Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why Plum Pudding Isn't Medieval

For the past few years I've been making a traditional plum pudding at Christmastime. The recipe I use is a sort of average of the one from the Better Homes cookbook, and several that I found online. This year, as I was mixing it up and putting it into the pudding mold, I was musing over how medieval the recipe seemed.

Plum Pudding
(Not Medieval)

First, it's a holiday recipe that contains lots of dried fruits and spices. This is typical of a lot of medieval dishes, where imported fruits and spices served both to excite the palate and to blatantly advertise how wealthy the host was. Also, the general form of the dish - a boiled pudding - is in itself very typical of the middle ages. A prime example is Wastels Yfarced, a recipe where a bread crust is hollowed out, the crumb is mixed with eggs, currants, and spices, is put back into the crust, and then the whole thing is boiled. Add to this dishes like haggis, and some "sausages" where often little or no meat is used, and the filling is stuffed into an animal stomach or intestines and boiled.

So plum pudding is probably medieval too, right? Sadly, no. Oddly, I've found very few medieval recipes for boiled puddings that are desserts - almost all of them are savory dishes. The really big clue though is the inclusion of baking powder or baking soda. This makes the pudding turn out something more like modern cake, and neither baking powder or baking soda were used in cooking until after the sixteenth century. My guess is that somewhere in England in the late seventeenth century, a cook decided to experiment and crossed a medieval-style pudding with a new cake recipe. That, or they put the baking soda in by accident (it happens). Either way, whoever that cook was, I am forever in their debt.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rumballs and Gyngerbrede

While looking through Christmas cookie recipes last year, I came across a couple for rumballs. I probably would have skipped right over them, but I thought I remembered that my grandmother used to make them once upon a time, so I took a closer look. Immediately I was struck by how similar the recipe was to many of the medieval Gyngerbrede recipes. I've made gyngerbrede before, so how hard could this be? Things got busy though, as they frequently do during the holiday season, and I just didn't get around to trying it out.

The though did stick in my mind though, and either I'm way ahead this year or I'm way behind and haven't figured it out yet, because I managed to have time to make a batch this evening. The results? Well ...

Let me start with a small rant. One of the worst things a person can do - something that in my book guarantees them a place in the 5th circle of culinary hell - is to intentionally give out a bad recipe. I'm not talking about vague recipes, where they say "keep adding flour until it's thick." I'm not talking about typos or stupid oversights. I'm talking about when they tell you the wrong amount of flour, or leave the cinnamon out, or any number of tricks, just so they can be sure no one will be able to make the dish as good as they can. It's a form of lying and it's just plain evil. If you don't want to share a recipe, that's fine, but have the guts to say so. Don't pretend you're sharing. Ok, I'm done now.

I'm not sure that the recipes I'd found are examples of this, but there are aspects of each that make me suspect something. From my experience with the gyngerbrede, all of them looked like there was too much liquid and not enough solids - they'd end up really gooey.

So I made a chocolate cake (from mix), crumbled it up, added less rum than the recipes called for (1/2 cup), added less sticky liquid (chocolate & karo syrups) than they called for (3/4 cup), added the same amount of ground pecans, and mixed it up.

They ended up really gooey.

So to try and salvage the goo ('cause it tasted good), I took a trick from the gyngerbrede recipe and started adding bread crumbs until it was too thick to stir. Fifteen slices of bread later and it was workable. I rolled a bazillion bite-sized balls and rolled each one in ground pecans. The wife and kids thought they were ok. I think they could be a lot better. So here's what I'm going to do next time:

  1. Make two (2) cakes, and let them sit out overnight. I don't want them to be too stale (that'll make the final product too grainy), but I really should have let the cake dry out more. I figure with double the cake I may not need any bread.

  2. Add rum flavoring. I could just barely taste the rum, and using more would probably make it gooier (gooeier? gooeyer? is that even a word?).

