Most of the characters in my historical novels belong to the middle or lower classes and I have written about their food in Medieval Food – Part One and Medieval Food – Part Two, elsewhere on this blog. The Swynfen family in This Rough Ocean were gentry, but during the English Civil War even the gentry fell on hard times and lived hardly better than yeoman families.
However, throughout the medieval period the food of the royal court and the aristocracy reached extraordinary levels of sophistication, far beyond anything likely to be encountered today in Britain or Europe, except in very unusual circumstances. At the highest level of medieval society, however, luxurious dining was an everyday occurrence.
As we have seen, the staple food of the lower class was bread and potage (or pottage, both spellings are used), a stew made of seasonal vegetables, with the addition of a little meat or fish when it was available, and cooked slowly in a large pot over the kitchen fire. We should not think of it as some boring, tasteless dish, endured unchanging every day. Because the medieval housewife used seasonal vegetables, the mix would vary from month to month throughout the year. Moreover, even in villages and towns a wide variety of herbs were available, as well as expensive spices like pepper (used in small quantities). It would be patronising, from a modern perspective, to assume that these cooks lacked skill in using these flavourings. If we were to call their potage recipes A Housewife’s Monthly Cookbook of 50 Varied Casseroles, we might have a better idea of what was served to their families. In addition, there was always fresh bread, baked at home or bought from the baker, as well as cheese and fruits (in season or else dried or preserved).
The term potage could also be used for any dish cooked in a pot, which can cover a wide variety of recipes. We find potages of fruit, potages of side dishes, potages of meat cooked in wine. The usual type of large pot used in all kitchens, rich and poor, was the three-legged sort, which could stand on the hearth or hang from a hook over the fire. For small delicate dishes prepared over a brazier, such as a special sauce, a cook might use a posnet (a small version of the three-legged pot, with a side handle, like a modern saucepan) or a skillet (side handle, no legs).
The upper classes had all of the same ingredients available to them as the rest of the population, although their main meal would not consist merely of a potage with bread. They did eat variations on the theme, but with some fancy touches, and a wide variety of dishes would be served at every meal. Moreover, they had access to a number of foods which were out of the reach of the lower classes.
This source of meat, additional to farmed beef, mutton, and pork, was probably the greatest difference in available foodstuffs, for meat was an important constituent of the upper class diet (except on the Church’s meatless days), while meat was eaten more sparingly by the less wealthy. The hunting and consumption of game was restricted to the upper classes, except when limited opportunities were made available to followers or tenants.
The most prized foods in the game category were venison and wild boar, pursued with great enthusiasm in the hunt on horseback, and eaten with equal enthusiasm afterwards. Hares provided less meat, but were a delicacy.
Game birds were hunted with hawks – pheasants, partridge, quail, ducks, geese, herons, teal, plover, curlew, bittern – really any bird which was edible.
Rabbits, too, were eaten in quantity, but these were mainly farmed in warrens, then trapped with nets, often after being driven out of their burrows with terriers (chiens terriers – ‘earth dogs’). In theory, rabbits belonged to the lord of the manor, but rabbits will escape, and many a peasant could take a rabbit for the pot.
Not exactly game, but similar, were the swans sometimes eaten at feasts. Most belonged to the crown, although certain of the London livery companies had rights to some of them.
Another major category of food which was regularly eaten by the upper classes, but which was generally too costly for the less well off, except for special occasions, was the foreign import. Perhaps the most significant of these was sugar.
In earlier times, medieval food was sweetened by honey. However, during the period of the crusades, western knights discovered a vast range of sweetened foods in the near East, many of them containing sugar. We tend to think, nowadays, either of cane sugar from the Caribbean or beet sugar from East Anglia. In the medieval period, the main source of sugar was Cyprus, one of the reasons the island was constantly fought over, for the crop was immensely valuable. This sugar was imported into western Europe, including Britain, but – unsurprisingly, considering the costs of shipping and the tendency to spoilage where insufficient care was taken – it was hugely expensive. The lower ranks in society could buy sugar, but only in small quantities.
Sugar became more and more popular until by the Tudor period it became a craze. You had arrived in society if you had a banqueting house in your garden. At the time the term ‘banquet’ was not synonymous with ‘feast’, but meant specifically a special meal or a course after a feast, eaten in a banqueting house, and more especially a sugar banquet, where everything – models, imitations fruits, painted playing cards, even the dishes – was made of sugar. The sugar craze was so insidious that the wealthy developed blackened teeth, and if you couldn’t quite reach this height of fashion, you could blacken your teeth artificially. The thought of the dental problems makes one shudder! I have a scene at a sugar banquet in my novel The Play’s the Thing.
