The November weekend greeted me with a stinking cold and a host of engineering works on the train line between Brighton and London. My journey time doubled and my tissues running out, there were many adjectives to describe my mood when I arrived at the Wellcome Collection – a museum exploring the relationship between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future, a stones' throw from Euston railway terminal. 'Melancholy' was certainly one of them.
A Feast to Cure Melancholy – the final event in the Collection's Recipes and Remedies series – investigated the relationship between melancholy, diet and lifestyle as described in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. An English scholar at Oxford University in the early seventeenth century, Burton was also a mathematician who dabbled in astrology. He drew from nearly every science of his day to inform his study: psychology, physiology, meteorology, theology and even demonology. The Anatomy of Melancholy was originally published in 1621, with five revised and expanded editions appearing before Burton's death in 1640.
Scientific thought had led Burton's generation to believe the human body was made up of four substances: black bile, blood, yellow bile and phlegm. These substances gave off vapours to create the four 'humours': sanguine; melancholic; choleric; phlegmatic. Any imbalance in these humours would create changes in mental and physical well-being. Too much black bile, a hot and wet humour, could lead to fever. The remedy required a mix of cold and dry food and spices to increase melancholy. Opposites cure opposites.
I was directed to the elaborate library on the Wellcome Collection's second floor. Books of all shapes and sizes lined the walls, stacked from floor to ceiling. I picked up an orange juice from the bar. Modern science has led me to believe vitamin C could help cure my cold. But soon after I was asked to put aside my own irritations and get into character.
A coffee-stained card gave me a new name, Nathaniel, and a minute description of my character:
«You are 23 with a broad barrel chest and sallow-coloured skin. You are an aggressive man who takes out his problems on others. You are a recent graduate who can't find employment, so you are claiming benefits.»
Balancing my humours would allow me to curb my aggression and put colour back into my skin. I may even get a job.
So how was I to reduce my choleric imbalance? The first suggestion came from an apothecary. He promised to help me «understand why your life is a torment of agony». To change it, I simply needed to create my own medicine.
«Take three ounces of cornflower, mix with quart handful of cowslip, add to this a mixture of four spices and eight herbs. Add to this a mixture of ox and sheep bones which have been exposed to red heat. Treat with very dilute hydrochloric acid, then washing and drying, and afterwards heating to redness in a covered crucible. Leave to cool in crucible for two days. Grind to powder and roll to form ten pills. Take two pills a day for five days.»
Nothing to it. Except that my aggressive tendencies would surely ruin this precise recipe. So I moved on.
I was even less convinced by the physician's suggestion. He put my choleric personality down to an “intellectual imbalance” and gave me a Mills & Boon novel. A quick flick through Maggie's Love-Child before bed would curb my aggression for at least the next day. Either that or I would tear the pages from the book in a fit of frustration and fall asleep angry.
The housewife was the most sympathetic to my plight. She greeted each patient with a broad, knowing smile. She had seen it all before. Her cure for my aggression and sallow-coloured skin was aromatherapy. The cold and wet vapours of aloeswood, sandalwood, white pond lily and rose would balance my hot and dry choleric vapours.
I (being myself, not Nathaniel) have the advantage of almost four hundred years of research and theories to inform my opinions. I can't say these solutions had any resonance. But Burton's basic idea remains. We still consume certain foods to attain certain moods. Food for comfort, food for fitness, food to keep us cool in the summer and to warm us in winter.
Food artists Mike Knowlden and Josh Pollen, of Blanch and Shock, took Burton's ideas to heart and created a menu of canapés based on each of the four humours to close the evening. Nathaniel's cure was a cold and wet dish of wild boar confited with hay-infused oil, and scurvy grass. At the opposite end of Burton's scale was a hot and wet dish to balance my own melancholy: wild duck breast (click here for the recipe), raisin pudding, wheat and duck hash, and dittander.
It's difficult for me to comment on whether the wild boar successfully curbed Nathaniel's aggression. After all, it was imagined all along. I certainly tucked in with gusto. The oil had softened the meat just the right amount for the rich flavour to dominate.
Duck can alleviate my melancholy at the worst of times. This wasn't the worst of times but it was the best of duck: fresh, gamey and succulent. I'm not convinced that wild duck is a permanent cure to melancholy – or that melancholy is a permanent affliction – but it's a theory I'm willing to test.
Those with a phlegmatic imbalance benefitted from the delicious grey mullet in wheat beer batter with spiced roast potatoes, spring onion, capers, chestnuts and crisp fish skin. The dessert of fresh curd cheese, medlar purée, lemon pudding, prunes and endive was a treatment for those with a sanguine imbalance, and a tasty treat for everyone else.
«No ingredient was doubled, and we made sure the ingredients were as close to what would have been used in the seventeenth century as possible,» Josh said. «Sometimes they were called different things so we cross-checked every ingredient. There was no mention of salt so we don't know whether it was used.»
Blanch and Shock's creations are art projects which involve food. They came to the attention of The Wellcome Collection with the edible sculptures they built for Icon magazine earlier this year. As with traditional art, the process is just as important as the outcome.
«We gave ourselves certain restrictions and allowed ourselves certain liberties,» Mike said. «We used dry and hot methods of cooking, like roasting, for choleric remedies. Instead of using duck, we used wild duck. But we allowed ourselves modernist techniques to get the right result.»
So Burton's treatise is not as comprehensive now as he believed it to be in 1621. But the principle of influence and balance has informed our approach to food since then.
«The way the menu is built echoes throughout gastronomy,» Josh said. «The combinations of meat and herbs are incredibly familiar. In a way, the humoural menu has always been there.»