Tag Archives: Medieval Food

April Pottage

April Pottage

April is a bit of a sparse month with regard to vegetables. There’s nothing in my garden that would form the centrepiece of a pottage, so I bought a head of spring greens from the greengrocer. As the names suggests, they’re in season and the cabbage that a medieval housewife would have had available at this time of year was more open than the tight heads that we have now, so they resembled spring greens.

What my garden does have, as you can see from the photograph below, is a few herbs.  From left to right there are chives, parsley, savory, blood sorrel and lemon balm. Thanks to my single parsley plant going mad producing seeds after last year’s hot summer, there’s a lot of parsley, so I picked some of that as well as some chives to take the place of onions as flavouring.

Herbs (2)

I thought the medieval housewife might have run out of barley by now, so I just used the leaves I had. As usual, there’s no pepper or salt and no stock. The leaves were wilted in the pot, as I didn’t want the pottage to have any liquid.

I did eat some bread with it to give it a bit of body, but the pottage itself was very tasty. I can’t say that it was particularly filling. Lent’s over, though, and the medieval family is able to eat eggs, cheese and meat, if they can get any.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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March Pottage

pease pottage

I’ve come up in the world a bit for my Lenten pottage. It’s got sugar, salt and oil in it. That’s because I’m following a recipe. I did baulk, though, at the saffron for which it also calls. Even today it’s too expensive for anything other than a special occasion.

The recipe comes from The Medieval Cookbook and is a very basic pea pottage. It’s March, so my medieval housewife is using things from her stores. Since it’s also Lent and no meat is allowed, the meal is completely vegetarian.

The two main ingredients are dried peas and onions. I soaked the peas overnight and boiled them in fresh water for half an hour before I added the onions.  They boiled together for an hour, then I removed them from the heat and mashed them. They could also be sieved. I added small amounts of oil, sugar and salt, then simmered for another ten minutes. In the Middle Ages, the thicker a pottage was the better it was considered to be, and none of my pottages so far have been very thick. This one was.

When I poured it into the bowl it looked like mushy peas, which is basically what it was, except for the onion. I doubt many people realise they’re getting a medieval dish when they have mushy peas with their fish and chips.

Not only was it very tasty, but it was also very filling. It’s not the most attractive pottage I’ve made, but it’s one I’d make again.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Christmas Pottage

Christmas Pottage

Christmas was a feast, so I doubt that pottage would necessarily have been part of the main meal, but this is a series about pottage and that’s what I made. Many people celebrated the feast in the hall of the lord of the manor and that probably means that they ate the lord’s meat.

I’m a vegetarian, so meat isn’t an option for me, but I wanted this month’s pottage to be a bit of a celebration. Since whatever the people sitting in their lord’s hall ate was probably made with meat stock, I allowed myself vegetable stock in my pottage.

Sonya from Losing the Plot sent me some soup mix from Northern Ireland which is rather pottage-like in its makeup. It contains pearl barley, red split lentils, green split peas and yellow split peas. Medieval Gardens tells me that lentils weren’t commonly available in the Middle Ages and I thought that would make them something suitable for the Christmas feast.

I soaked the dry ingredients overnight, rinsed them and boiled them for 10 minutes. After that they simmered for 40 minutes. I rinsed them again and added them to some vegetable stock together with some leeks from the garden and some carrots. That cooked for another ten minutes.  It was very tasty and had the advantage over some previous pottages of looking nice in the bowl.

For poorer people who didn’t get to eat at their lord’s table, ham probably featured in their more humble Christmas feast. It’s a tradition that continued at least into my childhood. One of the smells I associate with Christmas is a ham boiling in the pressure cooker on Christmas Eve.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Fasting With Fish

Cupboard decoration

Last week I mentioned fasting during Advent and said that it wasn’t necessarily a deprivation.  I’m reading The Road to Crécy at the moment and this week I came across the list of what Edward III ate on the day he landed in Normandy in July 1346.

On Wednesday 12th July the king and his household sat down to 93 cod, 16 salted salmon, 24 stockfish (dried cod), 11 conger eels and 4 lampreys (from the Kitchen Accounts quoted in The Road to Crécy). They also ate some geese and hens, since poultry was permitted on Wednesdays. The fish were served with sauces of garlic and mustard.

