Medieval cuisine

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Pies filled with meats, eggs, vegetables, or fruit were common throughout Europe, as were turnovers , fritters , doughnuts , and many similar pastries. Cod and herring were mainstays among the northern populations; dried, smoked or salted, they made their way far inland, but a wide variety of other saltwater and freshwater fish was also eaten. I started Take Shape for Life one week ago. Depending on the size and weight of the meat, the cook chose a heavy or light spit of various lengths. The husband in the review started out weighing pounds and lost 22 pounds in just one month while his wife lost 15 pounds.

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Domestic working animals that were no longer able to work were slaughtered but not particularly appetizing and therefore were less valued as meat. Beef was not as common as today because raising cattle was labor-intensive, requiring pastures and feed, and oxen and cows were much more valuable as draught animals and for producing milk.

Mutton and lamb were fairly common, especially in areas with a sizeable wool industry, as was veal. Domestic pigs often ran freely even in towns and could be fed on just about any organic waste, and suckling pig was a sought-after delicacy.

Just about every part of the pig was eaten, including ears, snout, tail, tongue , and womb. Intestines, bladder and stomach could be used as casings for sausage or even illusion food such as giant eggs. Among the meats that today are rare or even considered inappropriate for human consumption are the hedgehog and porcupine , occasionally mentioned in late medieval recipe collections.

In England, they were deliberately introduced by the 13th century and their colonies were carefully protected. They were of particular value for monasteries, because newborn rabbits were allegedly declared fish or, at least, not-meat by the church and therefore they could be eaten during Lent. A wide range of birds were eaten, including swans , peafowl , quail , partridge , storks , cranes , larks , linnets and other songbirds that could be trapped in nets, and just about any other wild bird that could be hunted.

Swans and peafowl were domesticated to some extent, but were only eaten by the social elite, and more praised for their fine appearance as stunning entertainment dishes, entremets , than for their meat. As today, geese and ducks had been domesticated but were not as popular as the chicken , the fowl equivalent of the pig.

But at the Fourth Council of the Lateran , Pope Innocent III explicitly prohibited the eating of barnacle geese during Lent, arguing that they lived and fed like ducks and so were of the same nature as other birds.

Meats were more expensive than plant foods. Though rich in protein , the calorie -to-weight ratio of meat was less than that of plant food. Meat could be up to four times as expensive as bread. Fish was up to 16 times as costly, and was expensive even for coastal populations. This meant that fasts could mean an especially meager diet for those who could not afford alternatives to meat and animal products like milk and eggs.

It was only after the Black Death had eradicated up to half of the European population that meat became more common even for poorer people. The drastic reduction in many populated areas resulted in a labor shortage, meaning that wages dramatically increased.

It also left vast areas of farmland untended, making them available for pasture and putting more meat on the market. Although less prestigious than other animal meats, and often seen as merely an alternative to meat on fast days, seafood was the mainstay of many coastal populations. Also included were the beaver , due to its scaly tail and considerable time spent in water, and barnacle geese , due to the belief that they developed underwater in the form of barnacles.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II examined barnacles and noted no evidence of any bird-like embryo in them, and the secretary of Leo of Rozmital wrote a very skeptical account of his reaction to being served barnacle goose at a fish-day dinner in Especially important was the fishing and trade in herring and cod in the Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The herring was of unprecedented significance to the economy of much of Northern Europe, and it was one of the most common commodities traded by the Hanseatic League , a powerful north German alliance of trading guilds.

Kippers made from herring caught in the North Sea could be found in markets as far away as Constantinople. Stockfish , cod that was split down the middle, fixed to a pole and dried, was very common, though preparation could be time-consuming, and meant beating the dried fish with a mallet before soaking it in water. A wide range of mollusks including oysters , mussels and scallops were eaten by coastal and river-dwelling populations, and freshwater crayfish were seen as a desirable alternative to meat during fish days.

Compared to meat, fish was much more expensive for inland populations, especially in Central Europe, and therefore not an option for most. Freshwater fish such as pike , carp , bream , perch , lamprey and trout were common.

While in modern times, water is often drunk with a meal, in the Middle Ages, however, concerns over purity, medical recommendations and its low prestige value made it less favored, and alcoholic beverages were preferred. They were seen as more nutritious and beneficial to digestion than water, with the invaluable bonus of being less prone to putrefaction due to the alcohol content. Wine was consumed on a daily basis in most of France and all over the Western Mediterranean wherever grapes were cultivated.

