21st Century Medieval Pottage

Hop on board Mrs Portly’s time machine, we’re going back to the Middle Ages, because this is my 21st century take on a medieval pottage. The secret ingredient is poudre douce, an ancient spice mix which gives depth and complexity to what’s otherwise a straightforward lentil and vegetable soup.

I’ve been experimenting with a lot of lentil recipes this week because on August 5th I’m going to be cooking and compering at Wakelyns‘ first Dal Festival. I dearly love a dal and I have my favourites but I don’t have the brass neck to claim that I’m an expert. So I’m sticking to recipes from my own cultural background, although interestingly poudre douce and its counterpart poudre fort (sweet and strong powders, respectively) have a lot in common with garam masala. And, as one American friend pointed out, with pumpkin pie spice. Stay with me, here.

Poudres douce, fort and fine were all spice blends in the medieval cook’s arsenal. They sometimes contain spices we’re unfamiliar with today, in the UK at least. Poudre douce is, as it’s name suggests, sweet, but not necessarily because it contained sugar. Some mixes did, others didn’t. It refers to the sweeter spices such as cinnamon, cloves and ginger. But they still have bite and when used, as here, in a savoury recipe, they may really surprise you.

I’ve given a recipe for my version of poudre douce below. A couple of things to note: most of the spices are fairly common except for the grains of paradise. Steenbergs sell them online…if you’re worried about buying a spice you might not use often, maybe share the cost and product with friends, but as whole spice they keep way longer than it says on the jar.

I’ve added, since I first published this post, Indian bay leaves to the recipe. Entirely different and unrelated to the European bay, they have a cinnamon/citrus flavour and three veins running down the leaf rather than one central vein. You can omit them if you can’t find them but they were commonly ground down and added to poudre douce. I find it easier to add a dried leaf or two with the stock.

I used British-grown olive (Puy-style) lentils and whole coral lentils (like the regular orange ones but not split) from Wakelyns and Hodmedods. If you use split orange lentils they will break up and thicken the soup rather than it being brothy. Not a bad thing, just different. You may need more stock. Talking of which, I used a home-made chicken one. A good quality veg stock also works. And by all means vary the vegetables according to season, although I would suggest a healthy helping of root veg. I used what I have in the garden currently.

With bread, this makes a good main course soup for two people.

21st Century Medieval Pottage

  • Servings: 2 as a main
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Image of the medival-style pottage, served in bowls, with fresh herbs


2 tbsp oil
2 banana shallots or 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 stick of celery, trimmed and diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
A handful of French beans, trimmed and cut into lengths
2 small courgettes, trimmed and chunked
1 tsp poudre douce
100g pre-soaked olive (Puy-style) or whole coral (orange) lentils, or a 50/50 mixture
500-600ml good quality chicken or veg stock
1 or 2 (they can be huge) Indian bay leaves (optional)
1 tbsp oregano or marjoram leaves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
A big handful of basil leaves, torn
Courgette flowers, optional

Poudre douce:

2 tsp ground ginger
A half tsp of ground cinnamon
A quarter tsp ground cloves
A quarter tsp ground grains of paradise

Image of pottage in a wide earthenware dish, topped with torn courgette flowers, next to two lidded soup bowls.


Pre-soak the lentils overnight or, if you have a pressure cooker, follow Catherine Phipp’s quick method: put the lentils in your pc, cover with water, add salt and 1 tbsp oil, and cook on high pressure for 2 minutes. Let stand for 5 mins, release any remaining pressure and drain.

Heat the oil in a saucepan big enough to hold everything. Gently fry the onions, sprinkled eith a little salt, until soft and golden. Add the carrots and celery and cook for a few more minutes. Now add the garlic and poudre douce, stir and cook gently for another two or three minutes.

Pour in the drained lentils, followed by the beans, courgettes and stock. Add the Indian bay leaf, if using. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for around 15 minutes or until the lentils are soft but still intact and the veg are cooked but still have some bite.

Check the seasoning and just before serving stir through the chopped herbs. Rip the courgette flowers, if using, into lengths and scatter onto the soup, allowing them to wilt in its heat.

14 thoughts on “21st Century Medieval Pottage

  1. This does sound really tasty. Thankyou for the direction to Steenberg’s site. Went down a bit of a rabbit hole there and shall spend some more time looking about later. :))

  2. I’m up for this. Poudre douce is new to me, as are grains of paradise. But good old Steenberg’s is literally just up the road from here, so I’m sorted, thanks.

    • Hurrah! Poudre douce is fascinating if you want to go down a historical rabbithole any time. As many versions there are, nowadays, of spice blends like garam masala.

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