All that being said, I've still eaten too many of the blasted things and am about 15 minutes away from a food coma, so they can't be that bad.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's really not that hard ...

I'm more than a little conflicted when it comes to "Medieval Times" - no, not the period of history but the chain of theme restaurants.  On the one hand, it generates interest in medieval European history.  However they present a version of the middle-ages that is notably less accurate.

One of the areas where they stumble rather badly is the food (no surprise that I latch onto this aspect, eh?).  On their website they have this to say about their dinner. 

With clockwork precision, legions of serving wenches and serfs deliver four courses to hungry guests in minutes. The meal begins with savory garlic bread and a steaming hot vegetable soup ladled into pewter bowls: then come roasted chicken, spare rib, a seasoned potato and pastry of the Castle. Two rounds of beverages are included with the feast. Cash bar service is also available throughout the show. To the special delight of the guests, the feast is served "medieval style" - without silverware, but with plenty of extra napkins.

Let's go over this point by point:

  1. Describing this as a four course meal is really silly when a typical course in a medieval feast contained four to six dishes - and that didn't include bread.  

  2. The vegetable soup might be ok, depending on what exactly is in it.

  3. Seasoned potato?  Potatoes are new-world ... hello!

  4. What the heck is a pastry of the castle?  Ah, another site lists it as an apple pastry. Apples are good, pastry is good, the name is dumb.

  5. Medieval style means no silverware?
    "There were no utensils in medieval times, thus, there are no utensils at Medieval Times. Would you like a refill on that Pepsi?"

So how could they fix this to make it more authentic, while still appealing to the masses?  It wouldn't take much in terms of time or money.

The first step is to go through their menu and recipes and get rid of all the new-world ingredients.  Tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee are the ones that most often sneak into a pseudo-medieval menu.

I suspect that this would effect the soup.  If so, then find a new recipe that is actually medieval.  There are hundreds of medieval soup recipes out there, many are quite good, and almost all of them are cheap to make.  Pick one or two.

Replace the potato with the old-world equivalent - the turnip.  They're just as easy to cook, and there are medieval turnip recipes that just about anyone would like.

Beverages are pretty easy too.  Serve the kids grape juice, and give the adults the added option of beer, wine or mead.

Finally, for Pete's sake give them spoons and knives!  The medieval serving manuals clearly state that all diners should be furnished with spoons and knives.  We're talking the middle-ages here, not the stone-ages.

Do I actually expect Medieval Times to do this?  No, not really.  I can dream though. It's not like I want them to do a proper four or five course feast with around 30 different dishes, complete with different menus for meat and meatless days. I just want them to get a few very basic things right. Kind of like how people expect a documentary about Pearl Harbor to be set in Hawaii instead of Des Moines, Iowa.

Monday, December 3, 2007

So why do I do this again?

I came across a phrase on another website about medieval cooking.  It basically stated that the recipes were adapted for modern cooks.  For some reason the word "adapted" bothered me, which meant that it kept bouncing around in the back of my mind, using up precious processor cycles and forcing its way into my attention.  I will therefore analyze my reaction and the thoughts around it so I can stop thinking about them.

Adapted ... That means the recipes were changed to suit modern tastes, equipment, supplies, etc.

From an academic viewpoint, this is a bad thing.  It hides the information and experience of what was really done and pastes over it a veneer of what is done now.

But I do an awful lot of adapting on my website.  All of my recipes have changes of one sort or another - at the very least, I cook them in a modern kitchen.  Crap.

This leads me to question my motivations.  Why do I make recipes from medieval sources?  Why do I publish the adapted recipes?  Is my website doing a disservice to academia?  Let's take these one at a time:

Why do I make recipes from medieval sources?
This is a pretty easy question to answer.  I like food in general, and I like foods from many different cuisines.  The cuisine of medieval England and France is as unique as any modern style of cooking.  I like the flavors, and it's easy and very forgiving for the novice cook.  Add to this that I can make a contribution to the cuisine without going to culinary school - I already have all the tools and information I need.

