In last week’s blog I shared a little bit about my family history with food that was inspired by work on my second Sir Kaye book, The Lost Castle Treasure. As promised, today I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned about food and cooking during the Middle Ages.
Here are a few interesting facts:
- In medieval times the poorest of the poor might survive on garden vegetables, including peas, onions, leeks, cabbage, beans, turnips (swedes), and parsley. A staple food of the poor was called pottage—a stew made of oats and garden vegetables with a tiny bit of meat in it, often thickened with stale bread crumbs.
- Brown bread made from rye, barley, or oats was eaten in most homes on a regular basis. When it got stale, it was crumbled and used to thicken soups and stews. The stale bread could also be cut into thick slices and used as plates called trenchers. Manchet, or white bread made from wheat, was usually only eaten by the wealthy.
- Fresh milk did not last long in the Middle Ages because there was no refrigeration. So milk was made into cheese that had a shelf life of several months. Instead of fresh milk, some wealthier households used nut milk— ground almonds or walnuts boiled and strained through a sieve. The liquid collected was used as a substitute for milk in soups, main dishes, and desserts.
- Many households raised chickens, ducks, or geese for eggs and eventually for meat, but only after they had stopped laying. These birds were far more valuable as egg-producers than as meat for the table.
- The homes of the nobility often had “deer parks,” which were wooded areas where the gentry could hunt for sport and food. Peasants who poached game on these reserves might even be put to death if caught. One exception was rabbits—a peasant caught poaching rabbits was subject to only a small fine.
- Poor people could not afford spices. Their foods were more often flavored with onions, garlic, and herbs like parsley and sage that they could grow in their garden or forage for in the fields and woods.
- The more well-to-do would enjoy spices such as pepper, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, saffron, grains of paradise, cloves, ginger, and galangal. Do some of those sound exotic? Grains of paradise are seeds that have a pepper-like flavor. Galangal is similar to ginger.
- Spices were expensive! Wealthier people that had spices kept them locked up for safekeeping.
- Experimentation with varieties of herbs and spices was not a well-established art: instead, spices were frequently used in combinations that would be unlikely for today’s palates. Spices were something of a status symbol, and the more you had, the more you used, and people were impressed.
- Honey was the most common sweetener in the Middle Ages. Although sugar was available in many forms in medieval times, it was used sparingly as more of a spice than a sweetener, especially for meat sauces. If you think it’s gross to have sugar in your meat sauce, think for a minute about ketchup and barbeque sauce—both of those have plenty of sugar in them.
Well, I can’t read about medieval cookery without wanting to give it a try. This weekend I’m going to experiment with a medieval recipe and I’ll be sure to share the results with you.