Lords and Ladies: Kitchens for Castles

views updated

Lords and Ladies: Kitchens for Castles


Theories behind Aristocratic Food. Aristocratic diet was far more diverse than that of the medieval peasant, and several factors affected it: religious prohibitions, a product’s availability, and medical theories. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays were officially fast days, when meat and eggs were prohibited; the same fasting rules applied to evenings before major religious holidays and to Lent, the forty days before Easter. Like the medieval peasant diet, aristocratic menus were tied to the growing season. Yet,


The following advice about table manners comes from thirteenth-century France. The original was written in rhyming lines, so the rules would be easy to remember.

No one should take food before the blessing has been made,

Nor should he take a place other than that assigned to him by the one in charge of the meal.

Refrain from eating until the dishes have been placed before you,

And let your fingers be clean, and your fingernails well-groomed.

Once a morsel has been touched, let it not be returned to the plate.

Do not touch your ears or nose with your bare hands.

Do not clean your teeth with a sharp iron while eating.

The salt is not to be touched with the food where it sits in the salt dish.

If you can, I ask again, refrain from belching at the table.

Know that it is forbidden to put your elbow on the table.

It is ordered by regulation that you should not put a dish to your mouth.

He who wishes to drink must first finish what is in his mouth,

And let his lip be wiped first.

Nor can I avoid mentioning that he should not gnaw a bone with his teeth. …

Once the table is cleared, wash your hands, and have a drink.

Source: Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 133.

while certain foods were not available at some times of the year, a member of the upper nobility had the resources to take advantage of whatever distribution facilities might be available. Medical theories at both popular and learned levels helped guide food choices and preparation. The proper diet was considered essential to maintaining a healthy balance of the four humors in the body and the mind. Texture was important in medieval food for medical reasons as well. Many ingredients were chopped, ground, or filtered through cloth mesh—sometimes because of the consumers’ teeth, but in most cases because of medical theories that, by the thirteenth century, seem to have been known to cooks for nobles, monks, and wealthy town residents. Not just the preparation, but the food itself, could have serious consequences for the eater. For example, Sally Crawford quotes an Anglo-Saxon warning about the consequences of improper diet for a pregnant woman: “if the pregnant woman is four or five months gone, and she frequently eats nuts or acorns or any fresh fruits, then it sometimes happens that the child is silly. Again, there is another matter, if she eats bull’s meat, or ram’s or buck’s, or boar’s or cock’s or gander’s flesh or that of any begetting animal, then it sometimes happens that the child is humpbacked and ruptured.”

Aristocratic Food. Despite such prohibitions and fears, medieval nobles ate with gusto. On fast days fish and cheese were still permitted, in addition to grains, fruit, vegetables, and other dairy products. A wide variety of fish—including trout, perch, halibut, sardines, and bass—was available. Sometimes it came from neighboring waters, but fish was also farmed in ponds or salted and brought from elsewhere by merchants. On the other days meat was a dietary staple, seasoned with expensive spices imported from Asia and the Near East. Because of medieval cooking tools, it was most often boiled or roasted. Bread was commonly served at every meal, and the whiter the bread the better it was believed to be. Alcoholic drinks were consumed by adults and children at every meal. Medieval wine was served young, less than a year old, because storage and sanitation techniques were not adequate to prevent it from spoiling over long periods. It was often mixed with water, spices, or sweeteners. Compared to water, it was purer and had some nutritional value. Milk was rarely drunk and was usually kept to make cheese and butter. Several modern

editions of medieval cookbooks attest to the wide variety of foods that could be made with these ingredients. The aristocrat’s diet did have flaws. It appears to have been deficient in vitamins A and C and possibly low in fiber, but the aristocrat at least benefited from a consistent food supply.

Spices. One of the most common modern misapprehensions about medieval cooking is that medieval cooks covered meat with spices to hide spoilage. While this practice might have taken place elsewhere and at other times, a medieval noble who could afford to stock his pantry with expensive, imported spices could certainly afford to replace spoiled meat with fresh cuts. Spices were used for taste and decoration and because they were seen as having medicinal value. Saffron and parsley, for example, were mixed into or spread on foods to give them color. A cook cared about color for its aesthetic value, and the use of rare and expensive spices gave prestige to the cook’s employer. Medieval nobles were aware of which spices were the most expensive and, therefore, which gave the most honor to the host. Sometimes a cook could buy spices only from a nearby apothecary, roughly equivalent to a modern pharmacist. According to D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully, “Spices (including sugar) were considered to be simply that, varieties of drugs, to be employed only with a full, conscious understanding of their respective strengths and virtues.” Probably as late as the thirteenth century sugar was used only in recipes for the sick; honey was the common sweetener. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, sugar became a common condiment at any prosperous table, in part because of its assumed medicinal qualities. According to humoral theories, sugar was a moderately warm and moist substance, giving it just the characteristics of the ideal human temperament.