Why do I publish the adapted recipes?
I don't do it for the fame - neither Food Network or CNN have called.  I certainly don't do it for the money - running the website is a cheaper hobby than golf, but it still costs me.  I guess I do it because I love the cuisine and want to advance it.  The more overall interest in medieval cooking, then the more other people there are out there who are also researching it, and therefore the more help I have in the research overall.  I put the recipes in a form that's easy for modern cooks to understand, which hopefully draws in people who are new to the field.

Is my website doing a disservice to academia?
Great googly-moogly, I hope not.  While I do make changes to the original recipes, I always include the primary source so that others can look at what I've done and where I may have gone astray.  I try to go back and correct mistakes I discover as I learn new things.  When people ask questions, I try to find the answers.  When I can't find one, I make my best guess - but I try to remember to always make it clear that my best guess is still just a guess.  So, on the whole, I think that is a good example of the scientific method.  I formulate theories based on the available information, research for new information, test the theories, and correct or discard them as appropriate.

So why do I do this?  For the food, of course.  It's all about the food.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Out with the old and in with the new!

Thanksgiving is a funny kind of holiday for me. I'm so normally focused on the foods of the Old World (specifically, medieval Europe) that New World foodstuffs are relegated to the back burner. Of course this changes around Thanksgiving, when I spend quite a bit of time doing this odd mental dance. I want to celebrate the foods of the New World and find interesting new ways to serve them, but still keep true to the (young) traditions of the Thanksgiving meal.

Here's what I made this year:

Turkey - The only big surprise here is that the turkey was huge! We wanted a fresh turkey and ended up with a choice between one that was too small and one that ... wasn't. The 22 pound bird just barely fit into the roasting pan, and was lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and tarragon.

Stuffing - Cooked inside the turkey, I used a mix of white bread and pumpernickel, with onion, sage, thyme, celery seed, and dried cranberries.

Mashed Potatoes - Yes, potatoes and stuffing. My family has always operated on the principle that there is no such thing as too much starch.

Gravy - Made from butter, flour, and the drippings from the roasting pan. Gravy is one of the four food groups.

Green Beans - I wanted this to be a little fancier than just plan green beans, but didn't want to stray too far from traditional Thanksgiving fare. What I ended up doing was to steam them and serve them with a cream sauce with tarragon, and top them with some home-made croutons.

Cranberry Chutney - This is great stuff, sweet and tart, with a little extra zip. I keep the recipe here so I don't lose it.

Cranberry Sauce - Some of the family prefer the jellied cranberry sauce from a can to the chutney recipe above. Fortunately I've found that this kind of sauce is very easy to make with fresh cranberries. Put two cups cranberries (washed and cut in half) into a saucepan with one cup water and one cup sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until it thickens (about 20 minutes - a drop of the juice should gel when put on a cold plate). Strain through a fine sieve and chill.

Pumpkin Pie - served with fresh whipped cream.

Apple Pie - a crumb-topped pie, my wife's family recipe.

All of these, with the exception of the apple pie, are New World dishes (had to make the apple pie though, or the family would revolt). I'd like to have a corn-based dish for next year, so I'll have to look for something suitable. Anyways, I think it's time for another slice of pie before returning to the food coma.

Seed Newsvine

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hello Tallow!

A few months back I bought half a cow. I'd done this previously - if you have the money up front and enough freezer space then it's an incredibly economical way to buy beef. This time I did something a bit different though. Instead of throwing away all the odd parts that Americans generally don't eat, I had the processor pack them up as well (which is why I have that well publicized cow tongue ... got do do something with that thing). This means that along with some really great beef I've got a lot of suet and "soup bones".

So late last week I took a package of bones out of the freezer to let them thaw, and on Sunday I put them in a big pot with lots of water (and onions, salt,  pepper, and rosemary) to make beef broth.  Everything went well and I now have the broth frozen in one cup portions for quick, easy use.

All pretty boring, really.

