Tag Archives: Medieval Food

Salt and Pepper

salt and pepper 4

Following on from last week’s post about things that could be used in the fourteenth century to add flavour to food, and a short discussion on Twitter, today’s post is about pepper and salt. They are the most popular condiments used to season food in England these days, but was that the case in the fourteenth century?

Unless someone had a salt pan or brine well on their land, both salt and pepper had to be purchased. They were not things which could be obtained locally and had to be bought at markets.

Salt

Salt was a necessity for making bread and for preserving meat. This meant that everyone, except for a few people living in towns, had to purchase it in quantity.

In England salt mostly came from salt marshes along the coast. The marshes were turned into salt pans from which water would evaporate. What remained after evaporation was raked out so that it could dry completely, leaving salt. Despite England having a very long coastline, there were not enough salt marshes to serve the whole population and salt had to be imported from France and Italy.

There were also brine wells in Cheshire, which provided salt to the Midlands and to the north of England.

As well as enhancing its flavour, salt was also used for preserving food. In poorer households animals were killed at the beginning of winter. Some meat would be eaten straightaway, but what was left would be salted so that it would last until the beginning of Lent. Fish were salted or smoked for transportation inland. Most of the fish eaten, especially during Lent, was salted.

Pepper

Pepper was the cheapest and most used spice and those two things are probably related. Pepper was grown on the western coasts of the south of India and Sri Lanka. It had to travel a great distance to reach England and was, therefore, very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford it.  It cost 20 to 22 pennies to buy a pound of pepper. A skilled labourer earned about 4 pennies a day and had far more important things to spend his money on than pepper.

The journey from India would have been over land and sea and would have taken time. It’s probable that the pepper had lost a lot of its flavour by the time it reached an English kitchen.

It was not unknown for pepper to be dampened to increase its weight when it was sold. Not only did this mean that the purchaser had less pepper than he thought, but it was also likely to go off very quickly.

Pepper, like herbs, could be used to disguise the sourness of ale on the turn. Fortunately, I can’t quite imagine what that must have tasted like.

 

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Medieval Herbs

sage

Sage

There have been a couple of recent discussions on the post about food eaten by the peasants to the effect that, although it would be possible to exist on pottage and bread, the pottage, in particular, must have tasted rather bland. My response was that the peasants would have had herbs available which would have added some flavour. Wealthier peasants might even have been able to afford spices. When I was gathering herbs from my own garden a few days later, I wondered just how many herbs were available to the medieval peasant and whether they were sufficient to make something as tasty as herb dumplings.

Herbs were grown and used in cooking in the fourteenth century. It’s not known how much of a peasant’s garden would have been given over to them, however, so we can only guess at their ability to flavour their food. Pottage could often sit in a pot for days, so even strongly flavoured herbs would have lost their potency by the time the meal was eaten.

Herb omelettes were popular then as now. Most people were able to keep a few hens for their eggs. Sorrel, my current favourite flavouring for an omelette, was very popular, as its taste is very pungent. It’s also very easy to grow.

In much the same way as I don’t expect to eat all the herbs in my garden, so a medieval household grew herbs for a variety of purposes. I grow borage and lavender to attract bees in the hope that they’ll pollinate other plants. Lemon balm and peppermint make refreshing teas.  Some of the herbs in a medieval garden were used to flavour ale. Others were grown for medicinal purposes. Fennel and dill were cures for flatulence. Hyssop was used to relieve coughs. An oil made by mixing sage, parsley and olive oil was used for joint pains. Betony was used for headaches.

Many herbal remedies were based on trial and error and passed down from one generation to the next. Others were recorded in herbals and came down from ancient medical schools.

Some herbal medicines were very effective, others little more than placebos. Herbal medicines became even more effective when they were made with alcohol, which was first distilled successfully in 1351.

I assumed that there probably weren’t very many herbs available to the fourteenth-century household, but I was wrong. The following is a list of plants that could be grown in England in the Middle Ages: chives, chervil, mugwort, borage, caraway, chamomile, garlic, chicory, coriander, cumin, fennel, woad, lavender, lovage, lemon balm, pennyroyal, sorrel, rue, sage, comfrey, spearmint, catmint, basil, marjoram, wood germander, thyme, valerian, vervain.

If a medieval peasant grew only a few of these, their food could have been tastier than we often imagine.

 

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What did peasants eat?

peasants_breaking_bread

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about table manners in the fourteenth century. Participants at a feast were expected to behave in a certain way, but such good manners were not expected lower down the social scale. Equally, a peasant was not going to be eating the same food as his, or her, lord, nor were they going to be feasting, with the occasional exception of Christmas. What these people ate was of little interest to the chroniclers or those who recorded recipes, so the information available is sparse.

