Monday, November 28, 2011

TV Interview

Last week I had a brief interview with "Goodday Sacramento" on the Sacramento CBS affiliate.  The fact that this was my first TV appearance meant that I had no idea what to expect.  It turns out that for morning news shows the operating word is "fast" - I don't think I was on the air for more than a minute.  Obviously that's not enough time to go into any significant depth on a subject (and I know I can get awfully wordy), so I thought I'd take some time to give more leisurely answers here for the questions I was asked.

The first question was along the lines of "Why cook medieval recipes?"  My answer was that one could just as easily ask, "Why cook Chinese recipes?" or "Why cook Indian?"  Medieval European cuisine is a unique style of cooking, with its own balance of flavors.  I also noted that the flavors of Medieval English cooking are surprisingly similar to those of modern Indian, leaving out the capsicum peppers.

In medieval England - especially in the 14th and 15th centuries - spices like cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and saffron were used, especially in meat dishes.  The combinations of these spices gives a flavor that is very similar to that in modern cooking in the Mediterranean and India.  On a side note, the word "curry" itself comes from Middle-English, and means "cook".

I was then asked about how hard it is to find recipes.  I said that when I started researching, 20 years ago, it was very difficult.  You needed to be near the right library or know the right people.  Now many of the texts are freely available online, and I have a list of links for them on the website.

This has really changed medieval cooking research an incredible amount.  Not only are libraries now putting images of the original manuscripts online, but researchers (both amateur and professional) are transcribing and translating the documents into multiple languages.  In just the past five years the number of medieval recipe books that are readily accessible to the average geek has gone from a handful to hundreds.  Medieval English and French cookbooks have even been translated into languages like Russian and Japanese.

Finally, I was asked about Thanksgiving dinner.  Given that they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving in medieval Europe (for the most part they still don't, but I've heard that's changing), what medieval foods could be served in it's place?  I responding with a menu that most would find surprising:  honey mustard barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and peach pie.

I unintentionally described this as a "traditional menu", but it's more accurately a "menu of traditional foods".  No, I have no record of any medieval cook serving exactly that meal, but all those foods can clearly be traced to England in the 14th century.  I often use that fact to pull people out of the mindset that medieval food was all about huge chunks of roast meat and tankards of wine.  The recipes we have from back then are surprisingly sophisticated and exhibit a wide range of flavors.

There is a copy of the video online.

From a technical viewpoint, I have a few observations.  First is that I look and sound like a total goob.  I'd like to think that it's the fault of the camera angle and the cheap microphone built into the computer - please don't tell me otherwise and ruin my happy delusion.  If I should end up with another interview via Skype, I'll make sure the ambient lighting is better.  The room was fairly well lit about 15 minutes before the start of the interview, but it then clouded up outside and things got too dark.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Levels of Medievalness

Whether it is dinner at a "medieval-themed" restaurant, a feast held by a historic recreation group, or a home-cooked dinner made for a school project (or even just for the fun of it), a question that might arise is "How medieval is this meal?"

Really, it's a very tricky thing to work out. There's all sorts of things that can enter into it, including such diverse elements as the type and source of the ingredients, the atmosphere (both ambiance and air quality) of the dining area, and even the time of year in relation to the foods served. In fact, considering all the extended variables, I suspect the answer to "How medieval is this meal?" is "Not very."

However, there are some aspects that are more easily controlled and which have a much larger impact on the ... medievalness? ... medievalosity? ... medievalery? ... ok, authenticity.  Let's look at them in order from least medieval to most medieval.

1. Medieval Ingredients

There are a number of foods that weren't available in medieval Europe. Some are things from the Americas (e.g. turkey, potatoes, capsicum peppers, peanuts, vanilla, chocolate) and weren't imported into Europe until after 1500.  Some are from other places (e.g. bananas, tea, coffee, yams), but were still not in common use in Europe.  Some are things that were invented well after 1500 (e.g. baking powder, mayonnaise).

The presence of any of these marks a meal as being modern.  It doesn't matter what recipe was used or how the food was cooked, they're simply not medieval.

2. Real Recipes

Even if all the ingredients used to make the meal were available in medieval Europe, that doesn't mean the resulting dishes would have been familiar to a medieval European.  Bread, ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and pickles are all reasonably medieval foods, but there's no account of any medieval cook ever making a cheeseburger (or any other type of sandwich, for that matter).

Fortunately there are a large number of medieval European cookbooks available, both in print and for free online. What's more, many have been translated into several different languages (for the benefit of those who don't read Middle-French or whatever), and there are even recipes that have been worked out with modern measurements and instructions.

3. Menu Consistency

Given both medieval ingredients and recipes, the consistency of the menu becomes an issue. By this I don't mean that the menu is too runny or somesuch, but rather that the individual dishes on the menu make sense to be served together.

While a World Fusion dinner can be fun, most people would be confused to be served a dinner menu of curried beef, Szechuan vegetables, tamales, poi, and hot chocolate. It's too strange a mix of cultures and cuisines.  The differences within regions and time periods in medieval European cultures can be very subtle, but they are there.  Twelfth century English food is very different from sixteenth century German.

Sometimes there are menus along with the recipes in many of the medieval cookbooks, which makes this part a lot easier. However there is still a lot of uncertainty to this aspect, and it's a great area for research.

