Continuing last month’s post on medieval food, let’s look at some more topics.
Poultry and Eggs
One item largely missing from medieval food was chicken, rarely eaten, except for the occasional cock, and that would be reserved for special occasions. Hens were important providers of food – their eggs were a major source of protein. Interestingly, since cooked chicken is white, not red, it wasn’t quite seen as meat, so the Church declared that it could be eaten instead of fish. Was this pressure from the monasteries, whose monks had to eat fish even more often than the laity? Or just a general disgust with the revolting stockfish?
There were other sorts of poultry, of course. Where there was a village pond or a handy stream, ducks and geese could be kept, but probably not often in towns. In marshy and coastal areas, wildfowl could provide a source of medieval food, for those allowed to kill them, as in the fens. They would be brought down with arrows or sling stones, or netted, or trapped with bird lime. The same areas provided eels, an alternative to fish.
Game birds were definitely off limits for ordinary people, being reserved as hunting quarry for the aristocracy, who generally pursued them with hawks. Hawks might be used to catch wildfowl like herons as well.
Noblest of edible poultry, the swan, was a very special case. Ownership of all swans traditionally rested with the king, but he could grant limited rights to certain great lords or London livery companies. Two of the latter still have rights to swans on the Thames – the Vintners and the Dyers. In an annual ceremony, called Swan Upping, all the swans on the Thames are caught and marked – one third to each of the livery companies, the royal swans remaining unmarked. Originally the swans were marked with a nick on the bill, but nowadays they are ringed. If you have ever had dealings with a swan, you will know how dangerous this can be now, as in the Middle Ages.
Almost everyone, except the very poorest or those living in lodgings in large and crowded towns like London, would have space to grow some vegetables. All those vegetables that we have seen used in pottage would have been grown – leeks, beans, peas, carrots, kale, cabbage, and garlic, together with crops like spinach, turnips, and parsnips.
There would be a herb plot with our common herbs: parsley, mint, thyme, chives, basil, sage, sweet cecily, fennel, rocket, borage, rosemary, rue, oregano, and the like. You would probably have a lavender bush (useful against moths) and a bay tree. Some herbs not often used today would find a place, or more usually be picked in the wild, like burdock, yarrow, water plantain, marsh mallow, St John’s wort, chamomile, watercress, comfrey, feverfew, and nettles. Some of these, like nettles and watercress, were food; others were seen rather as medicines. The pain-killing and soporific effects of poppy seed were known, as well as its simple use in cooking. We have to remember that, for most, the women of the family provided all the basic (and not-so-basic) medical care. Or an older “wise woman” in the village would do so.
Dandelion leaves and nasturtium leaves and petals would be served in salads along with lettuce and lamb’s lettuce, although some people were suspicious of uncooked salads. Nasturtium seeds were used like capers. All parts of the nasturtium are edible.
Fruit and Nuts
Apples were the favourite fruit – easy to grow and store, with multiple uses. It would be rare to find a messuage garden without at least one apple tree, preferably several. Pears were more of a luxury, since they do not keep well, unless dried or pickled, but it might be possible to make room for one or two pear trees. You might also have a plum tree or a damson tree. Fruit bushes like currants and gooseberries do not take up a great deal of space. All of these fruits have one great benefit – they provide sweetness. In a world where sugar was an expensive commodity, the sweetness of fruits was highly valued.
Fruit did not necessarily only come from the garden, however. Even for those living in a town, access to the countryside did not usually involve a very long walk. And the countryside was brimming over with wild food – as well as all those herbs there were tiny wild strawberries, crab apples, bullaces (small wild plums), blackberries, sloes, and lots of nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, and above all, everywhere, hazelnuts). Rosehips could be gathered in autumn to provide pectin for setting jam, and they were a valuable source of vitamin C. This wild harvest was free, as long as it wasn’t on some lord’s land. All you had to do was pick it and bring it home.
Amongst the nuts, almonds were especially popular, both for use in marchpane (marzipan) and for making “almond milk”, often serving as an ingredient in medieval food.
The woods also provided acorns and beechmast for fattening pigs in the autumn, a practice known as pannage.
Lacking sugar, where did people turn for sweetening? Honey, of course. A medieval bee skep looked like an upturned basket and could be set up in the garden near the fruit bushes and trees, where it served two purposes. The bees would both pollinate the fruit crop and provide honey. Unlike today, there would be ample sustenance for bees, for even in large towns there was not the modern problem of vast areas of tarmac and concrete. Every messuage had a productive garden, and every odd corner of mud would have its crop of weeds and wild flowers.
