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.


Anna said...

I am so excited to discover your blog, it is wonderful! I am hoping to hold a medieval style supper club feast in December and this is exactly the kind of inspiration I need! Thank you! annascafe.wordpress.com

Unknown said...

"is only when the ingredients are medieval, the recipes are medieval, and the menu is medieval, that other aspects become important..."

Actually, I find this last step can have an equal place to your second step where one takes the path of learning about medieval dishes before medieval dinners, suppers and so on.
Over all, there is no quick path to understanding the medieval meal, however, there is no particular laid out path either.
It is so true that what most of us know from our dining experience is not a representation of what our medieval counterparts would have known... I like to think of what we are being served as a medieval sampler :)