Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Quiz - Question 3

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. I've been a bit busy with the whole real-life thing and have been neglecting the all of you. I'll try to do better.

Back in December 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 third question.


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

The use of the word "primitive" above is obviously a leading one, or perhaps that should be misleading. The popular view of medieval European cuisine is that the food was rustic. Images of medieval kings gnawing roasted meat off the bone (usually a Turkey leg at that) are typical in films set in medieval times. While I'm sure that some cooking was rustic then, just as some of it is now, the upper and middle classes enjoyed lavish feasts. Dishes were often ornately decorated, often with gold leaf. Cooks would make "illusion foods" where one kind of food was carefully prepared to make it look like another (for example, making fish look like a hard-boiled egg).

How did they manage to do this with such primitive equipment? The answer is that what they had wasn't necessarily all that primitive.

Yes, they didn't have food processors or refrigerators. They didn't have kitchen timers or thermostats or even measuring spoons. However, take a look at the kitchen of a modern chef. Clean countertops, knives, gas burner, these are the basic tools of the modern chef, and no one would be surprised to see a great chef prepare a stunningly beautiful meal using only the basics.

Each of those basics was available in medieval Europe as well (ok, the gas burner would have been replaced with a wood or charcoal stove, but the form and function aren't that different). Why is it expected then that a great chef back then couldn't make an incredible feast using the same tools? I think the reason is that we automatically tend to assume that the middle ages must have been more primitive than the modern era. This probably stems in part from the Victorian era assumptions that wound up being written into history books.

After all, people aren't too resistant to the suggestion that the ancient Romans cooked elegant feasts. There's this strange tendency though to assume that the fall of the Roman empire plunged the world into darkness for over a thousand years, and in that time we all ate dirt and waited patiently for the renaissance.


In short, the answer to this question is: It didn't.

3 comments:

dameruth said...

Also, at least the nobility could afford to have an almighty amount of kitchen labor in addition to the head cook -- when you have enough hands working (with knives, mortars and pestles, etc.), that can take the place of things like food processors.

There's this strange tendency though to assume that the fall of the Roman empire plunged the world into darkness for over a thousand years, and in that time we all ate dirt and waited patiently for the renaissance.

XD I love that! Mind if I quote you on my blog page?

Doc said...

Be my guest, dameruth. Glad I could make you smile.

David Woods said...

I think you put it elegantly. Any chef worth his salt (heh, pun sadly intended) only needs his knife, a countertop, a stove or oven, and the ingredients.

It amazes me how, when I have gone through culinary classes and been at my job and I mention my fascination with Medieval cooking that everyone assumes that I like porridge. If I mention how there were dishes like lasagna and ravioli, but they didn't have tomatoes, it's still like porridge. And yet you can go to most Italian restaurants and there are dishes that are made without tomato sauces. Even lasagna and ravioli.