Gode Cookery Presents
Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages

Food & Drink

In the castle kitchen the cook and his staff turned the meat - pork, beef, mutton, poultry, game - on a spit and prepared stews and soups in great iron cauldrons hung over the fire on a hook and chain that could be raised and lowered to regulate the temperature. Boiled meat was lifted out of the pot with an iron meat hook, a long fork with a wooden handle and prongs attached to the side. Soup was stirred with a long-handled slotted spoon.

This illustration from The Lutrell Psalter shows both a meat hook and a slotted spoon.

Meat preservation was by salting or smoking, or, most commonly and simply, by keeping the meat alive till needed. Salting was done by two methods. Dry-salting meant burying the meat in a bed of salt pounded to a powder with mortar and pestle. Brine-curing consisted of immersing the meat in a strong salt solution. Before cooking, the salted meat had to be soaked and rinsed.

In addition to roasting and stewing, meat might be pounded to a paste, mixed with other ingredients, and served as a kind of custard. A dish of this kind was blankmanger, consisting of a paste of chicken blended with rice boiled in almond milk, seasoned with sugar, cooked until very thick, and garnished with fried almonds and anise. Another was mortrews, of fish or meat that was pounded, mixed with bread crumbs, stock, and eggs, and poached, producing a kind of quenelle, or dumpling. Both meat and fish were also made into pies, pasties, and fritters.

Sauces were made from herbs from the castle garden that were ground to a paste, mixed with wine, verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes), vinegar, onions, ginger, pepper, saffron, cloves, and cinnamon. Mustard, a favorite ingredient, was used by the gallon.

In Lent or on fast days fish was served fresh from the castle's own pond, from a nearby river, or from the sea, nearly always with a highly seasoned sauce. Salt or smoked herring was a staple, as were salted or dried cod or stockfish. Fresh herring, flavored with ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, might be made into a pie. Other popular fish included mullet, shad, sole, flounder, plaice, ray, mackeral, salmon, and trout. Sturgeon, whale, and porpoise were rare seafood delicacies, the first two "royal fish," fit for kings and queens. Pike, crab, crayfish, oysters, and eels were also favorites. A royal order to the sheriff in Gloucester in the 1230s stated that:

"...since after lampreys all fish seem insipid to both the king and the queen, the sheriff shall procure by purchase or otherwise as many lampreys as possible in his bailiwick, place them in bread and jelly, and send them to the king while he is at a distance from those parts by John of Sandon, the king's cook, who is being sent to him. When the king comes nearer, he shall send them to him fresh."

The most common vegetables, besides onions and garlic, were peas and beans. Staples of the diet of the poor, for the rich they might be served with onions and saffron. Honey, commonly used for sweetening, came from castle or manor beas; fruit from the castle orchard - apples, pears, plums, and peaches - was supplemented by wild fruits and nuts from the lord's wood. In addition to these local products, there were imported luxuries such as sugar (including a special kind made with roses and violets), rice, almonds, figs, dates, raisins, oranges, and pomegranates, purchased in town or at the fairs. Ordinary sugar was bought by the loaf and had to be pounded; powdered white sugar was more expensive.

At mealtimes, servants set up the trestle tables and spread the cloths, setting steel knives, silver spoons, dishes for salt, silver cups, and mazers - shallow silver-rimmed wooden bowls. At each place was a trencher or manchet, a thick slice of day-old bread serving as a plate for the roast meat. Meals were announced by a horn blown to signal time for washing hands. Servants with ewers, basins, and towels attended the guests.

At the table, seating followed status: The most important guests were at the high table, with the loftiest place reserved for an ecclesiastical dignitary, the second for the ranking layman. After grace, the procession of servants bearing food began. First came the pantler with the bread and butter, followed by the butler and his assistants with the wine and beer. Wine, in thirteenth century England mostly imported from English-ruled Bourdeaux, was drunk young in the absence of an effective technique for stoppering containers. Wine kept a year became undrinkable. No attention was paid to vintage, and often what was served even at rich tables was of poor quality. Peter of Blois decribed in a letter wine served at Henry II's court:

"The wine is turned sour or mouldy - thick, greasy, stale, flat and smacking of pitch. I have sometimes seen even great lords served with wine so muddy that a man must needs close his eyes and clench his teeth, wry-mouthed and shuddering, and filtering the stuff rather than drinking."

The castle bought wine by the barrel and decanted it into jugs. Some was spiced and sweetened by the butlers to go with the final course. Ale, made from barley, wheat, or oats, or all three, was drunk mainly by the servants. A castle household brewed its own, hiring an ale-wife for the task and using grain from its own stores. At the royal court, according to Peter of Blois, the ale was not much better than the wine - it was "horrid to the taste and abominable to the sight."

Ceremony marked the service at table. There was a correct way to do everything, from the laying of cloths to the cutting of trenchers and carving of meat. Part of a squire's training was learning how to serve his lord at meals: the order in which dishes should be presented, where they should be placed, how many fingers to use in holding the joint for the lord to carve, how to cut the trenchers and place them on the table.

The solid parts of soups and stews were eaten with a spoon, the broth sipped. Meat was cut up with the knife and eaten with the fingers. Two persons shared a dish, the lesser helping the more important, the younger the older, the man the woman. The former in each case broke the bread, cut the meat, and passed the cup.

Etiquette books admonished diners not to leave the spoon in the dish or put elbows on the table, not to belch, not to drink or eat with their mouths full, not to stuff their mouths or take overly large helpings. Not surprisingly,in light of the finger-eating and dish-sharing, stress was laid on keeping hands and nails scrupulously clean, wiping spoon and knife after use, wiping the mouth before drinking, and not dipping meat in the salt dish.

The lord and lady were at pains to see their guests amply served. Bishop Robert Grosseteste advised the countess of Lincoln to make sure that her servants were judiciously distributed during dinner, that they entered the room in an orderly way and avoided quarreling. "Especially do you yourself keep watch over the service until the meats are placed in the hall, and then... command that your dish be so refilled and heaped up, and especially with the light dishes, that you may courteously give from your dish to all the high table on the right and on the left." At his own house, he reminded the countess, guests were served at dinner with two meats and two lighter dishes. Between courses, the steward should send the servers into the kitchen and see to it that they brought in the meats quietly and without confusion.

An everyday dinner, served between 10:00 A.M. and noon, comprised two or three courses, each of several separate dishes, all repeating the same kinds of food except the last course, which consisted of fruits, nuts, cheese, wafers, and spiced wine.

On such festive occasions as holidays and weddings, fantastic quantites of food were consumed. When Henry III's daughter married the king of Scotland on Christmas Day 1252 at York, Matthew Paris reported that "more than sixty pasture cattle formed the first and principal course at table... the gift of the archbishop. The guests feasted by turns with one king at one time, at another time with the other, who vied with one another in preparing costly meals." As for the entertaimnent, the number and apparel of guests, the variety of foods: "If I were more fully to describe (them)... the relation would appear hyperbolical in the ears of those not present, and would give rise to ironical remarks." Such feasts included boar's heads, venison, peacocks, swans, suckling pigs, cranes, plovers, and larks.

Excerpts from: Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Francis Gies. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1974.


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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