Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Food Prices in Medieval Ireland

I was recently directed to the Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin (1337-1346) (thanks, Johnnae!). It's a book of household accounts for a monastery in medieval Ireland.

The neat thing about household accounts is that they contain a huge amount of information about what was needed for daily life. This particular book of accounts is in Latin, but (happily for me) also has an English translation. While browsing through it, I saw a decent number of food items listed, along with the priced paid for them. This led to the inevitable digging through data and taking notes.

Unfortunately, most of the entries specify what was purchased, the amount paid, and who the money was paid to, but not the actual quantity purchased. Still, there were some scattered about that included quantities. So below are the prices of select items for medieval Ireland, as per this manuscript.

capon, 2d/ea.
capon (cooked), 3d/ea.
chicken, 0.5d/ea.
duck, 1d/ea.
figs, 2d/lb.
fowl, 1d/ea.
fowl (cooked), 2d/ea.
goose, 3d/ea.
hen, 1.5d/ea.
lamb (cooked, whole), 4d/ea.
oats (for horses), 2d/peck
olive oil, 6d/qt.
pasties (fowl), 2d/ea.
pasties (salmon), 1d/ea.
pepper, 20d/lb.
piglet, 3d/ea.
salt, 3d/peck (approx. 0.12d/lb.)
wheat, 11.5d/peck
wine (by the tun), 1d/gal.
wine (red?), 5d/gal.
wine (white), 6d/gal.

There were also some records for amounts paid to laborers, which work out to have unskilled workers paid around 2d per day.

What I found really interesting is how a few of these compared to the prices listed in "Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe" by Prof. John H. Munro, University of Toronto. The prices for capons, red wine, and pepper were essentially the same - somewhat surprising given that we're comparing 14th century Dublin to 15h century London. The difference in the price of salt is also surprising - with London's price being roughly 5 times what it is in Dublin a hundred years earlier.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mystery Things?

I'm going to jump topics for a moment here, but I promise to get back to the discussion on the quiz posts soon.

I just came across a post on the blog "This is why you're fat" that caught my eye. It's an image of a dish from the Republic of Georgia - essentially a sort of custard or quiche cooked in a bread crust.

The reason I note this is that it looks an awful lot like some unidentifiable (to me) things in a Dutch painting from 1559 that I posted about some time ago (look in the lower right portion of the painting, on top of the basket of birds).

I don't know if they're in any way related to this dish, but I find the similarity of shapes interesting.

It's one more bit of information in the quest of the Mysterious Football-Shaped Things®.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Quiz - Question 1

On Monday I posted a 6 question quiz about medieval cooking. I had tried to phrase the questions so that there would be many possible answers that could be considered to be correct depending on viewpoint. Here are my thoughts on the first question.

1. What process would you use for converting a modern recipe into a medieval one?

One answer to this is to replace all ingredients not available in medieval Europe with similar ingredients that were available, and for an extra measure you could replace any modern cooking methods or equipment with medieval ones that achieve similar results. The problem is that this doesn't get you a medieval recipe. It gets you a variation of a modern recipe.

The classic example of this is the cheeseburger. In medieval Europe they had almost all the ingredients and equipment necessary to make a cheeseburger. They didn't have tomatoes or ketchup, but they did have mustard and even had what they needed to make mayonnaise. The problem is that they didn't make sandwiches, they don't seem to have served raw vegetables (lettuce, onion, pickles) with meats, and they didn't make mayonnaise.

So even if you grind the beef in a mortar, cook it on a grill over an open fire, put it on a home-made bun, top it with home made cheese and heirloom lettuce and onion slices and pickles, and use camaline sauce instead of ketchup, what you end up with is still a cheeseburger. It may be a very nice cheeseburger, but it's still not even remotely medieval.

In short, you can't convert a modern recipe into a medieval one. Imagine trying to convert a Mexican dish into a Thai one. The best you can hope for is something cooked in a Thai style.