It is only when the ingredients are medieval, the recipes are medieval, and the menu is medieval, that other aspects become important (like the apple variety, the quality of the spices, the shape of the serving vessel, the way the food is served, the color of the walls).

It's also important to work things in the above order.  Using non-medieval ingredients or modern recipes is kind of like building a ten-million dollar home and skimping on the quality of the materials or workmanship.  The final product simply won't hold together.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dwarven Cookbook now available!

It took a bit longer than expected, but the book is now available online. The proof copies looked really nice and Stephanie and I are happy with the way it turned out.

A Dwarven Cookbook: Recipes from the Kingdom of Kathaldûm
Stephanie Drummonds and Daniel Myers
Paperback: 132 pages
ISBN-10: 0615549616
ISBN-13: 978-0615549613
Price: $8.95

We're going to take a bit of time to work on other projects, but we've already got plans for a follow-up cookbook of halfling recipes.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Quince Harvest

Yesterday I picked 8 quinces from the tree in my back yard. Not only is this a big improvement in quantity over last year's harvest of two, but these quince are full-sized - over 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter. There were also an additional four quince that were too bug-eaten to keep, so next year I'm going to try the trick with putting nylon covers over the growing fruit to protect them.

Of course I now have a bunch of quince to work with, and will have to decide what to do with them.

I could make some of the recipes I've done in the past, like Chardquynce, Quince pie, or the ever popular Marmelade of Quinces. I could also try out something new, like connates perhaps.

Even more exciting though is that Cindy, having seen this year's crop, said she's now convinced that planting the trees wasn't a waste of time and money, and she's even willing to have another fruit tree in the back yard. So now I'm looking through my lists of Medieval Fruit Varieties trying to decide which tree would be the best addition.

For apples there are a couple of really good varieties that are readily available. The Old Pearmain sounds good, and dates back to the 1300s.

Old Pearmain apple

There's also the Rambour Franc and the Calville Blanc, both of which date to the 16th century.

There are fewer medieval pear varieties that are readily available. The Red Pear dates back to the 16th century, and the Barland to 1600.

There are some other options - plums, medlars, cherries - that are worth considering, though there aren't many of them that have varieties which are both readily available and known to be medieval.

I'll have to keep looking and see what else I can find.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Alan Coxon and Alegar

One of the big news stories among the bunch of geeks into Medieval European cuisine is the puff piece that's going around online about a new product being launched by "celebrity chef" Alan Coxon.

"This passion is what led him to reinvent a classic and historically valuable recipe from Medieval England, which he has calls the Ale-Gar, putting him in the rare league of chefs who have invented food products of great value. A versatile and uniquely flavoured form of vinegar, to put it very broadly, Ale-Gar can be put to a variety of uses as well-known chefs in many restaurants in the West are attesting to."

Now what makes me cranky about this whole thing isn't that he has "reinvented" a medieval recipe, or even that he's marketing it (and himself) in such a painfully irritating way. No, what bugs me are some of the horribly incorrect and inaccurate things in the article and on Coxon's website.

First, let me make a note about the name of your product: "Ale-Gar". The word alegar is the Middle English term for ale vinegar or malt vinegar. Given that you talk about your product being "infused" with flavors and that it would be a good substitute for balsamic vinegar, you're not making alegar. Instead of giving it such a misleading name, I suggest you change it to something else. "Medieval Themed Vinegar", perhaps. As long as you call it "Ale-Gar", food historians will need to keep reminding the public that "Ale-Gar" isn't alegar.

If a medieval recipe calls for alegar, use this stuff.

"I am proud to be the creator of a historic food range and the globally unique Medieval Old English Ale-Gar – a product that has all but disappeared from our culinary repertoire for over 300 years. After ten years of painstaking research and development, I have managed to bring it back for the world to enjoy."

No, Alan. You are not the creator of a historic food range (whatever that means). You are the creator of a line of products with a historic theme. There's a big difference. Further, malt vinegar has been widely available for the past 300 years, and can easily be found on the shelves of common grocery stores. Any research you've done over the past 10 years had nothing to do with understanding medieval production of alegar. You didn't bring anything back.  You've been doing modern product development, that's all.

"How is Ale-Gar made? Without giving too much away, it is made using a 15th-century Medieval Old English recipe that took me ten years to recreate. The mixture is then placed in acidulation tanks, infused and matured."

I've read the available 15th century recipes for making alegar (one of them is reproduced below). Now maybe you've got access to a source I haven't heard of (possible, but I doubt it), but from what I can tell, the alegar produced back then wasn't that much different from the malt vinegar of today. It didn't take you 10 years to recreate alegar. It took you 10 years to work out something like balsamic vinegar that you thought you could market.

To torne Wyne to Vyneagyr or Ale to Aleger or syder to Aysell. Take a pott and fyll hit Full of wyne Asell or gode Ale And stoppe well the mowth that no thyng cum yn nor owte And do hit in A vessell full of water and set the vessell on the fyre And let the pot of wyne boyle in the same A long while tyll hit be turnyd. [MS Pepys 1047, (England, ca. 1500)]

Oh, and just so you know, the phrase "Medieval Old English" is nonsense. Old English was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons from around 450 to 1066. Middle English was spoken in England from around 1100 to 1500. Pick one. Given that you keep talking about the 15th century, I suggest Middle English.