Further north it remained the preferred drink of the bourgeoisie and the nobility who could afford it, and far less common among peasants and workers. The drink of commoners in the northern parts of the continent was primarily beer or ale. Juices , as well as wines, of a multitude of fruits and berries had been known at least since Roman antiquity and were still consumed in the Middle Ages: Medieval drinks that have survived to this day include prunellé from wild plums modern-day slivovitz , mulberry gin and blackberry wine.

Many variants of mead have been found in medieval recipes, with or without alcoholic content. However, the honey -based drink became less common as a table beverage towards the end of the period and was eventually relegated to medicinal use. This is partially true since mead bore great symbolic value at important occasions.

When agreeing on treaties and other important affairs of state, mead was often presented as a ceremonial gift. It was also common at weddings and baptismal parties, though in limited quantity due to its high price.

In medieval Poland , mead had a status equivalent to that of imported luxuries, such as spices and wines. Plain milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, being reserved for the very young or elderly, and then usually as buttermilk or whey. Fresh milk was overall less common than other dairy products because of the lack of technology to keep it from spoiling. However, neither of these non-alcoholic social drinks were consumed in Europe before the late 16th and early 17th century.

Wine was commonly drunk and was also regarded as the most prestigious and healthy choice. According to Galen 's dietetics it was considered hot and dry but these qualities were moderated when wine was watered down.

Unlike water or beer, which were considered cold and moist, consumption of wine in moderation especially red wine was, among other things, believed to aid digestion, generate good blood and brighten the mood. The first pressing was made into the finest and most expensive wines which were reserved for the upper classes.

The second and third pressings were subsequently of lower quality and alcohol content. Common folk usually had to settle for a cheap white or rosé from a second or even third pressing, meaning that it could be consumed in quite generous amounts without leading to heavy intoxication.

For the poorest or the most pious , watered-down vinegar similar to Ancient Roman posca would often be the only available choice. The aging of high quality red wine required specialized knowledge as well as expensive storage and equipment, and resulted in an even more expensive end product.

Judging from the advice given in many medieval documents on how to salvage wine that bore signs of going bad, preservation must have been a widespread problem. Even if vinegar was a common ingredient, there was only so much of it that could be used. In the 14th century cookbook Le Viandier there are several methods for salvaging spoiling wine; making sure that the wine barrels are always topped up or adding a mixture of dried and boiled white grape seeds with the ash of dried and burnt lees of white wine were both effective bactericides , even if the chemical processes were not understood at the time.

Wine was believed to act as a kind of vaporizer and conduit of other foodstuffs to every part of the body, and the addition of fragrant and exotic spices would make it even more wholesome. Spiced wines were usually made by mixing an ordinary red wine with an assortment of spices such as ginger , cardamom , pepper , grains of paradise , nutmeg , cloves and sugar. These would be contained in small bags which were either steeped in wine or had liquid poured over them to produce hypocras and claré.

By the 14th century, bagged spice mixes could be bought ready-made from spice merchants. While wine was the most common table beverage in much of Europe, this was not the case in the northern regions where grapes were not cultivated. Those who could afford it drank imported wine, but even for nobility in these areas it was common to drink beer or ale , particularly towards the end of the Middle Ages.

In England , the Low Countries , northern Germany , Poland and Scandinavia , beer was consumed on a daily basis by people of all social classes and age groups. For most medieval Europeans, it was a humble brew compared with common southern drinks and cooking ingredients, such as wine, lemons and olive oil.

Even comparatively exotic products like camel 's milk and gazelle meat generally received more positive attention in medical texts. Beer was just an acceptable alternative and was assigned various negative qualities. In , the Sienese physician Aldobrandino described beer in the following way:. But from whichever it is made, whether from oats, barley or wheat, it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth , it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one's flesh white and smooth.

The intoxicating effect of beer was believed to last longer than that of wine, but it was also admitted that it did not create the "false thirst" associated with wine. Though less prominent than in the north, beer was consumed in northern France and the Italian mainland. Perhaps as a consequence of the Norman conquest and the travelling of nobles between France and England, one French variant described in the 14th century cookbook Le Menagier de Paris was called godale most likely a direct borrowing from the English "good ale" and was made from barley and spelt , but without hops.

