Category Archives: Early Modern

Recreating Sir Hugh Platt’s Parsnip Cake

Recreating Sir Hugh Platt’s Parsnip Cake

Lily Long



Famine “remedies” to food shortage

The newly released tale, Shekkhopir-deshe Durbhikkho (Famine in Shakespeare-land), considers one of the worst famines in the history of Renaissance England. In the late-sixteenth century, the English population bore witness to repeated crop failure, outbreaks of disease, declarations of war, a surge in population, as well as sharp price rises. The 1590s were especially desolate, with four consecutive years (1594-97) of harvest failure. In direct response to this food scarcity, in 1596 Sir Hugh Platt, an early-modern English scientist and writer on agriculture, wrote a manual called Sundrie new and Artificiall remedies against Famine. Platt added recipes for common foodstuffs but with more readily available ingredients in times of shortage; for example, bread could be made “of the rootes of Aaron called cuckowpit”, with Platt’s instructions on how to prepare the roots to make a “most white & pure meale”, substituting wheat flour.

Famine Manual Title Page

Title page of Hugh Platt’s Sundrie new and Artificiall remedies against Famine

Another notable section is the recipe for “Sweete and delicate cakes made without spice, or Sugar.” Platt gives instructions on how to extract the natural sweetness from “parsnep rootes” to act as a substitute for the extravagant sugar used in cakes. Cakes using root vegetables aren’t uncommon nowadays (carrot cake remains one of my all-time favourite desserts) but I must admit that a parsnip cake seemed to me a strange, yet enticing, substitution.

As interns, we are thoroughly encouraged to conduct additional research on the events and tales that the project exhibits, which ultimately led me to consider the possibility of recreating Platt’s recipe in modern times. I wondered whether there was something to be learnt from engaging with the material processes of early modern times. Although I didn’t have access to a “mil” which he advises for grinding the parsnips, I was quite impressed with the finished result despite my adaptations! After all, Hugh Platt himself encouraged the users of his receipt books to adapt if need be.

The process of making the modernised early modern recipe

Firstly, Platt asks us to “[s]lice great and sweete parnsep rootes (such as are not seeded) into thin slices, and having washed & scraped them cleane, dry them, and beat them into a powder.” So, I chopped the parsnips as thin as I could muster, placed them on a baking tray, and then put them in the oven for just over five hours to remove any moisture. By the end, they had completely shrivelled up, unsurprisingly resembling dried banana.

Parsnips before and after being dried

The parsnips before and after being dried

The next step was the hardest. I needed to “beat” the dried parsnip into a powder, but didn’t have any equipment that could suitably achieve this. The closest thing I did have was my mini portable smoothie maker, which, once I put the parsnip pieces in, stopped working. After (too) much deliberation, I then tried to chop up the parsnip as finely as possible, to then put back into the blender, but once again, unsuccessfully! I decided that I would have to stray from Platt’s original vision and put walnut-like chunks of parsnip into the cake mixture.

Ground Parsnips

The ‘ground’ parsnips

My chunky parsnip mixture came to 90 grams, and Platt instructs to “knead two partes of fine flower with one part of this pouder”; so, next I added 180 grams of gluten-free flour (as I’m gluten-intolerant) to my bowl. This is where the official famine “remedie” ends, with Platt leaving it up to the reader’s discretion what they have available to add to the cake mixture, saying “[i]t may be made as delicate as you please, by the addition of oyle, butter, sugar, and such like.” For my modern version, I had butter, milk and two eggs at my disposal, and kept adding them to my mixture until a veritable cake batter had formed. I then divided it into individual muffin cases, putting them into the oven at 160 °C for 25 minutes.

The Finished Cake

The Finished Cakes

The smell in the kitchen was divine, the natural sweetness of the parsnips floating through the air. I tore one open, and I was very pleasantly surprised; a little dry, but I put this more to my shortage of compensating butter and milk. I actually enjoyed the chunks of parsnip, it added a texture similar to that of currants to the cakes.

Cakes and famine?

If I were to make the cakes again, I would attempt to grate and then bake the parsnips to see if that would make a more successful fine powder, closer to that which Platt intended. I would also leave the parsnips for a couple of hours longer, to make sure they had completely dried out. But there is a limit to how close we can get to early modern materiality in modern times. It was still a really interesting prospect to try and recreate this recipe. I was intrigued by the way the idea and experience of “sweet” and “delicate” taste might have changed over time, and the fact that Platt doesn’t set aside the comfort of tasting something pleasant in times of crisis. There seems to be an element of psychosomatic comfort to making “famine food”, and it is not always only about stretching short supplies as far as they will go.



Lily Long is a fourth year student of English and French at the University of Exeter. Her interests also extend to cinema, and the researching and archiving of historical material. She has previously worked as an intern on Exeter’s Colloquium on Innovation in Modern Languages. Lily is contributing to the creation of digital outputs for the Famine Tales project, including the markup of texts and the creation and curation of digital exhibitions.

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Ayesha Mukherjee


Quite unlike the ingenious culinary experiments undertaken by many during lockdown, I was hurriedly making my mundane mess of pasta last week, when I remembered the Elizabethan scientist Sir Hugh Platts recipes for macaroni. Ubiquitous, unremarkable, standardised and sold in convenient packaging though it may be in our time, pasta was a tantalising promise in early modern England.  

Hugh Platt’s famine remedies, written “vppon thoccasion of this present Dearth”. Copy at British Library, London.