"In Mediaeval England, wine was limited to Royalty and nobility, ..."

A minor quibble, but this is plain wrong. While it is true that there was less consumption of wine in England by the working class, it wasn't limited to "Royalty and nobility". The growing merchant class imported significant amounts of wine from France, and England had its own (declining) wine-making industry throughout the middle ages.

"For my Ale-Gar, I have used a traditional mediaeval ale recipe, but I have incorporated Chocolate Stout Malt, to tantalise today's more sophisticated and adventurous palate."

So you use a traditional medieval ale recipe, but you add completely non-medieval ingredients to it to make it taste different, which means you don't use a traditional medieval ale recipe. Right. Please also note that any talk about the modern palate being "more sophisticated and adventurous" is complete marketing BS and has no basis in reality.

One last note from the article:
"Of his school life, Alan says he wasn’t a remarkably bright child as he preferred to be engaged in athletics."

It shows.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Dwarven Cookbook

I'm pleased to announce the upcoming publication of A Dwarven Cookbook.

A Dwarven Cookbook

A collection of 54 authentic Dwarven recipes, including such favorites as Dwarven Journeybread, Jellied Mushrooms, and Turnip Stout.  There's also a bit of commentary here and there which provides some insight into Dwarven foodways.

What's surprising is that there is some real medieval context to this book.  Using the cuisine of a real medieval society we've carefully constructed a plausible fictional cuisine, and then put together workable recipes for it.

Co-author Stephanie Drummonds and I have been working on this book for the past several months, and everything is on track for it to be available in October.  Rather than try and get this through a mainstream publisher when the publishing market is so slow, we're self-publishing through our newly set up publishing house - Blackspoon Press.  Keep an eye on that site ... or this one ... or both ... for links to where you can buy the book, as well as information on the other books we've got in the works.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Gen Con 2011 Schedule

It's now less than three weeks (yikes!) before GenCon.  As in past years, I'm on discussion panels as part of the Writer's Symposium and will be giving a two hour talk about medieval cooking.  Below are the descriptions for this year's events.

SEM1118008 - Medieval Feasts and Food: Making the Fantasy Match Reality
Are you curious what medieval cooking was really like? Do you want your fantasy characters' dinner to be plausible? This seminar takes a look at medieval European cuisine as a whole, and discusses the misconceptions and misunderstandings that pervade the popular view. Some of the topics to be covered are food preservation, medieval dining on the road, common medieval food myths, and some of the strange things you can find in medieval books.
08/04/2011, 8:00 PM, ICC : 243

SEM1119600 - Fictional Food
(Daniel Myers, Linda Baker, Steven Saus, Anton Strout)
Real spacemen don't eat grilled cheese! Little details help make your fiction real and add depth to your characters. Fictional food can also reveal important information about the climate and culture you are crafting. Learn how to make up food and diets that are exotic but still believable.
08/05/2011, 12:00 PM, ICC : 245
SEM1119621 - Category 4 Brainstorm
(Kelly Swails, Daniel Myers, Anton Strout, Steven Saus)
Sometimes ideas don't come easy. It may take a lot of work and rumination to cull a workable idea for a story or book. We offer techniques for brainstorming and discuss the resources we turn to when our thoughts go stale.
08/06/2011, 10:00 AM, ICC : 245
SEM1119622 - Worldbuilding: Men, Monsters, and the Creatures Between
(Linda Baker, Sabrina Klein, Daniel Myers, Ramsey Lundock, Bob Farnsworth)
Men, elves, and the like cannot live in isolation, and monsters don't materialize out of nowhere. People and creatures need to fit into the world's ecology and have a life cycle that makes sense, otherwise your readers will see your world as unrealistic and not worth reading about. Find out what makes creatures and races believable.
08/06/2011, 11:00 AM, ICC : 244
SEM1119640 - Pick Our Brains
(Anton Strout, Jason Sizemore, Daniel Myers)
How dare you consider sleeping in on the final day of this year's Gen Con! We bet there're still questions whirling in your brain about worldbuilding, the publishing industry, sprucing up your manuscript, and whatnot. We're here to provide as many answers as possible.
08/07/2011, 8:00 AM, ICC : 244

At this point I'm a bit frantic (as usual) in trying to get everything ready.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cooking "In Vain"

As a bit of a disclaimer, I'll start off with a note that the editor of the books mentioned below was kind enough to send me a copy of each. Had he not done so I probably wouldn't have mentioned them, mostly for two reasons: first because I generally don't read historical fiction, and second because I have a lousy memory.

Many many months ago I received an email asking for details about a particular medieval recipe. This happens fairly often, and I try to give as useful an answer as time allows. In this particular case the author was interested in including a few recipes with her most recent book, and was asking about one recipe in particular - Towres. In a brief email exchange, I helped make sense of the Middle English and work out what type of recipe and such, and then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

As it turned out, Barbara Reichmuth Geisler's third book (a prequel) in The Averillian Chronicles includes a few authentic medieval recipes at the end. That combined with the positive reviews of her two earlier books is enough to catch my attention. In spite of my predisposition to Science Fiction and Fantasy, these books are now in my "To Read" stack (that's the short stack, as opposed to my "To Read Someday" stack, which is much bigger).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Graphing Meats

Last week I wrote a post about a news story about an article in Food and History, noting my skepticism towards some claims about medieval beef consumption.