Bread was the basic foodstuff, eaten by everyone. What it was made of varied according to the wealth and location of the person eating it. The flour used by peasants was coarser and grittier than what would have been used at the manor house. The lord ate paynedemain, or demesne bread, made from flour which had been sieved many times. Peasants were more likely to eat maslin, which was made from mixed wheat and rye, or horse bread, made from peas, beans and any grain that was available. As well as being a food in its own right, bread was also used to thicken sauces and stews.

Everyone ate pottage. This was a broth containing meat and/or vegetables with herbs, cereals and pulses. What went into the pottage depended, again,  on who was eating it, or when it was being eaten. During Lent or on fast days it would not contain meat. Its constitution would either be thick or very thick. If the latter, it could be sliced. Pottages tended to feature vegetables more heavily than meat. Common vegetables were cabbages, leeks, lettuces, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots and peas.  All could be included in a pottage. Unlike today vegetables were available seasonally and not all year round. A pottage made in spring would not be the same as one made in autumn. Herbs would also be added for flavouring.

Fish was another important part of the diet. This usually meant salted or pickled herrings for the poor. Only the wealthy or those living on the coast had access to fresh fish. People who lived inland might obtain fresh fish by paying a fee to the lord in order to fish in his river, or by poaching.

Most peasants kept pigs for meat. These foraged all year and did not need fodder in the winter months. A pig could be killed and its meat pickled or cured so that the peasant had meat during the winter. Cattle, sheep and goats required fodder, so were unlikely to be kept for meat, although they would be kept for milk in order to make butter and cheese. Chickens were also too valuable for peasants to eat, since they produced eggs. Peasants could, however, catch wild birds for consumption.

Possibly the biggest difference between a peasant’s food and that of his lord was the lack of spices. Herbs can only do so much to add flavour to food, but spices can do more. Most spices had to be imported, so were beyond the purse of all but the wealthiest peasant.

As I wrote last week, ale was an important part of the diet and was drunk by all levels of society.

 

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No Spitting, No Belching

banquet_de_charles_v_le_sage

In many of my novels the characters sit down to eat a meal, usually at a feast of some kind. Whilst the food eaten on such occasions is interesting, and there will probably be a post at some point about it, it’s at people’s behaviour during meals that I want to look.

There are medieval ‘etiquette’ manuals describing how people were supposed to behave at table, which is a good indication that many people did not act in what was considered an acceptable way. The recommendations and prohibitions in these manuals relate mainly to personal cleanliness, which might be a surprise to those who believe that people in the fourteenth century never washed or cleaned themselves or cared much about table manners.

The requirements make sense when looked at in the context of how meals took place in great houses. Meals were formal affairs for the wealthy, and white table clothes were spread over trestle tables. Those eating sat on benches. After the meal, the tables and benches were taken down, leaving the hall free for any other activities which might be taking place there.

Before the meal everyone washed their hands. The lord washed his in a bowl held by a servant and dried them in a cloth carried over the servant’s shoulder.  Those of lower status washed their hands before entering the hall. Before they ate, they prayed.

In some households poison was a real fear and food and wine were both tasted before the lord ate or drank, often by several people.

The lord, his family and any important guests sat at a table on a platform at one end of the hall. They sat only on one side facing the hall so that they, and what they were eating, were visible to everyone else in the hall. The rest of the household sat on both sides of the tables which ran down either side of the hall, or, in really great households, in other rooms. They sat in order of precedence, the most senior sitting closest to the lord on his right-hand side.  Those sufficiently senior would eat the same food as the lord. Everyone else would eat something less interesting.

Food came to the table in dishes for two or four people, if it was something in a sauce, or on a platter, if it was meat. People shared these dishes and, sometimes, cups. They either ate straight from the dish or platter that had been placed on the table, or put the food onto their own trencher (a slice of coarse bread).

Food was eaten from the points of knives (slices of meat), or picked up with the fingers (food in sauces). Spoons were occasionally used, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the fork began to be used by the upper classes and another century before it gained acceptance by everyone else.

The list of prohibited behaviours is fairly lengthy and few of them would be tolerated today.  Most of them relate to matters of cleanliness, which is not surprising, given the way in which the food was eaten. Fingernails should not be dirty. The mouth should be empty before drinking from a shared cup. This one makes me shudder – teeth should not be picked with a knife. No one should blow on their food to cool it. No one should scratch their head during the meal. No one should gnaw on bones. There should be no spitting or belching.

Clearly, there was sufficient flouting of the rules to warrant writing them down and I wonder whether such behaviour was commonplace among those seated out of the lord’s, or his wife’s, sight.

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