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What to eat in (and at) Medieval Times

By Cait Stevenson

The iconic food of the Renaissance faire is the giant, primal, freestanding turkey leg. Setting aside the silly carnivals that insist on anachronistically offering “Friar Tuck’s Turkey Leg,” the turkey legs makes a fine cartoon version of a Renaissance diet: the excesses of elite late medieval culture busily integrating the riches of the New World. The bird arrived in Europe as early as the late 1490s or early 1500s, quickly earning the name “turkey” or “fowl of India” for their connotations of the exotic East. Equally quickly, it earned a place on prestigious tables, assumed to be an even more prestigious partner to the peacock or guinea fowl.

Turkey Leg – Photo by D Sharon Pruitt / Wikimedia Commons

While a proper Renaissance Italian or Burgundian meal course would probably have dipped the turkey leg in gold or served it next to a full-size replica of itself in sugarcane crystals, one could absolutely do worse in nominating an iconic “Renaissance” carnival food.

Which leads to the inevitable question: if the Renfair people can get this right, how does the Medieval Times menu perform?

Eating at Medieval Times – photo by Scott Lawrence / Flickr

Medieval Times is a North American theme restaurant chain, or perhaps dining experience would be the marketing term. The restaurant is a combination theatre/arena set up as “the Castle,” where diners witness actors perform a play and then a staged joust while, well, dining. To keep alive the spirit of the medieval feast, all audience members are served the same multi-course meal. The menu is freely available on, among other things, the Medieval Times website, so let’s check it out!

Main Course: Roasted Chicken

This is not a terrible start. Poultry was a standard meat course in Europe. Salted fish might be more appropriate in winter or during Lent, it’s true, but records from England show that chicken might indeed be consumed year-round. However, our imaginary host would not be acquitting himself (perhaps herself!) well with such a base dish. Through the twelfth century, chicken was the most commonly-consumed bird by far. However, from the thirteenth century on, a notable pattern develops. Peasants and other villagers continued to chow down on chicken. But monastic and town tables, and above all those in castles, held a dazzling array of poultry meats far more frequently than the humble chicken: goose, peacock, pheasant, guinea fowl, swan, plover, partridge, pigeon, snipe, thrush, curlew, seagull, crane, cormorant, and heron might reasonably find their way to the tournament-attending aristocratic stomach. (Yes, “and”: medieval feasts were famous for having more courses than the Olympics have events.)

Still, chicken was indeed a medieval food, and roasting a reasonable enough preparation barring, again, dipping it in gold.

The Existence of a Vegetarian Option

A classic example of “accuracy by accident,” one assumes, but plausible nonetheless! The fasting guidelines of the Latin West barred the consumption of meat on Fridays, during Lent, sometimes on Wednesdays, and on other miscellaneous days of note. While fish or even poultry might be substituted by some elite Christians, we have plenty of evidence for non-animal options altogether. The Libro della cocina from 14th or 15th century Tuscany suggests that during Lent, lasagna might be prepared by alternating layers of a thin, rolled-out noodle with cheese and ground-up almonds.

And it wasn’t just for the elite! On 14th-century Aragonese ships crewed by Christians and Muslims together, the standard “sailors’ stew” fare would be prepared with just cheese for the Muslims rather than the pork or beef in the Christians’—or possibly everyone aboard would keep halal for the sake of simplicity.

Garlic Bread

Garlic might even be considered its own food group in the Middle Ages. People paid taxes and Church tithes in it. “Garlicmonger” is a profession listed in civic records. Christopher Dyer calculated that the monks of Glastonbury ate three cloves a day per monk. As for garlic bread?

Bruschetta – Photo by Stephanie / Flickr

Well, something named “bruschetta” is attested at least from 1508 Italy. And while contemporary cookbooks would not generally stoop to include so basic a recipe, “toasted bread soaked in oil” is used as an ingredient in bigger recipes, along with the ubiquitous “spices.” It is not unreasonable to assume that something resembling garlic bread might have satisfied a medieval palate, if again, perhaps not prestigious enough for our erstwhile tournament guests.

“Pastry of the Castle”

The Internet informs me that the dessert course, titled “Pastry of the Castle,” is in fact an apple turnover or one-person apple pie. This is also in the realm of possibility. Pie was the medieval food preparation. It was portable, eating-dish free, and surrounding meat or other ingredients with crust was a great way for unscrupulous merchants to pawn off spoiled meat on unsuspecting customers. We can even imagine the spice cinnamon and its apple-pie partners adding taste as well as prestige to a cooked apple dish—though probably in vastly greater amounts in the medieval version than the modern palate would accept.

Indeed, perhaps the most unrealistic element of the dessert course is the singular. No self-respecting Italian wedding would go without at least three courses of sugar-cane constructions and candied fruits and cakes of every variety.

Sweet Buttered Corn

Two things are true of every American medievalists. First, we do not learn in school that the complex corn-and-squash agriculture foodways of ancient Mexico and the Southwest U.S. assimilated north and east along riverways all the way up to Canada well before 1500. Second, having actually learned in school that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant and eat corn, we are very surprised to read in medieval texts that thirteenth-century Europeans (or ancient Romans, for that matter)…grew and ate corn.

It happens that “corn” in older British English usage, and consequently in translation from Latin, is simply a generic term for grain. So while Medieval Times is not serving “generic grains topped with butter and sugar,” but rather good old American maize, we can at least pretend this error is forgivable. After all, the menu started off so strong, right? Surely this is just an error in transl—

Feasting in the medieval times – British Library MS King’s 5 f. 30

Tomato Bisque Soup

So, a vegetable bisque soup is based on the pureed vegetable and cream. Incidentally, while there is little evidence for medieval consumption of straight-up milk, cream- or almond milk-based sauces (yes, almond milk, really) have plenty of mention in late medieval cookbooks.

But about the tomato.

This is, I’m pretty sure, where excuses run out. Spanish conquistadores learned of the tomato and tomatillo from the Mexica, who had been cultivating their deliciousness for centuries. The produce did not filter into Europe to any degree until Shakespeare’s day, and wouldn’t become a true staple of even Italian cuisine until the nineteenth century.

Herb-basted…

Great start! Medieval cuisine distinguished “spices,” which were prestigious because they came from faraway and were expensive, from “herbs,” which were greenish things grown close to home. Nevertheless, herbs and onions and garlic added flavor to the multitude of sauce recipes, so we are definitely on the right track here—

…Potatoes

Oh.

Well, surely they do better with the drink course?

Coffee

I got nothing.

Which is, funnily enough, exactly how much coffee medieval Europeans drank.

 

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Back in 2012 Peter and Sandra took in the dining experience of Medieval Times. Here is our video report:

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