Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Every now and then I come across a new source or idea that substantially changes the way I look at medieval European cuisine. Most often when this happens, it means I've got a whole new direction for research and need to learn a lot more.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Every now and then I get asked "What did they eat for breakfast in the middle ages?"
The current collective wisdom on this gives the answer of, "They didn't eat breakfast," along with side comments like "Only the elderly and infirm ate breakfast, so eating breakfast was seen as a sign of weakness," ... "The church felt it was an excessive practice and discouraged it," ... and "The meal being referred to as breakfast was actually lunch."
The more I read on this though, the more it looks like the "They didn't" answer is overly simplified. I've come across a number of references in various medieval sources that are clear descriptions of a morning meal.
For example, in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century England) there is the following text:
Full early, ere daylight, the folk rose up; the guests who would depart called their grooms and they made them ready, and saddled the steeds, tightened up the girths, and trussed up their mails. The knights, all arrayed for riding, leapt up lightly, and took their bridles, and each rode his way as pleased him best.
The lord of the land was not the last. Ready for the chase, with many of his men, he ate a sop hastily when he had heard Mass, and then with blast of the bugle fared forth to the field. He and his nobles were to horse ere daylight glimmered upon the earth.
So the lord of the land got up before sunrise, heard mass, and had a light meal of a sop (which in medieval recipes usually refers to a thin soup with a piece of bread in it).
Other sources throughout the middle ages, and up through the 16th century, specifically mention breakfast. The foods specified typically include bread, broth, meat or fish, and either ale or wine.
There are supposed to be some good papers on the subject published by accepted authorities on medieval history, but I still haven't found them. My suspicion is that there was little consistency across Europe (or across England for that matter) and throughout the whole of the medieval period, which would mean that the proper answer to the question "What did they eat for breakfast in the middle ages?" is "It depends on where and when."
I'll keep digging into the matter and see what I find.
Friday, October 5, 2007
There's a built in problem with the sort of "experimental archaeology" that I do, and it's not food poisoning. As long as I keep trying new recipes, I'm pretty much guaranteed to come up with a few dishes that people don't like. Heck, even I don't like some of them.
There are two aspects of culture that I figure are coming into play here.
The first is the simple unfamiliarity of the dishes. Medieval European cuisine uses familiar foods in unusual ways. Many recipes combine fruit and meats. Many have combinations of flavors that modern Americans would find strange: meat and cinnamon, meat and vinegar.
While there are people who like trying new foods (I'm one), there are many more who just don't like eating anything they weren't raised with. Some of them can be coaxed into trying something new by showing that it's similar to something they like, but that doesn't work with all of them, and there are some dishes that are just too different.
Really Weird Food
The aspect that bothers me more though is a bit more subtle. The food culture of medieval Europe was one of those "waste-not, want-not" sorts. They ate just about any kind of animal that they could get, and didn't throw away any part that was even remotely edible. This means that there are a lot of recipes in medieval sources for things that very few of the people around me will be willing to try. Really, how many average Americans would be willing to eat Garbage (an appropriately named stew that includes chicken heads and feet).
Still, there are some dishes that are a lot closer to modern American cuisine that are still likely to make people wrinkle up their noses.
For example, I recently tried out a fifteenth century French recipe for chopped liver. Now look, this isn't Sheep's Penis or anything so strange. It's a simple dish of beef liver, eggs, and spices. This is a dish my grandparents would have loved. After all, it uses lard and everything. But our modern culture has turned against just about everything in it. Liver? Full of toxins (and it tastes funny too). Eggs? Too much cholesterol. Lard? What, are you trying to plug my arteries?
In medieval Europe this dish would have been served to royalty - in fact, the recipe specifies that it's supposed to be served on a platter as an accompaniment to a gilded, roasted pig head - but the chances of it being served here to dinner guests is effectively nil.
This means that when I cook a feast for a hundred or so (which I do at least once a year), I have to constrain myself for the most part to recipes I think most people will try and like. This in turn means that the feasts are less like what was actually served. [sigh] Still, I can sneak strange things onto the menu now and then, as long as I don't go overboard with them.
Oh, and I can always try things at home. Though I wonder how the family will react when I finally get around to cooking that cow tongue that I have in the freezer.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Frequently when people I've met find out that I research medieval cooking, they mention something they've learned on the topic. Unfortunately it's frequently one of the following myths. Invariably I'll get thrown into "Teacher" mode and their eyes will glaze over, they start to drool, and finally their heads explode.
In order to prevent future social carnage, I now present these myths along with a brief debunking.
1. They used lots of spices to cover the taste of spoiled meat.
This is so incredibly wrong for so many reasons.
a. The chemicals in spoiled meat that smell and taste bad are so potent that no amount of spice is going to cover them up.
b. They did not slaughter livestock until it was needed, so raw meat didn't stay around long enough to spoil.
c. Considering that spices were more expensive than meat, why would they spend the equivalent of $10 of spices to cover the spoiled taste of a $2 chicken? It'd be much cheaper (and nicer) to just buy a fresh chicken.
d. Meatless dishes from the same time period were spiced just as heavily as meat dishes.
2. Pepper was worth its weight in gold.
A quick check finds this to be far from correct. While pepper was more expensive in the medieval period than it is now - approximately ten times the current cost based on the wages of unskilled laborers - it was not even close to the value of gold.
The price of saffron (which is and always has been the most expensive spice) was about 183 pence per pound in fifteenth-century London. That's closer to gold (240 pence per pound) but still not over.
3. Bread was coarse and brown.
There are numerous descriptions in medieval texts of the bolting process, where ground wheat is passed through linen sacks multiple times to give a fine white flour. There are records of laws specifying the different grades of bread, from coarse and dark to fine white bread. The poor may have eaten coarse dark bread, but the middle and upper classes could and did buy white bread.
4. The wealthy didn't eat vegetables.
I've got hundreds of recipes from the cookbooks of the middle and upper classes that call for vegetables, fruits, and grains. There are many examples of instructions for making and serving salads. There are shopping lists for banquets that call for vegetables. The wealthy weren't just carnivores.
5. The poor didn't eat meat.
Records from medieval prisons and poor houses include weekly menus which feature a substantial quantity of meat three to four times a week. If they were feeding convicted criminals better than the poor outside of prison then prison wouldn't be much of a deterrent to crime, would it?
6. Potatoes / tomatoes / capsicum peppers originated in Ireland / Turkey / India.
All botanical and historical evidence leads to the conclusion that none of these foods existed outside of the Americas before 1492. If anyone can find primary source documentation for these foods being used in Europe before then, I'll be overjoyed to amend this. The same goes for turkey, green beans, pumpkins, cranberries, vanilla, chocolate, and corn.
7. Most vegetables weren't as well developed as they are now.
This can be easily disproved by taking a quick look through medieval paintings that depict food. There you can easily find very modern looking produce.
8. Medieval feasts consisted of bread, roasted meat and wine (or ale).
We have Hollywood to thank for this one. Unlike the popular depiction, medieval feasts were complex affairs which included multiple courses, each with multiple dishes. Meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains were all served. Delicate and subtle dishes were made using a wide variety of spices. Intricate entertainment pieces were also presented - sometimes edible, other times not.