Especially so in the 1590s, when the country faced one of its most acute food crises. The harvest failed repeatedly, the price of wheat soared, as did prices of barley, oats, and other food. The regions of the north and midlands were worst off, and the poor began to migrate London-wards. Hugh Platt experimented diligently to find what he called remedies against famine” – mostly, coping mechanisms, making things last, finding substitutes, recycling, waste-reductive measures, and so on. He published some of these in his manual Sundrie new and Artificiall remedies against Famine in 1596, which was the third successive year of harvest failure. Among other things, this book contained many experiments with bread substitutes and various staple foods. Ways were sought to eliminate the ranke and vnsauorie [unsavoury]” taste of peas, beans, beechmast, chestnuts, acorns, and vetches, so that these might be used instead of wheat flour. Bread was also made with pompions” [pumpkins], cakes with parsnips, measures were devised to prevent mills from wasting flour while grinding, and much more . 

What could one eat in such times that was affordable and easy to preserve, wondered Platt. In his astonishing collection of experiments and recipes called The Jewell House of Art and Nature, published in 1594, when the food shortages of the decade had just begun, he had tempted his readers with the promise of A wholesome, lasting, and fresh victual for the Nauie [Navy]. He pointed out, with characteristic pragmatism, that when corn sold for 20 shillings per quarter, 8 ounces of this new food could be had for a penny to make a competent meale for any reasonable stomach. It was magically cheap and lightweight, shaped like wafers, and could be dressed to serve both for bread and meat. In his current context of food shortage, Platt was keen for this food to be eaten in households, not just by seafarers. So he boldly served pasta (as we may now call it) at his own table. It appears to have gone down rather well. For he even designed a pasta machine and printed its illustration: an Engin for the making of this victual 

Macaroni machine illustrated in Hugh Platt, The Jewell house of Arte and Nature (1594), p.75.

Sir Hugh Platts manuscripts record his repeated experiments (some dated December 1595) before he got his pasta quite as perfect as he wanted it to be. He tried to make it more nourishing, and of better taste. The flour was kneaded with aniseed, liquorice, and ginger, or boiled milk, or eggs – depending on what was available. To make it last, he tried adding aqua composita (alcoholic flavoured water), cinnamon, and wine or ale wort. Apparently, seething the macaroni in pudding skins made it tougher, and the paste of flour was driven through hollow pipes and dried. The manuscripts with these experimental recipes are preserved in the British Librarys Sloane collection. I cannot imagine how pasta laced with aniseed or liquorice might appeal to the palate … but the material sense of taste is perhaps as contextually driven as the recipes and ingredients themselves, and the eaters of Hugh Platt’s pasta may have tasted it differently. 

In Platts collection of food and drink recipes for sailors, printed in 1607, a year before his death, he described a cheap, fresh, and lasting victuall, called by the name of Macaroni amongst the Italians, which seemed useful at a time of shortage. 

From Platt’s broadside, Certaine philosophical preparations of foode and beverage for sea-men, in their long voyages (1607). Copy at British Library, London.

Platt had furnished the famous explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins with his macaroni, since it was long-lasting and helped to address shortage of staple food aboard ships during long voyages.  

In the difficult decade of the 1590s, pasta had a strange renaissance in England – it metamorphosed from a foreign curiosity consumed by sailors to a domestic food, enough for a reasonable stomach” in times of dearth, and then, an item locally (and perhaps mechanically) manufactured and supplied to English sailors for survival.  

I’m not quite sure what remedies Hugh Platt would have recommended for this ….

Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London

“Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London”, during the Covid crisis, March 2020. Wikimedia Commons. Philafrenzy / CC BY-SA (

Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English, College of Humanities, University of Exeter. Her book on Hugh Platt and the 1590s food crisis in England is called Penury into Plenty: Dearth and the Making of Knowledge in Early Modern England (2015) and she is the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800 and Famine Tales from India and Britain



Sarbajit Sen

Debkumar Mitra

Argha Manna


নগরের পথে পথে দেখেছ অদ্ভুত এক জীব 

ঠিক মানুষের মতো 

কিংবা ঠিক নয়

যেন তার ব্যাঙ্গচিত্র বিদ্রুপ বিকৃত 

তবু তারা নড়ে চড়ে, কথা বলে,  আর

জঞ্জালের মতো জমে রাস্তায় রাস্তায়

উচ্ছিষ্টের আস্তাকুঁড়ে বসে বসে ধোঁকে

– আর ফ্যান চায়।

[You have seen on the city streets

Strange beings,

Human, yet not quite –

Cruel caricatures, twisted in scorn!

Yet they move, and speak

And pile up like garbage on the roads.

They sit, weary, on mounds of refuse

And cry for rice-water.]

(“ফ্যান” [Rice-water] by Premendra Mitra, 1989; translated by Amlan Das Gupta)


by Argha Manna


Argha Manna was trained as a cancer researcher but is currently a science illustrator who runs an online platform named ‘Drawing History of Science‘ where he blends his passion for science, history, and comics to carve a unique genre. His artwork tells stories from the history of science through comics and other forms of visual narratives, combining prose writing with sequential art. His current work, includes projects on Indian Women in Science (with Sci-Illustrate, Munich, and the Ministry of Science and Technology, India), History of Cell Biology (with the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika), and stories of the early days of the Royal Society (with the Indian newspaper The Telegraph).

Please feel free to leave thoughts or comments below!