Two days later, on Friday 14th July, the king’s household ate 38 cod, 16 stockfish, 8 salted salmon, 100 quarters (a weight) of pimpernels (small eels),  200 lampreys and 7 ‘shaft’ eels. I’m afraid I don’t know exactly what type of eel these are. Again, they were served with sauces and peas. On Fridays the rules for fasting were stricter and no meat at all was allowed.

In addidtion to the ones listed above, the types of fish that were available from the sea were plaice, bream, sole, haddock, turbot, halibut, sea bass, mullet, sturgeon and mackerel. Crabs and lobster were also considered fish, as were whelks, oysters, mussels and shrimps. Slightly more surprisingly so were seals, whales and porpoises. River and lake fish included trout, pike, grayling, bream and tench.

Given that England has a lot of coastline and many rivers, to say nothing of fishponds at monasteries and some large manors, you would think that there would be plenty of variety for people, even if they did have to fast for about half the days in the year. This was not the case. The definition of a fish – something created at sea or in water – could include many different creatures. Barnacle geese and puffins counted as fish, as did beavers, because they had tails like fish.

Although salting fish was a way of making it available to people who lived more than a day’s journey from the coast, fish could also be transported live in barrels of water for those who had the money to pay for it.

Sources:

The Road to Crécy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain by Maggie Black

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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September Pottage

dulse.jpg

Dulse

Last month Sonia Boal, from Losing the Plot, told that I had forgotten something very important when I was making my pottages: I live on the coast. That means there was probably edible seaweed here in the fourteenth century and it might have added saltiness to pottage. We don’t have much of a tradition of eating seaweed in Hampshire, but they’re very keen on it in other parts of the country. Sonia very kindly sent me some dulse from Northern Ireland.

I can’t tell you how wonderful dulse is. It’s salty and chewy and it goes down very well with cold beer. It’s a lovely colour and it’s a wonder there was any left for the pottage experiment. My photograph doesn’t quite capture its deep purple colour.

According to Wikipedia, dulse contains a lot of protein, trace elements, minerals and vitamins. Sadly, it only grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so would not have been available to someone living where my house is in the fourteenth century. There probably was some kind of edible seaweed here, however, so it seemed to be an experiment worth trying.

I wanted to find out whether the saltiness of the seaweed would add something to a pottage, so I chose some straightforward ingredients that would have been available at this time of year: peas and barley. I could have dried some of my own peas, but I enjoy them fresh too much to have saved any. I had to use supermarket marrowfat peas. These have to be soaked overnight and then boiled for an hour and a half. There’s also grain this month.  My pottage contained barley, garlic, onion, peas and seaweed. There were no other herbs or flavourings. As you can see from the photograph below, I went for a thicker pottage this month.

september-pottage.jpg

September Pottage

Somewhat surprisingly the seaweed disintegrated while it was cooking, turning an offputting browny-green colour in the pan. By the time the peas were cooked (almost an hour and a half) the seaweed had disappeared completely and the colour was a bit more appealing.

Last year I made a pottage with similar ingredients. Even with a lot of herbs it didn’t taste particularly nice. This one was lovely. The seaweed did make a difference and it was definitely worth throwing some into the pan.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

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June Pottage

Having tried last year to make pottage that would resemble what ordinary people in the fourteenth century ate, I thought that this year I’d have a go at a pottage each month using only things that grow in my garden (or things that I could grow in my garden if I’d ever had any success with carrots, onions or garlic) and would have been available in the fourteenth century.

The basis of many of the pottages will be marrowfat peas and pearl barley. Marrowfat peas are peas which have been left in the pod to dry out. You have to soak them to use them. I’m fairly good at peas.

Peas and beetroot

Peas and beetroot

I use barley straw to keep my strawberries off the ground and one year the packers had obviously been careless, because there were seeds amongst the straw and they germinated.  So I know I could grow barley. Pearl barley is just barley that’s had its hull and bran removed. Supermarkets sell it as a thickener for soups and stews. The type I buy doesn’t need to be soaked overnight.

strawberries

Strawberries on barley straw

In my garden in June I mostly have courgettes (zucchinis) and runner beans. Sadly, these came originally from the Americas, so I can’t use them. I also have peas, but a fourteenth-century housewife would leave those in their pods to dry out for stoarge. The chives are more or less at their peak and I’ll be using them to flavour my pottage.

