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Medieval Foods, Drinks, Cooking, and Life: Aren’t You Glad It’s Not You

February 13, 2016

I’ve just been reading the book, “Food in Medieval Times” by Melitta Weiss Adamson.

It’s a well-researched, entertaining book all about life in the middle ages. She wrote about where foods and things like wine fermentation came from, food habits, cuisines of different areas, and food taboos (like no-meat Fridays). I thought I’d give you a little entertainment and a tidbit for your next cocktail party.

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Dining Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Cooking Like You Mean It
You thought today’s cooking was difficult? How does one cook with an open fire, no temperature gauge, no standard measures, and no timers? How do you pass on a recipe to others, whether in person or in a cookbook? Challenging, yes?

It sounds like they gave cooking times as the time it took to walk a certain distance or say a certain prayer.  Some measurements like quarts, pints, pounds and ounces were used in trade, but not often in cookbooks. So measurements are given as compared to other things like nut-size, egg-size, parts of the body (maybe best not to ask here, but finger-sized is given), and in comparison to other foods (apple-sized). They also have the very helpful measure, “not too much of”. Thanks! And if all else fails, medieval cookbooks apparently gave helpful hints about how to stop the food from burning to the pot and tasting like smoke.

The fire size regulated the temperature, and cooks used a pot with three feet that hung over a fire via a chain. The pot could be swung directly over the fire, and away, as well as raised and lowered. Cookbook instructions talked about making a “tiny fire” or “cook it on a gentle fire.”

You’ve probably seen all kinds of medieval movies, where the people are eating bread. We sort of take that for granted, but apparently most peasants did not have bread. You see, bread is very labor intensive: the grain as to be milled, and that involved going to someone and paying them to do it. It could be done at home, but it was a SLOW process. And after its mixed and risen, the peasant would have to pay to bring it to a baker’s oven. Remember the main peasant’s cooking tool? Right – it’s a pot, not an oven. Some ingenious peasants laid the pot sideways in the fire and layered coals around it. But most of the time, bread was a food for higher classes.

Different Foods
Tart juice was used like vinegar in dishes. Called “verjuice”, it was often made from unripe grapes, crab apples, or other green fruit. Verjuice was normally kept for a year.

Lamprey was considered a delicacy  among Romans. It’s a parasitic fish that latches onto other fish to feed on them. They lived in the sea, but reproduced in rivers. Rich people kept them in ponds as pets! (Yikes! Don’t fall in!) They were roasted or pickled in vinegar. They could be used in eel recipes. But don’t eat them without salt and pepper if you have a weak and “moist” stomach, because physicians of the day thought they could be harmful and make you “phlegmatic” blood type (more on this later).

There were also recipes for frogs, snails, porpoise, whale, eel, all kinds of fish, swan, crane, heron, and peacock. Chickens were newly arrived from Asia and India, via Greece and Rome. People enjoyed their meat and eggs.

Pheasant had traveled from the Caucasus region to Europe by the Middle Ages. It was thought to be suited to delicate stomachs of the rich, young, old, infirm and clergy, because manual laborers were thought to need “coarser” foods. Nice of them…

We’ve all heard of apple cider, fermented apples made into a drink. Another drink was “perry”, a drink from fermented pears. Other fermented fruit drinks/wines were made from pomegranates, berries, plums, and something called “sorb-apples.”

The Arabs were already distilling rose water, which became popular in medicine and cooking. The Chinese, Greeks and Egyptians, and Romans were also fermenting before the Middle Ages, the Chinese about 800 B.C. The Greeks, Egyptians and Romans distilled sea water to desalinize it. Some alcohol might have already been present as medicine (presumably herbal medicine).

Distilled alcohol was called “aqua vitae”, or water of life. It was thought to prolong life, which it may have, if the water was contaminated with human waste. (Read more later in child rearing for weaning children off full wine). It was often mixed with herbs, so this would either make it an herbal alcohol or wine, or a tincture (herbs soaked for a time in alcohol). It was mostly used for medical treatment, or to make decorative cooked birds spout fire, and rarely drunk for relaxing time.

