a 15th century sweetened almond milk recipe in the near future, so stay tuned!
Homemade almond milk can be stored at room temperature for about a week, and around three weeks in the refrigerator. No wonder medieval cooks always had some on hand!
There is very little about this recipe that is different from any modern version. The same basic rules apply, though modern recipes usually call for soaking the almonds and adding a wider variety of flavors like vanilla and nutmeg.
It’s very easy to make, but it does take a little bit of work to make homemade almond milk. There is a lot of room for experimentation so once you find the right version for your tastebuds you may never want to go back to the commercial products! Not only can you now tell your friends that you know how to make 14th century almond milk, but you can give yourself an extra pat on the back for avoiding all of those preservatives. Well done!
Join me for Almond Milk the Medieval Way: Pt. 2 where I try the almond milk recipe from Du Fait de Cuisine (1420).