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.