As a plant, Tansey (or more commonly spelt Tansy) has a distinguished history of medical use dating back to ancient Greece. Used in the 8th century by Swiss Benedictine Monks to treat everything from fevers, digestive issues, worms and rheumatism, it is still listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as an acceptable treatment for fevers and jaundice.
According to some sources, “In the 15th century, Christians began serving tansy with Lenten meals to commemorate the bitter herbs eaten by the Israelites. Tansy was thought to have the added Lenten benefits of controlling flatulence brought on by days of eating fish and pulses and of preventing the intestinal worms believed to be caused by eating fish during Lent.”*
Lent is, of course, the period of fasting (either wholesale or from certain foods and activities) observed by many branches of Christianity during the forty days prior to Easter, allowing the participant an opportunity to focus more deeply on pious thoughts and deeds. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Jane Austen would have participated in this ritual in some way.
In her book, Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield reiterates this line of thinking and relates how “tansy cake”, which was more commonly called simply “a tansy” served health and medicinal purposes, with deep ties to England’s Catholic heritage. She writes,
“Tansy was a bitter herb whose stalks were juiced and then mixed…with a pint or less of the juice of green wheat, spinach or anything else that is green and not strong tasted. The juice was then mixed with a pint of cream, twelve eggs, nutmeg, sugar and salt. A quantity of white bread to make it thick enough for a bread pudding was mixed in. The batter was placed in a buttered dish and put before a…fire or oven…until it was hard enough to turn out on the dish. People had been eating tansy cakes since the middle ages to purify their bodies, especially after Lent…by the 1700’s, many also ate a tansy cake at Easter in remembrance of the Jewish Passover. Religious reasoning aside, tansy was considered a vital green food for people who had spent the winger eating too much salted meat and pickled vegetables; it was a welcome harbinger of spring’s bounty.”
-Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield
In Hannah Glasse’s seminal work, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, she boasts an entire section titled “A Variety of Foods for Lent”. Variety (that spice of life) is the key word in this chapter, which includes instructions for everything from Eel-Soup to Soused Mackerel, Baked Apples, Barley Soup, Hasty Pudding, Pancakes and even Stewed Spinach and Eggs. Food for thought. With Lent bringing the removal of many meats and meat products from the table, the beef heavy diet of Georgian England was no doubt happy for any help that could be given.
Hannah rounds out her collection with instructions “To Make A Tansey”. As we have seen, this was a sort of vegetable bread pudding, however, her recipe, surprisingly, contains no actual tansy—just “the juice of spinach to make it green”. A “mock” tansy perhaps? From looking at other period recipes, “Tansy” (or Tansey) seems to have evolved into a term for any pudding baked in the same general way. Recipes for Apple Tansy abound from the period (again, no actual tansy harmed in the making of this recipe) while William Gelleroy’s 1770, The London Cook includes no fewer than eight tansy recipes, with such tantalizing names as A Tansey, Another Tansey, A Gooseberry Tansey, Another Gooseberry Tansey, A Beef Tansey…you get the picture.
And so, without further ado, Hannah Glasse’s Tansey for Lent:
Laura Boyle is the author of Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends.
Andrea L. Broomfield quoted from:
Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History
Praeger (April 30, 2007) 0275987086