Tidbits from a Pseudo-Medieval Kitchen: 5 things I learn from a medieval catering collective
Well described meals can add a lot of flavour to one’s world building. I have clear memories of salivating over the banquets described in Brian Jacques’ Redwall books. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games has meticulously described food, especially in with each district having its own distinctive bread.
I love writing about food almost as much as I like eating it, but I confess much of my knowledge comes from my partner, who is the self proclaimed Benevolent Dictator of Serve It Forth, a catering collective specialising in medieval food. Over the years of research and practical cooking banquets, this is what I have learnt.
If you’re just here for recipes, my partner has a recently done a twitter thread of his take on some of our banquet staples here.
1) WHO CONTROLS THE SPICE CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE
There is a surprisingly pervasive myth that medieval food uses all those spices because they are trying to cover up the smell and taste of rotten meat. As far as I’ve managed to surmise, this myth was invented by the Victorians whom one presumes liked tasteless, unspiced food and could not fathom why there was any other reason for adding flavour to food.
Medieval people, whilst not in possession of modern preservasion techniques, were still able to tell apart rotten food and fresh food. With the lack of modern medicine, they also arguably care more. Spices were also very expensive, oft said to be worth their weight in gold. To spice off meat would be the equivalent of gilding a turd.
With modern abundance, it is sometimes hard to think of salt and spice now as something that would be highly sought after, desirous items. Spice historians have even argued that securing the trade route for pepper and other spices is what drove the Romans to conquer Egypt, and more importantly, that port in Alexandria. Of the one hundred and twenty vessels sent from Rome on annual trips to Southeast Asia, pepper was one of their primary imports. When the Visigoths threatened to sack Rome in the 4th Century, they were offered gold, silver, silk and three thousand pounds of pepper. There is even a folk tale in which a daughter likens her filial love as that between meat and salt, a similie that her royal father at first dismisses as mocking but eventually comes to realise as loyal and loving.
Spices travelled far and wide, being a high value, relatively light trade good that was regionally produced. They were both popular and profitable. There are also stories of clerics casting aspersions upon pilgrims returning from the Holy Land with their pockets full of spices, questioning if their motivations can truly be spiritual when their return was quite so profitable.
Medieval cooking had a great variety of peppers, most of which have now fallen into disfavour with modern chefs. Long pepper and tailed pepper both sound very exotic to my ears, but they taste a lot like black pepper to my unseasoned tongue. Many of the spices now primarily confined to the purview of deserts were used to season meats, such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
Sugar is one of things that is often thought of as a New World crop but it has been around for far longer, but its use is rather different in medieval cooking. Honey was the primary sweetener and sugar, due to its immense cost, was used more like a spice, the way one might use salt in modern cooking. Sugar appears in various spice mixes, for example. It was also used to make marzipan.
2) MEDIEVAL FEASTING ISN’T ABOUT CHEWING ON BONES AND TOSSING IT TO THE DOGS
Most depictions of medieval feasts have an air of barbarism to them, with a great deal of chewing on bones and breaking crockery. There is a persistent myth that they hadn’t invented the concept of ettiquette then, but this simply isn’t true. The reality is rather more ritualistic as there is a rigid order of service that reflects the status of each attendee of the feast. At the back of Peter Brears’ Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, there is a glorious cartoon that describes each step of a feast. It’s not always easy to imagine that meticulous choreography with both formality and fluidity. I like to think of it as a dance, to an extent, where each knows their part.
Monastic rule dictated that meals be consumed in silence whilst listening to pious texts. Thus complex hand signals evolved over time to communicate the intricacies of passing dishes back and forth.
During the 13th Century, the abbey of Bury St Edmunds would punish monks who had committed serious offences by excluding them from all blessings. As a result of this, he would be required to enter the refectory after the blessings of food had been given and leave before the other prayers were said. His specific portion of food would thus unblessed. His leftovers, moreover, could not be given to another human (as alms or otherswise) and had to fed to animals.
3) THINGS THAT LOOK LIKE OTHER THINGS ARE BRILLIANT
Medieval feasts are very much meant to impress and they were keen on visually spectacular food. These elaborate edible edifices were known as “subtleties”. Famous examples include magnificent sugar sculptures and roast birds dressed again in their original plumage, but they did far more than that. Fantastical chimeras were recreated by sewing together different animals (cocatrice being half pig, half chicken). The nursery rhyme of four and twenty blackbirds was likey in reference to the ridiculous pies that had in them live birds that would stream out when the crust was cut. Castlettes were these giant pie castles with different fillings in each tower. There was also the trees made of pastry with marizpan birds.
When creating these subtleties, Serve It Forth operate on the spirit of the idea rather than an exact recipe. The key to a good subtlety, as far as I have gathered, is that it must be something looking like something else. Unicorn was done as a flank of venison, but it was served with a marzipan horn. They’ve also done adorable marizpan hedgehogs. The attempt at clove-studded mince-based hedgehogs went slightly less well as cooking made the meat shink and the snout lost shape.
The 2017 banquet saw the creation of the Lambton Worm, which had a carapace made of hard pastry, squishy insides of riched marinaded pork, eyes of gin jelly and delicious meringue teeth. It was served with flourish after a rendition of the folk song where we were all encouraged to join in with the chorus.