Since then I've added a handful of pages of data to the Statistics from Medieval Cookbooks. That's all well and good, but I wondered if I could graph some of the data and see if it made any trends more apparent. The graphs, along with some comments are below.

First though, I'd like to note again that this data comes from medieval cookbooks, and there is very likely some disconnect between the number of times an ingredient appears and the frequency of consumption. Second, the data set is small and there seems to be a lot of "noise" in the sample. Third, I am not a statistician. That being said, let's take a look at the graphs.

Fish / Seafood

In this graph it looks like there may be a slight downward trend in fish consumption overall. There's a pretty clear downward trend for France, and a slightly smaller one for England.


I think the data point for Du fait de cuisine in this graph is an outlier and should be ignored. Everything else looks like a reasonably flat trend line.


The decreasing trend here is pretty clear, even if Du fait de cuisine is an anomaly. What's more, the trend for the English cookbooks is very clear.


Finally, the crux of the matter, there appears to be a rising trend for beef, with a very low starting point. The spike from Du fait de cuisine is echoed in Le Recueil de Riom, so it could be valid. When England and France are taken separately, the rate of increase is higher for France.

Overall, this supports the claim that pork consumption in Europe declined during the 14th and 15th centuries, but it still doesn't do much for the ideas that beef was the most popular type of meat in France and England, or that it appears in Viandier or Forme of Curye more often than other meats.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Uncertainty and Doubt and Beef

On Monday I came across an article referring to a paper on medieval beef consumption.  This article contains the following eyebrow-raising statements:

One of the key conclusions of this article is that cattle and sheep were the main sources of meat throughout Western Europe, and that consumption of pork went into general decline during the 14th and 15th centuries, which López attributes to changes in farming after the Black Death.
... in northern France and England beef was the most popular type of meat.
... medieval cookbooks, like the Viandier and the Forme of Curye, had beef in their recipes more often than other meats.

I haven't yet read the paper that the article is referring to - "Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities during the Late Middle Ages: A Contemporary Study", Food and History, Vol.8 No.1 (2010) - but I'm certainly trying to get a hold of a copy.

What makes me question the quotes above (aside from the fact that the economics of the situation make heavy beef consumption unlikely) is that it doesn't mesh with the statistics I've extracted from various medieval cookbooks.

First, the statement that beef appears in the recipes in Viandier and Forme of Curye more than any other meat is just plain wrong.  Beef appears in 3% of the reciped in Forme of Curye, which is plainly less than the 13% of recipes that contain pork.  In fact, beef is sixth on the list in descending order of frequency - it appears just below rabbit (4%).  Fish / Seafood has the top spot, appearing in 22% of the recipes.

Beef does appear higher up in the statistics from Viandier.  There, it's in the second spot with 14%.  It's still below fish / seafood with 29% though.  What's more, poultry (13%) and pork (10%) aren't very far behind.

Note that there is some wiggle-room in these statistics.  For example, I've lumped together a lot of different kinds of aquatic life into the category "fish / seafood", and "pork" includes "ham", "bacon", and any part of a pig.  Still, browsing through the recipes I still find way more references to "pork" than "beef" in Forme of Curye.  Additionally, the number of recipes for a type of meat doesn't necessarily correspond to how often that meat was consumed.

The statement that beef was the most popular type of meat is possibly true, but the data I've seen doesn't support it.  In the dozen cookbooks I've pulled information from, only three (Ancient Cookery, The Good Housewife's Jewell & Ouverture de Cuisine) have beef appearing most often in recipes.  Fish / seafood has the top spot in the vast majority.  I suppose if you don't consider fish to be meat (e.g. as the church dictated) then beef's position improves, but it's still not the most common going by the numbers.

Lastly, the statement about cattle and sheep being the main sources of meat seems to be a real stretch.  Before 1500, sheep / mutton recipes are not that common - generally appearing in less than 10% of the recipes in French and English cookbooks (Du fait de cuisine being the exception).

There are all sorts of possibilities here.  It could be that the paper's author compiled the data differently than I did, and that lead to different conclusions.  It could also be that the article, which was written for a popular (sort of) audience, misinterpreted the author's conclusions.  Either way, I want to see the actual paper.  Something's off somewhere, and I want to make sure it isn't me.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts on "Medieval Japan"

Every now and then I get asked for recipes or information about medieval cooking outside of Europe, and each time it happens I end up mulling it over for days trying to work out an answer.  I suppose I could say that I focus on Europe (and sometimes I do), but that answer is an evasion.  It doesn't address the question of why I don't research medieval cooking from other cultures.

The first problematical point rests in what is meant by "medieval".  Webster's defines the word as "of, relating to, or in the style of the Middle Ages," and goes on to define the middle ages as:

"... the time in European history between classical antiquity and the Italian renaissance (from about 500 a.d. to about 1350): sometimes restricted to the later part of this period (after 1100) and sometimes extended to 1450 or 1500."
This goes back to the origin of the word, which is from the Latin medium aevum - the middle age, or the time between the classical era and the Renaissance, and most definitions I've seen of "medieval" look something like this.