Wet Nurses and Foods for Breastfeeding
It was believed that an infant’s milk was nutrition, but also formed their smarts and character. The nurse should be between, “25 and 35…have rosy cheeks and strong, big breasts of medium firmness, not be too close to having given birth herself, not be sick, have kind eyes…chaste, and have good manners.” The wet nurse should have plenty of white bread, “meat, almonds, hazelnuts, rice, and lettuce” and drink good white wine. An Italian plan recommends a blend of sugar, goat’s milk, and egg yolk. This last one makes sense to me, as goat’s milk is higher in fat than cow’s milk, and more digestible. Egg yolk is a treasure trove of many vitamins, especially the B’s. (And regarding big breasts for nursing, it turns out that women store only about 1-2 TB, and actually make milk on demand. How cool is that? But here the plumpness could mean that the woman was well-fed, and it takes a lot of calories and fat to make milk(which contains a lot of healthy brain fat for the baby).)

Children were weaned around 2 years with soft foods to avoid hurting the stomach, which were dipped in sugar. Courser foods were given from 6-10 years. I thought this was funny: “Children who by the age of four drink too much wine should be given wine mixed with water, or the wind should be replaced with water altogether by the end of the meal.” I was laughing at toddlers 2-4 years drinking lots of wine, but then I remembered that the drinking water was often contaminated. As with everyone (kids too) drinking beer in Germany, the wine was probably safer than the river water because it was pathogen-free.

Foods for Healing
Convalescent foods include barley soup or from Neapolitan sources, barley porridge mixed with chicken broth and almond milk. Most dishes were chicken bouillon, poultry and game birds, fish stock. Other healing foods were egg yolks (yes!), saffron, white wine, almonds and their milk, salt, perch, pomegranate seed.

Old people were thought to become more cold and dry, which seems to be true in herbalism. It is a fact that older people have less hydrochloric acid in their stomachs to digest their foods. Intolerance of fruit-sugar, and an inability to break it down properly, is common today. Middle Ages seniors were told to avoid beef, “viscous fish”, unleavened bread and coarse things, vegetables and most fruits, except for figs, grapes, dates and prunes. They were encouraged to eat runny eggs, goat, sheep, geese, ducks, well-leavened bread, chicks and little fish.

Ingredients with “strong intensity”, or hot & dry properties, like onions and garlic, were avoided. Cabbage and lentils were considered “melancholic”, causing sadness and ark thoughts. Mushrooms were considered “phlegmatic,” causing body phlegm.

In these days, physicians subscribed to the Four Humors Theory of medicine, where people tended to fall into one of four categories, with only one of them being happy and pleasant. Foods were also see to have properties of heat and cold, moist and dry. Lettuce was rated 2nd or 3rd degree in coldness, according to two different sources, Galen and Avicenna. Interestingly, I feel like the food ratings are true, and apply today to herbs. And the hot/cold, moist/dry properties can be seen in people, as well. I am not saying that some of us have “black bile” in us, but physicians were trying to figure conditions out without seeing inside the body.

A man named Chiquart, master cook to the duke of Savoy, lists richer ingredients for the wealthy patient: food dressed with gilding, gold coins, precious stones (including diamonds and emeralds), pearls, and more. I can’t imagine how painful those were going down into a weakened body.

Blanc manger was a convalescent food, and a dish for the wealthy. The aristocracy and high clergy were considered to have delicate stomachs, from all their sitting around. The author writes that they were sick in the best of times, never mind during epidemics. ( I will try to find out what this is. Julia Child?)

And speaking of epidemics, how about that Black Plague? One source recommended these foods to prevent it: sauces from cloves, cubebs(?), saffron, cardamom, galingale(?), and cinnamon mixed with vinegar or verjuice. People who are too “humid” inside (Four Humors Theory again) are advised to let some of their blood out or purge. Other foods recommended include garlic, vinegar, theriac(?), rose water, aloe, myrrh. The poor were advised to eat coarser foods, and any meat they could find, including rats, dog, fox, donkeys, cats and owls. I will try to research if any of these are anti-bacterial, and get back to you.

We’ll end with the author’s quote of a poem from the Regimen sanitation  Salernitunum, which talks about herbs that can be used to prevent disease:

“Six things, that here in order shall ensue,
Against all poisons have a secret power,
Pear, Garlic, Radish-roots, Nuts, Rape and Rue,
But Garlic chief; for they that it devour,
May drink, and care not who their drink do brew;
May walk in airs infected every hour.
Sit Garlic then hath powers to save from death,
Bear with it though it make unsavory breath:
And scorn not garlic, like to some that think
It only makes men wink, and drink, and stink.”

Many thanks to the author, Weiss Adamson, for this fun tour of the horrors of Middle Ages food, life and medicine.

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