Preparing Medieval Food

To begin with, the ideal of the Society is to recreate the Middle Ages as they should have been.. Just whose determination of “should have been” is as yet undefined. Basically, we use this to mean the recreation of an atmosphere, a sense of community – the chivalric ideal, courtesy and so forth. By the time you have been an active participant for a year or so, have traveled to far-flung Baronies and Shires, attended several sessions and gone to a good range of events, you will discover that the sense of community is indeed strong – we may all be crazy, but we are all “family.

Part of recreating the Gothic/Medieval/Renaissance atmosphere is preparing the appropriate food, putting on feasts, and sharing the experience with others. Feasts and tourneys are the two most popular SCA activities! This article will discuss how to act through SCA potlucks and feast situations before you manage to collect a shelf full of medieval cookery books, what cookery books to start prowling used book stores for, and the basic etiquette of SCA food/feast situations.

Medieval Food from Safeway: There is a wealth of medieval food all around us – a significant portion of the kinds of food we eat today comes down to us from the Middle Ages and much earlier. Keeping a careful eye on the SCA time period (650-1600 AD) and New World explorations (1492 onward), it is easy to produce perfectly acceptable potluck and feast contributions from readily available foodstuffs with a minimum of hassle. There is, however, no substitute for research and recreation of documented Medieval and Renaissance receipts! My goal is to give you a stopgap – you should not end your culinary investigations with this casual read! Those who are really into culinary and brewing/vintning arts can form or join culinary guilds, including the Kingdom level “Guild of the Black Kettle.” The following suggestions are made to help you begin your adventures.

A good place to start is knowing what foods are “in period” and what is usually “out of period. Some foodstuffs from the New World (such as turkey, sweet potatoes, allspice, beans, chili peppers, and cranberries) are acceptable. They were brought to Europe via the Spanish and Portuguese galleons and spread throughout the Old World almost immediately. Other New World foods (such as chocolate, vanilla, maize – what we can corn) came to Europe and were either ignored as foods, or gained acceptance too late for our period. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization. For example, corn meal mush and tomatoes are perfectly period foodstuffs dating from 1500 on for Mediterranean personae (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, Southern France, the Middle East which borders on the Mediterranean).

Assess what foods your persona would logically have known, tasted, had cheaply or expensively. For instance, many spices came into Europe via returning Crusaders or invading Moors. The Islamic conquests brought oranges, lemons, peaches, apricots, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, coffee, and rice into Spain and Sicily. If your persona is of the Crusader era or later, it is possible that you might have tasted pilaf (a golden saffron rice dish) or peaches in syrup. However, if you are a pre-Christian Celt, these combinations are outside your possible (logical) experience.

Likewise, if you are a pre-Islamic Arab, you have never tasted coffee, although you’re probably quite familiar with bananas! No matter what period denizen of the British Isles your alter ego is, you haven’t tasted Chinese teas (oolong, pekoe, lapsing, etc.) because the tea trade and the common appetite for those kinds of teas didn’t occur until the 1700’s. Teas in Europe prior to that time were infusions of some of the hundreds of herbs commonly grown and gathered, such as chamomile, tansy, borage and sage. Finding out what your persona would or wouldn’t have had available is an important part of researching your identity. Tudors didn’t eat tomatoes – they know what they are, a poisonous berry of the nightshade family! If you offer a tudor persona something with tomatoes in it, they will feel (quite rightly for their era) that you are trying to do away with them for some nefarious reason and quite likely will take great offense at your effort! The Italian Renaissance types, however, knowing this idiosyncrasy of the English to be pure whimsy, will smile and sample with gusto – especially if your sauce is adorning some pasta! (Which, by the way, was well entrenched in the Mediterranean region well before Marco Polo & Co. went to Cathay!) Find our what is legal for your persona, and then find recipes to pad out your collection of “common knowledge for your persona and his/her daily life.

 

Suggestions For Instant Medieval Foods

Baked Onions: Use mild onions; take off skins and top with butter and bread crumbs. Bake at a low – medium temperature until soft.