Europe during this time period had a surprisingly consistent culture.  Yes, there were stylistic and political differences for different regions and countries within Europe, but there was also an amazing degree of uniformity in terms of technology, clothing, and (most significantly) food.

These definitions are rather Roman-centered.  They clearly make sense when applied to Italy: it's the time between the fall of the Roman empire and the Renaissance.  With the extension of years they also make sense when applied to northern Europe (England, France, etc.) as it took much longer for the Renaissance to percolate that far north.  It's a bit of a stretch to get it to mesh with places on the edge of Europe though.

When someone then asks about cooking in medieval Japan (or China, or India, or Central America, etc.) I'm first stuck trying to figure out what "medieval Japanese cooking" means.  Are they asking about Japanese cooking between the years 500 to 1350?  What about 500 to 1500?  Maybe some other date range?  To the best of my (limited) knowledge of Japan, there isn't that much difference in the culture and cooking in Japan between 1000 and 1800, so just where is the dividing line?

Now if they asked about cooking in "feudal Japan", or "India before the British empire", or "pre-1500 Central America," those are concepts I can deal with.  Of course my answer would simply be something like "I just don't study that."  I also suspect that answer would be no more surprising than the response to a car dealer's response to "Why don't you sell bicycles?"

It's not that I don't like Chinese or Indian or other cuisines - as my somewhat padded outline will attest, I like a wide variety of foods.  It's not even that I don't like the history of the other places.  It's just that medieval European cuisine is, in itself, a distinctive cooking system, and since I don't have time to research everything about food and cooking to any real depth, I choose just that one part.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Supersizers Eat Medieval

I recently watched "Supersizers Eat Medieval" ... I know .... I really should do this to myself. Every time I go in hoping for a realistic portrayal of medieval food, and almost every time I'm disappointed.

This time wasn't as bad as it could have been. While they did repeat and reinforce some of the usual myths, they did get some things reasonably close to right. Below are some comments on things that were said, done, or shown in the episode - in no particular order.


The show did depict the use of trenchers as a sort of disposable plate, and noted that they would have gone to the poor when the diner was through with them. That's reasonably accurate, though trencher use was not prominent until the late 15th century - which is much earlier than most of the other stuff depicted in the program.

It's also worth noting that, from the accounts I've read, trenchers were made from three-day-old bread (rye?) specifically baked for that purpose. One description of trencher loaves has them as being rectangular, flat, and about 4" x 6" in size. This is in contrast to the show's hosts cutting slices off of a round, apparently fresh loaf.

Lack of Vegetables

Where are the veggies? Contrary to popular belief, and to what was depicted in the program, the wealthy did eat vegetables (and the poor did eat meat, but that's a whole different matter.

Size of Meals

There is definitely something strange going on about the size of the meals - but it's not necessarily the fault of the program. Even medieval accounts had each diner sometimes receiving absurd portions of meat (e.g. 10 pounds). I suspect a large portion of that was passed on to the poor as an act of charity, or it was shared with members of the diner's household, or some such.


The popular belief that nobody ever drank water in the middle ages is repeated. It's simply not true. We can thank the Victorians for this myth.


I have no idea where the bit about spitting in the beer came from. If someone can point me to a reliable source, I'll accept it (after all, that's one of the ways they (used to?) make fermented beverages from corn in South and Central America (e.g. "chicha").

Average Lifespan

This is one of those ideas that seems to be unkillable. People are always confusing "average life expectancy" with "maximum life span". Yes, the life expectancy of people in medieval Europe was pretty low (e.g. 30 years), but that doesn't mean that no one lived long enough to get old, nor does it mean that 35 was considered old.

The average life expectancy was brought way down due to infant mortality, but if an individual survived childhood then they stood a decent chance of making it to their 60s.


At one point in the program, they make a big deal about how nasty peacock tastes, with the implication that medieval people had to be nuts to eat it. It was relatively common though to use a peacock's feathers to dress a capon - thus making a good tasting bird look really fancy. I've also seen a recipe in a medieval French source that called for the roasted peacock to be dressed with the capon's feathers - not to be enjoyed by the noble, but to be served to some unsuspecting diner as a prank. The implication is that medieval Europeans didn't like how peacock tasted either.


At one point in the program they are served turkey. Since turkey is a new world bird, it would not have been available for most of the middle ages (possible for any of it, depending on how you define "medieval").

Gilded Gingerbread

This is a strange one. I've seen lots of recipes for gingerbread, but none that call for gilding. There are recipes for sugarpaste that might have been gilded, and I think there is one (late medieval) case where sugarpaste was called "gingerbread" (it was flavored with ginger). I'm curious where they got this.


At one point they translate "leach" as "licking". Um ... no. Leach (or leshe) is "slice" - both as a verb and a noun.


Marzipan is described as being expensive. This is sort-of true, in that it is made from almonds which were imported, and that (in 1438 for example) a pound of almonds cost almost twice what an unskilled laborer would be paid for a days work. However given what was also being bought for medieval feasters, that's not that extravagant. Marzipan shows up a *lot* in medieval cookbooks.

Barnacle Geese

The stories about what was and wasn't considered to be "fish" in the middle ages are quirky and fun, and it's tempting to say "Look how daft they were!" However I'm inclined to think that the whole bit about beaver tails, barnacle geese, and the like were just a sort of culinary "technicality" to get around religious dietary restrictions.

