Illustration from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, circa 1410.
Salt, black pepper, sugar, cinnamon, parsley, ginger, cumin, and saffron. Today, these spices are all easily picked up from any grocery store without so much as a second thought—in fact, most of us probably already have them in our cabinets. It is often assumed that meals prepared in the Middle Ages were bland, not diverse in kind, and probably not of the best quality, when in reality, they had access to most of the same spices and flavors as we do today. As a self-proclaimed food connoisseur with an understanding of food preparation and how spices interact with each other, I will argue that although modern cooking has many of the same ingredients as the Middle Ages possess, we typically do not share the same ideal flavors or characteristics of Medieval eats. However, despite our modern dissimilarities with Medieval cooking trends, that does not necessarily make their preferred foods of lesser taste and quality—ideal Medieval dishes are just as rich and flavorful in their own unique way.
There are numerous distinctions in the typical menus of differing classes and regions in the Middle Ages, so for the purpose of my essay, I will focus on what was considered to be the ideal meals and flavors in Medieval English cuisines in comparison to foods in the English-speaking world today. I found many sources about Medieval cooking to contradict one another, some claiming spices generally were not used lavishly, regardless of class, while others claiming spices were often used heavy-handedly, possibly in unsavory ways, to display wealth and status. One source said “experimentation with varieties of herbs and spices was not a well-established art: instead, spices were frequently used in combinations that would be unlikely for today’s palates” (Winn), while another, said “a blind-folded time traveler eating the dishes prepared from these [Medieval cooks] would find it difficult to distinguish whether he or she were in the fourteenth or fifteenth century” when discussing our modern expectations of flavor. (Scully, 28). Reading these assertions led me to question, just how different are Medieval taste preferences from our own? Is the ability to use multiple spices ahead in priority over what we consider to be tasty today, i.e. quantity over quality, or were they just particularly inventive? Truly, would we be able to tell a difference?
To begin, it is important to explain the basic differences in how food was prepared in the Middle Ages in comparison to today. Terence Scully, author of The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, suggests modern cooks have a lot in common with those cooking in the Middle Ages, writing, “the cook received [foods] that in most cases were identical to what we pack, gather or buy today… He cooks them in ways generally familiar to any experienced modern cook–and that would be entirely familiar to many modern cook without access to electricity or gas,” (Scully, 40). While I agree the modern cook would be familiar with the ways the dishes are being prepared and its ingredients, I find that the Medieval cooking techniques, regardless of the technology available, are much different than our own on a more fundamental level—starting by what they were cooked in.
To illustrate, most dishes in the Middle Ages were cooked in vinegar, verjuice, and wine: “There are few dishes in which the liquid requirements are not satisfied by grape juice in one of its forms” (Scully, 111). In contrast, our most common bases in preparing a modern dish aren’t as acidic—including olive oil (as well as other oils such as canola, peanut, and sesame), butter, broths, and water. Although wine remains a common cooking aid, vinegar is most often reserved for pickling, salad dressings, and sauces, and verjuice is an even more unconventional ingredient—sometimes used in cocktails and vinaigrettes. According to Scully, many of these Medieval recipes “direct the cook to judge the amount of verjuice or vinegar to enter a dish by the way it should dominate all over flavors, including spices, in the dish,” (Scully, 112). Even though the Medieval popularity of vinegar, verjuice, and wine are likely primarily due to their lack of clean water, one can conclude the people of the time appear to have relished, even preferred the acidic flavors due to its abundant use in surviving recipes. Because of their penchant for these three liquids, “medieval dishes often had a particularly fruity, tart taste,” (Scully, 112). As a result, I disagree with Scully’s earlier statement that “a blind-folded time traveler” would not be able recognize the differing tastes between modern and medieval meals. Modern taste palates have since shifted away from consuming mostly fruity, tart dishes. We have a much more diverse range of dishes, and a quick Google search shows that some of the world’s most popular recipes are rich and creamy pastas, savory chicken and vegetable roasts, and sweets like pies and pancakes.
