Meals in the Middle Ages
Like the medieval society on the whole, the culinary art of this epoch was characterized by many contrasts.
Rare opulent meals for guests stood in opposition to times of hunger and malnutrition, also at aristocratic courts. The harvest of cereal (as backbone of nourishment) was too little to assure a constant supply of the population.
In medieval times, people baked bread out of rye because it was fertile and easy to store. Only around the year 1300, the typical medieval flatbread/pita was replaced by sourdough, which was baken with yeast. Oats were used for mash and soups as it had a high share of protein and grease. To a lower extent, barley and wheat were also used for mash or porridge.
About medieval food
In contrast to the contemporary culinary art, the medieval food can be considered as poor in meat; even though several animals like rabbits, wild game or birds, storks, swans, hedgehogs and squirrels were being eaten by the people. Cattle and pigs were the main suppliers of meat, while the latter was more appreciated due to its higher nutritional value. Nevertheless, the function of the ox as draught animal and the production of milk and cheese by sheep and goat were of much higher priority than using them for food.
Meals made of chicken and poultry were the most common receipts in medieval cookbooks because the keeping of chickens was very popular in former times. People also used the richness of the watercourses: fishes like dried codfish or salted herring were known and well-liked. In contrast, crawfish was a meal for poor people!
In times without meat, men and women got back to products of their garden: onions, garlic, cucumbers, beans and especially cabbage were grown. Corn and tomatoes were not known in Europe at this time.
Beside wine, vinegar and honey, many spices refined the meals: caraway, fennel, mint, sage to name a few. Imported spices like valerian, saffron and pepper were mostly used in wealthy households and only in small amounts.
Fast food and slow food in the kitchens of the middle ages
Peter Lutz, teacher by profession, passionate medieval scholar and active medieval chef, talks about medieval cuisine:
“Kitchens in the Middle Ages weren’t necessarily smoky and dark – this varied, depending on construction. If you had a good chimney, and used the right sort of wood, the kitchen didn’t have to be smoky. The kitchen equipment was very diverse: a large cauldron above the fire hanging on a cauldron hanger, iron pans, and variously sized clay pots. Grand household kitchens also had spits to roast entire animals. Hygiene, by the way, is something people knew about back then. Clean hands and trimmed fingernails are often mentioned in the literature of the period. Whether everyone, everywhere always stuck to these rules is of course a different matter … Not only servants but also many visitors took their meals in the kitchen, probably making it the most communal space in a castle.
Just like today, fast food and slow food co-existed in the Middle Ages. Medieval cookbooks meet every need. Anything was possible, from soups or stews that simmered for hours on a low heat, to quick cutlets cooked on the grill or in a frying pan and served with a pre-prepared sauce, or complicated pastries. There was no typical meal sequence, and everything was simply brought to the table. However, in this hierarchical society, not every guest or castle-dweller received the same food: the individual was only allowed to take from bowls that he could reach at arm’s length. In the mornings, people usually ate porridge or stewed fruits. People then ate at midday or in the evening, but still during daylight. Those who could afford it imported food (spices, rice, almonds, raisins and wine). Spices were very popular, for reasons of prestige, diet, and because it was simply fashionable – the typical medieval flavour can best be described as ‘sweet-sour-spicy’. Apart from beer, wine, fruit juices, fruit wines and milk, people often ended the meal with hippocras, a medieval spiced wine. Water was generally avoided because of the many germs.
If you want to cook in a medieval fashion, or would like an authentic restaurant experience, the following items should not be found on the menu: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peppers and pepperoni, green beans, peanuts, cocoa, turkey, avocado, pineapple, and vanilla. So fried potatoes, tomato salad, or cayenne peppers are a no-no.”