Chives

Chives

Garlic is in season, so I can use that as well.  I have sorrel in the garden, but it’s gone to seed.

Sorrel

Sorrel

I’ve used this list of vegetables in season from the Vegetarian Society to help me where I don’t grow a particular vegetable and Medieval Gardens to confirm that the vegetable was available in the fourteenth century.

Depending on the weather, June could be a bad time of the year in the Middle Ages. Last year’s grain might be gone and this year’s wouldn’t yet be ready. For this pottage I’m going to assume that there are no peas and what grain is left is used for ale.

Given that there isn’t much available in the garden I thought I would make a leafy, runny pottage, more like a soup than a stew. I used spring greens (which are leafy like medieval cabbages), watercress, chives, garlic and sorrel.

I confess that I didn’t like the sound of this combination of vegetables, but I stuck them in a pot with some water and boiled them for half an hour. While it was cooking it smelled wonderful. I had forgotten, though, that sorrel goes grey when cooked. It looked fairly unappealing.

June Pottage

June Pottage

The taste wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. The leaves themselves had a lot of flavour, but the liquid tasted as if I’d done the washing up in it. I ate a bowl. I won’t say that I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t dreadful. In retrospect, I should probably have left the liquid in the pot as the basis of the next pottage.

Since it was such a thin pottage, I wondered what would sustain a medieval person during this time of the year. Ale would provide many of the necessary calories. When I went to the chicken coop to collect the eggs one morning, I had another part of the answer. Rural households would have had chickens and the eggs could be eaten, sold or exchanged for other food.

Even though the pottage was not very interesting, I was, unlike my fourteenth-century counterpart, able to comfort myself afterwards with strawberries and cream.

 

 

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Beekeeping In The Middle Ages

800px-27-alimenti,_miele,_Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.

Last week Robyn, from Big Dreams for a Tiny Garden, asked a question in the comments section about honey in the Middle Ages and I had to admit that I have avoided tackling the subject. Not because I’m afraid of bees; I’m not and I love seeing them in the garden.  It’s because, if I think too much about them, I might be tempted to get a hive and turn out to be very allergic to bee stings.

Despite all this, bees and their products do deserve a post of their own, so here it is.

In the fourteenth century bees were kept in skeps – upside-down conical baskets with a small hole allowing bees to enter and exit. Skeps were usually kept in a sheltered place, since bees don’t like bad weather. As a means of keeping bees, skeps were far from perfect as they could not be examined for wax or honey without disturbing the bees.

Bees produce two things much in demand in the fourteenth century – honey and wax. You might think that honey was the more important of the two, but you’d be wrong.

Until sufficient sugar cane could be grown outside of the eastern Mediterranean to make it affordable for most people, honey was the main source of sweetness in food. Wax was the more valuable product, however, and theft of skeps was a perpetual problem. They were small enough to be portable and there were usually several of them kept together.

Honey was extracted from the wax by pressing it. The wax had to be washed to remove any remaining honey before it could be put to one of its many uses.

Honey was a versatile product. Its most important use was as a food flavouring. It was used to flavour ale and to add sweetness to the porridge with which many people started the day. This is certainly my favourite use for honey. Honey has antiseptic properties and was used to help wounds heal. This use of honey is definitely going to make an appearance in one of my novels. It was used in bread making and was also rubbed onto horse’s legs when they were sick.

Wax was much more important than honey. Both were imported into England as well as harvested here, but it wasn’t worth transporting honey long distances, because merchants could not make as much money from it as they could from wax.

The most obvious use for wax was for candles. Beeswax gives a pure and odourless light. This was particularly important in monasteries and churches. Monasteries kept bees in order to collect wax for candles, but they could not always collect enough. Wax was imported into England to meet the demand for wax candles by royalty, monasteries and nobles. Most of it was imported into London. Edward I bought a large amount of imported wax from John of London, a merchant living in Southampton.

Like honey, wax had medicinal uses and was included in a remedy for an abscess in the throat, amongst other things.

Pilgrims left wax images at shrines they visited as a sign of gratitude or as a reflection of their prayers.  Wax could be shaped as something relevant to the saint or to show the reason for pilgrimage.

The king and his nobles had another use for wax. They mixed it with a resin, melted it and attached it to documents, then they put their seals into it to show their agreement to whatever was in the document.

