Monday, January 21, 2008

It's really not that hard ... Part 2

So ... I'm going through the calendar, trying to figure out which medieval re-creation events I'll be going to for the next few months, and I take a look at the feast menus, and I find that some of them don't even give a hand-waive towards history. Yes, there are some nice, medieval (or at least reasonably so) feasts here and there across the Midwestern US, but they appear to be decreasing in proportion to the others.

I'll pause here to note that I've been in the SCA (a US-based medieval "re-creation" group) for many years, and I've been cooking for much of that time. I'm the first to admit that the feasts I cooked way back when were crap as far as historical accuracy goes, but then there weren't the resources available back then that there are now.

I know I'm a food snob, that I'm fanatical and bordering on dangerously obsessed, but I don't think I'm asking too much here. All I want is a reasonable attempt at medieval food. I don't expect a six course meal, with four or five dishes per course, all exotic and unusual and documented to have been served to a duke in Calais in the year 1432 (I wouldn't complain, mind you, but I really don't expect it). However it really isn't that hard to come up with a filling meal consisting of a few dishes that are reasonable approximations of what might have been served to someone - anyone - between the years 600 and 1700.

Really, it's not that hard. Let's say that - for whatever reason - you've got to cook a medieval dinner. Can a reasonable attempt be made assuming no prior knowledge of medieval European cuisine, no ability to read a language other than modern English, no local library with texts on the subject, and no fancy cooking skills? Yes. All it takes is Internet access (or a friend with Internet access).

Web Search

A Google search on "medieval recipe" returns 224,000 hits - I'm only going to look at the first two.

The first link, titled Medieval Feasts, has 11 recipes. Among them I find:
  • chicken with orange and lemon
  • spinach tart
  • frumenty, a cracked wheat side dish for meats
  • cherry pottage
That's a meat dish, a vegetable, a starch, and a dessert. Add bread and butter and it sounds like a really nice meal. All of these have complete recipes with detailed instructions and even a reference to the original source - and it took me a whopping two minutes to put together.

The second link is to a site I know pretty well - it's my own Medieval Recipes page. It lists over 90 recipes, each with detailed instructions and a reference to the original source.

What's more, there's a big button at the bottom of the page that says "Menus". This leads to another page with links to both menus from medieval sources, and menus from the feasts of re-enactment groups.

Obviously digging through this site could chew up more than a couple of minutes, but it also offers a lot of choices (now that I think about it though, I'll be adding a "Quick and Easy Medieval Feasts" page soon).

Let me say that again: Two Minutes

Two minutes got me a reasonable attempt at a medieval dinner, and there were lots of other options with just a few more clicks. I didn't have to go to a library. I didn't have to open a book. I didn't have to try to read a different language. I didn't have to work out a recipe on my own.

Don't try to tell me that it takes too much work to do it right.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Making a Medieval Field Kitchen - Part 2

Foods for Medieval Field Kitchen

In my first post I talked about the furniture and equipment I'd need. Here I'll be looking at the foods. Come to think of it, this is probably my computer science background showing through - first I speced out the hardware, now I'm doing the software.

Italian Kitchen from "Il Cuoco Segreto Di Papa Pio V",
Bartolomeo Scappi, Venice, 1570

As a source of raw data, I used lists of foods I'd pulled out of medieval English and French cookbooks for the section of my website on Statistics from Medieval Cookbooks. Since I know which foods appear most often in the cookbooks I work from, I can ensure that I have the majority of ingredients I might possibly need.

These foods seem (to me) to divide themselves into four categories: Spices, Staples, Fruits and Vegetables, and Fresh Foods.

The Spices

This category is pretty simple to deal with. They don't take up much space, so I should be able to keep them all in a "spice chest" the size of a shoebox. As long as I keep them dry, I don't have to worry about them. The spices are: cinnamon, cloves, cubebs, cumin, ginger, galingale, grains of paradise, hyssop, mace, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, parsely, pepper, saffron, sage, salt, sandalwood, and savory.