For this particular claim, the Wikipedia page on Barnacle Geese has the following note:

At the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), Pope Innocent III explicitly prohibited the eating of these geese during Lent, arguing that despite their unusual reproduction, they lived and fed like ducks and so were of the same nature as other birds.

Like I said, it could have been worse. They didn't bring up rotten meat at all.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Behind the scenes on the Website

Over the past couple of weeks I've made some major changes to the website, but those changes aren't very obvious.

The most recent changes were also the most noticeable:  I've added a bunch of recipes by Jennifer Marshall-Craig and Diana Hart (To Make a Tart, Cinnamon Brewet, Roast Hen, Mushroom Tart, Cherry Sauce, Beef Pie, King's Chicken, Cabbage).

What doesn't show are the changes I made that make maintaining the site much easier.  The recipes page is now dynamically generated from a database, as are the pages that list recipes by country and category.  This means that when I add a new recipe, I make one entry into the database and the recipe is listed on all the appropriate pages.  If I need to make a correction (and I often do), then that correction is also automagically propagated through the site.

For everyone living outside of my head, the benefit of these changes is that the various pages will not become outdated as new recipes are added.

Similarly, the Online Medieval Cookbooks, Recommended Books, and Menus From Medieval Sources pages are also generated from databases. Exciting, isn't it? I know you're just thrilled.  I'll try to do something more ... fun (?) ... in the near future.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Crimson Pact

[a brief digression from the usual medieval fare.]

"In just twenty-four hours I’d killed two people,
one of them twice."

That's a line from my short story, "Shell of a Man", one of 26 stories by various authors in volume 1 of The Crimson Pact. In it I tell the tale of a junior-grade detective in 1935 who takes on his first case, only to end up facing the undead.

The anthology is now available as an ebook for the Kindle, NOOK, and many other platforms. See the Crimson Pact website for more details.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Similar, but Different

Yesterday I wanted to make a pie for dinner to celebrate Pi day, and being the sort of geek I am, I thought I'd try out something medieval.

The Medieval Cookbook Search turned up a bunch of recipes for meat pies, and I picked out one that seemed pretty straightforward - Pyes of Pairis from A Noble Boke off Cookry.

It turned out pretty well, so I wrote it up and went to post it on the website, and that's when I realized I'd had it before. Well ... sort of.

I'd never made it before, but if I'd taken a few minutes to look at my own website I would have seen the link to Kristen Wright's version of the recipe. D'oh! This made me consider not posting it after all - I don't want to seem like I'm stepping on her recipes or anything.

However, there's something interesting to be seen from comparing her interpretation to mine. Even with such a simple recipe (cook meat, add eggs and spices, bake in pie), we ended up with substantially different results. What's more, I think that both interpretations are equally valid.

This is something I've come across many times while re-creating medieval cuisine. Because of the way the recipes are written, and because our cooking culture is so much different now from what it was then, there is a lot of uncertainty packed into even the shortest and most direct recipes.

In some ways it can be frustrating, but in other ways it makes it just that much more fun.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Recommended Book - Food in Medieval England

A couple of weeks back I added this book to the page of Recommended Books, and I've been meaning to post something here about it since then.

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition
C.M. Woolgar (Editor), D. Serjeantson (Editor), T. Waldron (Editor)
Oxford University Press

This isn't a cookbook, nor is it one of those nice, easy to read books full of general information about medieval European cuisine. It's a collection of papers written by several authors, all detailing recent research into the study of the medieval diet, coming from a scientific perspective (e.g. archaeology) instead of a historical one (e.g. studying old texts).

There's a lot of neat information buried in these papers, but not all of it is easy to get to. Further, many of the papers highlight the promising work currently being done, but do not actually provide much in the way of results - mostly because the research is too new.

For example, until the 1980s or so, when animal bones were found at a medieval archaeological site, the researchers would make a note about them and then throw them away. They didn't realize the information that could be gleaned from them about animal size and age, butchering methods, dietary composition, etc. This has changed for the better, but it takes a very long time to gather enough evidence, study the remains, and to draw useful conclusions.

If the above makes it sound like this book is dry as a desert and useless to the average person with an interest in medieval history, that's certainly not the case. The nineteen papers included all provide valuable clues to what the medieval diet and lifestyle were like, making sure that it is all tied down to evidence instead of conjecture, which is what I expect from Woolgar and company.

There was however one point which made me groan loudly (thus annoying my wife as she was reading her email). In "From Cu and Sceap to Beffe and Motton", N.J. Sykes is noting the way bones were cut and suggests that it indicates the beef was used for making stew. That's all well and fine, but then he goes on to note that "... boiling would have counteracted the taste of tainted meat, ...." That's right, Sykes dropped the Moldy Meat Myth into an academic paper, and of course he provided nothing to support the (nonsensical) assertion. P'feh!

Other than that one (really bad) slip, this book is absolutely geekalicious. I'll be pulling new information out of it for months.

Friday, February 18, 2011

New Old Cookbook Search

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was redoing the guts behind the Medieval Cookbook Search. Today I'm announcing that the monumental task is now complete (and you probably can't imagine how happy that makes me).

