Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Medieval gastronomy – or, Ye Olde Kokery
Have you ever stopped to think what life in medieval times was like, I mean really like. We’ve all read traditional history book accounts of peasants living on thin gruel, whilst the landed gentry chowed down on huge roasts, tossing bones to the dogs. Well even the peasants have to have something to gnaw on. Turns out, this may owe more to Hollywood than reality. Some things just don’t change then.
Apparently recent historical research is providing a different and richer picture, concluding that much of the food served on the medieval dinner table would be recognized and enjoyed today. And even good manners were taken seriously. Medieval etiquette frowned on unsanitary dogs at the dinner table, presumably unless they washed their hands first. So, cooks made sure to boil them past 160 degrees to comply with fledgling FDA regulations (Food Done Alot). According to Bridget Ann Henisch, a medieval scholar and author of several books on medieval cooking, "I think it would be very recognizable….today, with the same tastes…It was more adventurous. Even the keenest foodie would not be so adventurous today." Well, them’s fightin’ words Bridget. So what you got?
Well, below the salt it was definitely survival rations, eminently suitable for peasants; plain and simple. They lived on broths thickened with grains, perhaps oatcakes cooked in the ashes of fires or on heated stones. Since most wheat harvested was sold on the market, peasant breads were generally made from barley and rye. There was also horse-bread, a type of bread commonly consumed in medieval Europe. A cheap, low-quality bread made from peas and beans as well as, or instead of grains. It was fed to horses but also eaten by the peasants and those who could not afford white bread (which was the most expensive bread, as it was more processed). Low caloric, but very high in fiber, horse-bread was one of the Middle Ages' first natural laxatives. Thereby producing the original horse-shit?
According to Medieval-life.net it was also common to leave a stockpot on the fire during the day into which greens or foraged foods were added, and then thickened before eating. Peasants got what little proteins they could from peas and beans that would be added to bread and pottage. Pottage was often favored over bread, because it did not require expensive greens. Raw vegetables were considered unhealthy and rarely eaten. Meat was a rarity and fortunate families may have added salt pork or fatty bacon for flavor and protein.
Ales made from barley would provide liquid refreshment, as would water drawn from the well, sweetened with honey. Lacking in vitamins A, C and D, medieval diets were not high in calories, hence regular beer drinking was necessity for most. Ah, would for those days of yore? Whilst the diet was somewhat "heart-smart;" low in fat and high in fiber, it was very often a hungry one.
For the upper crust, however, life was good. Generally, as landowners they owned the living animals on their lands, and among things eaten were starlings, vultures, gulls, herons, cormorants, swans, cranes, peacocks, capons, chickens, dogfish, porpoises, seals, whale, haddock, hedgehogs, cod, salmon, sardines, lamprey eels, crayfish and oysters. Turnips, parsnips, carrots, peas and fava beans (liver and a nice Chianti anyone?) were the usual vegetables, and use of onions, garlic, and the nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon spices common. Well, definitely a few surprises in there. Hedgehog sandwich and whale steaks anyone? I can also see one or two problems, with this list, can’t you? There could be a slight problem with freshness, particularly for the marine bounty. Can’t exactly fly in a few whales by FedEx for chef’s poisson du jour, not too good for the carbon foot-print. And also, we’re going to need a really big fire.
The kitchen staff of huge noble or royal courts were pretty large and were often (or shoulde that be oft?) required to provide at least two daily meals for several hundred people. But fortunately help was at hand. There were any number of butchers, bakers, candle-stick makers, carvers, cellarers, butlers (in charge of the buttery – butt, cask, hence drinks), waferers, sauciers (note the French influence), larderers (meat and fish), page boys, milkmaids (all in a row?), countless scullions and my favorite, the pantlers (in charge of bread and the pantry).
The aspiring chef didn’t have many documented resources, and what there were often lacked specific quantities. Easy on the pepper!
For example, “A Boke of Kokery” a manuscript that was written around 1440, contained 182 recipes. There was also “Forme of Cury” (cury was the word for cooking), with almost 200 recipes. Compiled around 1390 by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II, it was presented to the first Queen Elizabeth. Also, preparations for two-day banquets could be found in the cookbook “Du fait de cuisine” ("On cookery") written in 1420 by Maistre Chiquart, master chef of Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy. Interestingly, Chiquart recommends that the chief cook should have on hand at least 1,000 cartloads of "good, dry firewood" and a large barn of coal. Get digging chaps.
I wondered to myself, what if the noble household wanted to contract out their catering, get some takeout as we say. Unlike take-aways, of course, which is Chinese arithmetic. So I imagined a one-way conversation, as popularized by the very clever Bob Newhart, and here it is.
Good morning, Bulls Head Catering, how can we help you?
You’re having a party. Well nothing’s too large for us, we cater to royalty you know
You are royalty. And what did you say your name was? It’s Henry.
Well Mr.Henry can I take your order? Oh, I hadn’t realized. You’re the eighth. No sire, I won’t forget, so long as my head’s still attached to my body.
OK so you want 300 caskets of ale, 100 caskets of wine. Hold on sire, I need to write this down, let me get my quill and parchment.
And, 1 large bottle of wine sweetened with sugar, nutmeg and ginger, 104 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 1,000 sheep, 304 calves, 400 swans, 2,000 geese, 1,000 capons, 2,000 pigs, 104 peacocks, over 13,500 other birds, 500 stags, bucks and roes, 1,500 venison pies, 608 pikes and breams, 12 porpoises and seals.
How many people are expected? Ah, only the 5000, I should have guessed.
Anything for the main course? No sire, it’s not that funny, but it’s a catering joke, it keeps us amused.
No sire, I do understand. It’s just a light lunch. Struth!
And you also want the 24 blackbirds. Now, how do you want them prepared? In a pie. Yes, of course, I should have realized.
And you also want the Shepherd’s Pie? That’s an all-in-one dish we call Serf and Turf. No sire, they’re always fresh, never frozen.
What about the hedgehog pie? Oh, it didn’t go down too well last year, I see. Pricks on the inside. A bit like riding in that fancy carriage of yours. No sire, you must have misheard me.
About the bulls, they’re wild. Oh I see, we should grab them by the…oh, you said horns.
What about sweets? You want 13,000 dishes of jelly, cold baked tarts, custards and spices, and sugared delicacies.
Anything else then? Oh I see, some wafers. Will After 8’s do? Right, nothing too heavy.
Any specials? Well we do have compost. No sire, not compote. Compost is cooked root vegetables in sweet vinaigrette.
We also have some garbage, for you. Yes sire, I am being serious. It’s animal entrails, goes down well with the peasants.
They’re revolting? Well I am sure some of them don’t wash…..Oh, I see, we’ll cancel the garbage then. Are you going away?
And the whales, on harpoons. Yes sire, it is a nice little appetizer , very playful. Let me see if we have any left from last year.
You want them when? Well, normally we do need 24 hours notice…Yes sire, I do value my life. It’s thirty minutes or everything’s on me.
And will that be cash or charge? Alright, I’ll send the bill to the Chancellor.
Incredibly, all of the above were documented as being provided to the 6,000 guests invited to the daylong 1467 installation ceremonies of Archbishop Neville of York in England. Conspicuous consumption, epicurean excess or just showing-off?