Food & Beverage in the Middle Ages
Food, being necessary to survival and at the same time one of the few pleasures that everyone partakes of several times daily, has always been a defining characteristic of cultures and periods. As much for those people who must struggle to obtain enough to eat as for those who may feast on anything in the world, food is a pivotal part of daily life. The middle ages saw civilization expanding in population, science, culture, commerce, and of course, wealth. What characterized medieval food was that even though transportation was a limiting factor, a great deal of traveling was going on and with it contact with foods never before available. The cost might be great but the rich could obtain many new foods while peasants would have to survive on local products for the most part. Wealthy nobles kept private forests and meadows full of animals so that they could have a variety of fresh meats when they wanted them. And for the most part, we are recreating the wealthy aspects of medieval life; after all, they were the ones doing the interesting things. Who wants to recreate the peasant scratching at the fields all day to come home to bread and porridge.
That being the case, of course what we spend much of our time recreating is the medieval feast, and food was the focal point of the feast. Not merely an enjoyable meal, the feast was entertainment itself; foods were decorated, disguised, embellished, and in the case of the societies, possible works of art or scientific ingenuity. The quantity of food and particularly the variety would have been enormous. Many courses would be presented, each one having many of the same elements, such as meats, vegetables, pastries, soups, and grains. Bread, of course, was such a staple that cookbooks didn't even describe its preparation.
Shopping lists for feasts from the period (which we have because expense accounts were meticulously kept) consisted of every meat and game you can name, including chicken, pheasants, partridges, pigeons, ducks, geese, rabbits, lamb, mutton, pigs, calves, beef, venison, fish, shellfish and so on. Carefully detailed lists of the spices in the household were also kept, as this was a significant expense and their use was necessary to the feast and their use was a powerful status symbol. Salt was also somewhat expensive and having so many uses amounted to a not inconsiderable expense for the household pantry. Salt even came in different levels of quality; fine white salt for the table and gray salt from evaporated salt water for things like preserving meats. Preserving meats consumed large quantities of salt and as such only valuable meats would be preserved; hence not all meats were ’worth their salt.’ The word corn originally meant any small grain of something, such as salt, so corned beef was coated in small grains of salt.
Vegetables were plentiful when in season; in the winter it was pretty much cabbages and root crops like turnips, carrots, and parsnips. Grains could be stored almost indefinitely and so were always available to be turned into bread, porridge or gruel, and also cooked whole like rice. Meats were sometimes dried but usually salted for storage. Treated this way, they would have to be soaked or boiled to make them palatable. As you can see, food revolved around the seasons much more then than now. The feasting traditions reflect this; feasting days coincided with the times when foods might be plentiful, Lent reflected a need to ration foods when winter had depleted the larder (the place where meat was stored).
The period covered in M.S.R. is before the new world had affected European food, so items like tomatoes, potatoes, corn, peanuts squashes, certain kinds of beans, and flavorings like chocolate, coffee and vanilla were not available. The vegetables they did have included cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, spinach and other greens, cucumbers, several varieties of melons, lentils, beans and other legumes or ’pulses’ (maybe named for the gastrointestinal effect they have?) and of course the ubiquitous onions and garlic. Olives were available from the Mediterranean areas. Just about all of the spices we know today came from the east, so they were available. The varieties of pepper were so extensively used that it had its own guild. Preparation was not very different from today, except that more things were cooked to death in broth and porridge (even meats were cooked into gruel). Although eaten by many, raw vegetables were frequently considered to be indigestible and were usually thoroughly cooked, with the exception of salads. Raw vegetables were usually considered peasant food. They were probably more open-minded about what foods they combined, particularly in that all of the spices would be used in different foods, whereas we consider cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger "sweet" spices, they would have used them on meats as well as desserts. Pepper would have been used in stewed fruits as often as on meats.
Being that grains made up the bulk of the food, they were included in a great many forms. Bread, of course, appeared at every meal, but leftover bread was just as useful turned into ’sops’ for soup, ground into crumbs and moistened to make ’cakes’ or to thicken stews and sauces, even dipped into beaten eggs and fried (yes, french toast is period). Not just fruit but almost anything might be wrapped in dough to make a ’tart’.
Soups were so common the word refers to the pieces of bread soaked in them (’sops’) and not to the broth.
The fruits available included apples, pears, grapes, cherries and most of the berries. Melons and lemons and oranges became available through the Moors in Spain, as dates, figs and pomegranates came from the Middle East.
Where there is food there must be drink. Grains (remember grains) were turned into ales and were a staple as water was not always the best. The food requirements for servants also usually included a specific quantity of ale per day as well. Wines were produced all over the place; where grapes did not grow well they were made of other fruits. Apple juice was made into cyser, combinations of grape juice were called melomels, and of course, honey was made into mead. The one aspect of the Middle Ages that everyone identifies with is the drinking of mead. Just about everything was added to honey and water to create an infinite variety of meads, including fruits, flowers, and spices. Wine or mead that had passed its prime would be heated with spices (’mulled’) and served after dinner or sometimes before as a toast to take the chill off new arrivals to the feast and referred to as a ’wassail’. They also made milk-based drinks such as eggnog.