Also imported were exotic fruits. Some of the dried fruits must have been relatively inexpensive, such as figs, raisins, and dates, for they seem to have been widely used. However, fresh foreign fruits like citrus fruits were more of a luxury, although lemons again were not unknown to people of the middling sort. Olives were available, but do not seem to have been very popular
Most expensive, weight for weight, were the spices, since they had to be imported from the Spice Islands, India, or the far East. To us, pepper is an everyday commodity, but a medieval pepper merchant could become very wealthy. Ginger, nutmeg, mace, ‘long pepper’, cloves, galingale, ‘grains of paradise’ could all be purchased. Given the enormous popularity of gingerbread, ginger must not have been the most expensive of these. Nowadays we rarely use saffron, since it costs a king’s ransom, due to the labour-intensive method of harvesting it, but in the medieval period it was grown in England, and labour was cheap, so we find it used lavishly amongst the rich and even by the less well off.
The two main food stuffs used for preservation were fortunately available to all. Salt was mined in many places in Britain, as well as being extracted from sea water around the coasts. Vinegar was a by product of wine making, but could also be made at home as verjus.
The final expensive import was wine. In the earlier medieval period, there had been extensive vineyards in the southern part of England. They had mostly been abandoned by the later period, perhaps because of the climatic change known as the Little Ice Age (one estimate c.1300-c.1850), which would not have been favourable to growing grapes. The aristocracy never went without their wine, even during the prolonged wars with France. Indeed, if we believe the evidence of Shakespeare’s plays, wine drinking was fairly common in the Tudor period. Earlier, the less well off made do with ale and, after the introduction of hops, also with beer.
It has been a characteristic of the rich throughout recorded history to include in their feasts foods which are neither nourishing nor necessarily appetising, simply because they are rare, difficult to obtain, awkward to cook, or just plain unpleasant. I am referring, of course, to the consumption of tiny birds, which can provide no real nourishment and were served merely as an ostentatious exhibition of wealth.
We have evidence that the aristocracy consumed thrushes, snipe, sparrows, lapwings, finches, house martins, larks . . any small native bird they could lay their hands on, or rather send their harassed servants out to catch. There are records of thousands of tiny birds being consumed at a single feast, skewered on sticks. Most exotic (and repulsive), larks’ tongues. Did they believe that this would sweeten their voices?
Nowadays we do not often eat eels, but these were eaten by the rich as well as the poor, together with lampreys, dolphins, and porpoises.
Who prepared the food?
Needless to say, the rich did not do their own cooking! In the lower ranks of society, the person in charge of food preparation was the mistress of the house, often assisted by a sister or daughter, and in all but the very poorest families, a maid or two. In other words, it was purely a female role. However, from both documentary and visual evidence, most food preparation in the great households was done by men, from the head cook, through the specialists in charge of the different departments, down to the lowliest scullions.
In many situations, this is understandable. Whole carcasses of beef, mutton, or pork would be butchered and the large joints carried from place to place, or hung from ceiling hooks to cure. The sheer size of some of the pots used in these great kitchens would have meant few women could lift them. Large quantities of spices would be ground with mortars and pestles ten times the size of modern ones. The bread kneading troughs were huge.
So most of the heavy work of food preparation was done by men. However, women were also employed in the great kitchens. They generally ran the dairies, churning butter and making cheese. They would also do some of the delicate work, making ‘subtleties’, fine decorations, and sugar work. However, when envisaging an aristocratic kitchen, we should remember that is was principally the preserve of men.
The different ‘departments’ of aristocratic catering
A large aristocratic manor functioned almost like a town, and the bulk of its food supply was produced on the estate or ‘demesne’ farm. This might vary according to location, especially after some landowners began to see wool production as their best money earner, but they would still have produced enough domestic meat, milk, butter, cheese, honey, fruit, wheat, barley, and other grains to feed the household. Peas and beans were field crops, since they could be dried in quantity for winter use, other vegetables were grown in a vegetable garden, herbs in a herbarium. Forest or park would provide hunting grounds, a warren bred rabbits, a stewpond plus rivers or streams held fish. Other food stuffs could be bought in.
Once the basic foods were produced, they needed to be processed, so that a manor would have at least one mill. Tenants would be required to use this, paying for the privilege with part of their flour. Milk would be brought from the cow shed to the dairy, for the production of butter and cheeses.
Although wine was imported, ale and beer were made in enormous quantities in the brewhouse, since many water supplies were unsafe. Even the children drank ‘small ale’, the weakest sort. This did not mean everyone was drunk. Even regular ale was not very strong, but the fact that the water was boiled when making it meant that it was much safer to drink. In apple growing areas, cider would also be made in the brewhouse, and so would a supply of verjus, needed for making pickles for the winter.