The interesting part started when I was disposing of the used bones and gristle.  I'd dumped the dregs in the sink and made my first discovery:  one of the large pieces of bone had a huge chunk of marrow in it.

Of course I was heartbroken.  I've got recipes that call for marrow, and here I'd let some go to waste.  I poked out the piece of cooked marrow and smooshed it and marveled at the quantity of soft fat still in it.  Neat, in a gross kind of way - or is it gross, in a neat kind of way?

Next I gave the pieces of bone a quick scrub and set them out to dry (I think a couple of people I know have been experimenting with bone carving.  If not then I can just pitch them later).  Back to boring ... until the next time I checked the sink, which is when I found that what I thought to be globs of fat that would easily be washed down the drain were in reality globs of tallow that had now cooled and cemented themselves to the sink.

I know they made candles out of tallow in the middle ages (they're supposed to smell like beef when lit), but I've never seen tallow.  I'd always imagined something about the consistency of beeswax.  Nope, this stuff is hard!  They should make toys out of this stuff, or maybe car bumpers.  It's a hard, brittle, yellow, plastic-like substance.  Softer than most plastics, but harder than candle wax.

So now I've got two things to watch for the next time I thaw out a package of bones.  Remove the marrow before cooking, and collect the tallow after.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

But it could have happened!

The second most annoying thing in researching medieval cooking - the first of course being the myth that medieval cooks used spice to cover the taste of spoiled meat - is what I usually refer to as a cheeseburger argument.  This is usually an attempt to justify a modern dish as being "possibly" medieval, and generally takes the following form:

"They had beef in the middle ages, right?  And they sometimes ground meat, right?  And they sometimes cooked meat on a grill and they had cheese and bread, right?  So they had all the things they needed to make a cheeseburger.  Therefore the odds are that someone somewhere made one in the 500 years between 1000 and 1500."

Um ... no.

Sure, it sounds reasonable, but aside from being research in the wrong direction (choosing something modern and looking for it in the past, instead of looking at what there was and trying to make sense of it) the argument contains a number of logical flaws.

One of the flaws is called "Post hoc ergo propter hoc" (literally "After this, therefore because of this").  To make a cheeseburger you need to have all the ingredients (true), so having the ingredients will inevitably lead to making a cheeseburger (false).  Thousands of people in the US have raw fish and lye in their houses, and the vast majority of them will never make lutefisk.

This could also be a form of an "appeal to probability" (I still can't find the fancy Latin term for this), where it is assumed that because something can happen, it eventually will happen.

Another flaw present is a "fallacy of composition" (again, no cool Latin ... I'll keep looking), which assumes that if something is true for the parts then it's true for the whole.

So, while medieval cooks had all the stuff they needed to make a cheeseburger, and while it was possible that someone would make one, the concept of a cheeseburger (or any kind of sandwich for that matter) simply isn't one a medieval cook had.  Eventually someone did come up with the idea of a sandwich (most historians think it was sometime in the 18th century) and I'm sure a cheeseburger appeared shortly thereafter, so I suppose that given all of human history it was inevitable, but it wasn't in the middle ages.

Sometimes those making a cheeseburger argument tack on a short addendum when challenged, something along the lines of "You don't think they made cheeseburgers?  Prove they didn't."  In terms of classical logic this is called "Argumentam ad ignorantiam" (argument from ignorance), where the only "proof" that a premise is true is that it hasn't been proven false.  If this is allowed than almost anything can be "proven" - Henry the Fifth was actually a female orangutan!  Don't think so?  Prove he wasn't.  See?

Still it's soooo tempting. There's a particularly appealing modern dish, and a recipe or two from the 14th century that has a couple ingredients in common, and maybe even a hint at a method that kind of sort of matches, or maybe just a name that's spelled in a similar way.  That's why we need to practice CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

I'm going to go have a cheeseburger now.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Medieval Cooking Symposium

Just a quick post today.  I spent the weekend at the Middle Kingdom Cook's Symposium - a small gathering of professional and amateur cooks and historians in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I had an absolutely fantastic time, which included attending a class on medieval meat preservation methods (which I intend to try out as soon as possible - text and photos will be posted), and tasting many many (way too many - I ate until my stomach hurt) dishes I'd never tried before.  

