English food in the middle ages
is famous for being colourful, imaginative and very highly spiced. This popular perception is largely due to the sources available today for the study of culinary
practices. The best documented meals of the Medieval period are the feasts of the nobility
and rich merchant class. Most of the surviving recipe collections and herbal
s also have their origins in the kitchens of those who could afford to eat in style.
This distortion of evidence has led to various misconceptions regarding everyday food in the middle ages. The most widespread ones are regarding complexity and variety.
Misconception No. 1: Medieval food was highly spiced and strongly flavoured
Not necessarily. Although it is true that the lists of spices required for certain dishes seem extremely long in comparison to modern English cooking, it is important to remember that medieval recipes do not contain details of quantities. Compared to Indian or Chinese cooking, so popular in England today, the variety of spices is nothing to marvel at, and the comparison makes it easy to understand how a subtle and complex, but not overpowering, dish can be created. The major difference between modern and ancient cooking in that respect is probably that the medievals did not make our strict distinction between sweet and savoury, and used sugar widely as a spice in meat dishes (as well as honey, molasses and various fruits).
Misconception No. 1a: they used that many spices to cover the taste of bad or rotten food
The seemingly perplexing variety and amount of spices in the medieval repertoire have given rise to some pretty far fetched explanations, among them the prevailing myth that since there were no cooling facilities in the middle ages, people ate rotten or bad food. Well, they weren't stupid. They knew what indigestion felt like! There are even recorded remedies for it (there are also fascinating texts deliniating the contemporary ideas of a good and balanced diet - not always in accordance with modern ideas, but at the very least proof that medieval people were not indiscriminate). The fact that people even in the farthest inland regions ate fish is often cited as "proof" of the fact that they couldn't have always eaten fresh, wholesome food. The truth of the matter, however, is that much of that fish was salted and pickled, as well as dried or smoked - all ways of preparing fish still used today. Much of the meat was also salted or preserved in various ways, most of all bacon and ham. The one area of perplexity not yet explained by research is how they had their wine; since bottling was not introduced until the Tudor era, and the casks in which wine was imported were rather large, it is confusing to sort out what the medieval Englishmen considered "bad" wine. (Thanks, DerekL)
Misconception No. 2: the Medievals only ate meat
Not even. First of all, they couldn't have for religious reasons. Three days out of every week were "no meat" days by Church doctrine, and a wide variety of vegetarian as well as fish and egg dishes would have been necessary to satisfy the appetites of the rich and powerful. The reason vegetable rarely appear in the accounts of household expenses and feast menus is not because they were trivial, but rather because they were rarely purchased, but rather grown on the estate. There was no need to document that on which no cash expenditure was made. This theory is borne out by the fact that, on estates which were large enough to have their own fish ponds, fresh water fish also rarely appeared in accounts and menus - but if they were not eaten, why the fish ponds? In fact archaeological studies of contemporary gardens and orchards shows that people had large andvaried vegetable patches, growing onions, turnips, carrots (which came in many more varieties than they do today), cabbage and herbs.
Misconception No. 3: the variety of meats eaten in Medieval times was immense
Well, yes and no. Although such exotic foods as swan and peacock were indeed served at feasts, they were delicacies only available to a small minority - even inside the upper class. Game was only accessible to those with their own lands to hunt from: poaching was stricly forbidden and punishable by death (as well as poach-fishing). Most people had access to pretty much the same meats which are staples to this day - pork, mutton, and beef. Poultry was eaten rarely as it was kept for eggs as an important source of protein among the peasant class. For many peasants and poor townspeople, bacon was as close as they ever got to actual meat.
Misconception No. 4: They had no plates, but ate straight from big slices of bread
They did have plates. To understand the importance of the trencher, however, it is necessary to understand how food was served to people in the middle ages. People were seated in rows along straight trestle tables (although make no mistake - for private and small family meals they often sat at round, oval or square tables, as well), with dishes on plates or bowls placed in front of them. These dishes were shared between two, sometimes three people, and they were really what people ate from - the trenchers of bread were there to soak up any gravy or sauce dripping from the morsels taken from the communl plate and to serve as temporary resting surfaces for the same. Trencher bread was especially baked, and was much browner and coarser that normal eating bread (which was also served with the meal). It was sometimes eaten on the next day as a breakfast dish, soaked in milk or ale, and sometimes given as alms to the poor. It was not part of the menu.
Misconception No. 5: The Medievals were all alcoholics
It's true that clean drinking water was not easily available and that people drank and cooked in ale, cider, wine and mead. However, they did not consume nearly as many alcohol units as people do today! The ale brewed for everyday consumption was considerably weaker than modern beer, and wine was almost always mulled and warmed - which will reduce its alcohol content. There was, of course, recreational drinking of stronger ale and cider, but that was distinct from the former variety and served in ale houses or at major meal times. Hard liquor (brandy etc.) was almost non existent in medieval times.
Almost as an aside, I have recently come across a piece of trivia regarding the seeming incogruity between medieval and modern English cooking. After all, the inquiring mind might ask, how come the French and Italians have retained their culinary traditions as a source of pride through the millenium, while English cooking, which rivaled any continental tradition six hundred years ago, is the stodgy, bland affair it has come to be notorious as? Well, the answer is, as in so many things, that it's all Cromwell's fault. He actually outlawed, by acts of parliament, the use of spices, the making of sauces, the eating of certain "sinful" luxurious foods and the use of certain cooking techniques. By the time of the restoration, not many people in England could even remember what food used to be like, never mind be able to reproduce it. And so English cuisine was plunged into its own Dark Age, from which it is only now beginning to recover.
For great sources of infomation on medieval foods and cooking techniques try P. W. Hammond's Food and Feast in Medieval England and M. P. Cosman's Fabulous Feasts. The latter also has a selection of authentic recipes adapted for the modern kitchen. You can also find some great recipes at the following URLs: