Things you’ve always wanted to know about medieval cooking…

By Ramona Venema

Ramona is a research masters student from the University of Groningen, and currently working as an intern in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. Her interests include baking and she maintains her own cookery blog.

We have already seen what a medieval cook could whip up in a previous post. Being the fanatic foodie that I am, I recently acquired a cookbook filled to the brim with historical baking recipes from the seventeenth century onward. I wasn’t exactly surprised at first, knowing some medieval recipes are perhaps a bit too adventurous for the modern mind. In any case, it prompted my curiosity and I set out to find out more about medieval cooking.

First of all: medieval chefs really knew their stuff. Whereas some modern cuisine is concerned with food on a molecular level, medieval chefs were probably not that bothered with exact amounts. It soon became clear why the writer of the historical cookbook left out medieval recipes. They do not contain any indication as to how much of a certain ingredient was needed, and so left a lot of creativity up to the chef. Perhaps medieval cookbooks were then not so much a cookbook as we would recognize it today, but rather a reference work. Or perhaps it shows that medieval cooks were used to cooking with whatever was at hand – it’s not like they could walk into a supermarket. Also, precise timings would be fiff-faff as medieval chefs were using an open fire.

BNF Arsenal 5070

Paris, Bibl. de l’Arsenal, MS 5070

Take eelys & sawmoun & smyte hem

on pecys & stewe hyt in almaunde

mylke & verjous. drawe up an al-

maunde mylke with the stewe. [..]

Fragment from a recipe for Tartes of fysche – no indication of how many eels the cook should use.
Found in Fourme of Curye, transcr. by Daniel Myers

Even though this  eel and salmon pie filling doesn’t sound particularly yummy to most of us, the ingredients weren’t that unusual. Not as decadent as your average fast-food restaurant burger, probably! The same Fourme of Curye reveals an abundance of recipes for meat and fish dishes as well as some vegetable concoctions and sweet treats (“Rysshews of fruyt” anyone?). Even though we might expect, or hope for a recipe for unicorn, as this recent British Library April Fool’s post tantalized us with, this is certainly not the norm. I did find a recipe for “dragonee” which looks like it could be some sort of sweet capon stew, for which the color should turn out “red of dragon’s blood”.  No dragon meat involved however! Hearty and sweet were frequently combined, undoubtedly much to the horror of modern taste buds – who would combine meat with strawberries nowadays?

The oldest European medieval recipes were discovered in Cambridge in April by prof. Faith Wallis of McGill University (Montreal). The twelfth-century Durham manuscript they were featured in also contained medicinal recipes. Some of the recipes, such as “hen in winter”, confirm yet again that medieval cooks worked with the products at hand, and kept seasons in mind. Perhaps something we should take note of today.

BNF Arsenal 5070

Paris, Bibl. de l’Arsenal, MS 5070

Want to try your hand at a medieval recipe yourself, recreate a medieval banquet or have a really original recipe for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving? A good starting point is the Medieval Cookery website. A recipe which looked particularly good is the one for pear custard. If you’re interested in “historical” cooking on a more academic level, then you might be interested in attending “The Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food in the Low Countries” which will be held for the first time on January 17th 2014.  An interesting article on medieval cookbooks can be found here, starting at page 71.

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