Tasting Histories Lecture: “Seasonal and Local Dining in the Middle Ages”

 Tasting Histories Lecture: “Seasonal and Local Dining in the Middle Ages”

Paul Freedman (Yale University)

Presented by the Jackman Humanities Institute, at the University of Toronto, November 29, 2012

“In the middles ages, all chickens were free range” ~ Paul Freedman

And with that humorous tidbit to get the audience laughing, Freedman launched into a fantastic account of food, class, and medical history during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. The lecture was part of the featured talks promoted by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.


Technology today has made it possible to bring unseasonal items to the table cheaply. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus shows the difficulty in bringing grapes to the table radically out of season. Extreme evasion of seasonal constraints in pre-modern times was difficult with salting, air drying, pickling all aided in preserving foods.

The upper classes attempted to alter this – high class food was supposed to be fresh, and unusual, hence, salted and preserved foods were not found in cookbooks meant for princely palates. In our world, fast and inexpensive transport allows us to eat things out of season, like bananas and mangoes. It’s an immense change in our culinary tastes. Recently – there has been a return to local and seasonal foods. The food industry offers flavours, rather than tastes, i.e., you can get 40 containers of yogurt or canned salsa but you don’t get taste or great quality of food. You can get varied but not all that great, tasting food.

There is an assumption that all food must have been seasonal prior to modern times. This is not true, the upper class stretched this. In the 19th century, things began to be imported. The effort to obtain delicacies from far way is quite old, and not a new development. Spices were coveted in the Middle Ages; their mystery and distance lent prestige to them. Salt water fish served inland made it “high end”, things that ordinary people could not afford to eat. Affluent people obtained milk and cheese even in January (which was unusual for the period).

For the medieval moral and religious observer, all life partakes in the seasonal cycle. The iconic and commonly depicted, ‘seasons of the year’ calendar was a favourite topic. These routines reflected divine order but also represented inconsistencies. Not every harvest was successful. Calendars showed social privilege meant protection, and reinforced social status. February depicted the wealthy resting by the fire, and the peasant shivering and cold. Images of growth and death, heat and cold were common. The effort to transport things could overcome seasonal impediments.

Medical and dietary theories, religious requirements of fasting, and perceptions of food quality independent of medical or religious considerations were discussed by Freedman. Medical treatises, like those of Galen, formed the basis of a classical medical tradition. The importance of the seasons was critical to understanding health and well being. Seasons also included the changing pattern of the stars, not just the physical change of seasons. Hot and cold, windy, marshy versus fast running waters influenced how the seasons impacted health. Hippocrates subscribed to the theory that the change in the seasons was a cause of maladies. Diseases of autumn were the most dangerous and spring was considered the best time of the year. Summer was best for the elderly and wet was preferred to dry climates. Winter was cold and dry, therefore, hot, dry food was deemed healthy to consume to offset the weather’s affects on an individual. For example, meat must be roasted in winter, never boiled so that it remains dry and not wet.

The humours also played into healthcare during the Mediaeval and Early Modern period. Age, seasons and non-natural external factors affected well being. Changes in diet had to be made to accommodate the season. There are approximately 50 manuscripts that provide tables and dietary calendars to aid in the the formanation of a household regimen that was in alignment with the seasons. There was attention given to other factors other than time of year in the later Middle Ages. Certain times of the year were good for medical procedures, such as cataract surgery being best for May. Hard to digest meats were better in winter, while fresh pork was appropriate in summer. Wine was to be spiced in the winter and diluted in the summer.

Christianity dispensed with Jewish tenets against the consumption of pork and mixing of meat and milk. Christians saw themselves as accepting of all creation. Things that were prohibited were not for religious custom – more for tradition. Things like the prohibition of eating cats, dogs and horses to the utterly odd and fantastical, like griffin and elephant. However, there were religious observances, like privation during Lent, days of fasting, and feast days that were important to mark. Even with dispensations, Lent was severe. The meat trade shut down entirely for the duration of Lent. Lent and Fridays were the most serious observances. In total, there were 93 days of the year which contained some type of abstinence. What did northern countries do to during Lent since they could not use butter and dairy and olive oil was not common in these regions? One could get a dispensation to use butter if it was absolutely necessary. “The importance of fish in medieval Europe can scarcely be exaggerated”. Lenten meals allowed salted fish. The main problem with Lent and other fasting times was monotony. “Dried fruit, for example, figs, raisins, current and dates, were expensive but readily available during Lent. The demand for them dropped sharply with the return of Easter with the return of meats, eggs and dairy”. Lenten substitutes such as almond milk could be used but it was expensive. An example of “fish feast” was one held by Richard III. On a Friday in July, 1483, the fish dinner included: salted lamprey, sea crabs, bass, eel, salmon in pastry and roast porpoise. Cathars required their adherents to be vegetarian. There is a Cathar book that demonstrates Occitan and Catalan dishes but oddly enough, contains recipes for chicken and fish. Also under the category of religious prohibition, were cases in the sixteenth century during the Inquisition in Spain, where there were denunciations against people “eating in a Jewish manner”.

Freedman moved on to discuss aesthetic questions – what affect did the seasons have in the taste of food? Cooks partook in subterfuge, they made substitutions that tasted like what was desired, i.e., capon and partridge. Middle and lower classes practice included storing foods as near availability did not always mean high quality during these times. There was a devotion to fish and fussing over where fish came from, which is not seen in other foods, like produce. Many written works discuss where fish is best, and when. A Dutch cookbook of 1560 emphasized when fish was to be eaten: lamprey in May,and salmon in April and May. Only a few fish were ok to consume during the winter months, perch being one of them. Crabs were considered dangerous to eat in winter.

Was there some reason why some fish were seasonal and some were not? All fish were seasonal, but there were times when they tasted better during the year. You have to distinguish between availability and the range of their season; there is a more limited period when they’re good. Not all cooks agreed when a specific fish was good to eat. In a Catalan cookbook, lamprey was preferred in January and salmon in the fall. This diverges quite a bit from the Dutch viewpoint. Summer was the time for small game; in the winter, it was considered best to eat dove. These are all preferences and not so
much to do with seasonal constraints. Gastronomic considerations were only partially seasonal. Was there any explanation for the regional differences in taste? There is not much empirical evidence to go on here, only very vague inferences. The wealthy could overcome some oppression of
seasonality, and some ingenuity even allowed the not so rich salted pork throughout the year. In some areas, they used snow and ice to preserve food but this practice was only common in areas where there was a location near a mountain.

Lastly, in regard to social codes, the upper classes were not to eat hard to digest things; partridge was ok because it was digestible and thought to improve intellectual acuity. Sometimes it was just a question of appropriateness to one’s station and not a medical reason. There was also the belief that the upper class should not eat things that increased vigor because they did not do enough to expend it. The sense of what was considered prestigious food has reversed in modern times. In terms of gender specific diets, Freedman found less discussion of this than he would have expected, unless it concerned pregnancy. The development of gender specific foods, like “chocolates and light salads” for women didn’t appear until the 1890′s.

~Sandra Alvarez