In England there were also the variants poset ale , made from hot milk and cold ale, and brakot or braggot , a spiced ale prepared much like hypocras. That hops could be used for flavoring beer had been known at least since Carolingian times, but was adopted gradually due to difficulties in establishing the appropriate proportions.

Before the widespread use of hops, gruit , a mix of various herbs , had been used. Gruit had the same preserving properties as hops, though less reliable depending on what herbs were in it, and the end result was much more variable.

Another flavoring method was to increase the alcohol content, but this was more expensive and lent the beer the undesired characteristic of being a quick and heavy intoxicant. Hops may have been widely used in England in the tenth century; they were grown in Austria by and in Finland by , and possibly much earlier. Before hops became popular as an ingredient, it was difficult to preserve this beverage for any time, and so, it was mostly consumed fresh. Quantities of beer consumed by medieval residents of Europe, as recorded in contemporary literature, far exceed intakes in the modern world.

For example, sailors in 16th century England and Denmark received a ration of 1 imperial gallon 4. Polish peasants consumed up to 3 litres 0. In the Early Middle Ages beer was primarily brewed in monasteries , and on a smaller scale in individual households. By the High Middle Ages breweries in the fledgling medieval towns of northern Germany began to take over production. Though most of the breweries were small family businesses that employed at most eight to ten people, regular production allowed for investment in better equipment and increased experimentation with new recipes and brewing techniques.

These operations later spread to the Netherlands in the 14th century, then to Flanders and Brabant , and reached England by the 15th century. Hopped beer became very popular in the last decades of the Late Middle Ages. When perfected as an ingredient, hops could make beer keep for six months or more, and facilitated extensive exports.

In turn, ale or beer was classified into "strong" and "small", the latter less intoxicating, regarded as a drink of temperate people, and suitable for consumption by children. As late as , John Locke stated that the only drink he considered suitable for children of all ages was small beer, while criticizing the apparently common practice among Englishmen of the time to give their children wine and strong alcohol. By modern standards, the brewing process was relatively inefficient, but capable of producing quite strong alcohol when that was desired.

One recent attempt to recreate medieval English "strong ale" using recipes and techniques of the era albeit with the use of modern yeast strains yielded a strongly alcoholic brew with original gravity of 1. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew of the technique of distillation , but it was not practiced on a major scale in Europe until some time around the 12th century, when Arabic innovations in the field combined with water-cooled glass alembics were introduced. Distillation was believed by medieval scholars to produce the essence of the liquid being purified, and the term aqua vitae "water of life" was used as a generic term for all kinds of distillates.

Alcoholic distillates were also occasionally used to create dazzling, fire-breathing entremets a type of entertainment dish after a course by soaking a piece of cotton in spirits. It would then be placed in the mouth of the stuffed, cooked and occasionally redressed animals, and lit just before presenting the creation. Aqua vitae in its alcoholic forms was highly praised by medieval physicians. In Arnaldus of Villanova wrote that "[i]t prolongs good health, dissipates superfluous humours, reanimates the heart and maintains youth.

By the 13th century, Hausbrand literally "home-burnt" from gebrannter wein, brandwein ; "burnt [distilled] wine" was commonplace, marking the origin of brandy.

Towards the end of the Late Middle Ages, the consumption of spirits became so ingrained even among the general population that restrictions on sales and production began to appear in the late 15th century. In the city of Nuremberg issued restrictions on the selling of aquavit on Sundays and official holidays.

Spices were among the most luxurious products available in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper , cinnamon and the cheaper alternative cassia , cumin , nutmeg , ginger and cloves. They all had to be imported from plantations in Asia and Africa , which made them extremely expensive, and gave them social cachet such that pepper for example was hoarded, traded and conspicuously donated in the manner of gold bullion.

The value of these goods was the equivalent of a yearly supply of grain for 1. Sugar , unlike today, was considered to be a type of spice due to its high cost and humoral qualities. Even when a dish was dominated by a single flavor it was usually combined with another to produce a compound taste, for example parsley and cloves or pepper and ginger.

Common herbs such as sage , mustard , and parsley were grown and used in cooking all over Europe, as were caraway , mint , dill and fennel. Many of these plants grew throughout all of Europe or were cultivated in gardens, and were a cheaper alternative to exotic spices. Mustard was particularly popular with meat products and was described by Hildegard of Bingen — as poor man's food. While locally grown herbs were less prestigious than spices, they were still used in upper-class food, but were then usually less prominent or included merely as coloring.

