Medieval Food & Cooking

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Feasting and enjoying food was an important part of medieval life, because during a war there wasn’t very much to eat. Nobles had to pay for food and wages for his household.

Bread was the basic food in the Middle Ages, it could be made with barley, rye, and wheat. Wealthy people used thick slices of brown bread as bowls called trenchers to soak up juice and sauce from the food.

Flour made for the castle was ground at the lord’s own mill by his miller. Millers produced different kinds of flour, fine, to make white bread for the king or lord, and brown bread for the servants.

Birds like chickens, geese, and ducks were keptr. On special occasions the wealthy ate swan and peacock. Beef and venison were well liked, so was pork.

Mustard was a favorite ingredient.

Medieval people liked fish and fresh meat that was not salted yet. Meat was salted in huge wooden vats so that the food would not spoil.7

Salt was expensive but large quantities were bought every year. Most people ate with their fingers and their own knives; forks were introduced towards the end of the Middle Ages. Many people thought forks were silly, but every one had to behave properly at mealtime.

There were many rules on the correct way to eat and where people sat at the table.

Before 1100 honey was the only way to sweeten food because spices were expensive because they came from the Far East.

Herbs were used to season food and make remedies for the ill.

Crusaders brought new foods like raisins, dates, and figs to Europe.

Cereals remained the most important staples during the early Middle Ages, as rice was a late introduction to Europe and the potato was only introduced in 1536 (and for centuries was used almost exclusively to feed animals). Barley, oat and rye among the poor, and wheat for the governing classes, were eaten as bread, porridge, gruel and pasta by all members of society. Fava beans and vegetables were important supplements to the cereal-based diet of the lower orders.

Meat was more expensive and therefore more prestigious and in the form of game was common only on the tables of the nobility and poachers. The most prevalent butcher’s meats were pork and chicken and other domestic fowl. Beef, which required greater investment in land, was less common.

Cod and herring were mainstays among the northern populations, and dried, smoked or salted made their way far inland. A wide variety of other saltwater and freshwater fish were also eaten – castles generally had their own fishponds.

Slow transportation and inefficient food preservation techniques,(drying, salting, smoking and pickling) made long-distance trade of many foods expensive. Because of this, the food of the nobility was more prone to foreign influence than the cuisine of the poor, and dependent on exotic spices and expensive imports. As each level of society imitated the one above it, innovations from international trade and foreign wars from the 12th century onwards gradually disseminated through the upper middle class of medieval cities. Aside from economic unavailability of luxuries such as spices, decrees outlawed consumption of certain foods among certain social classes,

Sumptuary laws limited the conspicuous consumption among the nouveau riche. Social norms also dictated that the food of the working class be less refined, since it was believed there was a natural resemblance between one’s labor and one’s food, so manual labor required coarser, cheaper food.

A type of refined cooking developed in the late Middle Ages that set the standard among the nobility all over Europe. Common seasonings in the highly spiced sweet-sour repertory typical of upper-class medieval food included verjuice, wine and vinegar in combination with spices such as black pepper, saffron and ginger. These, along with the widespread use of sugar or honey gave many dishes a sweet-sour flavor.

Almonds were very popular as a thickener in soups, stews, and sauces, particularly as almond milk.

The cuisines of the cultures of the Mediterranean Basin had since antiquity been based on cereals, particularly various types of wheat. Porridge and gruel, and later bread became the basic food staple that made up the majority of calorie intake for most of the population. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, the proportion of various cereals of the diet rose from about 1⁄3 to 3⁄4. Dependence on wheat remained significant throughout the medieval era, and spread northwards. In colder climates, wheat was usually unaffordable for most people, and was associated with the higher classes. The centrality of bread in religious rituals such as the Eucharist meant that it enjoyed an especially high prestige among foodstuffs. Only olive oil and wine had a comparable value, but both remained exclusive outside of the warmer wine- and olive-growing regions.

In the British Isles, northern France, the Low Countries, the northern German-speaking areas, Scandinavia and the Baltic the climate was generally too harsh for the cultivation of grapes and olives. In the south, wine was the common drink for both rich and poor alike (though the commoner usually had to settle for cheap second pressing wine) while beer was the commoner’s drink in the north and wine an expensive import. Citrus fruits (though not the kinds most common today) and pomegranates were common around in the Mediterranean. Dried figs and dates occurred in the north, but were used rather sparingly in cooking.

Olive oil was a ubiquitous ingredient around the Mediterranean, but remained an expensive import in the north where oil of poppy, walnut, hazel and filbert was the most affordable alternative. Butter and lard, especially after the terrible mortality during the Black Death, was used in considerable quantities in the northern and northwestern regions.