Medieval cuisine

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I was surprisingly impressed with the chicken parm dinner. Geoffrey Chaucer 's Hodge of Ware, the London cook from the Canterbury Tales , is described as a sleazy purveyor of unpalatable food. Bakers who were caught tampering with weights or adulterating dough with less expensive ingredients could receive severe penalties. It allowed lords to distance themselves further from the household and to enjoy more luxurious treats while serving inferior food to the rest of the household that still dined in the great hall. Additionally, it was customary for all citizens to fast prior to taking the Eucharist. The importance of bread as a daily staple meant that bakers played a crucial role in any medieval community.

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Most of these methods had the advantage of shorter preparation times and of introducing new flavors. Smoking or salting meat of livestock butchered in autumn was a common household strategy to avoid having to feed more animals than necessary during the lean winter months.

Vegetables, eggs or fish were also often pickled in tightly packed jars, containing brine and acidic liquids lemon juice , verjuice or vinegar. Another method was to seal the food by cooking it in sugar or honey or fat, in which it was then stored. Microbial modification was also encouraged, however, by a number of methods; grains, fruit and grapes were turned into alcoholic drinks thus killing any pathogens, and milk was fermented and curdled into a multitude of cheeses or buttermilk.

The majority of the European population before industrialization lived in rural communities or isolated farms and households. The norm was self-sufficiency with only a small percentage of production being exported or sold in markets.

Large towns were exceptions and required their surrounding hinterlands to support them with food and fuel. The dense urban population could support a wide variety of food establishments that catered to various social groups. Many of the poor city dwellers had to live in cramped conditions without access to a kitchen or even a hearth, and many did not own the equipment for basic cooking.

Food from vendors was in such cases the only option. Cookshops could either sell ready-made hot food, an early form of fast food , or offer cooking services while the customers supplied some or all of the ingredients.

Travellers, such as pilgrims en route to a holy site, made use of professional cooks to avoid having to carry their provisions with them. For the more affluent, there were many types of specialist that could supply various foods and condiments: Well-off citizens who had the means to cook at home could on special occasions hire professionals when their own kitchen or staff could not handle the burden of throwing a major banquet.

Urban cookshops that catered to workers or the destitute were regarded as unsavory and disreputable places by the well-to-do and professional cooks tended to have a bad reputation.

Geoffrey Chaucer 's Hodge of Ware, the London cook from the Canterbury Tales , is described as a sleazy purveyor of unpalatable food. French cardinal Jacques de Vitry 's sermons from the early 13th century describe sellers of cooked meat as an outright health hazard.

The stereotypical cook in art and literature was male, hot-tempered, prone to drunkenness, and often depicted guarding his stewpot from being pilfered by both humans and animals. In the early 15th century, the English monk John Lydgate articulated the beliefs of many of his contemporaries by proclaiming that "Hoot ffir [fire] and smoke makith many an angry cook.

The period between c. More intense agriculture on an ever-increasing acreage resulted in a shift from animal products, like meat and dairy, to various grains and vegetables as the staple of the majority population. A bread-based diet became gradually more common during the 15th century and replaced warm intermediate meals that were porridge- or gruel-based. Leavened bread was more common in wheat-growing regions in the south, while unleavened flatbread of barley, rye or oats remained more common in northern and highland regions, and unleavened flatbread was also common as provisions for troops.

The most common grains were rye , barley , buckwheat , millet and oats. Rice remained a fairly expensive import for most of the Middle Ages and was grown in northern Italy only towards the end of the period. Wheat was common all over Europe and was considered to be the most nutritious of all grains, but was more prestigious and thus more expensive. The finely sifted white flour that modern Europeans are most familiar with was reserved for the bread of the upper classes.

As one descended the social ladder, bread became coarser, darker, and its bran content increased. In times of grain shortages or outright famine, grains could be supplemented with cheaper and less desirable substitutes like chestnuts , dried legumes , acorns , ferns , and a wide variety of more or less nutritious vegetable matter. One of the most common constituents of a medieval meal, either as part of a banquet or as a small snack, were sops , pieces of bread with which a liquid like wine , soup , broth , or sauce could be soaked up and eaten.

