Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Medieval Diet?

Last week I came across a post on Lifehacker in which the blogger in question described his change to a flexitarian diet and how he'd been able to lose substantial weight with a few relatively easy modifications to his eating habits. Seeing as I've been getting decidedly Pooh-shaped lately, and remembering that many years back we'd gone semi-vegetarian and didn't die from meat withdrawal, I've come to think that this may be a good thing to try.

Then the thought occurred to me that this sort of semi-vegetarian thing was a major part of the Church-dictated medieval European diet. On three days each week - Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays - meat from land animals was off the menu. They were replaced with fish, leguminous vegetables, and the like. Of course things were much more restricted during lent (no dairy or eggs allowed either, making it a sort of pisco-vegan diet). Interesting, but I'm not quite ready for 40 days of that.

So what would a modern, healthy version of "The Medieval Diet"™ be like? Let's see ...

  1. No meat (other than fish) on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays
  2. Lunch is the main meal, dinner is smaller
  3. Meat portions are small (~4 oz.) with the bulk of the caloric intake coming from other foods
  4. Seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables
  5. Carbohydrates from a variety of grains and tubers
  6. Reduced intake of sugars

Mind you, this isn't how people actually ate in most of medieval Europe. Most food historians now think that the average worker was consuming around 3000 calories a day (not counting times of famine) and burning it all off with hard work, and the wealthy were eating a diet full of fats, sugars, and protein (and paying the price in terms of diet-related diseases just like we are today). Still, it's a diet that has a basis in medieval practices, and is surprisingly close to what a lot of modern nutritionists advocate.

We'll have to see how well it works.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Items of Note

Music - Venere Lute Quartet
"Aery Entertainments"
Mees Hall, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
February 20, 2009

One of few professional lute ensembles, the Venere Lute Quartet performs
Renaissance and Baroque masterworks and is actively expanding the surviving
lute ensemble repertoire with its own arrangements. In its Columbus debut,
the quartet will perform works by Palestrina, Praetorius, Sweelinck and
others. The Venere Lute Quartet is named after the Italian Renaissance
luthier Vendelio Venere, who (like Stradivarius) was regarded among the
finest luthiers of his age.

Tickets are $25, $20 (seniors), $10 (students) and are available at the
door. To order by phone, call Early Music in Columbus (614-861-4569), the
CAPA Ticket office (614-469-0939) or Ticketmaster (614-431-3600).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Leaving One's Comfort Zone

Towards the end of last month, we took a family car trip to Florida. About a third of the way into the sixteen-hour return trip we stopped briefly at a gas station/convenience store, and while I was waiting for various family members to be ready to continue the trip I wound up staring at a rack of commercial baked goods with Spanish labels. While I'll freely admit to being an adventurous eater, I found the names and visible contents to be somewhat dubious. I mean, I don't like Twinkies or most store-bought cookies, and here was an array of factory made "food" that apparently is geared to patrons of Mexican gas stations.

So I bought some.

I picked out the most unusual and oddly named items I could find and thus begins the tale of the trying of three products: Pingüinos, Gansitos, and the ever-appetizingly-named ¡Sponch! Into the grocery bag they go, and into the car, and down the road for ten interminable hours, and once we were home I shoved the bag into the back of the pantry to save them for later without worry since they had an expiration date that was sometime in the later half of the 32nd century.

Thus when Avelyn, my apprentice, came over for dinner on Sunday (broiled steak seasoned with coriander and ginger, rice steamed with coconut milk and currants, and fresh asparagus), I was ready with something truly educational for dessert. We cleared the dinner dishes away, got out the grocery bag of dread, and started dividing things up.

Penguins are good, right?

The first thing we tried were the Pingüinos, and they were a bit of a disappointment. In appearance they're indistinguishable from hostess cupcakes - right down to the loops of icing on the top and the plastic tray. That's about where the similarity ends though, for Pingüinos have all the chocolaty flavor goodness of potting soil and a moisture content like that of dryer lint. Of the five people at the dining table, only the nine-year-old child liked them.


After the Pingüinos we decided to jump right in and try the scariest looking thing here - ¡Sponch! It was obvious right off the bat that this wasn't like any snack cake I'd encountered before. It consists of a square shortbread cookie (imprinted on the bottom with the word ¡Sponch!) topped with four mounds of alleged marshmallow, with a bit of jelly at the center and the whole thing sprinkled with coconut. Apparently ¡Sponch! comes in a variety of flavors. I had purchased a package of "strawberry" (hereafter referred to as PINK) and "grape" (hereafter referred to as PURPLE).

