In almost every culture, food can be used as a system of measuring wealth and power; the Middle Ages are no different. During the medieval times, diversity in food between the rich and the common varied drastically. The less wealthy an individual was, the less meat and variety of foods they would have. The wealthy consumed many kinds of meat, fish and breads and their dishes were often prepared with herbs and spices. A typical peasant’s meal consisted of bread made of rye or maslin, a smaller ration of meat or fish, some vegetables and a serving of some dairy product such as cheese. On special occasions, poultry or rabbit would also have been eaten. When it comes to the preparations of food, the lower in the social ranking, the fewer manuscripts there are on recipes. For this reason, there can be no positive relationship concluded between the rich and the poor.
There are some basic utensils that were used by many households. In almost every peasant household, there was found a brass cooking pot or pan as well as ceramic cooking pots. However, baking ovens in homes were only found sporadically, although some villages had large communal ovens. In wealthier households, there were more facilities found such that large feasts could be prepared. A hearth was generally required as well as flints for lighting fires. Iron pot rests, pot hooks, pot hangers, tongs and fire fenders were all general equipment. Pots and pans came in a variety of different sizes and shapes as did caldrons. Pots were often fitted to tripod stands or the pot itself may be three-footed so it could be raised above the coals. There were long-handled stirrers, spoons, spatulas, skimmers and pierced ladles. A pele, a long paddle that was used to remove breads, pies and pastries from the oven was also a useful tool. Kitchen shovels, used to place coals in the fire also had another use. Eggs could be cooked in large iron shovels that were packed with salt for a special dish called Patrous. Deep fryers called chauffers were used as well as various saucepans called posnets.
Gears, pulley and weights usually mechanized open hearths in kitchens to allow for easy turning and ratchet devices could lift large caldrons. Meats could be cooked over a fire using iron or metal alloy skewers. Clay cookware was also used as disposable dishes. Some recipes requires clay pots to be broken after cooking to release the contents.
Three essential utensils in the medieval kitchen are the mortar, sieve and strainer. The mortar and pestle was needed to grind crush and pound spices, herbs, almonds, bones, dried beans, fruits vegetables and animal flesh. It came in a variety of different sizes and could be made of metals, woods or porcelains. The sieve was often made of horsehair and was used to sift wheat and rye, as well as separate grain from chaff. Strainers, like sieves could be made in various degrees of fineness but the best were made from boulting cloth.
Another important utensil in the kitchen was the kitchen mill. It could be used to pulverize grains, peppers, dry fish, meat, fruit and stale bread. Food was often carried in kitchens using baskets made from grasses, rushes, and horsehair. These baskets served as both containers and carriers.
Feathers were also an important tool. They serve three primary purposes. Firstly, the can be used to re-feather birds to create a life-like illusion and secondly, they make excellent glazing brushes. Feathers were a very important tool in creating kitchen art. They are also useful for killing fowl. The sharp point of the quill is ideal for penetrating major veins of the fowl. Medieval cookery uses the resources available to them to create magnificent, artful foods.
Feasts were usually held in the Great Hall. This was a spacious room with a high ceiling, and in most cases a balcony or galley for musicians and entertainers that were part of courtly service. This grand room is also used as the living room, parlour, and social center of the household. Due to its many uses, the furnishings in the Great Hall are few in numbers and are generally multipurpose. The floor was often made with wood, stone or tile and banners were hung from the wall. Also, the hall was furnished with a special cupboard in which elegant platters could be displayed. Another table was used for final preparations of food such as decorations and saucing before serving. Special breads were cut with specific knives on yet another table. Most meat however were cut by the noblemen themselves at the banquet table.
The high table, a raised table was reserved for special guests and the hosts. Other guests sat in tables on either side of high table. These guests sat in descending order according to class. The table was covered in a white tablecloth. Salt is placed in a garnished container in front of the most honoured. Table fountains located on either side of the table, spouted wines and fragrant waters. Goblets made out of glass or metal were used for drinking. Pitchers were made of gold, silver, pewter or bronze coloured copper and decorated with rock crystals, glass wood or ivory. Also on the table were silver or gold spoons and sharp knives. The guests themselves often carried with them knives, and a pair of scissors or file.
Although individual plates were not always used, food was often placed for the guest on large slices of bread, which served as edible platters. These were often coloured green, yellow or pink. However, if plates are used they may be made of brass, bronze, copper, lead or tin. Extremely wealthy households may have silver or gold dishes.
There were certain table manners that had to be followed at meals. The right utensils must be used and fingers must be kept clean. Soups and puddings were eaten with spoons. Knives were used to lift meat from the platter, often to the mouth. Almost everything else was eaten with hands. Certain foods were eaten with designated fingers, in order that there would be grease-free fingers for dipping sauces or other dishes. The fingers were washed at the end of the meal as well as in between courses.