The Staples

These are the foods that I'll need in larger quantities than the spices, but like the spices they'll be fine as long as I keep them dry (or for the liquids, in suitable containers). The staples are: almonds, amidon (wheat starch), cooking oil, flour, lard, nuts, oatmeal, peas (dried), pine nuts, rice, rosewater, sugar, vinegar, wine, and yeast.

Hmm... suitable containers - there's a whole new problem. I really can't have an authentic medieval field kitchen if I have a plastic bottle of olive oil and commercial spice tins sitting out on the table, can I? Obviously I'll need to look into medieval food containers - but that can wait until later on.

Fruits and Vegetables

This is a bit of a mixed bag. Most of these will keep reasonably well for several days (assuming good weather). A few (e.g. apples, onions) have a high enough moisture content that I'll need to keep an eye on them to make sure they don't go all green and fuzzy on me. They are: apples, currants (zante raisins), dates, figs, garlic, onions, oranges, prunes, and raisins.

Fresh Foods

These are the troublemakers. The fruits and vegetables on this list won't keep as well as those on the list above, and some of these foods will quickly become unsafe if kept at room temperature. They are: cabbage, cream, grapes, leeks, mushrooms, pears, radishes, spinach, strawberries, turnips, butter, eggs, cheese, meat, and milk.

Most of these will need to be purchased on the day they're to be used. There are some medieval preservation techniques that could help - especially with the meat - but again, that would be (and will be) a whole separate topic.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Making a Medieval Field Kitchen

A while back I came across the picture below, and of course it got me thinking. "Field kitchen? I could really use a proper medieval field kitchen."

Field Kitchen from "Il Cuoco Segreto Di Papa Pio V",
Bartolomeo Scappi, Venice, 1570

You see, every now and then (at least once a year - and it should be much more often) I go to a medieval camping thing. In the past I've avoided doing any serious cooking (kind of embarrassing to admit), which I usually attribute to lack of equipment and not wanting to cook over a fire on hot days. But seeing this picture has made me realize that the equipment needed for a proper medieval camp kitchen might not be all that hard to put together at a reasonable cost. I'd still have to be cooking over a fire on hot days, but I suppose I should just accept that as part of the whole medieval experience, eh?

So ... just what do I need for a properly working - and safe - kitchen?  In terms of furniture, I don't need an awful lot as long as I'm not trying to be too fancy.
  • two saw-horse tables
  • a roasting rack
  • a sun / rain awning
  • some shelves to keep stored items off the ground
  • boxes and baskets for food storage
That's pretty encouraging, especially since I already have the roasting rack - it doesn't even look too different from the one in the picture.  The list for kitchen equipment is quite a but longer though.
  • two or three earthenware pots
  • tripods / trivets
  • mortar and pestle
  • wooden spoons
  • a meat hook
  • a cauldron or large kettle
  • an S hook
  • a griddle
  • a wafer / waffle iron
  • pitchers
  • wooden bowls
  • serving platter
  • knives
  • hand towels
  • dish towels
  • tablecloths
I think I have about half of these, and some of the remaining could get pretty expensive (have you priced large wooden bowls lately?  The real ones, not the cheap salad things).  Then there's a list of things I need for the sake of food safety and cleanliness.
  • three wash tubs
  • dish soap
  • dish sanitizer
  • water dispenser for washing hands
  • bucket for waste water
That's a lot of stuff, but really it's not too bad.  Notice something though?  I didn't list any food, and I didn't list anything for keeping foods fresh.  That's a whole topic on its own, and I'll cover it in the next post.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Mystery Objects

As a food-geek, I often find myself looking at the wrong part of a painting. Presented with a medieval scene depicting Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem, I'm ignoring the figures in the foreground and instead stare at some small plant in the background mumbling something like, "Is that a carrot?" Occasionally I'm even quite annoyed at the subjects in the foreground for being in the way.

To the rescue come the late-medieval Flemish artists, who decided that the setting was much more fun to paint and therefore relegated the action of the painting to the background. The resulting still-life paintings often contain all sorts of interesting food-related items, and the main characters don't get in the way. A fine example is the painting by Pieter Aertsen commonly called "The Butcher Stall" - though apparently it's meant to be "The Flight into Egypt."

