One of the most important places in the medieval household was the kitchen with its task of storing and preparing food, and the responsibility of feeding the entire household.
Kitchen staff in castles were numerous, from bakers, butchers, page boys, milkmaids and scullions. Other key positions included pantler (in charge of the pantry), butler (in charge of the buttery) and the poulterer (in charge of poultry).
Three offices that worked closely with the kitchen were the Napery, which was responsible for the washing and storage of linen, including table linen; the Laundry, responsible for washing and storage of clothes; and the Ewery, which was responsible for water and the vessels for drinking and/or washing of the person. (An ‘ewer’ is a type of pitcher).
Cooking utensils included frying pans, pots and kettles. The tools used were specific to cooking over an open fire and to skewer anything from small quails to whole oxen. Other utensils included knives of all sizes, stirrings spoons, ladles and graters.
As ovens were expensive to build, only castles and bakeries had them. So, for everyone else, cooking was done on open fires. Stew pots were the most common cooking implement as it made the most efficient use of firewood by not wasting precious cooking juices.
One of the most interesting things I came across was the importance that was placed on ensuring the food was prepared in a way that complemented contemporary standards of medicine. As fish was considered cold and moist, it was to be cooked in a way that heated and dried it, such as frying or oven baking, and it had to be seasoned with hot and dry spices. Beef, on the other hand, had to be boiled as it was said to be dry and hot. But as pork was hot and moist, it was best roasted.
Although wild game was popular, most meat came from domesticated animals. Unlike today, beef was not a common dish. Raising cattle required a lot of labour, pasture and feed. Cows and oxen had more value as draught animals and for producing milk.
The more common meat was pork as domestic pigs didn’t need much attention, tended to run free, and could be fed on any, if not all, kitchen waste. In areas with a sizable wool industry, mutton and lamb were also common.
No part of the animal was wasted; even the ears, snout and tail were eaten. And the intestines and stomach were used as casings for sausages.
The fowl equivalent of the pig was the chicken, and was the most popular bird on the menu, followed by geese and ducks. Other birds that were eaten included quail, partridge, cranes and even songbirds like larks and linnets. Only the upper classes ate swans, although they were admired more for their appearance than their meat.
There was a wide variety of fish available, including herring, salmon, eel, plaice, cod, whiting, trout and pike; also, shellfish, like crab, oysters and mussels.
A bread-based diet only became more popular during the 15th century. Wheat was considered the most nutritious of all grains and was common all over Europe, but as it was more expensive, it wasn’t available to all. The most common grains were rye, barley, buckwheat, millet and oats. Grain, in the form of bread crumbs or flour, was commonly used to thicken soups and stews, either alone or combined with almond milk.
As fine-textured food was associated with wealth, only the upper classes could afford finely milled white flour for their bread. The bread of the lower classes, on the other hand, was coarse and dark. The most common loaf shape was round.
One of the most familiar components of a medieval meal were sops. These were pieces of bread which were used to soak up liquids like soup, broth and even wine, and eaten.
Grains were also used to make porridge, which was served as desserts or boiled in milk as a hearty dish for the sick.
Another common dish was frumenty, which was a thick porridge made of wheat, boiled in meat broth and seasoned with spices.
Pies were not always edible. Before the 15th century, pastry was solely used as a cooking container for the pie’s ingredients. ‘Huff paste’ was a technique which used a mixture of flour, suet and boiling water to make a stiff pie shell or coffyn. When cooked, the pastry would harden to protect the food inside. Considered inedible, the pastry was usually discarded, although sometimes the servants would eat it as it would be soaked with the meat juices.
In the late 14th century, things like shortcrust pie and the clarification of jelly with egg whites began to appear in recipes, signalling significant developments in the cooking and eating habits of the day. Pies filled with meats, egg, vegetables or fruit became common, along with pastries like turnovers and fritters.
Fruit, served fresh, dried or preserved, was popular in the medieval diet. It was common in many cooked dishes and was usually combined with meat, fish and eggs. Fruit was used to sweeten dishes instead of sugar, which was expensive. The south had lemons, citrons, bitter oranges, grapes and pomegranates, while apples, pears, plums and strawberries were more readily found in the north.
Vegetables that are everywhere now, like potatoes and tomatoes, weren’t available until the 15th century and even then, they weren’t readily accepted. More common were carrots, onions, beets, cabbage and garlic, and legumes.
I mistakenly assumed that milk was widely consumed. Although it was an important source of protein for those too poor to afford meat, adults rarely drank plain fresh milk. It was drunk mainly by the poor or sick, and usually kept for the very young or the elderly.
Another thing I didn’t appreciate – almond milk was used in medieval times, because there was no way to keep fresh milk from spoiling.
Cheese was important, especially for the common people, and included varieties we’re familiar with, like Dutch Edam and Italian parmesan.
The most familiar herbs were sage, mustard and parsley, caraway, mint, dill and fennel. Mustard was also popular, and anise was used in fish and chicken dishes.
Almonds were more common than I realised. They were used whole, shelled or unshelled, ground and processed into almond milk. Almond milk was regularly used as its mild taste and creamy texture mixed well with spices and sour liquids.
The most essential ingredient in medieval cooking was salt. The most common form of food preservation was salting and drying. Elaborate meals always had a container of salt on the table. The degree of grandeur of the salt container and the quality of the salt were used to signify the host’s wealth, and to acknowledge the importance of the guest.
Saving the best, in my opinion, for last – sweets and desserts, collectively known as puddings. The term ‘dessert’ is taken from the Old French, ‘desservir’, which originated during the Middle Ages and literally means, ‘to un-serve’ or to clear a table. Served along with mulled wine and aged cheese was a bite-sized form of confectionary encased in a hard, outer shell called dragées. By the Late Middle Ages, fresh fruit covered in sugar, honey or syrup would also be served.
Puddings would come to include fritters, crepes with sugar, sweet custards and darioles. Dariole was a French term for a small, flowerpot-shaped mould used to cook and serve an individual sweet or savoury dish.
Recipes for sweet and savoury custards, sauces and tarts with strawberries, plums, apples and cherries have been found in Anglo-Norman cookbooks. English chefs were known for using flower petals, like roses, violets and elderflowers, as decoration.
The dessert of choice in northern France seemed to have been waffles and wafers eaten with cheese, and enjoyed with hypocras (or hippocras), a wine-based drink mixed with sugar and spices, and sometimes heated.
‘Épices de chamber’ or ‘parlour spices’ – candied ginger, coriander, aniseed and other spices – were taken at the end of a meal to help with digestion and was meant to ‘close’ the stomach.
And, with that, I shall close this post. Though I now have a yearning for apple pie and custard!