Additionally, a person’s wealth and status were often shown through the elaborateness and ornateness of the meals they served in the Middle Ages. In upper-class households, these meals “were complicated, ritualized occasions that… showcased more than just the cook’s skills” (Amtower, 155). According to Amtower, this included intricately decorated pastries, vivid colors, food shaped into sculptures with accents like flowers, and they were often theatrically made to look alive. For example, there are surviving Medieval English recipes that feature meatballs disguised as oranges (Hieatt, 27). In comparison to today, it is more common for extravagant, theatrical meals like these to be reserved for special, expensive occasions like weddings, holiday parties, or special celebrations—not regular dinner parties: “While today’s chefs strive to make the individual ingredients speak for themselves, the cooks of the Middle Ages aimed for artifice and fantasy in a Disneyesque kind of way. Guests as well as patrons expected it,” (Braeger). To put this in a relatable perspective, this notion would be like if Auburn fans who are tailgating under the very expensive white tents on campus, were expected to serve roasted duck and blancmange on fine china instead of buffalo chicken dip and cookies on paper plates. In contrast to the Middle Ages, we as guests and patrons have come to expect these grand meals much less often.
For this reason, Medieval cooks had a much more difficult task than average modern personal chefs—they had to create flavorful meals and present them in new and exciting ways, for their dining table guest’s craved exotic flavors: “Medieval foods were anything but dull and drab. They combined art and artifice to entice the palate as well as the eyes. The prolific use of spices and special effects contributed to foods that were rich in taste and presentation,” (Braeger). For example, one fourteenth century culinary invention was a “meat broth seasoned with ground rosehips and a stew of partridges and magpies garnished with peonies” (Hieatt, 36). I cannot think of one modern day dish that would even remotely compare to its taste. Furthermore, it mattered not only how many different spices were used, but also which ones. Some spices were deemed greater than others. For instance, “herbs such as rosemary and parsley were widely used in cooking, however, they were… considered ‘too local’ to be given much prominence,” (Braeger). More specifically, there are two highly sought spices that “should be singled out as exceptionally preferred in the late Middle Ages. These are saffron and sugar” (Scully, 85). Saffron was an exotic spice that provided a bright red color to its dishes, and is still one of the most expensive spices one can buy today. Although sugar is certainly more abundant in dishes today, it was also all the rage in English Medieval cookery—in fact,
“It has been noted that the English made a greater use of sugar than the French in the fourteenth century. By the late fifteenth century, the well-known English sweet tooth was even more in evidence, and dish after dish included a variety of dried fruits as well as sugar and/or honey.” (Hieatt, 36)
This passage shows the Middle Ages foreshadowing our modern love of sugar, but one key difference is sugar was apparently commonly used in savory dishes as a substitution for salt: “One (recipe) simply suggests using sugar or salt to keep fish from sticking to the pan,” (Hieatt, 36).
In addition to their fondness of rich flavors and spices, there were also Medieval health handbooks that suggest cooks at the time followed a strict menu based on the time of the year: “[The health handbooks] presented a reasoned, systematically arranged annual agenda of foods that could safely be eaten according to the relative warmth and dryness, or coolness and wetness, of the season” (Scully, 102). These food preparation agendas had its rules down by the month. For example, one shouldn’t eat chard in February, lentils or anything sweet in March, any root vegetables in April, and the “head of anything” in June. On the bright side, it appears September is beautiful horizon that “is ‘harmful to no one, provided he had not fallen ill in August.’ In September, ‘a person may eat any food without harm, more than any month of the year,’” (Scully, 102). Given our easy access to massive grocery stores that sell various types of produce that are safe to eat regardless of the season, this is another fundamental difference between modern and Medieval eating habits.
However, there is one ingredient that dominates Medieval kitchens despite of the season, and it is a similarity we modern and Medieval eaters share—almond milk, or milke of alemauns. There was not an easy way to store dairy milk, which quickly goes bad, in the Middle Ages, so many opted for almond milk: “Over the months there was never any brake in their availability and apparently insignificant deterioration in their quality,” (Scully, 112). I was surprised to learn by flipping through Forme of Cury, that today’s craze is actually a second act—I believed almond milk to be a modern creation by those with allergies or who are health conscious, but it turns out many Medieval recipes called for almond milk. This comparison between modern and Medieval eaters is particularly striking, as an avid fan of substituting dairy for almond milk when possible myself. For example, it took until 2016 for the popular coffee chain Starbucks to add almond milk to their menu—with a sixty-cent upcharge—yet around 500 years ago, almond milk had dominance over dairy milk in all aspects:
“Almonds were responsible, then, for the other dominant flavor in Medieval cookery… It mixed well with the flavor of virtually any other foodstuffs, effacing itself where necessary, or blending it with other delicate flavors such as that of boiled leeks or rice or chicken… Of all of the ingredients that were handled in the kitchen of the time almonds were probably the most common.” (Scully, 112)
Professor Melitta W. Adamson, of the University of Western Ontario, even went as far as to call the “Medieval world’s appetite for almond milk not just a ‘love,’ but an ‘addiction,’” (Clark). The strong evidence we have of the supremacy of almond milk in recipes, suggests that vinegar, verjuice, wine, and almond milk were the dominating base flavors in meals in the Middle Ages. In contrast, although modern almond milk is becoming a more available substitution and is appearing more in grocery stores, it is certainly not as popular as it was in the Middle Ages. Recipes today still often rely on dairy products like milk, cream, and butter as staple ingredients, as most of us have access to a refrigerator now. Other than its versality and pleasing taste, there was another reason behind the dominance of almond milk—religion.