Butcher's Stall (1551)
Pieter Aertsen

There are all sorts of neat things in here, and most are easily identified: sausages, fish, animal parts, bowl of broth with a layer of hard fat on the top, even pretzels. Oh, and if you look carefully, in the background, just to the left of the pig head some people are fleeing to Egypt or something.

But wait ... what in the world are those things next to the pig feet, just in front of the cow head?

Weird Things

It's a butcher's stall, so they're most likely meat-related. Cheese? If so, then I don't think I want to try any of the brown ones. Maybe the brown ones are congealed blood. Are the cream-colored ones suet then? Dunno. Then there's this thing ...

Another Weird Thing

Again, I'm really not sure what this is. Butter, maybe?

I guess my point here is that even when a painting of medieval foodstuffs was obviously meant to be a realistic depiction, it's not always clear just what everything is. Such paintings have sparked long debates, and many items in them will probably remain mysterious - even though their identity was most likely obvious to the painter.

Of course, if anyone out ther has any idea what these things are, I'd love to hear it!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Learning Process

Let's face it, being proven wrong is embarrassing.

I try to view it all as a valuable learning experience - something that builds character and provides new insights and all that - but the truth is that it's still a bite in the butt.  The thing is, in order to make any kind of impact, in order to do any kind of worthwhile research, it is absolutely necessary to make some assumptions.  That means putting your butt on the line, and that means it's just waiting to get bitten.  Ok, enough of that metaphor.  How about some examples?

At some point on a cooking mailing list I noted the immense variability of Brasica oleracea (the species that includes broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), and stated that since cauliflower was a corruption of cole flower, medieval cauliflower probably wasn't anything like the modern stuff.  Of course about 5 milliseconds later someone posted a link to a medieval painting of cauliflower that showed it to be very modern looking, and also showed me to be completely wrong.

Detail from "Market Woman with Vegetable Stall"
Pieter Aertsen, 1567.

Need another example?  A few years back in the medieval cooking re-creation community (read: geeks) it was pretty well established that there was no evidence to support the eating of bread spread with butter (other than a strange line in one medieval English text about how strange it was that those weird Huguenots ate butter on their bread), and since bread and butter never appeared on any of the available medieval menus then it probably wasn't eaten.  This statement was made on one of the cooking mailing lists (maybe by me, maybe not - I don't remember).  The result?  Yup.  About 3 milliseconds later someone responded with the results of a quick search of medieval documents showing many many such references.  People in the middle ages did eat bread and butter, they just didn't put it on the menu and apparently didn't need a recipe to make it.

Recently, a person I greatly admire posted to the same freakin' cooking mailing list that she didn't think the (modern-style) fruit preserves commonly represented as being medieval were anything like what was served in the middle ages.  This one really hurt.  I regularly make quince marmalade - incredibly yummy stuff, and very popular - and I've been promoting it as being medieval (which I thought it was).  There was much discussion and the general consensus was (is?) that the modern-looking fruit preserves probably came about in the 17 century.  The stuff before that was either whole fruits in sugar syrup, or something more like Turkish delight.

Oh bother.

I'm finally coming to terms with this.  I'll have to make a couple of changes to the recipe I have online, and make it clear whenever I serve the quince marmalade that it's late medieval at best.

The bigger problem though was that I'd never made the Turkish-delight-like stuff.  However, over the holidays I managed to correct this serious omission.  The result was a plate of diamond shaped slices of very firm quince jelly.  It still had that wonderful quince flavor, and now had the added bonus of being finger food!  It also wasn't any harder to make than quince marmalade (though it doesn't last nearly as long).

Yummy Medieval Quince Stuff

The lesson?  Well, one possible lesson is "Stay away from the cooking mailing lists!"  More importantly though, I'm reminded that researching medieval cooking is a process of successive approximation.  We make the best guess we can, and when new (or old) information comes along we improve upon that guess, even if it means letting go of some dearly held belief.