I found this recipe at the back of a fourth edition of Elizabeth Grey’s 1653 recipe book, sandwiched between large savoury dishes. Her book is pleasure to hold, so small it fits in the palm of your hand but very thick, almost weighty, with densely printed pages listing recipe after recipe after recipe in no apparant order. This is by no means the only or oldest recipe for manchet but it is amongst the earliest and from the pen of a grand old lady of nobility (see Florence White, Good Things in England, 72).
Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, (1582 – 1651) is well known for her posthumous collection of medical recipes ‘A Choice Manual, or Rare Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery Collected and Practised by the Right Honourable the Countess of Kent, late deceased’. The second part of this tiny book, published in 1654, is entitled ‘A Ture Gentlewoman’s Delight’ and is full of recipes for the kind of cakes and meat dishes that would have graced a noblewoman’s table in the mid-seventeenth century. One is a kind of rich, luxurious bread called a ‘manchet’.
The manchet was popular in the sixteenth century, eaten at the royal court of Henry VIII (BL Harleian MS 642) and, apparantly, for breakfast or as part of rich puddings. It was the inheritor of paindemaigne, the most expensive medieval bread (Adamson, Food in Medieval Times, 92). It remained popular for centuries – particularly at the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (Timbs, Nooks and Corners, 193), but had fallen out of popularity by the mid-1800s. However, the archivist of Magdalen, Oxford, tells me that he has no record of manchets being served there and otherwise the college rarely enjoyed a good reputation for its food! Elizabeth David argues that it is the ancestor to the French bread.
“Take a bushel of fine wheat- flour, twenty eggs, three pound of fresh butter; then take as much salt and barm as to the ordinary manchet ; temper it together with new milk pretty hot, then let it lie the space of half an hour to rise, so you may work it up into bread, and bake it, let not your oven be too hot.”
For cooking at home:
The Lady of Arundel seems to have been making a vast quantity of manchets, around 30 loaves by my estimation, enough for a large aristocratic household. As I can’t imagine getting through all that this week, I’ve pared her recipe down but tried to keep the proportions similar.
I shaped mine into two round loaves. Half an hour’s proving is nowhere near enough but, keen to be as historically accurate as possible, I stuck to her timing and put it in the oven when still very firm. As a result there was a lot of oven rise – the top of the loaf completely came away from the rest. Presumably the result you’re aiming at is something with very little yeast that won’t rise much and will result in a dense, doughy interior. In the recipe below I suggest only adding a small amount of yeast.
Lady Arundel recommends you don’t bake this one on too high a heat – I tried mine at 200C, possibly a bit high, and it took some time to bake, around 30mins for two medium sized loaves. I suggest trying the oven at 180C and cooking for up to an hour for a full loaf, checking regularly after 40mins.
450gr strong white flour
1 egg, beaten
25gr unsalted butter, softened
40gr sourdough starter/5gr of dried yeast (mixed up with the warm milk and 100gr of the flour into a ferment, or add straight to dough)
300ml warm milk
Combine the first five ingredients thoroughly and knead for ten minutes until a good dough, fairly slack, this needs to be a soft, pudding type bread although definitely not a cake. Let rise for half an hour (or for a better, if less accurate, bake – around two hours) and bake in a greased tin for around 45 mins at 180C or until brown and crusty all over.
You can also add rose water, nutmeg or cinnamon. I tried it with a teaspoon of grated nutmeg which added a nice spicy flavour to offset the richness of the bread.
[This is closer to the original than Florence White’s in ‘Good Things in England’ p. 72.]
The final bread was pleasantly rich, dense, almost doughy, but with a strong bready flavour and an almost creamy consistency. Toasted with jam or honey, or a thick smear of butter, it was delicious. I added a glaze (1 tbsp suger, 1 tbsp hot water, painted over the loaf). Stale, I bet it would make a great bread and butter pudding or eggy bread. Think I’ll leave this one to Henry VIII, but if cooking a regular white loaf, chucking in an egg, extra butter and replacing the water with milk is a nice way to make a rich, soft pudding loaf (regular rising and proving times required though).