By far, ¡Sponch! received the most reaction from our intrepid team (actually, I think we were all very trepid). Avelyn said the PURPLE flavored ¡Sponch! tasted like chewable vitamins. The eleven-year-old said it tasted like children's chewable Tylenol. The nine-year-old took the tiniest of nibbles from the PINK flavored one and then (wisely) refused to eat it. For some strange reason nobody wanted the PURPLE flavored one that he didn't touch. The general comment upon tasting was something like "Um ... urgh ... ghah!".

How can you go wrong with something called "Little Goose"

Gansitos were by far the best of the lot. They were small (somewhat stale) yellow cakes topped with a strip of jelly, topped in turn with a strip of white fluffy stuff, then coated in chocolate and sprinkled with "chocolate" sprinkles (the shape of which had disturbing connotations when connected with the phrase "Little Goose"). The eleven-year-old said he liked them (but didn't want the extras), the nine-year-old tasted it and decided he was done. I thought the jelly had an odd, acidic, almost alcoholic taste to it. LU Biscuits makes a kind of cookie (PIMS) that are vaguely similar in flavor (but a whole lot nicer).

On the whole, it was a fun thing to do for dessert, and while some things tasted strange (¡Sponch!) none of us got sick or anything.

What does this have to do with Medieval Cooking? Not a heck of a lot. But part of researching culinary history means trying foods that look strange and/or have weird ingredients. You have to be willing to go beyond what is normal for your culture, and you find yourself asking things like "Do people really like this sort of thing? If so, why?" and "What flavor were they trying to get here?"

Hmm ... maybe I need to make another trip to the international section of Jungle Jim's International Market soon. They've got some really weird stuff there!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kalendarium Hortense - February

The Kalendarium Hortense was published by John Evelyn in 1683. It contains instructions for what a gardener should do throughout the year. The excerpt below is the list of what is to be done in the "Orchard and Olitory1 Garden" for the month of February.

Prune Fruit-Trees, and Vines as yet; for now is your Season to bind, plash, nail, and dress, without danger of Frost: This to be understood of the most tender and delicate Wall-fruit, 2 not finish'd before; do this before the Buds and Bearers grow turgid; and yet in the Nectarine and like delicate Mural Fruit, the latter your Pruning, the better, whatever has been, and still is, the contrary custom. Remove Graffs of former years Graffing. Cut, and lay Quick-sets; and trim up your Palisade Hedges, and Espaliers. Plant Vine as yet, other Shrubs, Hops, &c.

Set all sorts of Kernels and stony-Seeds. Also sow Beans, Pease, Rounsevals, 3 Corn-sallet, Marigold, Anny-seeds, Radish, Parsneps, Carrots, Onions, Garlick, &c. And plant Potatoes in your worst ground.

Now is your Season for Circumposition by Tubs or Baskets of Earth, and for laying of Branches to take root. You may plant forth your Cabbage-plants.

Rub Moss off your Trees after soaking Rain, and scrape, and cleanse them of Cankers, &c. draining away the wet (if need require) from the too much moistned Roots, and earth up those Roots of your Fruit-Trees, if any were uncovered. Cut off the Webs of Caterpillars, &c. from the tops of Twigs and Trees to burn. Gather Worms in the Evenings after Rain.

Kitchen Garden Herbs may now be planted, as Parsly, Spinage, and other hardy Pot Herbs. Towards the midde, or latter end of this Month, till the Sap rises briskly, graff in the Cleft, and so continue till the last of March; they will hold, Apples, Pears, Cherries, Plums, &c. the New Moon, and the Old Wood is best. Now also plant out your Caullyflowers to have early; and begin to make your Hot-bed for the first Melons and Cucumbers to be sow'd in the Full; but trust not altogether to them. Sow Asparagas, Lastly,

Half open your passages for the Bees, or a little before (if weather invite;) but to continue to seed weak Stock, &c.

1 - Olitory: of or pertaining to, or produced in, a kitchen garden.

2 - Wall / Mural fruit: trees trained against a wall.

3 - Rouncival: a large, very late season pea that would be considered a soup pea today rather than a green pea.