The Taste of Medieval Food
By Analida Braeger
When speaking of medieval foods, most people think of one or two things: drab, tasteless foods, or the historically inaccurate meals served at medieval reenactments where patrons eat sans utensils while watching some sort of entertaining reenactment. Both conceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.
For starters, medieval foods as this article will explain were anything but drab and tasteless. The homes of the well-to-do were a constant display of numerous dishes, heavily spiced and often presented in visually exciting ways. Although utensils were not all that common, knives were widely used. Hosts were not required to provide knives for their guests so guests brought their own. These knives were quite different from the dinner table knives of today. Medieval knives served two purposes: eating and fighting. Yes they had a pointed tip! Spoons were used to a certain extent and forks seldom, but they did make the occasional appearance at the dinner table. The notion that utensils were completely absent from the medieval dinner table is erroneous because among the aristocracy manners and cleanliness were de riguer.
The belief that medieval diners were akin to savages ripping apart meat with their teeth or bare hands, could not be more inaccurate. Dining customs were carefully observed and followed during medieval times. At the banquet table your station in life dictated where you got to sit. Washing was required and mandated either at a washing station in or near the banquet hall. Sometimes, aquamaniles, special containers with pour spouts were provided. Washing apart from being a sign of civility, and good upbringing was a health concern as well.
The medieval palate craved flavor; it became accustomed to foods heavily accented with exotic spices. This culinary preference was the result of the lucrative spice trade that came to dominate Europe during the Middle Ages, and the status symbol associated with them. This elevated status was often attributed to the long voyage spices made from their place of provenance to Europe. Another factor was the often embellished tales surrounding the native habitat of the spices as well as what had to be done to procure them. Because of their status symbol, spices were often publicly displayed. Salt cellars (often called nefs) in the form of ships were present at the dinner table of the well-to-do, as well as ornate spice containers. Given the astronomical cost of most spices, this display was most certainly an outward and ostentatious show of wealth. The major spices during the Middle Ages were: black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and saffron. Another common spice, galangal which is akin to ginger was also widely used. Today galangal has all but disappeared from the European spice vocabulary. We do find galangal in Thai cooking however. Cloves were also highly valued, but due to their exorbitant cost were not as liberally used as the other aforementioned spices. Account books of manors detail the enormous amount of spices that were purchased during any given year. Herbs such as rosemary and parsley were also widely used in cooking, however, they were a local product, they were not given much importance, and considered “too local” to be given much prominence.
Cooks employed by the well-to-do had a tall order to follow: to create flavorful meals and present them in imaginative and awe inspiring ways. While today’s chefs strive to make the individual ingredients speak for themselves, the cooks of the Middle Ages aimed for artifice and fantasy in a Disneyesque kind of way. Guests as well as patrons expected it.
The typical medieval feast of a great manor or castle often consisted of 3-4 courses. Each course in turn was comprised of 4-5 dishes, where repetition of dishes was not uncommon. The sequence of courses was often served according to the contemporary medical belief that that the stomach was “like an oven” in which food was cooked. It was therefore important to “warm up the oven” with lighter dishes first and then progress to the heavier dishes. Hippocras, a spiced wine was served for at the conclusion of the meal as a digestive. To make the Hippocras spices were ground and passed through a sieve known as manicum Hippocraticum (sleeve of Hippocrates), a reference no doubt to Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine.
The medieval banquet was indeed a culinary feast for the eyes as well. Between courses it was customary to regale guests with a “subtlety”, or entremets. This could take the place of a historical reenactment, an edible food item aimed at entertaining and amazing guests, or a decorative item not meant for human consumption. Peter Freedman in Out of the East describes a favorite subtlety served at banquets: Pomys en Gele, basically apples in aspic. However, these were not really apples, but meatballs colored with parsley sauce and served with aspic. They were certainly edible, but were not what they appeared to be. Subtleties also made political statements. In A History of Taste, Paul Freedman discusses a dinner given in honor of the Duke of Savoy in 1416. The occasion? The Duke’s newly acquired territory. For the subtlety the pastry chef executed a relief map representing the new duchy. Edible? Maybe, but the dual purpose of the subtlety was served either way.
Madeleine Pelner Cosman explains in her book: Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony that to achieve the fantastic effects as well as to make food go a long way the cooks of the Middle Ages availed themselves of three major techniques: alaying, aforcing and endorring. These combined with the artistry of the cook created the visual and gustatory excitement the medieval banquet was famous for. Aforcing meant increasing the amount to make the food go further, so it would feed more people. Allaying dealt with diluting. Some of the common ingredients used in aforcing and alaying were almond milk, verjuice (fermented grape juice) and bread. Vinegar was also sometimes used to “point” or add bite to the dishes. Endorring was perhaps the most exciting way to change the visual quality of a dish. Basically, endorring meant adding a gold hue to the food. Saffron was the most widely used spice to achieve this effect. Using saffron certainly made the food edible. Another, slightly more ostentatious, yet non edible item used to achieve the endorring effect was gold leaf.
Tastes during the Middle Ages varied greatly from today’s tastes. Typical of what was pleasing to the medieval palate were: lamprey, eel, peacock, swan, partridge and other assorted small songbirds. Apart from perhaps eel, none of the above items feature in today’s culinary offerings. Dairy products were often perceived as the province of the peasant class. Sausages were seldom found on the tables of the wealthy. The reason for this? Sausages were preserved. Since the wealthy had ample access to fresh meats, they saw no need in eating something that was preserved. Although household account books indicate that fruits were consumed, they do not feature prominently in the cookbooks of the time.
Medieval foods were anything but dull and drab. They combined art and artifice to entice the palate as well as the eyes. The prolific use of spices and special effects contributed to foods that were rich in taste and presentation.
Analida Braeger is originally from Panama and now lives in the northern United States. She is a food writer and creator of the blog Ethnic Spoon that focuses on ethnic foods, culture and food history. She has a passion about the role of food, spices and dining customs in the Middle Ages. You can also follow her on Twitter @ethnicspoon
Adamson, Weiss Melitta: Food in Medieval Times. Greenwood Press. October 30, 2004.
Cosman, Pelner Madeline: Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. George Braziller, 1999.
Freedman, Paul. A History of Taste. University of California Press, November 7, 2007.
Freedman, Paul. Out of the East. Yale University Press, February 1, 2009.