During Lent, an annual Christian religious observance that lasts approximately six weeks, followers abstain from milk, eggs, and meat, so they sought alternatives like almond milk. Its popularity grew, shown by the number of surviving Medieval recipe that call for almond milk. These recipes that combined almond milk with un-Lenten meat suggest that chefs in the Middle Ages considered it a staple ingredient instead of just a substitution.
In addition to using almond milk for dairy products, seafood became a substitution for meat as well. They were unable to eat meat not only during Lent, but also “on the eve of major holidays, and every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday” (Amtower, 155). The demand for fish was always high, according to Amtower, and included a wide variety of seafoods, such as eel, salmon, bass, whale, lobster, and oysters to name a few (Scully, 75). While we eat many of the same seafoods today, it is interesting to note the crustacean options such as oysters were more popular and readily available in the Middle Ages: “Oysters, considered an expensive treat nowadays, were comparatively cheap at a bushel” (Amtower, 155). The diversity, popularity, and access of seafood ate in the Middle Ages further challenges the notion that Medieval food is plain. As we can see from the Medieval recipes that have remained, they had several interesting and recognizable flavors to cook with. “There was clearly nothing bland about the way medieval food tasted,” (Amtower, 155).
Some flavorful Medieval culinary traditions have survived in popularity, “especially in the northern countries like England, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands” (Amtower, 155). For example, the English puddings and Belgian beef stews of today often require dried fruit, like prunes, dates, figs, and raisins, which were featured in both sweet and savory trademark English Medieval dishes. In addition to shared ingredients, “the basic spices favored in northern European cuisines are also the ones in most common use in the English Middle Ages: black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cloves, and saffron” (Amtower, 155). The differences between taste in modern and Medieval cookery are abundant, but there are undeniable similarities.
Although this essay has been focusing on the ideal flavors of the Middle Ages, which comes from remaining recipes written by those who could read, it is worth noting that peasants had access to a diverse range of foods and tastes, and flavor was not limited to the upper-class. “Many peasants also kept poultry, […] fish, shellfish, and various cheeses. In addition to the onion family, common vegetables included parsley, peas, beans, carrots, radishes, and cabbages,” (Amtower, 153-154). This suggests peasants had many flavors to work with, of which they often made soups, broths, and stews—further countering the assumption that Medieval food is bland. Additionally, even though peasants ate less meat, their diet “was thus more wholesome and nutritious by modern standards than the meat-heavy diet of the wealthier members of society” (Amtower 154).
In conclusion, it is unfair to assume that Medieval cuisines were plain tasting, not diverse, and lacking in quality, when in reality, they had access to most of the same spices and flavors as we do today. Although we share many dissimilarities with Medieval cuisine, that does not mean their foods lack in taste and quality. While it is true some of the dishes prepared in Medieval recipes do not sound appetizing to some modern palates, like the meat broth seasoned with ground rosehips and a stew of partridges and magpies garnished with peonies previously mentioned, it is undeniable that they were inventive with their flavors. Some may believe in these unkind suppositions, when in reality, they were ahead of their time. Without as much knowledge or understanding of the disadvantages of drinking dairy milk (especially to those who are lactose intolerant) that we have today, Medieval cookery discovered the usefulness of almond milk centuries before places like Whole Foods did.
Despite our modern differences with Medieval cookery, that does not make their preferred foods of lesser taste and quality—ideal Medieval dishes are just as rich and flavorful in their own unique way.