Another common sight at the medieval dinner table was the frumenty , a thick wheat porridge often boiled in a meat broth and seasoned with spices. Porridges were also made of every type of grain and could be served as desserts or dishes for the sick, if boiled in milk or almond milk and sweetened with sugar. Pies filled with meats, eggs, vegetables, or fruit were common throughout Europe, as were turnovers , fritters , doughnuts , and many similar pastries. By the Late Middle Ages biscuits cookies in the U.

Grain, either as bread crumbs or flour, was also the most common thickener of soups and stews, alone or in combination with almond milk. The importance of bread as a daily staple meant that bakers played a crucial role in any medieval community. Bread consumption was high in most of Western Europe by the 14th century. Estimates of bread consumption from different regions are fairly similar: Among the first town guilds to be organized were the bakers', and laws and regulations were passed to keep bread prices stable.

The English Assize of Bread and Ale of listed extensive tables where the size, weight, and price of a loaf of bread were regulated in relation to grain prices. The baker's profit margin stipulated in the tables was later increased through successful lobbying from the London Baker's Company by adding the cost of everything from firewood and salt to the baker's wife, house, and dog.

Since bread was such a central part of the medieval diet, swindling by those who were trusted with supplying the precious commodity to the community was considered a serious offense. Bakers who were caught tampering with weights or adulterating dough with less expensive ingredients could receive severe penalties. This gave rise to the " baker's dozen ": While grains were the primary constituent of most meals, vegetables such as cabbage , chard , onions , garlic and carrots were common foodstuffs.

Many of these were eaten daily by peasants and workers and were less prestigious than meat. The cookbooks, which appeared in the late Middle Ages and were intended mostly for those who could afford such luxuries, contained only a small number of recipes using vegetables as the main ingredient. The lack of recipes for many basic vegetable dishes, such as potages , has been interpreted not to mean that they were absent from the meals of the nobility, but rather that they were considered so basic that they did not require recording.

Various legumes , like chickpeas , fava beans and field peas were also common and important sources of protein , especially among the lower classes. With the exception of peas, legumes were often viewed with some suspicion by the dietitians advising the upper class, partly because of their tendency to cause flatulence but also because they were associated with the coarse food of peasants.

The importance of vegetables to the common people is illustrated by accounts from 16th-century Germany stating that many peasants ate sauerkraut from three to four times a day. Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons , citrons , bitter oranges the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later , pomegranates , quinces , and, of course, grapes.

Farther north, apples , pears , plums , and strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe, but remained rather expensive imports in the north. Common and often basic ingredients in many modern European cuisines like potatoes , kidney beans , cacao , vanilla , tomatoes , chili peppers and maize were not available to Europeans until after , after European contact with the Americas, and even then it often took considerable time, sometimes several centuries, for the new foodstuffs to be accepted by society at large.

Milk was an important source of animal protein for those who could not afford meat. It would mostly come from cows, but milk from goats and sheep was also common. Plain fresh milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, and was usually reserved for the very young or elderly.

Poor adults would sometimes drink buttermilk or whey or milk that was soured or watered down. On occasion it was used in upper-class kitchens in stews, but it was difficult to keep fresh in bulk and almond milk was generally used in its stead.

Cheese was far more important as a foodstuff, especially for common people, and it has been suggested that it was, during many periods, the chief supplier of animal protein among the lower classes. There were also whey cheeses , like ricotta , made from by-products of the production of harder cheeses.

Cheese was used in cooking for pies and soups, the latter being common fare in German-speaking areas. Butter , another important dairy product, was in popular use in the regions of Northern Europe that specialized in cattle production in the latter half of the Middle Ages, the Low Countries and Southern Scandinavia. While most other regions used oil or lard as cooking fats, butter was the dominant cooking medium in these areas. Its production also allowed for a lucrative butter export from the 12th century onward.

