Thursday, June 24, 2010

Starting Points

When I first started researching medieval cooking - back in the dark ages before the invention of the internet - there were few resources available to anyone who didn't live close to an academic library. The few good sources of information were either people you had to go find, or texts that been copied and re-copied so many times that they were almost unreadable. Now there are so many resources that the beginner is likely to be overwhelmed.

Even on my own page of recommended books I've got an awful lot of titles listed, and for people who are just beginning to study medieval European cuisine, or those who just want to touch on the subject lightly, it can be difficult to figure out where to start.

So I thought I'd take a moment here to list a handful of what I see as basic works - books that provide an easy point of entry to the subject.

For an overview of medieval European cuisine, I'd recommend the following:

The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages by Terence Scully

Cooking in Europe, 1250-1650 by Ken Albala

Both of these books are well written in a very approachable style. They provide the general context of medieval cooking as clearly and simply as possible.

If you want to try and cook medieval foods however, you'll need recipes. There are a handful of websites out there which have recipes worked out already, but there are many medival cookbooks widely available, and working from the original source is really cool and very educational. Below are a few that I feel are good, basic sources, broken down by region. The best part is that most of them are available online for free.


Forme of Cury
(included in "Curye on Inglish" - in Middle English)
(free online version - in Middle English)

Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books
(in Middle English)
(free online version - in Middle English)


Le Méenagier de Paris
(English translation, as "The Goodman of Paris")
(free online version -in French)
(free online version - English translation)

The Viandier of Taillevent
(in French, inlcludes English translation)
(free online version - English translation)


Das Buch von guter Speise
(free online version - in German)
(free online version - in German with English translation)


The Neapolitan Recipe Collection
(in Italian with English translation)

Libro di cucina / Libro per cuoco
(free online version - in Italian)
(free online version - English translation)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Quiz - Question 3

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. I've been a bit busy with the whole real-life thing and have been neglecting the all of you. I'll try to do better.

Back in December I posted a 6 question quiz about medieval cooking. I had tried to phrase the questions so that there would be many possible answers that could be considered to be correct depending on viewpoint. Here are my thoughts on the third question.

3. How did the primitive cooking equipment available in 15th century England affect the foods cooked?

The use of the word "primitive" above is obviously a leading one, or perhaps that should be misleading. The popular view of medieval European cuisine is that the food was rustic. Images of medieval kings gnawing roasted meat off the bone (usually a Turkey leg at that) are typical in films set in medieval times. While I'm sure that some cooking was rustic then, just as some of it is now, the upper and middle classes enjoyed lavish feasts. Dishes were often ornately decorated, often with gold leaf. Cooks would make "illusion foods" where one kind of food was carefully prepared to make it look like another (for example, making fish look like a hard-boiled egg).

How did they manage to do this with such primitive equipment? The answer is that what they had wasn't necessarily all that primitive.

Yes, they didn't have food processors or refrigerators. They didn't have kitchen timers or thermostats or even measuring spoons. However, take a look at the kitchen of a modern chef. Clean countertops, knives, gas burner, these are the basic tools of the modern chef, and no one would be surprised to see a great chef prepare a stunningly beautiful meal using only the basics.

Each of those basics was available in medieval Europe as well (ok, the gas burner would have been replaced with a wood or charcoal stove, but the form and function aren't that different). Why is it expected then that a great chef back then couldn't make an incredible feast using the same tools? I think the reason is that we automatically tend to assume that the middle ages must have been more primitive than the modern era. This probably stems in part from the Victorian era assumptions that wound up being written into history books.

After all, people aren't too resistant to the suggestion that the ancient Romans cooked elegant feasts. There's this strange tendency though to assume that the fall of the Roman empire plunged the world into darkness for over a thousand years, and in that time we all ate dirt and waited patiently for the renaissance.

In short, the answer to this question is: It didn't.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kalendarium Hortense - June

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 section titled "Fruits in Prime, or yet lasting" for the month of June.

Juniting (first ripe) Pepins, John-Apples, Robillard, Red Fennouil, &c. French.

The Maudlin (first ripe) Madera, Green-Royal, St. Laurence Pear, &c.

Cherries, &c.
Duke, Flanders, Heart { Black. Red. White. } Luke-ward, early Flanders, the Common Cherry, Spanish Black, Naples Cherries, &c.

Rasberries, Corinths, Strawberries, Melons, &c.