Two of the more notable foods encountered were some sauteed cow tongue[1] made by Helewyse de Birkestad (a.k.a. Louise Smithson) and an incredible gingerbread dessert made by Hauviette d’Anjou (a.k.a. Channon Mondoux).

On the whole, it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday - learning, schmoozing, and just being historically geeky all around - and it was well worth the 5 hour drive to get there.

[1]  The cow tongue was notable not so much because of its flavor, but more because I'd never had it before and I've still got that whole tongue in my freezer.  It wasn't at all bad or unpleasant, but I think I'll look for a recipe with a little more spice to it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eight Creepy Medieval Recipes

In honor of Halloween, I present the following:  

Eight Creepy Medieval Recipes

1.  Cow's Udder

This isn't too creepy - I'm sure in some places it'd be a perfectly normal recipe - but I'm trying to ease you into the whole creepy experience.

For cow's udder which has been well washed and cooked, & put on a towel so it can rest well, & put it on a spit. For the udder's sauce , take two or three pieces of toasted white bread, which are not burned at all, & take some broth with verjuice to temper the bread, & mix with four or five egg yolks, & put therein nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, & sugar, & let it boil well together, & put it on the roasted udder.  

[Ouverture de Cuisine, Daniel Myers (trans.)]

2. Hedgehog

Here it's not the food itself that's creepy, but the instructions seem a bit cruel.

Hedgehog should have its throat cut, be singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water, and then it will straighten itself.  

[Le Menagier de Paris, J. Hinson (trans.)]

3. "Roasted" Chicken

We'll continue with the animal-cruelty theme for a bit.  I've heard of people playing with their food, but this is going a bit far.

A faire .i. poullet aler rosti sur la table: preng ung poullet ou aultre oisiel tel qu'il te plaira, sy le plume tout vif a l'eaue chaude tresnettement; puis preng lez moioeufs de .ii. ou .iii. oeufs, et soient bastus avoecq pouldre de saffren et fleur de ble, et destempres d'eaue crasse ou de la craisse qui chiet soubz le rost en la paiele saininoire; et de ceste mistion, a tout une plume, dore et pains tresbien ton poullet tant qu'il ait coulleur pareille a viande rostie; et, ce fait, quant on vouldra servir a table, mettez la teste du poulet dessoulz son elle, et le tourne entre tes mains et le touppie tant qu'il soit bien endormis; puis l'asiies sur ton plat avoecq l'autre rot, et quant on le vaura trenchier il se esveillera et s'en fuira par la table et abatra pos et hanaps, etc.

To make a Chicken be Served Roasted. Get a chicken or any other bird you want, and pluck it alive cleanly in hot water. Then get the yolkes of two or three eggs; they should be beaten with powdered saffron and wheat flour, and distempered with fat broth or the grease that drips under a roast in to the dripping pan. By means of a feather glaze and paint your pullet carefully with this mixture so that its colour looks like roast meat. With this done, and when it is about to be served to the table, put the chicken's head under its wing, and turn it in your hands, rotating it until it is fast asleep. Then set it down on your platter with the other roast meat. When it is about to be carved it will wake up and make off down the table upsetting jugs, goblets and whatnot.  

[The Vivendier, Terence Scully (trans.)]

4. Roast Cat

Remember, while chicken heads might be ok, cat heads aren't for eating.

