Vegetables were eaten daily in the Middle Ages & Renaissance, but, like today, were in many ways considered an inferior or secondary menu item; vegetable dishes are hardly ever mentioned in Medieval cookbooks. Victorian & early-20th century food historians seized on this fact as proof that vegetables were hardly ever eaten, but this was an erroneous assumption which fortunately is not given much credence today. The fact is that the use of vegetables was wide-spread and prolific, and vegetables were an important food item in the diet of nearly all Medieval people. The pure simplicity of vegetable preparation often meant that precious vellum or parchment wasn't wasted on recording the recipes; some cookbooks go so far as to point out that the ability to prepare vegetables is common knowledge and further instructions are not necessary.
A good example of the attitude toward vegetables is seen in the prevalent period response to onions, a staple of Medieval cooking. Onions were considered lower-class & peasant fare, an ingredient to be used for the meanest of meals only, and a food that should be disdained by the upper classes. Eating onions was also said to be bad for one's complexion or humour; the pallid countenance, waxy hair, and ill-manners of Chaucer's Summoner is blamed on his diet of onions and garlic. Still, no matter how people may have turned up their noses to the idea of eating onions, they ate them in great numbers anyway. Nearly every garden plot grew onions and they are mentioned in all of the existing Medieval cookbooks.
In the Medieval era, the differences between vegetables, herbs, and any plant used in cooking was less distinct than today. All of the various available vegetables were frequently lumped together under the term "potherb," which also included edible flowers such as violets and primroses and herbs such as fennel and rue. Judging by the significant usage of the word "potherb" in Medieval times, vegetables and other plants played a major role in everyday meals, enough that their absence would've resulted in a considerable loss of nutrition and vitamins.
Wortes was another common expression for certain vegetables, and included all leafy edible plants. Wortes were generally herb-plants such as parsley, but also included cabbage, spinach, and even onions & leeks.
The modern salad, with raw lettuce & vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar, is one of the most popular ways of eating vegetables today, and that was true in Medieval cookery as well. Many period cookbooks instruct vegetables to be served raw, by themselves or with vinegar, oil, and salt. And also like today, this way of serving vegetables was considered an excellent way to begin a meal. Platina wrote in De honesta voluptate:
"What should be eaten first. There is an order to be observed in taking food, since everything that moves the bowels and whatever is of light and slight nourishment, like apples and pears, is more safely and pleasantly eaten in the first course. I even add lettuce and whatever is served with vinegar and oil, raw or cooked." - Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages.
Le Menagier de Paris (a 14th century home manual written by an elderly bridegroom), in giving planting instructions to the Menagier's young bride, mentions many different flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruits that are to be contained within their domestic garden. The list of vegetables features beet, leek, cabbage, parsley, bean, pea, spinach, lettuce, pumpkin, turnip, radish, & parsnip. In addition are other vegetables that the Menagier includes in his cooking instructions, which were purchased and not grown: carrots (which were specifically mentioned as being acquired in the market), shallots, cress, & garlic. The Menagier's recipes for vegetables are typical of the time period: simple and not nearly as numerous as his instructions for preparing meat and fish.
Terence Scully, in his book The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, has this to say about the preparation of vegetables:
"Most vegetables, whether leaves or roots, were chopped, ground and cooked by boiling. The logic of this cooking method lay in the tendency of vegetables, being products of the earth, to be dry in their nature (the exceptions being vegetable marrows, melons, & chard, all three of which were held to be rather moist); the action of stewing vegetables lent them the moisture they lacked by their nature. Members of the onion family, however, being moist in the third, and even fourth - or most dangerous (even mortal) - degree, were usually fried, thus removing a little of their superfluous moisture."
The 14th century French cookbook Le Viandier de Taillevant says this:
"154. D'autres menuz potaiges...: Other Lesser Pottages, such as stewed chard, cabbage, turnip greens, leeks, veal in Yellow Sauce, and plain shallot pottage, peas, frenched beans, mashed beans, sieved beans or beans in their shell, pork offal, brewet of pork tripe -- women are experts with these and anyone knows how to do them."
Asparagus - used since Roman times.
Beans - broadbean, fava (most common), haricot, hairy vetch, sweet vetch, but NEVER the modern green bean; see: Potage Fene Boiles.
Beets - both the root and the tops.
Brussels Sprouts - not an overly common Medieval vegetable, but still widely available; see: Sprouts.
Carrots - not modern orange ones but a smaller variety, either red or white; see: Compost.
Cauliflower - its use seems to be mostly late-Renaissance; see: How to butter a Colle-flowre.
Celery - usually referred to as "wild celery," both the outer stalks and the hearts were used.
Chard - considered "moist" and treated differently than dry vegetables.
Chick Peas/garbonzo beans - see Chyches.
Cress - a garden plant, considered a potherb or a worte; see: Salat.
Cucumbers - considered a "moist" fruit and treated differently than dry vegetables.
Garlic - used in many recipes, and a staple in Medieval cooking; see: Salat.
Green onions - see: Salat. Leeks, scallions, & green onions were sometimes referred to as "porrettes."
Leeks - used in many recipes; see: Salat. Leeks, scallions, & green onions were sometimes referred to as "porrettes."
Lettuce - leafy varieties, such as leaf lettuce, Romaine, etc. make acceptable substitutes for Medieval lettuce. NEVER use iceberg/head lettuce. Lettuce would have been considered a worte; see: Salat & Simple Sallet.
Mustard Greens - part of the potherb or wortes variety of vegetables.
Olives - the source for the most common cooking oil.
Peas - in or out of pods, one of the most common of Medieval vegetables; see: Perry of Pesoun.
Pumpkin - the American variety is different than the European, but is an acceptable substitute; see: Gourdes in Potage.
Radishes - see: Compost.
Scallions - see: Salat. Leeks, scallions, & green onions were sometimes referred to as "porrettes."
Sprouts - cabbage sprouts; see: Sprouts.
Squash/gourd - sometimes referred to as Vegetable Marrows; see: Gourdes in Potage.
Turnips - a common root vegetable, sometimes used in recipes as a substitute for pears; the greens were also very popular.
White Turnip - see: Compost.
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER: Potatoes; Yams; Artichokes; Green Beans; Corn (the yellow, white, or brown kernel-variety, grown on large cobs); Red, Green, & Yellow Peppers; Chilies; & Tomatoes. These are all modern foods that were not known in the Middle Ages.
Cooking Methods for Vegetables
Boil until tender then season with butter or olive oil and a little salt. For an example see: Buttered Wortes.
Boil until tender with other ingredients & spices. For example see: Gourdes in Potage.
Boil until very tender, then mash and mix with other ingredients and spices. For an example see: Potage Fene Boiles.
Boil until very tender, then chop into very small pieces to mix with other ingredients to make stuffings, pie fillings, etc. For an example see: Tart in Ymbre Day.
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