Onion Rice/Barley: add one package of dry onion soup mix to uncooked rice. Measure two cups of water (or bouillon) to each 1 cup of long grain rice. Boil and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cover and let sit approximately 20 minutes until rice is fluffy and dry. Arrange baked onions on top to serve. Sausage Pie.: Take a frozen pie shell and bake according to instructions. Then sauté (fry lightly) 1 to 1 ½ pounds of sausage. Drain off as much fat as possible. Pat on paper towels. Mix 3 eggs, ½ cup cream, the sausage, and spice to taste. Bake as a quiche (approximately 350¡, until knife comes out clean when stuck in center).

“Bashed Neeps”: Can be any combination of mashed non-green vegetables, but most particularly carrots and turnips. Take equal amounts of each vegetable, boil until tender. Mash (as in potatoes), adding butter and such seasonings as you favor. Try honey, cardamom, caraway and cinnamon (not necessarily all in the same batch…) to differ the taste from plain salt and pepper. Do not salt or pepper too heavily – both were horrendously expensive in our period!

“Bean Salad with Artichokes/Mushrooms”: Use equal numbers of cans of beans (julienne cut green beans, yellow wax, garbanzos, whatever). Drain the juice from the beans well. To the assorted beans add one medium size jar of marinated artichokes or one medium jar of marinated mushrooms and mix well. The marinade will flavor the salad just right. Add to it some fresh ground pepper seasonings. Fresh-grated Parmesan or Romano cheese is good addition, too.

Filled Loaves.: How to make bread interesting! Take a good sized (unsliced) loaf, or a round (unsliced) loaf, and cut off the lop 1/3; set it aside. Hollow out the bottom 2/3, reserving the bread taken out. In a warm oven (200º or so) “stale” both top and bottom of the loaf – that is, dry them out. In the empty cavity, put canned stew heated with sour creak stirred in (be careful not to boil! It’s bad for the sour cream); or spiced ground beef and rice mix; or sauced vegetables; or any somewhat juicy recipe. The bread is now a serving container (very Medieval)! and self- cleaning – it becomes part of the food as it soaks up the juices of whatever you put in it. This technique can be used with heads of cabbage (parboiled to semi-cook it), lettuce (ditto), carved melons (for cold fruit soups), and so forth. (For fancy, serve with the top replaced, maybe with a design cut through it so that the filling shows.) Use Ieftover bread to make breadcrumbs to thicken sauces.

Filled Pockets.: Use refrigerator biscuits or frozen bread dough and fill with fairly dry spoonful of sausage, berries, etc. Enclose totally and bake for handy tourney food. The same technique can be used to make instant pasties. By using canned stew (drain it through a paper towel, to get rid of excess water but not the pan juices and fats). Cheese Pastry: Add ½ to 1 cup of grated cheese to any piecrust mix; add the recommended amount of water, mix and roll out to about ½” thickness. Cut with decorative cookie or garnish cutters and bake. The result is a light, flaky cheese pastry that is fantastic right out of the oven. To make ahead and serve at a feast, reheat just before serving.

Cornish Game Hens and small chickens bear looking into – they cook fast and are easy to stuff ingeniously.

Cream Herb Soups.: Get a can or two of cream of chicken, chicken bouillon or cream of leek soup. Dilute with half-and-half or cream and add 1 egg for each cup of soup used. Add chopped fresh herbs such as dill, sorrel, chives, etc., as desired.

“Filled Cake.: Hollow or slice in layers a commercial pound cake; fill or layer with whipped cream and fresh fruit; or jam; custard or pudding; or honey and chopped nuts. For something really tantalizing, drizzle a red or white sweet wine over the layers and spread with whipped cream.

Fruitcake: Mix a well-drained can of fruit (berries, cherries, etc.) into a box cake mix. (Reduce water and use the syrup.) Bake per instructions.

Fruit Tarts: Fill frozen, pre-baked pie shells or puff pastry shells with frozen or canned berries and top with whipped cream or plain yogurt.

Flat Bread: Using thawed frozen dough, make a pizza crust. Instead of tomato sauce, pour olive oil all over, sprinkle with Italian herbs, and bake per directions Or, sprinkle with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway, or dill.

