British newspapers have been thumbing their noses at the Italians this week, following an announcement by researchers that they have discovered lasagne is in fact an English dish that was described in “the world’s oldest recipe book”.
There are two separate claims here; let’s consider the second one first, as it will measure the abilities of the researchers. The recipe book is The Forme of Cury, which was commissioned by Richard II in 1390. This is certainly the oldest known recipe book in English, but any cook with even a soupçon of historical gumption knows that such books go back a lot further than 1390. The earliest one in anything like the modern form, I am told, is actually De Re Coquinaria from the fourth century AD, though individual recipes are older (there’s a famous one for beer in a 4000-year-old cuneiform tablet).
Their other claim takes a few moments longer to refute. The word appears in The Forme of Cury as loseyns, in a recipe for a dish made from a pasta-like dough and a cheese sauce. The actual text the researchers found is this (it’s in Middle English, but you should be able to puzzle most of it out): “Take good broth and do in an erthen pot. Take flour of paynedemayn and make erof past with water and make erof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it harde and see it in broth... Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powder douce and lay eron loseyns isode as hoole as you myght and above powdour and chese; and so twyse or thryse and serue it forth” (paynedemayn, lord’s bread, was made from the best-quality white flour; past = paste; chese ruayn = Rouen cheese; powder douce = a type of mixed spice; see = seethe; serue = serve). The researchers say loseyns was said like lasan and that it is the same word as our modern lasagne.
However, Nick Shearing, one of the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, having paused only to restore his eyebrows to their normal position, found within minutes of reading the story that the first mention of lasagne in Italian was in a work of 1281, a century before it was supposedly invented in England. (The famous Italian traveller Marco Polo came across a dish while he was in China that he described as being like lasagne, and he died in 1324, long before the English cookery book appeared.) In fact, the word is first recorded in English in 1760; its wide popularity is quite recent. It derives from the Vulgar Latin lasania for a cooking pot, though its insalubrious origins are said to in the older Latin lasanum for a chamber pot (though I am told that Italian etymologists prefer to find an origin in the classical Greek lagana, a type of unleavened flat bread not unlike pasta). Lasagne, by the way, is the Italian plural of lasagna, meaning one piece of this type of pasta; Brits employ the plural form both for the pasta and the dish made from it, while Americans usually plump for the singular in both cases.
The newspaper pieces say that the research was done in preparation for a medieval banquet at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. The story provided some useful PR puffing the forthcoming festivity. What won’t surprise many people is that several British newspapers swallowed it uncritically and published these wild claims without the most basic checks.
So what is this word loseyns? Well, there are a couple of instances of it in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s an old form of lozenge. The recipe is instructing the cook that the pasta should be cut into diamond shapes.