Seal of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford c 1218 to 1230

Wax was imported from Spain and Eastern Europe, mainly from Russia. Some also came from North Africa. The main African centre was Béjaïa, whose name gave the French their word for candle – bougie. France imported greater quantities of wax than England.

 

Sources:

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe – by Peter Spufford

The Medieval Cookbook – Maggie Black

Medieval Southampton – Colin Platt

The Medieval Cook – Bridget Ann Henisch

Tudor Monastery Farm – Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

 

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Winter Pottage

leeks

I know that it’s not quite winter, but I thought I’d make my winter pottage before I use up all my leeks. They’re the only winter vegetable I have in my garden.

As with the summer pottage I’m assuming that I have garlic and onions available. The leeks and sage are from my garden. I’m also using marrowfat peas. I grew peas in the summer and did let some stay in the pods to dry. There weren’t very many, though, because who can resist eating fresh peas from the pod? For the pottage I used marrowfat peas from the supermarket. I also added barley (again from the supermarket) to give the pottage a bit of body.

The peas were soaked overnight. A medieval housewife would have had to soak her barley as well, but mine just needed washing. I boiled some water with an onion and some garlic. I added the peas, barley and sage for half an hour, then added the leeks for ten minutes. All of this would have taken longer over an open fire.

Pottage

If you kept pigs in the fourteenth century you would be killing one about now. Most of the meat would be salted to last the winter, but you might add a bit to the pottage. It might not necessarily be a part of the pig that you’re familiar with. I’m a vegetarian, so it’s not something I’m going to try.

You might also have a carrot or two to add to the pot. Carrots don’t grow terribly well in the clay pit that passes for my garden, but they would have added some flavour.

Talking of flavour, it wasn’t too bad. I ate it all without feeling the need to add salt or pepper. I probably made it more interesting than it would have been in a fourteenth-century home by adding two things to give it bulk and texture – the peas and the barley. As always, I can only guess at the quantities that would have been available. It was probably less than I used, since I don’t have to make my ingredients stretch for another six or seven months until next year’s crops start to grow.

Chickens

What else can you eat at this time of year? Three out of our four chickens are laying at the moment. Medieval chickens were probably not such prolific producers of eggs as our modern hybrids, but a medieval housewife probably had more than four chickens. She probably had a cockerel as well. Spare eggs could be sold at market or swapped for food that the family didn’t grow.

 

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What can you learn at a medieval event?

Melford Hys Companie

Melford Hys Companie

Last weekend there was a medieval event not far from where I live. It was put on to celebrate the official launch of the Virtual Museum of the Grace Dieu. The Grace Dieu was a huge ship built for Henry V. It made only one voyage before it was hit by lightning and sank in the River Hamble, near Southampton. The medieval event took place in the River Hamble Country Park, close to where the ship sank.

Basket weavers

Basket weavers

There were two different groups of medieval re-enactors at the event. One group, the Medieval Free Company, represented a village where there was a leather worker, a fletcher, a woman who made herbal remedies, a scrivener and a basket weaver.  Their period is the Wars of the Roses.

The other group was Melford Hys Companie, a group of players. The players doubled up by demonstrating medieval crafts as well as acting. The crafts were woodturning, felting, spinning and basket weaving.

Woodturner

Woodturner

On the woodturning front I learned that greenwood was used to make household objects, such as bowls, rather than dry wood.  I’m sure the reason for this was explained, but I can’t remember it. I do remember that the wood warps as it dries, as you can see from the bowl on the end of the woodturner’s workbench.

One of the women in the group spins and I asked her some questions. I’ve never understood how spinning works and she was kind enough to explain it to me, whilst demonstrating. From her I learned that rich women did not spin. This was a bit of a blow, as I have a scene in my current work in progress where two very rich women sit down and spin together.

Another thing I learned was that, although medieval depictions of women spinning show them holding a spindle and a distaff at the same time, it’s perfectly possible to spin without a distaff.  After the demonstration, I was allowed to have a go and enjoyed it. Later in the day I realised that the basket full of fleece, carding implements and spare spindles was intended for children, but I was very grateful to have had the chance to try. I was so engrossed in what the spinner was doing that I forgot to take a photograph, but I was very inspired by my lesson and bought a spindle so that I can carry on practising.