Pease porridge is a standard Medieval dish. In a time crunch, use 2 to 3 cans of Campbell’s split pea soup. Line a sieve or colander with muslin or a piece of old sheet. Put undiluted soup into the sheet and form a load shape. Secure the sheet and then steam the pease porridge until heated through. To serve take out of cloth and garnish with carrots or bits of bacon or ham.

Quick Cookies: Use refrigerator cookies – particularly sugar cookies. Unfortunately, chocolate chips are not strictly period. However, one or two Kings and Past Royalty are somewhat fond of them, so if Grad Manfred comes to visit, feel free to make chocolate chip!

Quick Sauces: Choose a good package mix (such as Knorr’s) and dilute with cream, halt-and-half, or wine (depending on use) and mix. It’s a good way to really dress up plain chicken or vegetables. Also, dilute a basic sauce with clam nectar or bouillon and top with buttered noodles. Pasta is period but go for the egg noodles or the more exotic shapes rather than spaghetti or elbow macaroni. Funds Permitting, a canned ham or pre-cooked meat (summer sausage, pepperoni etc.) is a welcome and easy contribution. To serve a ham fancily, slice in 1/8″ to ¼” slices, arrange on toasted bread and top with a hollandaise sauce (from a package, naturally!) — garnish with spears of asparagus, cauliflower or carrots. (Ed. Note: ALWAYS, if you’ve gone to the expense of a lump of roast beef or a ham, serve it pre-sliced!! It will go a lot- further, it won’t cause delays in the potluck line, and it’ll help people remember their potluck manners relative to serving size. (Chickens you can’t do so much about, but people are more accustomed to haggling them up, and to taking reasonable-sized chunks.)

A couple of packages of dried fruit, a box of raisins, and a few cups of brandy or apricot liqueur makes a hell of a dessert

Rice-a-roni and other packaged products in this vein are good substitutes for pilaf. Try to avoid Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Time for potluck contributions. It’s so easy to do other, more period things!

Medieval people liked decorative food – they colored soups and painted pastry to liven it up. Dress up veggies by cutting them in shapes; the same goes for pie pastry. Add decorative shapes to piecrusts to give texture and visual touches to the groaning board.

Spices were used differently – and more heavily – in earlier days. In addition to their use as condiments, spices had medicinal and symbolic values as well. Experiment with ginger, cardamom, mace, cinnamon, fennel, fenugreek, and so forth to gain an appreciation for the flavor of the period. Be familiar with the flavors or your particular area and period.

 

WARNING:  More parts of the animals slaughtered were eaten, as well – nothing went to waste. Although I encourage people to try organ meats, sweetbreads, tripe chitlins’, etc., DO NOT put these things in a potluck or feast dish without honest and obvious labeling! Ditto for rabbit, various types of shell-fish, camel meat, whole raw milk, and so forth. “Mock Entrails, that wonderful subtlety, is entrails – it is dried fruit assembled to look like entrails! It is plain rude to spring new taste sensations on folk who may not be adequately prepared. There are a number of allergy sufferers among the populace whose health can be severely endangered by the ingestion of certain substances. And finally someone may react badly to your sweet-and-sour tripe by throwing up all over their table and costume, and that of their neighbors. This will leave a number of folk severely unhappy with you – starting with the victim and (quickly) working through the autocrat, feastocrat, and possibly the Royalty (especially if the incident occurs at the head table…). Most of what we consider courtesy is merely common sense in polite garb.

On Cookery Books: (This section is arranged mostly in order of availability).

From within the Society we currently have: (Lion’s Gate is small but the recipes are unusual and it’s back in print).

The Lion’s Gate Cook Book of the Middle Ages.

The Madrone Culinary Guild’s Beste of the Lotte.

Cure for Ye Bite of a Mad Dog,Other Delights.. and

Mistress Katrine de Bailllie du Chat’s How to Cook Forsoothly available from Raymond’s Quiet Press.

The Madrone booklets often include original recipes, the texts of the period recipes, extensive bibliographies; and the glossary of cookery terms in Cure. runs to 17 pages.

Mistress Katrine’s volume is “all about food and eating in and for the Society” with recipes, annotated bibliography, and glorious production values. (Raymond’s Quiet Press, PO Box 35118 Station D, Albuquerque, NM 87176.)