For us now, sugar is plentiful and cheap, honey more of a luxury. We need to reverse this perception when we think of medieval food. A competent housewife or her husband could produce a good supply of honey every year – barring accidents or disease amongst the bees. Sugar was bought in small quantities and used only for special dishes, such as for Christmas.
Apart from sugar, the most notable imported medieval food was spice. Spices do not grow in Europe or Britain, so that – especially after the crusaders acquired a taste for them during their time in the East – they were imported. Even pepper was expensive and used with care. The other most common imported spices were cinnamon, cloves, mace, long pepper, ginger, and nutmeg. (There would be a craze for nutmeg in the seventeenth century, when it was believed to ward off the plague.) Saffron was imported from the Mediterranean and later from the Germanic states, which had begun to cultivate it. By the end of the Middle Ages it was being grown in Saffron Walden in Essex. This avoided the cost of importation, but the gathering of saffron is enormously labour-intensive, so it has never been cheap.
Salt, fortunately, did not need to be imported. Large quantities were produced in the tidal areas of East Anglia (where remains of salt pans date back to prehistoric times) and in parts of Cheshire, where the suffix –wich in town names indicates the presence of salt works (from Roman times onwards). Some salt was, however, imported from continental Europe.
Another major import was dried fruit, principally dates and “raisins of the sun”. Grapes were cultivated in England, but not on a scale to provide dried grapes (raisins). Dates came from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa. Given their fairly abundant use in medieval recipes, they cannot have been too expensive for ordinary people to enjoy from time to time. Figs were grown in England, and if you had a fig tree you could dry or preserve them, but like dates they were very widely used, so the supply had to be made up with imports. Currants, widely cultivated, could, with patience, be dried at home. If Britain lacked Mediterranean sun, the housewife could instead dry her currants beside the fire.
Sweetmeats and Cakes
Just like everyone in every era of human history, people in the Middle Ages enjoyed an occasional treat. Comfits and sweetmeats were made in a huge variety, usually involving dried native fruits, nuts (especially almonds), imported fruits like dates, sweet spices like cinnamon, honey, marchpane, sweetened pastry, even some of that precious sugar. The two terms, comfits and sweetmeats, seem to have been used rather loosely, though comfit is generally taken nowadays to mean a nut or seed covered with sugar.
Cakes, sweet buns, fruit pies all had their place amongst medieval food, and special cakes would be made for special occasions, like Easter and Twelfth Day. Dried fruit was often an ingredient in cakes. Gingerbread was a favourite cake, and required that imported spice. Fruit pies would be made with fresh fruit in summer and autumn, and with such fillings as dried apples and currants in winter.
By the later middle ages, the raised central hearth with the smoke escaping through the roof was being replaced by the fireplace built into a wall, with the smoke drawn up through a chimney. The kitchen fire had to be kept going most of the time (covered at night), which must have been very hot and trying in the summer. A bread oven would be built into the side of the fireplace, and a variety of brackets and roasting jacks would allow the cook to simmer pottage in a pot over the fire or turn a roast in front of it or rest a frying pan on a trivet. The bread oven was heated by filling it with hot embers. Once it was hot enough, the embers were shovelled out, the bread inserted with a long paddle, and the door sealed. After the bread was baked, the residual heat could be used for other cooking – cakes and pastries, or slow roasting.
For more delicate operations the cook might have a small brazier on which a pan could stand, to be watched over and stirred. Useful for making sauces or some kinds of egg cookery or for preparing home medicines.
In the days before refrigeration, a constant concern of the housewife was the preservation of food for the winter and the early spring, before the new season’s crops were available. (Think of T S Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month”.)
There were four means of preserving food: salting, smoking, drying, and pickling.
Salting was mainly used for meat, especially the meat from the annual pig. The meat could be soaked in a brine bath until the salt was absorbed, or more often the joints were rubbed with salt and saltpetre, day after day, a horrible but effective task. If you were lucky enough to have some mutton or beef, it could also be salted. For those who lived near the sea or a river, fish could also be salted and packed into earthenware jars or wooden barrels, as could sliced eels. Barrels of lax (salted salmon) were a major export from Dundee. (Dundee apprentices complained that they were fed far too often on salmon!) Crocks of green beans could be salted and would keep well.
Smoking was also used for meat and fish. A fireplace was generally provided with hooks in the chimney where the meat, especially hams and sides of bacon, could be hung for days or weeks until it was properly preserved. Fish would be strung in pairs, tails tied together, on a kind of washing line in front of the fireplace, high up, out of the way of the cooking. I have seen this demonstrated on Orkney, in a cottage which saw this kind of life until the 1960s. Kippers and Arbroath smokies, still made, are a survival of smoking fish to preserve it.