Not only is the search more efficient now, but there are a couple of new features that I think will prove very helpful.

As before, the search page offers the opportunity to search for one or more ingredients in all the cookbooks, or in just a single one.

There's a behind-the-scenes benefit here in that the list of cookbooks is now dynamically generated. This makes maintenance a bit easier.

I also changed the code behind the search algorithm to make it immensely easier to add search terms and update the index files. Because of this I've added a note asking for input and corrections, along with a link to the site's contact page.

Part of my motivation for this rests in a post I read on a mailing list quite some time ago that
noted problems when searching one of the books for the word "wine". Apparently I had inadvertently deleted that search term on one of the times I was working on the index. Now I should be able to correct that sort of problem without trashing something else.

Those changes aren't all that visible though, and probably appeal only to the database geeks out there. The next couple of changes are more useful for the search users.

The recipe display now highlights the found terms within the recipe. This is something I've wanted to do for a while, but the old search code didn't really allow for it.

Beneath the recipe there is still the section I added a while back listing equivalent recipes.

This data comes from a manually maintained database, which means unless I happen across equivalent recipes in one or more cookbooks (or someone else finds them and tells me), and unless I get around to entering the data, there may or may not be anything to show.

The new fun section shows up immediately below the "equivalents".

The "similar titles" section is automatically generated when I build the indexes. It algorithmically pares down the recipe title to its base words, and then looks for other recipes with titles that sound the same (this helps deal with medieval spelling variations).

This feature should help users locate other versions of the displayed recipe, whether I or anyone else has matched them up. I know I'm a geek, but I think this is positively epic (my sons' favorite word lately).

Hopefully the new search code will work well. If you use it and have any comments, I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Excuses, excuses...

Before getting into the subject of this rant, here's a warning about what triggered it:

Yes, I've been watching The Tudors

From what I've been told by people who research various aspects of medieval life (clothing, painting, religion, history, etc.) this program is filled with all sorts of wild inaccuracies, so why should cooking and food be treated any differently?

Surprisingly, for a television series that is so lavish with costumes and settings, food is almost ignored (well, maybe that's not too surprising - very few shows or films deal much with food, probably because it's a very hard thing to film well). Where the show does touch on the topic, they seem to invariably go way wrong.

At the end of the second season, King Henry is presented with a swan pie. Awesome! The thing is the right shape, and they even decorated it with the head and wings of the swan. Then Henry breaks the top crust and starts eating the contents with his fingers. This is a minor quibble, I know, but he would have used a spoon. They had spoons in medieval times. They even have spoons at Medieval Times ("Would you like a refill on that Pepsi?").

Then there are the grapes. In almost every scene depicting a dinner or banquet there are grapes on the table - even in the scenes set in winter. Somehow they've got grapes ready for harvest year round in England. That, or they've managed to work out overnight transport from the southern hemisphere.

What really set my teeth on edge though was something in the episode I watched last night. Henry holds up a piece of fruit and tells Suffolk that it comes from the New World. That would have been Ok, but it was a starfruit, which aren't native to anywhere in the New World but instead come from Indonesia.

[Aside: I suppose they could have used a pawpaw, but given their short shelf life that wouldn't have been much better (maybe they were brought over on the same express flight as the grapes). Tomato? No, they were known but considered poisonous. A potato then, or maybe a peanut. Heck, how about tobacco?]

Now some might say that this kind of criticism is misplaced. The show's creator, Michael Hirst, dismissed complaints of inaccuracy by stating "Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... And we wanted people to watch it."

That's just bunk.

Hirst is spinning his departures from reality as being artistic deviation, changes to make the story more interesting. I'll buy that for the bit with Henry eating the swan pie, but for the other errors it's just an excuse for laziness. Hirst simply doesn't care enough to expend the minuscule amount of effort to even get vaguely close to right (like on the same continent).

In the meanwhile, I keep watching. It is entertaining, after all, and it helps me to keep up with the nonsense that people learn from Hollywood about medieval Europe.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Middle-English Words that I Hate

A couple of weeks back I was talking with a friend about indexing texts.  She (Hi Drea!) works with medieval dye recipes rather than culinary ones, but we both have the same sorts of problems with trying to search texts that are littered with spelling variations and foreign words.

That conversation got me thinking about, and then experimenting with, a couple possibilities for an improved cookbook search for my website.  One of my tests proved to be very functional and much more efficient, so now I've got the new indexing and search interface written and am half way through building new indexes for all the cookbooks.

(While building the indexes is no longer as much work as it used to be - and the new system is a lot more maintainable - it's still a rather labor intensive task.)

Two of the texts I've done so far - "Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books" and "Forme of Cury" - are the most irritating.  They're not only large and loaded with medieval spellings, but they contain many uses of certain words I've now come to loathe.

Pyk - This word, along with its variants (pik, pyke, etc.) can mean pike (as in "Take a fresh pyk and remove the scales") or pick (as in "and then pyk out the bones").  This word is by far the worst, with no consistency in how a given spelling is used.  The only saving grace is that "pick" isn't an ingredient, so I could go through the text and mark all the cases where "pyk" meant "pick" so they wouldn't be indexed.  Anything left is therefore "pike".

