You Gonna Eat That?

Or, a brief foray into medieval gastronomy …

People must eat. Biff Rafferty, the artist and author, once told me, “If you don’t eat, you die.” Hard to argue with that. I love eating and am more than competent in the kitchen; was trained from a young age to handle kitchen tasks. So, when I began incorporating food into VENDETTA, I figured it’d be a snap. Wrong. As usual …

My impressions of medieval cuisine were informed mostly by watching ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (the one with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and the exquisitely named Basil Rathbone). But most of the people inhabiting Europe in the 14th century didn’t eat multi-course feasts. And the food was certainly nothing like what you’d get at Medieval Times or a renaissance fair.

The medieval palate was much different, for starters, and with a large segment of the population always hovering on the brink of starvation … well … one couldn’t afford to be picky. There were a couple of cookbooks floating around back then and the recipes all follow a similar pattern: chop, pound into submission with mortar and pestle, boil or fry, add stale bread, strain, season heavily, serve … I pulled most of my ideas from “The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy,” by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, & Silvano Serventi (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

The kitchen in Ferrara Castle. Note bored museum attendant and rare medieval fire extinguisher ...
The kitchen in Ferrara Castle. Note bored museum attendant and rare medieval fire extinguisher …

Now, let’s get back to that medieval palate. Meat was hard to come by and expensive for the average villein/serf. And you weren’t supposed to eat it on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays (or on any holy day). Fish was also hard to come by, unless you lived by the sea or a river. If you were a fisherman, chances are most of your catch went to whomever owned the equipment you used. And there was no refrigeration, hence the necessity for vast quantities of salt for preservation. Or you could smoke meat and fish, but again — the average peasant couldn’t stockpile vast quantities of meat in a larder or cellar.

Apologies. The whole palate thing keeps running away from me. If you had the money and a kitchen staff dedicated to preparing your grub, you could afford salt, saffron (which even back then was outrageously expensive, just like today), clove, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, sugar (also very expensive and rare), cumin, and mace. Verjus was a favorite seasoning for the wealthy, made from pressing unripe grapes … They seemed to favor sour and bitter flavors. And to reiterate, if you weren’t wealthy you were borderline starving most of the time … Spoilage was always a concern, too. And not just for peasants. The wedding feast for Violante (daughter of Galeazzo Visconti) and Lionel, Duke of Clarence (son of Edward III, King o’ England) lasted five days and many of the diners got food poisoning. Including the groom, in all likelihood. Oops.

It’s easy to forget what was NOT available to medieval cooks, given the staggering array of produce and dry ingredients in any supermarket these days. Potatoes? No … New World crop. The same for turkey. And no tomatoes or peppers, either. Or pumpkin. Or corn (another New World crop).

But there was rice and pasta (courtesy of the Moors and Saracens). Lots of fruit: apples, peaches, cherries, pears, plums, and various berries. Beans, peas, leeks, and garlic. And bread. Plenty of bread, in various forms, if the weather cooperated and wheat and rye could be harvested, dried, threshed, and milled. With the milling process that existed, though, you would have stood a good chance of cracking your teeth with every bite. Such an event would have perhaps occasioned a horrifying foray into medieval dentistry, but that’s for another post.

And what was the primary cooking medium? Forget butter. Dairy products were too perishable. Olive oil existed but was used primarily on salads. Almond milk, of all things, was used a lot (mostly because it didn’t spoil quickly, it was usable on holy days, and it was white — aesthetically pleasing). If you cooked back then, you used PORK FAT. Glorious.

Next time, I’ll talk about wine …

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