Monday, March 21, 2016

Iron Rations

One of my co-workers who knows I'm into medieval cooking sent me a link to a video about D&D iron rations and asked me what I thought (seeing as my day job is in the IT department it's not really surprising, I guess, to have people who are interested in Dungeons & Dragons and/or medieval cooking).

Anyways, since I took the time to re-watch the video (I'd seen it before) and jot down some quick notes about it, I thought I'd go ahead an post them here as well.  Here's the video ... go ahead and watch it ... I'll wait.

Ok, yes. It's all fun, and the guy in the video himself even noted that “Pemmican and mango and chain mail, they would never have been anywhere near each other historically.” It wasn't meant to be historically accurate. However I do get asked about D&D rations from time to time, and I've even done a couple of seminars on the subject at games conventions. So ...

Salted Fish & Meat

Salt has been used to preserve fish and meat since well before the middle ages.  It's reliable and relatively fool-proof. You bury the food in salt for a week or so, drain off any liquid that forms, maybe change out the salt, and you end up with something that the bugs and mold and bacteria don't want to mess with.

Of course you've also got something that is so salty that it's no longer fit for people to eat. The typical way to fix that was to boil it in fresh water for an hour or two, changing out the water once or twice. This gives you some edible meat and a lot of salty broth (most of which which will probably get thrown out).

Salted meat was often used by soldiers, even up to the civil war (I believe - correct me if I'm wrong), but for a group of fantasy adventurers going through a dungeon it wouldn't be very practical.


Pemmican was common among some of the North American tribes and was a decent way to preserve food for rough times. As the guy in the video mentioned, it can stay unspoiled (I hesitate to say "good to eat") for an exceptionally long time provided it's kept wrapped up and in cool conditions. The problem of course is that in warm or hot weather the fat in it can go rancid. Really, unless the adventurers are exploring the tundra, arctic, or great white north, I don't think it would be all that suitable for "iron rations".


Wax sealed cheese is a relatively new thing (e.g. in the last hundred years or so). Most aged cheeses develop a hard rind on their own. While it means that you might lose some of the outer part of the cheese because it's too hard to eat, or even fuzzy in places, the rind protects the inside of the cheese. Wax is meant to do that as well, but wax was actually rather expensive (especially beeswax, which was most desirable for candles). Cheese can also go bad if stored under too warm conditions - that's why "cheese caves" are a thing.

Dried Fruit

Fruit is great. It's got lots of sugars and it keeps really well when dried. If it gets too dried out you can even boil it in water for a bit and it will soften right up. The problem in connection with iron rations is that dried fruit has also always been a bit expensive.

Parched Wheat

I'd never heard of this stuff before - strange, huh? I suppose it would work, but it sounds a bit hard on the teeth.

Wheat was available throughout medieval Europe, but the supply would vary by location and from season to season. It was considered the best kind of grain and was therefore much in demand for making the nice white bread favored by just about everyone who could afford it. Poorer folk would get bread made from mixed grains, so I imagine taking a bunch of wheat and roasting it just so Blogg the Barbarian can have something to nibble on while spelunking would be a bit ... rich.

What's more, why not just carry cracked wheat or other grains that can be used for other purposes like making bread or soup?


Ok, crackers are pretty reasonable, but still more expensive and less versatile than a sack of cracked grain.


UGH!  Not only is chocolate a new world food, but chocolate before the 1700s was not sweet. Even worse, the war ration chocolate mentioned in the video that soldiers carried in their packs was waxy and not very good to eat - the soldiers preferred to give it away rather than eating it (which I believe was the actual intention of the US government).


A more accurate version of hard rations would be more like a sack of cracked mixed grain and another of dried meat. These would be used to make some kind of stew. Of course it wouldn't be practical in an actual dungeon, but then no cooking would be.

For a dungeon crawl set in an early medieval European setting, I would expect the party to be eating perishable food for the first two or three days (fresh fruit, bread, fresh meat) and maybe beef jerky and cracker-like breads for another day or two after that. If they're stuck in a dungeon for longer than that with no source of fresh food, and have no way to cook grain and salted meat, then they're pretty much screwed.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Oh Saffron, My Saffron

As many of my friends can tell you, I really like saffron. I go through more of the stuff in a month than most Americans use in their entire lives.

If I were a medieval king, all my land would be used to grow saffron

Given that you're reading this blog, you probably can guess that I really like medieval European cuisine as well, and one of the more commonly used spices in the Middle Ages (at least for the wealthy) was saffron. In spite of it being the most expensive spice, it appears in 39% of the recipes in Forme of Cury (England, 1390) and 41% of the recipes in Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (England, 1430).

Of course when people are selling stuff that's expensive, some of it is going to turn out to be fake. This isn't just a modern problem. There are plenty of records of medieval trials and punishments for product adulteration. There are jerks in this world, and there always have been.

It turns out that some of the saffron I got a while back - stuff that seemed like a really great deal - isn't actually saffron. I don't have the money to find out what it actually is, but I thought it would be worthwhile to put up a brief guide on how to tell the real stuff from the fake.

The Threads

Saffron threads are the stigmas of the flower of Crocus sativus. They tend to be 25 to 30 mm in length, but can be much shorter because they get brittle and break easily when dry.

A pinch of saffron threads

In the above picture, note how the threads tend to be thicker at one end than the other, and the change in thickness is gradual. The color of the can also change, usually from dark red at the thick end to yellow at the tip.

A pinch of ... something else

Here the threads are strangely long, some up to 50mm. While there are some that look like they have thicker portions, closer examination shows them to be multiple strands twisted together. None of the threads change in thickness. There is a mix of colors, but each thread in itself is uniform of color.

A few saffron threads in water

When whole saffron threads are dropped into warm water, color starts to steep out immediately, though it can take a while.

Ugly, long strings of stuff in water

The fake stuff may also discolor the water, depending on what was used to make it look like saffron. Note that even though I've added about five times as much of the fake stuff as I did the real stuff in the previous photo, the fake stuff produces about the same amount of color.

Typically when I cook with saffron, I grind it up with a bit of salt using a small mortar and pestle. This helps the color and flavor diffuse more quickly into the food.

Saffron ground with salt

Note how small the particles of saffron are after it's ground, and how the salt takes on an orange-red color.

Foul, nasty strings of stuff kind of ground with salt

The fake threads however do not grind up easily. It is rather interesting to note some tiny yellow flecks and the yellowish tint to the salt. I suspect that there may actually be some low-grade (yellow) saffron or some other yellow plant material mixed in with the evil fake threads.

Yummy, saffron-infused water

Here I dumped the saffron-salt mixture into warm water and the color suffused through it immediately.

Bad, wicked, evil, naughty stuff in water

The fake threads ground with salt and dumped into water don't quite have the same effect. Many of them seem pretty much inert. Normally when I cook rice with a good pinch of saffron, the rice comes out a bright yellow color, but the one time I did that with the fake stuff the rice turned out beige and flavorless.

Another sign of bogus saffron is the scent. I love the fragrance of the real stuff, but the fake threads smell ... well, off. That's a hard thing to put on a web page though.