Take a typical recipe for burritos, replace the cumin and garlic with ginger and lemongrass, serve it with soy sauce instead of salsa, and you've got a Thai-style burrito (beef or chicken - I don't think it'd work with a bean burrito). Is it a real Thai recipe? No, not really.

Of course your goal may not be to make a medieval dish. You might be trying to avoid new-world ingredients, or experiment with new flavors. But then it wouldn't be a question of converting a modern dish into a medieval one. It'd be more one of incorporating aspects of medieval cuisine into a modern recipe.

So if you want to make a medieval recipe, then start with a medieval recipe. If you want to be creative in the kitchen and create a new recipe, go right ahead. You can even combine the two - but the results aren't necessarily medieval cuisine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Quiz

I'm on several email lists related to medieval history (surprising, huh?), which means that I end up reading a lot of different viewpoints and approaches towards medieval re-creation. Often simple questions explode into long, rambling discussions that border on religious wars. So I thought I'd put together a short quiz made up of carefully worded questions. In some ways the answers could reveal far more about the person answering than they would about medieval cuisine.

1. What process would you use for converting a modern recipe into a medieval one?

2. Why did medieval Europeans use a lot of spices in their cooking?

3. How did the primitive cooking equipment available in 15th century England affect the foods cooked?

4. How was the exorbitantly high cost of spices (e.g. saffron, pepper, ginger) reflected in their use in medieval England and France?

5. How was the primitive technology of the medieval period reflected in the quality of wheat flour, sugar, and salt?

6. To what degree have modern agricultural practices affected the size of poultry and eggs?

I'll give my own take on these in later posts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More Medieval Catering

On October 1-3 the Ohio State University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies hosted the 2009 conference for the Committee on Centers and Regional Associations. Having worked with them before, they asked if I'd be interested in cooking a medieval luncheon for their Friday session. I, of course, said "Yes!"

So on Friday morning I got in the car (along with my assistants, Kristen Sullivan and Jennifer Marshal-Craig) and made the two hour drive up to Columbus. Then there was just enough time to unpack, finish what cooking needed to be done, and get the buffet set out. Much of the food was prepared ahead of time, and a good thing too as the lone oven and cooktop in the building could only charitably be described as a "food warmer".

Here's what we served:

The setup looked great, but I was too busy to get any photos before the guests ate. I know their photographer managed to take a couple pictures though, so I might be able to get copies from her.

On the whole, things went well. The yellow pepper sauce didn't thicken up quite right due to the lack of heat from the burners, but it still tasted good. The real surprise for me was the blancmanger. I'd pre-cooked the chicken and decided to cook the rice when we got there. Again, as fortune would have it, I had brought a roaster which was perfect for this dish. We put the rice in to cook early on, and then added the chicken, almond milk, and spices. I kept worrying about it because it just seemed too easy. No problems with it though - I think it's my new favorite recipe (to cook at least).

The chardewardon was a bit of a show-stealer. I had Kristen serve it in individual cups, topped with snowe and a mint leaf garnish. They looked so elegant (even though the cups were plastic), and the combination of pear custard and cream is hard to beat.

It was while cleaning up afterwards that I noticed almost all the plates were completely empty. A good sign, as people don't usually polish off foods they don't like. I mentioned this to Kristen and Jen, and they said they saw people going back for seconds. All in all, I'd say this was a success.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - October

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of October.

Belle-et-Bonne, William, Costard, Lording, Parsley-apples, Pearmain, Pear-apple, Honey meal, Apis, &c.

The Caw-pear (baking) Greenbutter-pear, Thorn-pear, Clove-pear, Roussel-pear, Lombart-pear, Russet-pear, Saffron-pear, and some of the former Month, Violet-pear, Petwort-pear, otherwise called the Winter Windsor.

Bullis, and divers of the September Plums and Grapes, Pines, Arbutus, &c.