Food and Drink
Hot food? Now That's a Luxury!
Many early medieval kitchens in well-off households were built separate from the living apartments, not just because of the inevitable fire risk, but also to keep smoke, smells, noise and vermin away from the sensitive noses of the well-born. The downside was that the hot food had to be carried across a yard, meaning that by the time it arrived at the table it might be only lukewarm.
Food Fit for a King!
It is always interesting to know what individuals, especially kings, enjoyed eating or drinking. For instance, we know from records that in 1186, Henry III was enjoying raspberry and strawberry drinks, for which he paid 6s. 8d.
Wafer it (see what I did there?)!
Wafers, made from flour, sugar, and eggs and cooked in baking irons, were a necessary part of any meal. They were usually served as the last course, along with a sweet wine called Hippocras. Indeed, they were so important, that they had their own official, the waferer, who received both wages and livery for his service. Even at the 1306 feast given for the mass knighting of over 300 knights, many of the nobility brought their own waferers with them.
Street Food Medieval Style
Most charmingly, William Fitzstephen, writing in the late 12th century, describes the food that could be bought at a cookshop next to the river: There daily, according to the season, you may find viands, dishes roast, fried and boiled, fish great and small, the coarser flesh for the poor, the more delicate for the rich, such as venison and birds both big and little. [...] Those who desire to fare delicately, need not search to find sturgeon of Guinea-fowl, or ‘Ionian francolin,’ since all the dainties that are found there are set forth before their eyes.’ By the way, a francolin is a kind of partridge. Both the francolin and guinea fowl probably originally came from Africa, making them a very exotic dish for this time.
Watering Holes (literally)!
From the late 12th century pen of William Fitzstephen: ‘There are also round about London, in the Suburbs most excellent wells, whose waters are sweet, wholesome and clear, and whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright. Among these, Holywell, Clerkenwell and Saint Clement’s Well are most famous and are visited by thicker throngs and greater multitudes of students from the schools and of young men of the City, who go out on summer evenings to take the air.’
Ale came in different strengths, the weakest - small ale - being used for everyday consumption. Monks began the tradition of marking their barrels of ale with crosses to show how strong they were, signifying that they swore upon the holy cross about its quality. These marks then became trade marks to show whether the brew was single, double or triple strength. I’m not sure what they would have made of Castlemaine 4X!
A Spoonful of Gruit Helps the Ale Go Down
In medieval England, ale (and, later, beer) was an everyday drink, even in monasteries. Ale was flavoured with a concoction of bitter herbs, called a gruit. Both ale and beer were made from grains, water and fermented with yeast. Beer, however, instead of gruit, contained hops which also preserved the drink for longer. The use of hops was popular in Europe from the thirteenth century onwards, but they never gained popularity in England until much later, being seen as foreign, and therefore of the devil.
Medieval English cheeses appear to have consisted of four kinds (note, they didn't have the same sort of place names of origin that we have today such as Cheddar, Wensleydale, etc. - that came a bit later). The first was a hard cheese, probably something resembling the cheddars of today; the second was a soft (cream) cheese; the third was a 'green' cheese (a new, unripened, soft cheese), and the fourth was called 'spermyse', which was a cream cheese flavoured with various kinds of herbs.
In 1345, brewers were forbidden to take the fresh water from the conduit in the Chepe (Cheapside, London), as it was meant for 'rich and middling persons' to use 'for preparing their food.'
Well, That's a Nice Pear!
Some of the most popular pear varieties in the Middle Ages were the Warden (also known as the Pearmain), the Caillou, the Pesse-Pucelle, the Martin (so-called because the fruit ripened at Martinmas), the St. Rule, the Dreye, the Sorrel, the Chyrfoll, and the Gold Knope. These were all hard varieties, needing to be cooked before they could be eaten. The only variety soft enough to be eaten raw was the Pear-Jenette (or Janettar).