Colour often has a great influence on how we perceive the food we eat. It can make food appear more appetizing, or even warn that something is wrong. This was just as true for diners in the Middle Ages as it is for modern consumers.
Chris Woolgar’s recent article, ‘Medieval food and colour’, deals with this topic while examining how medieval people understood the role of colour in the preparation and presentation of food. In it, Woolgar explores the ways in which colour served as an indicator of a food’s essential characteristics, both physical and moral, and also the technical details of the creation of colour in food.
Woolgar establishes that medieval people perceived colour in a way markedly different from how we do today. For instance, when speaking about the quality of lustre or shine, Woolgar says, ‘Contemporary science teaches that objects that shine reflect light, but medieval people saw these objects as the source of light, and the divine qualities of light made them virtuous in their own right.‘
One prime example of the way in which medieval people attributed these broader characteristics to colour may be found in humoral theory. Different colours of wine, for instance, were believed to have different effects on the body, and thus certain wines were better suited to the specific needs of individuals. Along the same lines, similar visual characteristics of different items were thought to denote a connection; i.e. red meat and red wine were good for the blood. Colour was also linked to morality, particularly when it came to the widely recognised opposition of black and white.
All of this led to a medieval debate about whether the colour of food should be changed or altered. Woolgar points out that it is easier to analyse how this question was viewed with the appearance of cookbooks across Europe from about 1300: ‘Cookbooks from across Europe describe the creation of colour and provide a good deal of evidence about the contexts in which coloured food was consumed,’ Woolgar states. The influence of the Middle East and Arab cookery, for example, play a critical role in many of these more colourful recipes. Surviving cookbooks also shed light on trends such as coloured sauces and broths, how to create different colours, and even the layout of medieval kitchens.
While medieval cookbooks may reveal the specific instructions for incorporating colour into food, Woolgar turns to household accounts to discover how often this sort of cooking was actually undertaken. The purchase of spices such as ginger, saffron, and cinnamon, colourful herbs such as parsley, and even sheets of gold or silver leaf reveal how colour was incorporated into cooking on a regular basis. These accounts also clearly show that colour in cooking was utilised most frequently by elite households. Indeed, colour was very important when it came to the combination of food and spectacle in elite households. Items like entremets, elaborate dishes which were served between principal courses, were created purely for spectacle.
By examining colour’s association with food in the Middle Ages through these various lenses, Woolgar highlights the importance of colour in medieval cooking; colour could signify humoral or even moral qualities, it could allow one food to mimic another, it could indicate status and allow for the creation of spectacle. ‘In most cases,’ Woolgar concludes, ‘what has been demonstrated is that these links were far from systematic. Colour systems were not usually a driving force, and meanings inevitably changed over time – but delight in colour and fancy were, in the elite cuisine of later medieval Europe, a major feature. Colour in food is a fleeting concept, but it can nonetheless offer us perspectives on the aspirations of cooks and consumers in the late medieval world.’
Chris Woolgar is a Professor of History and Archival Studies at the University of Southampton. His most recent book is The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500. Click here to visit his personal website.