At the beginning of the meal, everybody washed his hands in warm, often perfumed water. The host and honoured guests washed first followed by others according to rank. This was done right after the prayer was said. The serving of special dishes and courses was introduced with the sounding of trumpets, drums and pipes. The food was served between pairs and the honoured guests were given double portions.
At feasts, the choice of foods was regarded as more important than the actual food quantity. Courses were carefully planned out into an artful chain of seven to as many as fifteen separate meat, poultry, fish, stew or sweet dishes. The first course consisted of fruits or broth and the last course ended with fruit, wafers and wine. The courses in between followed an obvious symbolism. This symbolism can be simply a colour theme, or each course may represent a certain season and so forth. All these dishes were prepared in the most elegant style.
The foods at feasts were as much an art as they were crafts. The food emphasized the ingredients, the preparation and the decoration. Expensive imported spices and herbs complimented exotic fish, animals and birds. As well, cooking techniques contrasted sweet and sour tastes and emphasized on the food texture. Kitchen art was expressed through food painting and food sculpture. Colouring food was common and there were even preferred colours. The nobles were especially fond of gold food colouring. Natural dyes were used in foods for art. Parsley, mint, mallows and hazel leaves produced shades of green. Blue was produced from blue turnsole or heliotrope. Pinks and reds were obtained from the red sander or sandalwood. Yellow and orange were made from egg yolk, dandelions, and saffron. Blood could be used to colour foods brown and black. To achieve the noble gold, egg yolk was mixed with ginger powder and saffron. Foods were also sculpted to create illusion food. Peacocks could be created to give the impression that it was alive or small models of castles and other structures could be made. These food sculptures were very realistic and were meant to impress the guests and create admiration. Some food sculptures also united colour with shape. Chopped pork meatballs, which were hard and round would be coated with batter and parsley to make green apples. These foods were magnificent sights, but were meant to be eaten. However, they were not so much a food but an art.
Medieval feasts had a great variety of foods. Raw ingredients include the common cow, pig, deer, rabbit, goose, chicken, lobster, beaver, bear, and eel. There were also more exotic shellfish, dolphin, walrus, seal and various whales. Fish were numerous and there was a great variety. Included were crustaceans such as crab, oyster, shrimp and crayfish. Certain meats were thought of as different names through their life cycles. For example, the rabbit was thought of as a suckling when it was an infant and these were more prized than older, mature rabbits. There were also a large variety of birds. These included the common hen, rooster, goose and gander as well as hawk, crane, dove, eagle, gull, heron, lark, mallard, partridge, peacock, pigeon, plover and quail. The smaller birds were raised while the larger birds were shot or netted down. There were still other birds such as the sparrow, snipe, stork and swan.
Besides the meat of the animals and birds, the giblets such as the liver, gizzard, gullet and heart were saved and used for stuffing the animals. The stomachs of pigs, sheep and fish were also kept. These were stuffed with eggs, spices, and meats to create a self-contained dish that resembles our modern day sausage. The natural fats and oils of animals were also useful, as they were needed for frying, sautéing, and baking. Butter was used not only for a bread spread but in cooking and as a glaze as well. The blood of animals was also saved. It could be diluted and mixed with broth or wine to create a dish of it’s own. It could be used as a colouring agency, turning sauces into brown or black. Gravies often contained blood. The base for gravies was often blood blended with spices and herbs.
The innards and parts of an animal that were not used were called ‘garbage’. This ‘garbage’ was merely considered leftovers from noble kitchens and was sold to pie tradesmen for making pies. These pies were sold at the local markets.
Milk was also used in medieval recipes. Cow, sheep, and goat’s milk was used for making butters and cheeses. It was also added to puddings and sauces. When heated and mixed with wine or ale, it can be drank or added to other recipes. Ground nuts were often boiled in milk. This could again be drunk alone or it could be mixed with other recipes. A popular drink is almond milk. This milk is found in many medieval recipes.
Medieval cookery used eggs in a number of ways. Eggs were beaten, whisked, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, chopped, crumbled, flaked, shaved, poached, fried, baked, broiled, roasted, blown and stuffed. Eggs were eaten alone or combined with other recipes. Moreover, eggs were used for garnishing. Eggs made very good glazes and were used in breads, pastries, meats, poultry and fish. Eggs helped create many artistic embellishments in foods.
Many people believe that noblemen in the Middle Ages looked down upon fruits and vegetables. However, in most medieval recipes, there were some fruit and vegetable dishes. In many households there were also gardens and orchards from which fruits and vegetables were grown and picked. Fruits were used in pies, stews and stuffings. Some fruits used include apples, pears, strawberries, orange, melon, mulberries, cherries, plums, peaches and pomegranate. Raw or stewed fruits were also served before and after dinners. Popular vegetables include lettuce, cabbage, green peas, carrots, celery, spinach cucumber, radish, leek, artichoke, beets, olives, onions, lentils and turnips. However, there were many properties that were associated with certain vegetables. For example, asparagus was believed to induce bad odour in urine and certain cabbages, peas and beans were thought to produce inordinate flatulence in those with already gassy or troubled stomachs.
