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Six modern foods with medieval origins

By Sam Mellins

It’s easy enough to think of the ways in which medieval food was different from the food we eat today. If you try to think of a medieval diet, what probably springs to mind is images of large chunks of meat on the bone for the rich and endless gruel for the poor. It seems that there would be little to appeal to a twenty-first century palette.

The medieval diet did contain much that we’re generally at least averse to, and sometimes disgusted by. Our aversion would have sometimes been for sanitary reasons—vermin were simply a fact of life, and often an important source of protein for those who didn’t generally get enough of it—and sometimes for aesthetic ones—one popular gimmick in medieval courts was slaughtering a peacock, taking off its skin in one piece, roasting the body, and sewing the skin back on so that when served, so it resembled a piece of taxidermy more than something edible. But for all its differences, medieval food had some significant commonalities with many of our diets today. In fact, many foods still enjoyed around the world were invented in the Middle Ages, such as these six foods and drinks.

Coffee

Coffee is certainly the most popular beverage to have a medieval origin. There’s a legend about its discovery: an Ethiopian goat-herder named Kaldi one day noticed his flock behaving much more erratically than normal, jumping and running with an energy that he’d never before seen them exhibit. He took the red beans that he noticed them eating to the local imam, who mashed them, boiled them, and drank the resultant brew. The effects were immediate: he found himself able to stay awake all night studying the Quran, with a clarity of mind that he had never before achieved. With a result like this, it didn’t take much for coffee to quickly spread all over the Muslim world.

Charming as it is, there’s probably not much truth to this legend. It first appeared in the seventeenth century, in European texts too far removed in both time and space from the putative origins of coffee to be relied upon for an accurate account. The actual origins of any sort of drink made from the coffee bean seem to lie in tenth-century Yemen, where locals would crush coffee beans and ferment the juice to make an alcoholic beverage that they called qawha. It wasn’t the hot drink that we know as coffee, but it was somewhat similar. But the popularity of qawha seems to have been a relatively brief phenomenon: from the death of doctor and pharmacist Avicenna (Ibn Sina, d. 1037), who wrote about the health benefits of qawha, the historical record is strangely silent on coffee until the fifteenth century.

So when did the hot coffee come into being? It seems that the first pour over dates to the late fifteenth century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen (for espresso one would have to wait until the nineteenth century). According to the mid-sixteenth century account of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, the Sufi imam Dhabhani had brought coffee beans from Ethiopia to his native Yemen in the late fifteenth century, where he and his fellow Sufis began using it to stay alert during the all-night prayer and meditation sessions for which their sect was famous. By 1510, coffee had spread beyond its Sufi origins to attain popularity in Muslim society at large, and was being drunk in major cities such as Mecca and Cairo.

Gingerbread

Baked goods featuring ginger have been around since at least Ancient Greece, but the sweet biscuits that we know as “gingerbread” have a medieval origin. In 992 C.E., Armenian monk and immigrant to France Gregory of Nicopolis was recorded teaching his French bakers to make gingerbread using a recipe from his homeland. By the fifteenth century, some parts of Germany had gingerbread guilds to protect the bakers from anyone impinging on their niche, and Swedish nuns were eating gingerbread to relieve indigestion.

Lasagna

Despite a 2003 revisionist attempt to claim the invention of lasagna for England based on a recipe for the bread-and-cheese based loseyns in the fourteenth century English cookbook The Forme of Cury, most food historians agree that lasagna has its origins, as one would expect, in Italy. Throughout the thirteenth century, several Italian poets and chroniclers mention lasagna, or its plural, lasagne. We can’t know for sure that they’re talking about the noodle dish that we’re familiar with, but it seems likely that they’re talking about something at least closely related. The first unambiguous attestation of lasagna, however, is in the 1300 Liber de coquina, a cookbook composed in the court of Charles II, King of Naples. The basic version was quite simple, comprising layers of dough, cheese, and spices. The fancier “lasagna pie,” reserved for feasts, added eggs, cheese, and meat, all wrapped in an intestine (somehow) and baked in the oven.

Strawberries

Strawberries were of course not invented in the Middle Ages. But it was in the Middle Ages that they were first domesticated, by the Valois kings of France. Wild strawberries were known in Europe since the Classical era, with Virgil and other Latin authors making numerous references to them in their works. In Hildegard of Bingen’s medical writings, she advocated against strawberry consumption, since they grew close to the ground where the air was stale, and were therefore bad for the constitution. But the French kings were not to be deterred by Hildegard’s advice. Charles V (r. 1364-1380) had a thousand strawberry bushes planted in the gardens of the Louvre, where I.M. Pei’s pyramid stands today, so that he would always have his favorite fruit on hand. By the fifteenth century, they could be found in spring and summer markets across Europe, and by the sixteenth, they were a favored dessert, eaten dipped in cream, sugar, or wine.

Sparkling wine

Dom Perignon might be better known as the inventor of champagne than Kaldi is as the inventor of coffee. But the legend about him inventing it, and saying when he first tasted it “I am drinking the stars” is equally false. Sparkling wine had in fact existed since ancient times, and was known to the Greeks and Romans. But since the level of carbonation couldn’t be controlled, the bubbles were considered more of a bug than a feature – especially since too much build-up of carbon dioxide in unopened wine bottles could make them spontaneously explode, sometimes setting off a chain reaction that could eliminate an entire cellar’s stock!

Probably for this reason, winemakers in the Middle Ages tried their hardest to eliminate bubbles from their wines. But in the early sixteenth century, for reasons still not entirely clear, intentionally carbonated wines started being produced for commercial purposes. The first record of their sale comes from a Benedictine abbey in Languedoc in 1531—more than a century before Dom Perignon.

The Pancake Bakery, by Pieter Aertsen (c.1508 –1575)

Waffles

The ancestors of the modern waffle are pastries known as nebula and oublies, which were central parts of the early medieval monastic diets. It might seem incongruous that monks would be regularly dining on such an indulgent food item, but that’s only because of the changes the waffle has undergone in the modern era—unlike our waffles, the medieval waffle was neither itself sweet nor topped with such decadent items as whipped cream, chocolate spread, and powdered sugar. Nebula, oublies, and from 1180, the walfre (waffle), were simple wafer cakes made of eggs, milk, butter, and flour. The most decadent they got was sometimes being filled with cheese. On Pentecost, French churches would order thousands of oublies from the local guild of oubliers, so that when the clergy read the Biblical passage describing the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit from heaven, monks perched in the church rafters could rain down oublies as a surprise treat for churchgoers.

But, though it may be hard to believe about a seemingly harmless baked good, medieval waffles also had a darker side. By the late fifteenth century, Parisian street oublie salesmen had acquired a seedy reputation, thanks to their habit of coming into private houses to make fresh waffles—closely followed by their companions, who were often pickpockets, gamblers, and prostitutes. Despite the best efforts of the waffle guilds to rein in the troublemakers, the association of waffles with crime and debauchery persisted into the modern era, when, separated from its unsavory companions, the waffle once again became an innocuous indulgence.

Sam Mellins is a student at the University of Chicago and a native of New York City. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Review, OR Journal, and the UChicago Philosophy Review.

Top Image: BNF Français 343 fol. 31v

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