While all forms of wild game were popular among those who could obtain it, most meat came from domestic animals. Domestic working animals that were no longer able to work were slaughtered but not particularly appetizing and therefore were less valued as meat. Beef was not as common as today because raising cattle was labor-intensive, requiring pastures and feed, and oxen and cows were much more valuable as draught animals and for producing milk. Mutton and lamb were fairly common, especially in areas with a sizeable wool industry, as was veal.

Domestic pigs often ran freely even in towns and could be fed on just about any organic waste, and suckling pig was a sought-after delicacy. Just about every part of the pig was eaten, including ears, snout, tail, tongue , and womb. Intestines, bladder and stomach could be used as casings for sausage or even illusion food such as giant eggs. Among the meats that today are rare or even considered inappropriate for human consumption are the hedgehog and porcupine , occasionally mentioned in late medieval recipe collections.

In England, they were deliberately introduced by the 13th century and their colonies were carefully protected. They were of particular value for monasteries, because newborn rabbits were allegedly declared fish or, at least, not-meat by the church and therefore they could be eaten during Lent.

A wide range of birds were eaten, including swans , peafowl , quail , partridge , storks , cranes , larks , linnets and other songbirds that could be trapped in nets, and just about any other wild bird that could be hunted. Swans and peafowl were domesticated to some extent, but were only eaten by the social elite, and more praised for their fine appearance as stunning entertainment dishes, entremets , than for their meat.

As today, geese and ducks had been domesticated but were not as popular as the chicken , the fowl equivalent of the pig. But at the Fourth Council of the Lateran , Pope Innocent III explicitly prohibited the eating of barnacle geese during Lent, arguing that they lived and fed like ducks and so were of the same nature as other birds. Meats were more expensive than plant foods. Though rich in protein , the calorie -to-weight ratio of meat was less than that of plant food.

Meat could be up to four times as expensive as bread. Fish was up to 16 times as costly, and was expensive even for coastal populations. This meant that fasts could mean an especially meager diet for those who could not afford alternatives to meat and animal products like milk and eggs.

It was only after the Black Death had eradicated up to half of the European population that meat became more common even for poorer people. The drastic reduction in many populated areas resulted in a labor shortage, meaning that wages dramatically increased. It also left vast areas of farmland untended, making them available for pasture and putting more meat on the market. Although less prestigious than other animal meats, and often seen as merely an alternative to meat on fast days, seafood was the mainstay of many coastal populations.

Also included were the beaver , due to its scaly tail and considerable time spent in water, and barnacle geese , due to the belief that they developed underwater in the form of barnacles.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II examined barnacles and noted no evidence of any bird-like embryo in them, and the secretary of Leo of Rozmital wrote a very skeptical account of his reaction to being served barnacle goose at a fish-day dinner in Especially important was the fishing and trade in herring and cod in the Atlantic and the Baltic Sea.

The herring was of unprecedented significance to the economy of much of Northern Europe, and it was one of the most common commodities traded by the Hanseatic League , a powerful north German alliance of trading guilds. Kippers made from herring caught in the North Sea could be found in markets as far away as Constantinople. Stockfish , cod that was split down the middle, fixed to a pole and dried, was very common, though preparation could be time-consuming, and meant beating the dried fish with a mallet before soaking it in water.

A wide range of mollusks including oysters , mussels and scallops were eaten by coastal and river-dwelling populations, and freshwater crayfish were seen as a desirable alternative to meat during fish days. Compared to meat, fish was much more expensive for inland populations, especially in Central Europe, and therefore not an option for most. Freshwater fish such as pike , carp , bream , perch , lamprey and trout were common.

While in modern times, water is often drunk with a meal, in the Middle Ages, however, concerns over purity, medical recommendations and its low prestige value made it less favored, and alcoholic beverages were preferred.

They were seen as more nutritious and beneficial to digestion than water, with the invaluable bonus of being less prone to putrefaction due to the alcohol content. Wine was consumed on a daily basis in most of France and all over the Western Mediterranean wherever grapes were cultivated.

Further north it remained the preferred drink of the bourgeoisie and the nobility who could afford it, and far less common among peasants and workers. The drink of commoners in the northern parts of the continent was primarily beer or ale. Juices , as well as wines, of a multitude of fruits and berries had been known at least since Roman antiquity and were still consumed in the Middle Ages: Medieval drinks that have survived to this day include prunellé from wild plums modern-day slivovitz , mulberry gin and blackberry wine.