Grain for bread, once thoroughly dried, could be stored for months in the granary, then after being milled would be sent to the bakehouse, where vast quantities of bread would be baked every day. A great many people lived and worked on the manor, and they all ate a good deal of bread. Even the aristocrats used bread to mop up juices, or to serve as a kind of ‘pusher’ in the days before the invention of forks. The loaves once baked were loaded into baskets and taken to the pantry to await mealtimes. Because of fire risk, the manor bakehouse was often a separate building, away from the main house, as indeed the kitchen might be.
Another specialist ‘department’ on the manor was the pastry, which signifies the room where pastry was made, as well as the pastry itself. While hot pies were a popular street food in London and other towns, and pies were made and consumed in modest homes, pastry, filling and all, practice was rather different in the great households. Everyone knows the nursery rhyme about ‘Five and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Since the birds sing after the pie is opened, clearly they have not been baked. This is a kind of folk memory of the practice of making pastry cases in medieval great houses. These cases were usually disposable, only the contents being eaten, so they would often be baked separately, then used merely as a container, though it was often elaborate and ornamental. You might come across a reference to such a pastry case as a ‘coffin’ – and it was probably about as edible. The pastry was often made of nothing but flour and water, its purpose being to hold its shape, not to provide a tasty crust, though I daresay any beggars at the rich man’s gate would have been glad of the broken pieces, perhaps with a few fragments of the delicious filling still clinging to them.
Not all manors had a boiling house, but it was useful where there was a very large staff of servants and other workers to be fed every day. It was here that the simple potages for these people were made by the less skilled or apprentice cooks, to keep them out from under the feet of the senior cooks involved in making the elaborate dishes for the great folk, who would eat at the high table. Other cheaper foods were also made here, like sausages.
Early kitchens tended to be timber buildings, set well away from the manor house. Inevitably, however, the food would be cold by the time it reached the table, so the stone built kitchen, part of the house itself, became popular, and a few even survive to this day. Here the cooking was done at a large fireplace (or more than one), using a whole panoply of pots, jacks, hooks, spits, brandreths (a kind of trivet), and toasting irons. Here a jack could be turned by a dog in a wheel or a boy with a handle, and here the master cook would conjure up his remarkable dishes while, no doubt, shouting at his minions like any celebrity chef today.
The kitchen floor often had a pronounced slope, so that it could be washed down and the dirty water drained away. This must have caused discomfort to the cooks. I speak from personal experience. We live in a Victorian house where the original scullery, with a sloping floor, was at some point turned into the kitchen. (The original kitchen became the morning room.) Standing for any length of time on this sloping floor caused me considerable pain in my legs and back, until we eventually had the floor levelled and tiled, so I feel for those medieval cooks.
The kitchen would generally have a dresser hatch which could be kept secured on the inside, where there was a flat shelf on which the prepared dishes could be laid out, ready to be collected by the servants waiting at table. You can see something similar between the kitchen and Hall of an Oxford college.
Somewhere near the kitchen would be the saucery, where a specialist cook would make the rich sauces beloved of the medieval aristocracy. Some of these (often served cold) would be made on a long term basis and stored in the saucery, others, the hot sauces for particular dishes being prepared in the kitchen, would be prepared as needed.
A few of the grander houses, especially after the fashion for sugar became popular, might have a confectionery for the making of those sugar extravagances, but not many would rise to this level of sophistication, apart from the royal palaces and the homes of the greatest nobles.
Close by the kitchen, and usually between it and the Great Hall, would be the pantry and the buttery, convenient for serving the meal. They might even form the lower end of the Hall. The pantry held bread (from French pain) and utensils for slicing and serving it. As a clean, dry room, it could also be used to store tableware and table linen. If possible, it would be placed against a warm, dry south wall. The buttery held the ale, beer, and wine, and their related vessels, and might have steps down to the cellars below. For preference it would be built against a cool north wall. Both were no more than the length of the Hall from the high table, so both bread and drinks could be quickly replenished throughout the meal.
There remains only one further food management ‘department’, the ewery. It takes its name from the ewers of water used for washing before meals. Each diner would hold out his hands over a basin, a servant would pour water over them (often scented with lavender or rose petals, warmed in winter), then offer a towel. However, all the valuable vessels of silver or silver gilt were also kept here, under close supervision, in the ewery, and sometimes also the best table linen. The ewery was under the direction of a sergeant who, with his staff, was responsible for preparing the Hall before each meal, replenishing the fires, and laying the tables. At the end of the meal they cleared the Hall and ensured that all the valuables were locked away.
In charge of all this elaborate work required to feed an aristocratic family and its retainers was a steward or controller, who managed not only the army of domestics but also the household finances. When we consider the complexity of these noble households, we can only wonder at the magnitude of the task! Imagine being in charge when Richard II entertained…
Other news: the unabridged audio version of The Play’s the Thing has now been recorded and should be released soon, and I hope The Stonemason’s Tale will be out in paperback and Kindle sometime in June. By going to the SIGN UP page on my website, you can join the New Release Mailing List to receive notifications of new releases.
Till next time,