Handspun thread

Handspun thread

To my great joy, pea pottage was on the menu for lunch for the players.  You can see the peas and carrot and rosemary in the pot. There’s also onion, garlic and a bit of bacon in there. They were aiming for something fairly substantial and  used marrowfat peas soaked overnight. Somebody had to sit and watch the pot all the time to make sure that the fire didn’t go out and that the pottage didn’t get too dry. It was quite windy, so there was a constant danger of the sparks setting fire to something.

Lunch

Pea pottage

The pottage must have done the job, because it all disappeared and I saw the pot watcher doing the washing up in the pot after lunch. Another lesson learned – pots are expensive and can be dual purpose.

Two of the women were working on felting projects. One was for children. The other, most decidedly, was not.

Felted bubs

Felt bosoms for the actors

The bosoms are to enable the male actors to look the part when they have to play female roles.

I only saw part of the felting process, but a rough pattern was made from a piece of linen cloth and the fleece placed on both sides of it. The wool was made wet and soaped. It was placed on a board and the woman making the prop had to keep rubbing it so that the fibres stuck together and shrank. The finished object was quite a bit smaller than the pattern.

On the right of the photograph you can see the knife with which she shaved off pieces of soap into the mug of water.

In the other camp there was a scrivener, who explained about how ink was made with ground oak apples, coperas (ferrous sulphate) and gum. On his table you can see cuttlefish for drying the ink on the page; a triple baked loaf of bread for polishing parchment; and a wax tablet for a learner writer. You can also see a part of his bow, as all men were supposed to know how to shoot.

Scrivener's table

Scrivener’s Table

If you look carefully on his writing desk, you’ll see a printed pamphlet and he’s writing on paper. Paper was used in the fourteenth century, but printing had not been invented.

Leather worker

Leather worker’s tent

The leather worker made sheaths for swords and daggers, as well as belts, flasks and pouches. Whilst his leather and some of his goods were arranged tidily, you can see that he was rather careless with his armour.

There was also a fletcher in the Wars of the Roses village. He demonstrated how arrows could be made to fit individuals, but the majority of arrows which went to France with archers were not made to order. They were made in what were essentially factories, churning out arrows for the English armies. As the fletcher explained, you did not have to be a particularly good archer, or have made-to-measure arrows, to succeed in a battle. An enemy army provided quite a large target and any arrow fired in its general direction would probably hit something. He also said that, in his younger days, he could let off a further two arrows before his first had landed, which goes some way to explaining why Welsh and English archers were so successful and so feared.

I was surprised by the different types of points I saw on the arrows. One looked like a fork and another like a knife. One had a very vicious-looking barb on it.

Fletcher

Fletcher

I had a very enjoyable day out with the re-enactors. It is one thing to read about how something is done, and another to see it being done. Best of all, I’ve got an inkling of an idea about a novel from it.

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Sugar

800px-27-alimenti,_miele,_Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.

Sugar was an expensive foodstuff. Like cinnamon, cloves and saffron it was considered, and used, as a spice, but it did not travel quite as far as they did to reach England.

Sugar first came into Europe from Egypt and Syria. Crusaders brought it with them when they returned home. This was the beginning of Europe’s addiction to sugar. In the thirteenth century the Venetians and Genoese were able to set up cane plantations on Mediterranean islands, which enabled them to control the whole process of sugar production and distribution.

Once refined, sugar was formed into cone-shaped loaves. It is still sold in this way in some parts of Europe. Sugar loaves were white and brown. If the sugar was refined and pure, it was white. If it was unrefined, it was brown.

Sugar was used in sauces for what we would consider savoury food, but it was also used to make sweet confections to follow it.

Sugar was very versatile and soon came to be preferred to honey by those who could afford it. Honey could be produced anywhere in England by anyone who had a skep and the necessary skills to manage the bees. For those who had to buy their sweeteners, a pound of sugar would have cost a skilled labourer a day’s wages, four times more than a pound of honey.

In the fourteenth century some large towns in Europe had sweet shops selling expensive sweets made from melted and crystallised sugar. These were sold by weight. Again, they were something only the wealthy could afford.

Venice, as it did with spices, controlled the refining and distribution of sugar across Europe for centuries. Sugar only became affordable for the masses in the eighteenth century, when sugar cane started to be grown in the West Indies, using slave labour. In the sixteenth century it was possible to extract sugar from beetroot, but this was not done on a commercial scale until the nineteenth century.

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