Grapes were very important in medieval cookery. Though not necessarily used for cooking, they were very important to winery. Fish, birds and animals were often stewed in wine. Wine also had many other uses in many recipes.
Herbs and Spices
In medieval dishes, herbs and spices were used plentifully. Common meat spices for them may be very tangy, sharp and hot to our senses today. In a common meat sauce, all of the following ingredients may be found: parsley, mint, thyme, garlic, vinegar, pepper, salt and wine. Herbs were used in almost all dishes. They were found in sauces, stuffing, pies, breads, wines and even fruit tarts. Spices were imported from the East and other exotic places. Due to the difficulties in transport foreign spices, the ability to obtain foreign spices displayed the household’s access to foreign markets, and thus, demonstrated their wealth and power. Spices that were not available to the general public were most probably brought as gifts by ambassadors or bought by merchants that were sent by noblemen. This again shows the correlation between spices and the social rank of a household. The particular tastes or odours of foods could express the amount of power the household possessed.
In addition to taste and expressing power and wealth, herbs and spices also carry with them some presumed health benefits. Some spices were thought to aid digestion while others were thought to counteract heartburn. Ginger for example was thought to heat the stomach and aid in digestion. It was thought that clove comforts the sinews and nutmegs are good for colds in the head and beneficial for the spleen. Still others were thought to compensate for overeating.
All spices were thought to contain four contrary qualities: hot, cold, moist and dry. Spices were used to balance the food and other spices or herbs. For example, a dry herb must be balanced with a moist spice. Similarly, a hot spice must be balanced with a cold herb. Herbs were not only used for the contrast in taste but to compliment each other.
Though spices were an important part of medieval cooking, it is uncertain of the quantities used. Most medieval recipes do not show the measurement of spices needed. However, when listed, they were in very small proportions. From this it can be concluded that although a wide assortment of spices were used, they were used sparingly. Medieval food was probably not wildly spiced, but instead, mildly fragrant.
Besides spicy herbs, sweet flavouring was desired. Sugar and honey were two popular sweeteners. Sugar was imported and when it became too scarce, honey was used. Sugar came in many types and forms: black, white, brown, Indian, Cyprus, powdered, crystalline, conical, block or sugar candy. Honey was grown both domestically and imported from Russia. In recipes, honey was used in many different states, sometimes solidified or sometimes used in its thick syrup form. However, as with spices, the quantities of sugar and honey and rarely mentioned.
Flowers were used in medieval cooking as well. It was not only used for decoration, but also as dishes. Sugared roses, violets, primroses, and tree blossoms were a popular dish. These dishes were garnished with the flower’s own pigment. Blossom’s were boiled in wine and used to colour the dish.
Nuts were used as frequently as flowers. The most common nuts used were walnuts, chestnuts and almonds. Almost a third of all medieval court recipes call for almonds as they add texture, taste and decoration. Almonds can be fried, boiled, broiled, slivered, crushed, ground, powdered or roasted. Almonds are useful in kitchen art as it can be used to produce such sculptures as the prickly quills of a hedgehog. Furthermore, almonds are needed to make the popular almond milk.
Aforcing and Alaying
Almond milk is a ready mixer. Ready mixers are used to change the consistency and qualities of certain foods. This process is called aforcing and alaying. Aforcing means to thicken and increase the volume or nutrition of something. Alaying dilutes recipes. While doing this, alaying also increases the volume. Popular aforcers and alayers include the already mentioned almond milk, vinegar, verjuice (a semi-fermented juice), eisel (a sour wine product, much like vinegar) and amyndoun (a dry salted wheat thickener). Alaying can also be achieved with bread.
Bread served many purposes in medieval recipes. Eaten alone, or broken and combined with other ingredients, bread was found frequently throughout medieval cookeries. Bread was crumbled and mixed with herbs to produce a stuffing, toasted and cut in a crouton style, or used to absorb soups and gravies. Flour used in baking was wheat, rye, barley, or most common, rice.
In medieval recipes, there is often an absence of measurements. In place of actual measurements, there are general cooking rules such as "spice sufficiently" and "thicken to appropriate consistency". Timing, weight and proportions are missing from many medieval recipes. However, this does not mean that ingredients were unmeasured, or added indiscreetly. Various scales and measuring vessels are found so it is assumed that measurements were omitted due to experience.
A final accompaniment to foods was the sauce. Almost all foods had a sauce. They may be simply a seasoning such as salt or they may be more elaborate. The most common sauces were the golden saffron sauce, a spice mixed with wine, and the green sauce, a fragrant combination of herbs, breadcrumbs, vinegar, pepper and ginger.
Feasting in the Medieval period was grand and luxurious, a combination of savoury dishes and artistic embellishments. Dishes were prepared carefully and the choice of ingredients was heeded to be certain a balance of food was met. Food was an important factor in medieval life, both for survival and for enjoyment.