Flowre - There are a surprising number of variants for this one (flour, flower, floure).  Indexing them was made a little easier in that a plural always indicates "flowers".  One text did have a couple cases where "flower" meant "flour" though, which is really awkward because people who search on "flower" don't want to see recipes with "flour" but do want to see recipes with "flowers".

Eles - Almost as much of a pain as "pyk".  Here the many variants (els, elys, etc.) can mean either "eels" or "else".  Again though, I only need to index one of the terms.

Haris - It could be "hairs" or it could be "hares".  Fortunately, not only do I need to index only one of them, but neither one shows up very often.

Dere - This one is minor.  There's only one recipe that uses it in the sense of "dear", the rest are "deer".

Grains - For this one I have a different issue.  "Grains" can mean ... well, grains, like wheat.  Alternately, it could be part of the term "grains of paradise" meaning the seeds of the plant Aframomum melegueta.  Generally the plural always means "grains of paradise" and the singular means "grain".

Even though I'm an incredible word geek, after working on these texts I really do hate these words.  I also have a renewed appreciation for standardized spelling (or "standardised" for those in the UK).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Recipe Interpretation

Last night I tried out a new recipe (a modern one for crab soup, from Chef David Young's cookbook), and that got me thinking about the process I used to interpret medieval recipes.  It's really pretty straightforward, but seeing as I'm not the most organized person in the world, it helps keeps me from making mistakes and makes sure I have all the information I need to put the recipes on my website.

[Note for any readers who participate in SCA Arts and Sciences competitions:  following this sort of process will also help you document your recipe properly.  I'll add notes in brackets where applicable.]

1. Select a Recipe

There are all sorts of ways to do this. You can use a medieval cookbook from a library or bookstore, use one of the many books available free online, or even use my searchable index of cookbooks to find recipes that use a given ingredient.

What's important here is to start with a medieval recipe. If you start with a modern recipe then there isn't much chance you'll end up with something medieval.

Write down or print out the recipe, making sure you spell the words exactly as given in the source.

[You should probably write down a sentence or two explaining why you chose the recipe, like "I had read that turnips were popular in the winter", or "I wanted to make one of the more popular medieval chicken dishes, but wasn't pleased with the versions I'd had before". Make sure you write down the source of the recipe as well.]

[It's also a very good idea at this point to look for versions of the same recipe in other medieval cookbooks. A simple Google search on the title will sometimes turn up . If you're using the Medieval Cookbook Search then sometimes links to other versions will be given at the bottom after the recipe text. Copy these down as well.]

the chosen recipe

2. Read & Markup

The idea here is to go over the recipe a couple of times, highlighting all the ingredients needed. This serves a number of purposes: it helps familiarize you with the recipe, it lets you know what you'll need to make it, and it identifies any weird steps or ingredients that you may need to look up. This step can be especially important for recipes written in Middle English or some equally obscure language.

[Here you might want to make a note about any hard-to-find ingredients, or unusual combinations of ingredients. Also, if there are other versions of the recipe, compare them to the one you've selected. You might want to combine them into an "average" recipe, or switch to use one of them instead.]

highlighting the ingredients

3. Print a Working Copy

It should have the recipe at the top, along with a list of the ingredients. Keep this close at hand in the kitchen, along with a pen or pencil.

working copy

4. Cook & Taste

Follow the recipe as written, even if you think it's a bit strange. Make sure to write down the quantities of the ingredients you use, along with any places where you did things differently from the original recipe.

Make notes about the good, the bad, and the weird.

not really the recipe above, but it's pretty

5. Share

While sharing the food is nice, sharing your final recipe is even better. Write out a final version of the recipe and post it on a website or email it to friends (or email it to me!).

[By this point you've got all the information you need for your A&S documentation. Add a couple of sentences to link the parts together, format it neatly, check the spelling, set the font to something readable, and you're pretty much done.]

Oh, here is the link to my interpretation of the example recipe above.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some Thoughts About Sauces

My son (age 10) learned a lesson about sauces this morning, specifically that when you allow a sauce containing dairy to boil, it breaks.

He was making biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast and got distracted watching his older brother (age 13) play computer games, and the sausage gravy boiled until it looked all grainy.  We strained it to keep the sausage bits and remade the gravy and breakfast was saved, but that got me thinking about sauces.

There are very few milk-based sauces in medieval European cuisine.  Off hand only one comes to mind - Gauncile, which is a garlic flavored cream sauce.  Even Jance, which looks like a dairy-based sauce, uses almond milk.

In the sauce recipes found in medieval English and French cookbooks, the vast majority of them are made with an acid (vinegar, verjuice, or wine) as the base and bread crumbs as the thickener.  This makes sense considering that they had limited control of temperature while cooking over open flame or coals, and this combination of ingredients makes for a sauce that is almost impossible to ruin.

Really, I've tried.  I've many times left a pot of medieval sauce on the heat while distracted by something else (hmm... I think I see where my son gets it from), and even when it's come to a furious boil a little stirring and maybe some water sets it to right again.

Contrast this to many of the modern sauces.  The dairy based ones will break, and the ones thickened with flour or eggs will form lumps if not made correctly.  Medieval sauces just aren't prone to these problems.  This is the reason I frequently say that medieval European cuisine is perfect for new cooks or those who just can't seem to get the hang of working in a kitchen.