Showmanship isn’t unique to medieval feasts, of course. It’s a running theme throughout many cultures and it can, for example, be seen in Heston’s Feasts as he ambles through various historical periods and genres. Though his episode on Medieval Feasts does have particularly delicious trickery as he makes meat look like fruit, bakes blackbirds into a pie and replaces all the tableware with edible desert versions.
Needless to say, spectacular subtleties have made their way into a lot of my writing.
4) MEDIEVAL PEOPLE ARE BAD AT WRITING RECIPES DOWN
The name “Serve It Forth” comes from the last line of a great many medieval recipes, urging the reader to serve forth their creation. Whilst that instruction seems clear enough, a great many other things about surviving recipes can be very opaque. A lot of what Serve It Forth do in their weekly meetings is just trying out the recipes and modifying them.
Most recipes were not written as guides for complete strangers to replicate a dish, but rather as memory aids or an exchange between experienced cooks. Cooking times and quantities are almost never given and a great many unspoken assumptions go into structure and wording. Sometimes the lack clarity comes simply from the fact that transcribed recipe has been taken out of the original context where recipes were grouped by method or kitchen work station, but at other times it is just opaque. One recipe rather memorably told the reader to “Do it like I showed you”, which is, of course, less than helpful.
One of my favourite recipes is actually a poem, with its structure helping you remember it. It’s in German:
Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.
Without standardised spelling, some words can be difficult to decipher, but the tricky part is more often how the names of foodstuffs have changed over the years. A recent example from Serve It Forth’s cooking tests came from a recipe that asked for “scampi”. The modern translation suggested that one should use prawns, but Serve It Forth proposed that it meant instead scampi, ie. Langoustine, and that the recipe made far more sense that way.
Much like with modern recipes, details in the preparation of each ingredient is often omitted. Many cake recipes, for example, would take it as given that the reader would know to sieve their flour and melt their chocolate over a water bath. What is quite interesting in this regard is how many of the vegetables would have been pre-cooked, a step that there is little reason to replicate as our vegetables are not the same as that eaten by people in the past. The most famous example is, of course, the fact that carrots used to be purple until late 16th century Dutch farmers developed a sweeter orange variety and a wave of nationalism over the House of Orange made them into the predominate carrot.
But beyond carrots we have also, over the years, bred our cabbages and onions to have less cellulose and more sugars. Modern spinach cooks in less than a minute, but medieval varieties would take far longer. This shift in varieties of cultivated vegetables is also said to be the reason behind the infamously overcooked cabbage in British school dinners. They were working off recipes over fifty years out of date and written to cook significantly tougher cabbage.
5) ALMOND MILK ISN’T JUST FOR VEGANS
It can seem at times that the drinking of almond milk is a recent phenomenon spurred on by the advent of veganism, lactose-intolerance and other seemingly modern dietary requirements.
Almond milk has been around for a very long time and it is used extensively in medieval cooking. It is, in part, an act of conspicuous consumption. Almonds are themselves an expensive delicacy and turning them into milk is efficient only in the sense that it consumes a lot of almonds. But more than that, fresh milk was not a popular drink for the high table before the advent of pasturisation. Milk did not keep particularly well and almond milk was simply safer, more expensive and thus considered superior.
One of the first recipes Serve It Forth tried was almond rice (aka “Ryse of Fische Daye”). I still remember how I suggested we simply use normal milk and throw in almond essence as a substitute during the recipe trials and we had no almond milk ready. Almond rice has since become a favourite of many and actual almond milk is used.
It’s also surprisingly easy to find medieval recipes that are vegan (and vegetarian) friendly due to the proliferation of fast days. The church was very keen on fasting, but the much of the clergy didn’t actually want to eat uninteresting food. Thus the different restrictions on dairy, on meat, on fish, etc has created a variety of recipes, such as Fritter for Lent (“Frutowr for Lentyn”). Cheeses for Lent are non-dairy and are thus vegan-friendly.
Yes, you read that right, almond-based vegan cheese is authentic medieval food.
Of course, not all their loopholes are applicable to modern eaters, such as Pope Gregory I declaring newborn rabbits (“laurices”) to be a marine species. Grouping them with fish and shellfish allowed them to be eaten during Lent. A similar case was made for the barnacle geese, believed to have been the same species as the goose barnacle and thus were of neither flesh nor born of flesh. This was rather less universally accepted with the pope banning their consumption during Lent at the Fourth Council of the Lateran in the 13th century. Many continued to eat barnacle geese on fast days that weren’t within Lent itself.
 Yes, I am opening with a Dune reference.
 Most discussions about medieval food is about high status food because that is what we have sources on.
 Yes, I’m countering one person’s baseless assumptions about food with another set of baseless assumptions about food.
 The flank is where a unicorn’s cutie mark is, you see.
 Our annual banquest also feature called dances, so the idea of repetition and practiced movements are sort of bundled together in my mind.
 What is also quite interesting is how homogenous high status cooking was across Europe during the middle ages. Due to a great deal of intermarriage between distant noble houses, there is a certain unity of material culture of which food is a part of that. Rich people ate a lot of imports.
 It varies, but over half the year could be considered fast days in ecclesiastical calendars.
 A great deal of recipes seem to be named for their relevant days. The longstanding favourite around these parts is Ember day Tart.