Anise was used to flavor fish and chicken dishes, and its seeds were served as sugar-coated comfits. Surviving medieval recipes frequently call for flavoring with a number of sour, tart liquids. Wine, verjuice the juice of unripe grapes or fruits vinegar and the juices of various fruits, especially those with tart flavors, were almost universal and a hallmark of late medieval cooking.

In combination with sweeteners and spices, it produced a distinctive "pungeant, fruity" flavor. Equally common, and used to complement the tanginess of these ingredients, were sweet almonds. They were used in a variety of ways: This last type of non-dairy milk product is probably the single most common ingredient in late medieval cooking and blended the aroma of spices and sour liquids with a mild taste and creamy texture.

Salt was ubiquitous and indispensable in medieval cooking. Salting and drying was the most common form of food preservation and meant that fish and meat in particular were often heavily salted. Many medieval recipes specifically warn against oversalting and there were recommendations for soaking certain products in water to get rid of excess salt. The richer the host, and the more prestigious the guest, the more elaborate would be the container in which it was served and the higher the quality and price of the salt.

Wealthy guests were seated " above the salt ", while others sat "below the salt", where salt cellars were made of pewter, precious metals or other fine materials, often intricately decorated. The rank of a diner also decided how finely ground and white the salt was. Salt for cooking, preservation or for use by common people was coarser; sea salt, or "bay salt", in particular, had more impurities, and was described in colors ranging from black to green.

Expensive salt, on the other hand, looked like the standard commercial salt common today. The term " dessert " comes from the Old French desservir , "to clear a table", literally "to un-serve", and originated during the Middle Ages. It would typically consist of dragées and mulled wine accompanied by aged cheese , and by the Late Middle Ages could also include fresh fruit covered in sugar, honey or syrup and boiled-down fruit pastes.

Sugar , from its first appearance in Europe, was viewed as much as a drug as a sweetener; its long-lived medieval reputation as an exotic luxury encouraged its appearance in elite contexts accompanying meats and other dishes that to modern taste are more naturally savoury. There was a wide variety of fritters , crêpes with sugar, sweet custards and darioles , almond milk and eggs in a pastry shell that could also include fruit and sometimes even bone marrow or fish.

Marzipan in many forms was well known in Italy and southern France by the s and is assumed to be of Arab origin. The English chefs also had a penchant for using flower petals such as roses , violets , and elder flowers. An early form of quiche can be found in Forme of Cury , a 14th-century recipe collection, as a Torte de Bry with a cheese and egg yolk filling.

The ever-present candied ginger, coriander , aniseed and other spices were referred to as épices de chambre "parlor spices" and were taken as digestibles at the end of a meal to "close" the stomach.

Just like Montpellier , Sicily was once famous for its comfits , nougat candy torrone , or turrón in Spanish and almond clusters confetti. From the south, the Arabs also brought the art of ice cream making that produced sorbet and several examples of sweet cakes and pastries; cassata alla Siciliana from Arabic qas'ah , the term for the terra cotta bowl with which it was shaped , made from marzipan, sponge cake and sweetened ricotta and cannoli alla Siciliana , originally cappelli di turchi "Turkish hats" , fried, chilled pastry tubes with a sweet cheese filling.

Research into medieval foodways was, until around , a much neglected field of study. Misconceptions and outright errors were common among historians, and are still present in as a part of the popular view of the Middle Ages as a backward, primitive and barbaric era.

Medieval cookery was described as revolting due to the often unfamiliar combination of flavors, the perceived lack of vegetables and a liberal use of spices. The preservation techniques available at the time, although crude by today's standards, were perfectly adequate.

The astronomical cost and high prestige of spices, and thereby the reputation of the host, would have been effectively undone if wasted on cheap and poorly handled foods.

The common method of grinding and mashing ingredients into pastes and the many potages and sauces has been used as an argument that most adults within the medieval nobility lost their teeth at an early age, and hence were forced to eat nothing but porridge, soup and ground-up meat. The image of nobles gumming their way through multi-course meals of nothing but mush has lived side by side with the contradictory apparition of the "mob of uncouth louts disguised as noble lords who, when not actually hurling huge joints of greasy meat at one another across the banquet hall, are engaged in tearing at them with a perfectly healthy complement of incisors, canines, bicuspids and molars".

The numerous descriptions of banquets from the later Middle Ages concentrated on the pageantry of the event rather than the minutiae of the food, which was not the same for most banqueters as those choice mets served at the high table.

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