 

Next come the general commercial books

Madge Lorwin, Dining with William Shakespeare. Elizabethan period, gives original recipe text and “working versions” – that really do! — with additional information on life and customs. A very good book; remaindered.

Pleyn Delit by Hieatt and Butler has an excellent annotated bibliography, follows the usual format, though the originals are here given in a fancy Gothic type that may be difficult to decipher at first.

Sallets. Humbles & Shrewsbery Cakes. by Beebe is a nice little book of Elizabethan recipes.

Lorna Sass’ books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art are probably the best known:

To the King’s Taste (from the Forme of Cury written for Richard II in 1390);

To the Queen’s Taste (Elizabethan); Christmas Feasts. (has a Medieval and Renaissance chapter). One of her most important contributions is the recipe for Almond Milk given in King’s. (an important ingredient through most of period, there is evidently only one known recipe – given here).

 

Another widely used book (available in both paper and hardcover) is

Cosman’s Fabulos Feasts.. This book has an extensive history and customs section (indeed, it’s about 60% of the book) with many illustrations, some in color. To my mind, this book is not as good as it could be, because in the recipe section neither original texts nor sources of individual recipes are given – unless you can cross-reference it in one of the other books, you’ll never really know how authentic your dish is. Also there 3 is no index to the recipes (almost all the other books have some kind of index), and the Bibliography, while very extensive, is arranged in a very complicated fashion.

Fast and Feast. Food in Medieval Society by Henisch has no recipes but is excellent on customs.

 

Less available commercial books include

Tannahill’s Food in History (excellent);

McKendry’s Seven Centuries Cookbook. (about 1/3 is in period); and

The Horizon Cookbook (2 volumes, one of history, one of recipes).

 

When you get really interested, you can start after original sources. For example

Apicius’ volume on Roman cooking is available in a number of modern editions, often with the Latin text on facing pages; Apicius was a major source for medieval cookery. Then there’s the Early English Text Society, which is dedicated to producing copies of period volumes of all kinds – including cookery books. I have a copy of Original Series No.91 – Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books – typeset in modern letters I believe the New Series is photocopies of the originals (do you really want to learn to read 16th C Gothic type?).

Recently a copy of the latest scholarly edition of the Menagier de Paris (14th C. French, How to be a Good Housewife. written by a loving older husband for his young wife, 2 volumes, lots of domestic detail and recipes) went through the local university library – now if only I could read Medieval French. (There is an abridged edition, with about half of the recipes, available – Eileen Power, The Goodman of Paris).

Watch the Watched Pot book review section; go through your local libraries, public, school, and university; get to know your local used book dealers; get to know your (Society) neighbors – even in areas without organized cooking activity, you may be able to find quite extensive private collections, either to use, or for evaluating what you want to collect for yourself.

Dealing with Food in SCA Situations: The following “rules of thumb” are suggested for making it easier to deal with SCA food situations such as the ever popular potlucks, feasts, and so forth. They are based on experience, but are certainly not carved in stone!

One of the great achievements of our period is NOT plastic. Keep it off tables as either utensils or serving pieces. Use baskets, wooden trenchers, bowls, cast iron pots or crockery – anything but tacky plastic! Simple is better. Involved, complex, time-consuming recipes are generally trouble, whether for feast, potluck contribution, or as tourney food. If total time (not cooking lime) is longer than 30 uninterrupted minutes, think of something else!

Economical is better than (flashy) expensive. II goes farther and allows the pocket to breath in anticipation of the next event. If your dish is too unappetizing to cat as cold leftovers on Monday – it’s far too nasty/gross for the potluck.

ALWAYS BRING YOUR OWN SERVING DISH/PLATTER AND UTENSILS – AND PUT IDENTIFICATION ON THEM! Don’t assume that there will be any sort of pot/pan, serving tools, hot pads, serving dishes. Anything you need to serve the dish should be packed with the food and dragged along to the event.

Also, in view of the above, don’t assume there will be dish soap or rubber gloves, trash can liners, or paper bags al a feast site to promote clean-up. Check first, and BYO just in case.

