Medieval Masterpieces

I have waxed lyrical before about my love of history and all things nostalgic and antiquarian... bear with me then as I wander down the historic path once more. 

Good cooking outlasts its origins. 

Wherever possible, I have embraced this ethos and sought out the weird and wonderful recipes of the past.  I am in awe of the cooks who created such marvellous creations as six-foot Subtleties - sugar sculptures- or elaborate marchpane (marzipan) creatures and sugar castles and a dish of a hundred birds for the Kings table... That is not to say I only cook food fit for a king, it is merely that those are the recipes most abundantly recorded.  I have no doubt though that poached fish, rabbit stew and cottage pies share more humble origins than the Kings table, and I love them too.

I have a lovely little book (Medieval Holidays and Festival; a calendar of celebrations by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, 1981) which discusses the social and culinary customs of the Medieval era in intimate and endearing detail.  This is a theme I have explored continually over the last few years in my kitchen as I am fascinated by the often eccentric and showy spectacles the Medieval kitchen produced.

Rock Salt Smoked Salt Black SaltFood played such an important role in the customs of the time as it represented tangible luxury and many recipes can be attributed to particular saints days or occasions.  We take it for granted today, but salt was a supreme luxury in Medieval Europe and was 'presented' to the nobles to signify rank and wealth at feasts.  These little details fascinate me.  Though some of these traditions have faded, often the recipes remain.  Caraway shortbread and Saffron Bun are two recipes common on the high tables of Medieval Europe, and each have special cultural significance... and yet I bought a piece of caraway shortbread recently from a local cafe. 

On a more mundane note, though, I am fascinated by the idea of having such a limited and distinct palate.  Medieval foodstuffs were often in short supply and cooks used whatever was readily available to preserve, embellish and present their dishes to best feed their hungry patrons.  It is no coincidence that Medieval food has an abundance of cloves, ginger, mace, pepper and other heady aromatics – without refrigeration Medieval butchers were unable to provide meat that 21st Century diners would consider fresh.  Methods of disguise and distraction were employed to camouflage the unfortunate reality of mildly putrefied meat.

VegetablesMedieval cooking also suffers from a sort of vege-phobia which I find curious.  Surviving recipes from the period are most commonly a reflection of the upper classes and consequently reflect the sometimes lavish and extravagant taste of the highest levels of society.  The wealthy rarely troubled themselves with the lowly food of the peasant classes; few vegetables save the occasional leek, turnip or potato grace the plates of kings.  Salats (salads) however do get a look in and are often a tremendous combination of preserved foods, nuts and leaf vegetables.  Even the finest breads were heartier than those we are accustomed to today and the injection of flavours such as saffron and cloves often assist in the palatability of these coarse loaves.

Dried fruits play an important part in this diet, given the – ahem – density of the ingredients, as well as the profusion of meats and wine, dried fruits with a generous helping of lard provide a necessary emulsifier to assist in digestion.  As a flavour profile, however, this also creates a very distinctive aroma and solidity to the table.  Meat cooked with stewed fruits, cloves, prunes, and barley produces an entirely delectable and distinct flavour – sweet yet savoury, dense yet digestible, just.  I love this combination.  I love the strength of the flavours and the fundamental understanding of the roles particular herbs and spices play in delivering a flavoursome and tender roast or pie.

Kitchen gardens and local produce was of course a necessity from the Medieval period, all the way through to the Industrial Revolution, and as such the injection of new foreign and exotic spices was as celebrated then as the arrival of a new iPhone or luxury vehicle may be today. 

Growing an abundance of herbs, knowing where to forage for the best local free-grown flavours and hedge-row harvests was essential.  This practice informs the food right up to modern combinations - roast pheasant or goose with red currants or even the humble apricot chick share their heritage with this tradition.  Preserving fruit when there was abundance and finding use for those preserves throughout the year allowed the Medieval cook to stretch their menu beyond that growing on their doorstep and enabled them to create meals that inspired poetry and diary entries which enlighten us on their customs today.