Kitchens. In the wealthiest households the kitchen was located in a building separate from the main structure. This arrangement helped to minimize the dangers of fire and the unpleasant cooking odors in the residential areas. Even when the kitchen was attached to the main building, as it usually was in the early Middle Ages and in most castles, it was organized and stocked in much the same way as separate facilities. Generally a kitchen had at least one primary hearth, which could be eight to ten feet long and almost two feet deep. Around this hearth were metal poles for suspending pots over the fire and rotisseries for roasting meat. A top-notch kitchen might include a clay oven for baking bread and other confections. Around the sides of the room and even in the center were rows of tables and chests for storing ingredients and pots. The tables also served as places for preparation, much like modern countertops. For example, a roast was scooped out of the pot in which it was boiling and placed on a wooden platter. That platter was brought to a kitchen table, where the meat might be cut into pieces small enough for two diners and garnished with vegetables, herbs, and spices. For an elaborate banquet, an entire roast pig or other animal could be placed on one of these tables and prepared with great artistry. It might be stuffed with fruit, and other ingredients could be used to make it look almost as if it were still alive. The kitchen also contained a scullery area, where pots, platters, and other tools were washed. Large spoons and knives were hung from racks, and iron pots of various shapes and purposes were stacked in corners. Although daily cooking in an ordinary castle might require a staff of only three or four people, for a large aristocratic banquet dozens of assistants were necessary.

Banquets and Manners. Banquets were the most luxurious medieval meals and had the strictest protocols. Tables were covered with linens, and diners sat on one side of the table so that servants could easily reach them from the other. The table was set with trenchers. Basically a large platter meant to be shared by two people, a trencher appears to have been made of either wood or bread (to sop up sauces) during much of the medieval period, but by the fourteenth century bread trenchers were rare. The host also provided a spoon for each diner, but generally the diner had his or her own knife. Spoons, knives, and fingers were the main utensils, and the fingers were probably used most frequently. Two diners shared a trencher, a salt cellar, and a drinking cup, and many medieval guides to manners focus on the correct protocol for sharing food and servers. For example, diners were urged to rinse their fingers frequently in the finger bowl, so that they remained relatively clean. A diner was also told not to replace food on the tray after taking a bite from it and to finish swallowing food before taking a drink. After each of the courses—and there could be ten of them—a servant offered more wine or beer and more water for washing. At the beginning and the end of the meal a clergyman said grace, and during the meal musicians played, or some other form of entertainment might be devised.

Recipes. Several collections of late medieval recipes have survived, but they can be difficult to adapt to modern cooking terms and practices. Some of the important ingredients in aristocratic dishes, such as almond milk, are rarely available today, and ways of preparing food were based on different technology. For example, when medieval cooks marked time in a recipe, they often did so by noting that something should be done for as long as it took to say a common prayer, such as the Our Father. Such measurements are imprecise by modern standards, and it is clear that most medieval cookery was learned through experience and apprenticeship. Some medieval recipes, however, have modern equivalents. One of the most common aristocratic dishes of the Middle Ages, which was praised for its balanced properties, was blancmange. The following recipe is one of several acceptable modern versions, adapted by D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully:



1 4–5 pound stewing chicken

½ cup ground almonds

3 cups chicken bouillon

2 tbsp. white sugar

1½ tbsp. fresh ground ginger

1 cup long-grain rice

1½ tsp. ground coriander

2 tbsp. toasted almond slices

optional: frac14; cup pomegranate seeds

Cut the chicken into quarters. Cover with water and cook in a saucepan until tender. Save 3 cups of the degreased cooking liquid; add chicken bouillon if there is not enough liquid until you reach 3 cups. Separate white meat; tear the white meat into strips and set aside. Chop the dark meat finely.

In a blender, combine the dark meat, almonds, and 1 cup of bouillon. Add the rest of the bouillon. Blend, then strain.

In a pot, combine the strained mixture, sugar, and ginger; bring to a boil.

Add rice. Reduce heat, cover, and cook about 20 minutes or until the rice is tender. Add more bouillon if necessary. Fold in white meat. Remove to serving platter.

Once the mixture is on the platter, sprinkle it with coriander. Garnish one half of the dish with toasted almonds and the other half with pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle everything with sugar. Serve.


M. P. Cosman, Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony (New York: Braziller, 1976).

Sally Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England (Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton, 1999).

Rachel Laudan, “Birth of the Modern Diet,” Scientific American, 283 (August 2000): 76-81.

Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985).

D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully, Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).