How to Cook a Medieval Custard Tart

Maeve L'Estrange

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.


For hundreds of years, starting in 1204, Dubliners flocked to the Donnybrook Fair on 3 May for eight days to buy livestock, settle disputes, and enjoy some light entertainment.

Irish markets such as this had their roots further back still, in assemblies or tribal meetings. Nenagh or Aonach Urmhumhan in County Tipperary – “aonach” being the Irish for “assembly” – was probably the meeting place for men of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ormond.

According to D. A. Binchy, a scholar of early Irish law, at such gatherings, goods were exchanged, and there were games, horse races, and athletics competitions.

Anglo-Normans settled in Ireland from late in the twelfth century. The economy they introduced was in part based on rents from tenants who worked the land, farming corn, cattle, sheep and horses that could be sold at the market.

This brings us back to one such market, the annual Donnybrook Fair. It lasted until 1855 when it was abolished by city authorities. What had by then become a 14-day fair was banned because of complaints about brawling and drunkenness.

Cattle was a regular feature at the fair, as were chickens.

Cattle was valued for its milk and cream. Rents were sometimes paid in cattle, and doweries often included cattle. A good cow was said to keep a family fed longer alive, with milk and cream rather than being used for meat.

Milk and cream were sometimes combined with eggs to make a custard. Custard tarts were popular and might be flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, pepper, or saffron. Recipes might also include whole blanched almonds, sliced dates, figs, currants, raisins, and fat cheese.

Custard tarts had names such as custard lombard, doucets, or the recipe below, dariole. The pastry for this tart can be compared to the modern-day pâte brisée or shortcrust pastry.

Photo by Maeve L'Estrange

Dariole

Pastry ingredients

  • 125g/4¼ oz butter
  • 250g/8½ oz plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 80ml/⅓ pt water

Filling ingredients

  • 300g/10½ oz sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 375ml/ ⅔ pt milk
  • 375ml/ ⅔ pt cream
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2-3 tbsp rose water
  • 6 egg yolks

Pastry method

Cut the butter into small pieces and rub or cut it into the flour until the mixture has the consistency of sawdust.

Dissolve the salt in half of the water and add to the flour mixture.

Combine the ingredients with your fingertips until the dough comes together.

Add more water if necessary.

Form a ball, wrap in cling film or parchment, and put in the fridge for at least two hours before using.

Filling method

Preheat the oven to 220⁰C/425⁰F.

Roll out the pastry and place in a 22cm/9″ pie or tart pan at least 5cm/2″ deep.

Line the pastry with parchment or tin foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans.

Bake for approximately 15 minutes, remove the parchment or tin foil and weights and return to the oven for a further five minutes.

Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 175⁰C/350⁰F.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar with the pinch of salt until smooth and glossy, then slowly beat in the milk.

Pour the egg mixture into the partially baked shell, return to the oven, and bake for approx one hour until set but still soft enough to quiver slightly when moved.

If the top is browning too quickly, cover with tin foil.

When done, remove from the oven and sprinkle with rosewater.

Can be eaten warm or cold.

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Maeve L'Estrange: Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.

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