Medieval Times

Appreciating Medieval Times

There is no greater sorrow
Than to recall a happy time
When miserable.

— Dante Alighieri

One aspect of medieval Europe that almost all “medieval fantasy” series gets wrong is cuisine. When we think of medieval feasting, images of huge lamb/pork chops and mountains of bread come to mind— in other words, unsophisticated fare, cooked blandly. Nothing could be further from the truth. The food that would be served to kings and lords in medieval Europe was extremely complex. Most modern kitchens don’t have the competence or equipment necessary to recreate what little of medieval cuisine we actually know about— there’s not a single restaurant in the world (to my knowledge) that serves dishes derived from 14th-century European cuisine.

What can we expect from a medieval feast?

Highly ornate and elaborate presentation of dishes. We have primary source reports of such fanciful dishes as ducks re-dressed in their own feathers, meatballs with a green sauce disguised to look like apples, “eggs” made from almonds, and a whole sturgeon cooked three ways— the head, boiled; the body, baked; the tail, fried. The medieval cuisine of royalty and nobility was very much about presentation and showmanship.

Spices, spices, spices. Cooks were pretty intense about using spices in their dishes during the medieval period. In a late-14th century cookbook from France, the Menagier de Paris, more than 75% of dishes called for the use of spices such as pepper and grains of paradise. The later “blandness” of French haute-cuisine, in which the flavor of underlying ingredients is emphasized over that of spices, is a direct reaction against the spice-heavy cuisine of the Middle Ages.

Courses. In England, there were generally three courses during a meal, whereas in France, noblemen and royalty would frequently eat four or more courses during a meal— a far cry from modern depictions which show fruits, meats and soups occupying the same table.

In short, medieval cuisine, at the highest levels, was highly ornate, incredibly complex and far more colorful than the food that you and I eat. Blues, greens and reds frequently appeared on the tables of the wealthy. Dishes were appreciated not only for their taste, but also for their aesthetic quality— one might even argue that aesthetics trumped taste in the high cuisine of the late-14th century. Very different indeed from the mounds of mutton and beef we generally associate with food and dining in the Middle Ages.

— u/Akirascuro

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