The autocrat is always right. In the absence of the autocrat, the person(s)) delegated to a particular function (for instance, kitchen head) is always right in that area. That’s what makes the game work. It is an SCA tradition that everyone gets first helpings before anyone gets seconds. This is very important for several reasons:

  • Medieval food, being a new experience for many, is not universally relishedby all. Samples are easier to finish that whopping portions. (Ed. Note: Feasts take some getting used to – modern folk are simply not used to meals served in courses, with multiple main and side dishes. It takes a while for it to sink in that the first course is not all of the meal, and to adjust your helping size accordingly. If you’re a feast planner, this problem can make deciding on portion sizes real interesting)
  • Everyone has contributed to the meal, therefore everyone deserves to partake of it. Chivalry demands that you curb, not satiate, your ravenous appetite on the first pass.
  • Be assured that the people in the end of the line with appreciate your thoughtfulness. At a large event (such as Twelfth Night), be assured that the people at the end of the line, and sprinkled through it will be peers and other notables, will take a stern view of injudiciously heaped plates on the first pass. The watchword of the Game is Chivalry – be courteous to your fellow anachronists. Don’t jostle the line, offer insult to people, or generally make yourself obnoxious. (Of course, being a chivalrous person, you wouldn’t be doing any such things.) Someone who did, however, might be nicely (perhaps firmly) asked to please, desist, and possible leave.
  • Everyone helps with clean-up by cleaning up after him/herself. Folks who want to be loved and known quickly help clean up the site above and beyond their personal pickup. People who leave messes for others to clean up are very poorly thought of – even if they’re notables.
  • If you are autocratting a feast situation (potluck or otherwise):
    If you personally are short-tempered or hysterical under pressure, you probably don’t need to make your contributions in high stress situations – like kitchen head, autocrat, court herald, and so forth. In the case of feasts/potlucks, there is always a great need for more dishwashers, prep crew, and vegetable peelers. After all, you only need one autocrat to find a site, and one kitchen head to make sure the Kitchen is open, and all the elements on the stove work!
  • Team work makes life in general much easier. A feast crew should, for a basic 20 to 50 person affair, have about 5 people (minimum) working on it – in precooking, on-sire cooking, and shopping/planning. It is a good thing to have some non-cooking types as servers. It is the responsibility of the cooks to clean the kitchen -but they can have outside help. If it’s available, grab it! (Gently, affectionately, etc., but firmly!) Also, the clean-up crew should be separate and different from the set-up and cooking crew. That way, everyone gets a breather and an opportunity to enjoy the event.

 

Remember – there’s more to feasts than food.

There’s all that free time after everyone has stuffed themselves like Michaelmas geese – and it’s only 9:00 PM! Provide (or encourage someone else to provide) entertainment in the form of dancing, games, and music. Sometimes local, mundane early music groups will play for cheap or free just for dinner and the experience. (Most mundane early music groups don’t realize we exist…)

Basic medieval dances are usually easy to teach after one or two go-rounds. Many medieval board and dice games are very accessible.

If the Crown or a local Baron, etc., happens to be available and willing, a Court may be held in which case you have to deal with the Heralds and the entourage. Courts usually consist of the dignitary saying nice things about your nice shire/canton, passing on local (or, in the case of the Crown, Kingdom) awards, and so forth. Also leave some unstructured time just for folks to mill about and get acquainted!

Last But By No Means Least: Don’t Panic.
Under all circumstances, keep firmly in mind that this is a game!

You will often forget this salient fact of our existence. Don’t worry about forgetting – we all do, and frequently.

However, the fact remains that in six months, a year, a decade, this particular event will be history. Nothing you do can change that fact. It can be pleasant or it can be a disaster. That depends on good planning and execution, and an absence of natural disasters. Be as calm as the butterflies will let you; once the event is under way you can’t alter its course, it takes on a life of its own!

Relax, participate in the event tale to people, be the chivalric person you are. Do your best, and then enjoy it! Oh, and the best response to lavish praise is the simplest: Thank you. Accept the kind words of others – they have done you a courtesy and compliment by appreciating your efforts. Do them the courtesy of acknowledging their chivalry with your own.