Drying. Both meat and fish can be dried. But drying was also the preferred method for most fruits – currants, apples, pears, cherries, plums, damsons can all be dried. The best method for apples is to core them, slice them into rings, and thread them on a string. Before the fire, like the fish, they could be dried to a slightly leathery texture, very sweet, to be used in winter pies. (I’ve dried them myself, in the bottom oven of an Aga.) The smaller fruits, and slices of pear, could be dried on trays in front of the fire. Dried peas and beans were a major staple medieval food in winter.
Pickling can be used for meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and even eggs. The crucial ingredient is some kind of vinegar. In southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the medieval cook could make use of vinegar, a by-product of the wine industry. Although Britain had a modest wine industry in the Middle Ages, it did not produce vinegar. What to do? The answer was verjus.
The housewife could make this herself. First she needed to gather a large batch of crab apples and pile them up in a wide container. They would then be left quietly to rot, until they were thoroughly black. I suspect wasps might have been a problem, so they would need to be shut away in a larder or cupboard. Once they were rotten, they would be mashed by beating with wooden mallets. This mush was then poured through coarse cloth to strain it, and the liquid, verjus, stored in a barrel. For some reason, a few damask leaves were added. I wonder what they did with the strained pulp? Would even a pig have eaten it? This verjus, together with a selection of spices, would then be used to make pickles, just as we do today.
A few medieval foods could be preserved without all this work – apples carefully lined up on shelves, sacks of grains and flours, crocks of nuts, onions and garlic hung up plaited into strings, carrots and other root vegetables buried in straw or sand. All would require a cool dry place, for damp would mean disaster.
In the towns, especially London, both men and women sold food on the streets. Larger fixed enterprises were shops as we know them, in the smaller towns and villages as well, but the one-man or one-woman affair in the street consisted of a tray around the neck, or a basket, or a container slung over the shoulder or on the back.
Hot pies were probably the favourite street food, a quick meal to eat as you hurried to the other side of town. There is always a risk with street food, but a cooked pie was fairly safe, one hopes. In the Middle Ages our ancestors had probably built up greater natural immunity to illness than we do in our soft modern lives!
Cakes, buns, even sweetmeats could be bought on the street. Costard-mongers sold apples and pears. (Costard is an old term for a type of apple. The modern costermonger sells many things besides apples.) For a brief period cherries would be for sale, if you weren’t lucky enough to have a cherry tree. One could buy milk from a dairymaid with a yoke of buckets over her shoulders – probably rather risky and fly-blown. Sometimes she would lead her cow instead, and you could have the milk straight from the cow. As well as foods to eat in the street, you could, of course, buy thing to take home, like a basket of eggs, useful for those without a garden and hens of their own.
By the Middle Ages, mealtimes generally followed the same three meal pattern as today, although the size and timing of the meals was a little different. People broke their fast on waking in the morning with a simple meal of bread and ale, perhaps with a piece of cheese. On a cold winter day it might be replaced by porridge. In the country, when the animals required attention first thing, or the cows must be milked, breakfast might be taken after the initial chores.
The main cooked meal of the day was the midday dinner – that pottage we looked at before. Back to work for the rest of the day, then a light supper before bed. Occasionally the main cooked meal might be taken later. For example, when farm work demanded a long day in the fields (as at harvest time), workers would carry food with them to eat in the middle of the day, then have a cooked meal at supper time. One might entertain guests to a midday dinner, but for busy people this could sometimes take place in the evening, as it does today.
Everyone carried a personal knife for eating, generally in a small sheath hanging from a belt, or inside a purse or scrip. One might also carry a spoon, or it might be provided. Forks had not yet come into use, but they were on the horizon. Plates and bowls were of wood, earthenware, or pewter. Sometimes, instead of plates, pieces of stale bread were used as trenchers, which soaked up any juices or gravy, afterwards given to beggars or the household dogs. At formal meals, people were served in pairs, helping each other to food and drink, but nothing so elaborate would have prevailed at simple family meals.
Good table manners were important, for which there is clear evidence in many books of instruction for young people. To imagine gross gnawing of bones, spilt food and drink, belching, and sprawling across the table is to get quite the wrong picture of medieval table manners. Sit up straight! Keep your elbows off the table! Close your mouth when chewing! Do not speak with your mouth full! Wipe your mouth on your napkin – do not use the tablecloth! All of these instructions are clearly set out for the young.
So that’s a brief discussion (or maybe not so brief) of medieval food as eaten by the common people of the time. You will find my characters often eating, preparing and preserving food in:
Perhaps, to complete the picture, I should take a look at the food of the aristocracy. That’s for next month.
Till next time,