Many variants of mead have been found in medieval recipes, with or without alcoholic content. However, the honey -based drink became less common as a table beverage towards the end of the period and was eventually relegated to medicinal use. This is partially true since mead bore great symbolic value at important occasions.

When agreeing on treaties and other important affairs of state, mead was often presented as a ceremonial gift. It was also common at weddings and baptismal parties, though in limited quantity due to its high price.

In medieval Poland , mead had a status equivalent to that of imported luxuries, such as spices and wines. Plain milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, being reserved for the very young or elderly, and then usually as buttermilk or whey.

Fresh milk was overall less common than other dairy products because of the lack of technology to keep it from spoiling. However, neither of these non-alcoholic social drinks were consumed in Europe before the late 16th and early 17th century.

Wine was commonly drunk and was also regarded as the most prestigious and healthy choice. According to Galen 's dietetics it was considered hot and dry but these qualities were moderated when wine was watered down.

Unlike water or beer, which were considered cold and moist, consumption of wine in moderation especially red wine was, among other things, believed to aid digestion, generate good blood and brighten the mood.

The first pressing was made into the finest and most expensive wines which were reserved for the upper classes. The second and third pressings were subsequently of lower quality and alcohol content. Common folk usually had to settle for a cheap white or rosé from a second or even third pressing, meaning that it could be consumed in quite generous amounts without leading to heavy intoxication.

For the poorest or the most pious , watered-down vinegar similar to Ancient Roman posca would often be the only available choice. The aging of high quality red wine required specialized knowledge as well as expensive storage and equipment, and resulted in an even more expensive end product.

Judging from the advice given in many medieval documents on how to salvage wine that bore signs of going bad, preservation must have been a widespread problem. Even if vinegar was a common ingredient, there was only so much of it that could be used.

In the 14th century cookbook Le Viandier there are several methods for salvaging spoiling wine; making sure that the wine barrels are always topped up or adding a mixture of dried and boiled white grape seeds with the ash of dried and burnt lees of white wine were both effective bactericides , even if the chemical processes were not understood at the time.

Wine was believed to act as a kind of vaporizer and conduit of other foodstuffs to every part of the body, and the addition of fragrant and exotic spices would make it even more wholesome. Spiced wines were usually made by mixing an ordinary red wine with an assortment of spices such as ginger , cardamom , pepper , grains of paradise , nutmeg , cloves and sugar. These would be contained in small bags which were either steeped in wine or had liquid poured over them to produce hypocras and claré.

By the 14th century, bagged spice mixes could be bought ready-made from spice merchants. While wine was the most common table beverage in much of Europe, this was not the case in the northern regions where grapes were not cultivated. Those who could afford it drank imported wine, but even for nobility in these areas it was common to drink beer or ale , particularly towards the end of the Middle Ages. In England , the Low Countries , northern Germany , Poland and Scandinavia , beer was consumed on a daily basis by people of all social classes and age groups.

For most medieval Europeans, it was a humble brew compared with common southern drinks and cooking ingredients, such as wine, lemons and olive oil. Even comparatively exotic products like camel 's milk and gazelle meat generally received more positive attention in medical texts. Beer was just an acceptable alternative and was assigned various negative qualities.

In , the Sienese physician Aldobrandino described beer in the following way:. But from whichever it is made, whether from oats, barley or wheat, it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth , it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one's flesh white and smooth.

The intoxicating effect of beer was believed to last longer than that of wine, but it was also admitted that it did not create the "false thirst" associated with wine.

Though less prominent than in the north, beer was consumed in northern France and the Italian mainland. Perhaps as a consequence of the Norman conquest and the travelling of nobles between France and England, one French variant described in the 14th century cookbook Le Menagier de Paris was called godale most likely a direct borrowing from the English "good ale" and was made from barley and spelt , but without hops. In England there were also the variants poset ale , made from hot milk and cold ale, and brakot or braggot , a spiced ale prepared much like hypocras.

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