123. Roast Cat as You Wish to Eat It. You will take a cat that is fat, and decapitate it. And after it is dead, cut off the head and throw it away because it is not for eating, for they say that eating the brains will cause him who eats them to lose his senses and judgment. Then flay it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well, and then wrap it in a cloth of clean linen. And bury it beneath the ground where it must be for a day and a night; and then take it out of there and set it to roast on a spit. And roast it over the fire. And when beginning to roast it, grease it with good garlic and oil. And when you finish greasing it, whip it well with a green twig , and this must be done before it is well-roasted, greasing it and whipping it. And when it is roasted, cut it as if it were a rabbit or a kid and put it on a big plate; and take garlic and oil blended with good broth in such a manner that it is well-thinned. And cast it over the cat. And you may eat of it because it is very good food.  

[Libre del Coch, R. Carroll-Mann (trans.)]

5. Sheep's Penis

While I know it's a psychological quirk on my part, there are some things I simply won't eat.

.xxiii. Der leckers scapin roede dwaetse wel ende keertse ende dan nemt sof fraen ghewreuen die doderen van .x. eyeren ende enen lepel melken tem pert metten vetten ende vaerst die roede Ende wacht dat niet te vul en sy ende doetse zieden in eenen wal ende dan braedse ende pouderse met poudere van ghingebare ende Caneele ende een lettel pepers.

Sheep's penis for the foodie. Wash it well and clean it. Then take brayed saffron, the yolks of ten eggs and a spoonfull of milk. Temper with fat and stuff the penis, but take care that it is not overstuffed. Blanch it, then roast it. Sprinkle with powder of ginger, cinnamon and a little pepper.   

[Wel ende edelike spijse, C. Muusers (trans.)]

6. Veal Genitals

While we're on the subject, here's another one.

Animelle ou soupitte de veau en potage.  Mettez boullir les animelles dedans l'eau, puis tirez les petits nerfz dehors,& les mettez dedans du bon bouillon pour esteuuer: mettez dedans muscade, mariolaine haschee, du beurre & vn peu de vin blanc & seruez ainsi.

Veal genitals or nether parts in pottage.  Put to boil the genitals in water, then remove the little nerfz, & put them in good broth to stew: put therein nutmeg, chopped marjoram, butter & a little white wine & serve so.  

[Ouverture de Cuisine, Daniel Myers (trans.)]

7. Garbage

Aside from the appetizing name, this stew calls for parts of a chicken that most people in the US would normally throw away.

.xvij. Garbage. Take fayre garbagys of chykonys, as the hed, the fete, the lyuerys, an the gysowrys; washe hem clene, an caste hem in a fayre potte, an caste ther-to freysshe brothe of Beef or ellys of moton, an let it boyle; an a-lye it wyth brede, an ley on Pepir an Safroun, Maces, Clowys, an a lytil verious an salt, an serue forth in the maner as a Sewe.  

[Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, T. Austin (ed.)]

8. Medicine for Gout

Short and simple, this recipe without a doubt wins the creepy competition.  If I hadn't seen the original I'd have been certain it was a typo for "tongue".

For the gowte. Take & strene Cow Dongue & Drinke the Iuce & it will heale the gowte.  

[The commonplace book of Countess Katherine Seymour Hertford, Daniel Myers (ed.)]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Structure of Medieval Meals

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.

A prime example of this is a book I got in the mail yesterday, "Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France," by Jean-Louis Flandrin.

The common wisdom is that there is little or no method to the way foods were grouped into courses in medieval menus.  Flandrin questioned this, and through a careful analysis of surviving menus he has found strong evidence that there is an underlying order to the courses in medieval French meals.  Further, his research suggests a different scheme controlled what was served in England as well.

This means I'm now going to have to dig through as many medieval English menus as I can find, categorize and correlate the dishes, and see if I can work out just what that scheme was.  I have no choice - it's a geek thing.  If I don't then it'll constantly be bugging me.

The book was translated from French and is quite readable, though it does get a bit bogged down in details.  It covers quite a bit more than just the middle ages, but is narrow enough in scope to keep it from being a general overview.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Breakfast Conundrum

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

Inherent Hazard

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.

Weird Food

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

Medieval Food Myths

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.