Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Medieval Dishes fit for a Monarch

by Carol McGrath

Keeping nutmeg in your  pocket during New Year's Eve will protect you throughout the next year- so says one old medieval belief. I discovered this nugget whilst browsing www.moonsmuses.com , a blog devoted to medieval recipes, herbs and plant lore. Nutmeg would protect you if you happened to fall from a roof, cliff, ladders or other high places.  It was, of course, a highly expensive spice during the middle ages. Reading about spices has sent me on a search for medieval Christmastide recipes fit for a monarch which I thought might also interest historical fiction readers as we approach the New Year.

Medieval Feasts, a cook book

In most medieval households cooking was done on an open hearth in the middle of the main living area. For most of the medieval period, for most households, the kitchen was connected with the dining hall. It was towards the end of this period that the kitchen generally became separated, though change is a slow process. Often, separate kitchens did exist in castle baileys as they could be a fire risk. By the late middle ages, however, a separate building or wing that contained a kitchen area was created from the main building by a covered walkway. Here, one would find frying pans, pots, kettles, waffle irons, spits skewers of all sizes, pots and cauldrons, ladles and graters, just to name but a few of the utensils they had then and which we use to this day.

Importantly, there would also be mortars, pestles and sieve cloths because fine textured food was deemed good for you. The body could more easily absorb nourishment. Skilled cooks could shape the results. Farcing, for instance, was to skin and dress an animal, grind up the meat, mix with spices and other ingredients and return it to its own skin or mould it into the shape of a completely different animal.

Pies were ever popular and called coffins

During the Christmas period the kitchen staff of royal courts were extremely busy. The staff consisted of pantlers, bakers, waferers, sauciers, larderers, butchers, page boys, milkmaids, butlers and scullions who were kept incredibly busy preparing at least two meals a day for several hundred people. Importantly the chief cook would need at least a thousand cartloads of dry wood and a barnful of coal to hand for  the preparation of the two day long banquet. ( Du fait Cuisuine 1420, written by Maister Chiquart for the then Duke of Savoy). Here are a few recipes that would have been cooked in the royal kitchens over the festive season. These are adapted for the modern cook.

An ordered medieval kitchen

Medieval Roast Chicken ( from foodnetwork.com)

1 roasting chicken
2 cups of water
a half cup of paprika
2 cups of lemon juice
a half cup of lemon pepper
a quarter cup of Italian spice
2 teaspoons of salt

Preheat the oven to 325 f. Combine all the ingredients to prepare the marinade. Dip the whole chicken into it. Let it sit for 4 to 5 minutes. Place the chicken on a sheet pan and cook for 50 minutes uncovered, or until the chicken juices run clear.

Or why not try this easy medieval inspired recipe (from coquinaria.nl) for Medieval Apple fritters, traditional fare on New Year's Eve in the Low Countries.

Apples and quinces were regarded as a similar fruit during the period. They were originally small and sour. By the end of the medieval period there were several apple varieties. The Costard was a large kitchen variety and the Pearmain Green, which was green and red coloured, were both known by the thirteenth century. Other medieval apples were Nonpareil, White Joaneting and the Royal Russet. Fritters appeared frequently on the medieval banquet table. There were sweet and savoury fritters.

Time for Feasting


Take wheat flour. Take ale yeast, saffron and salt. Beat all together as thick as you would make other batter on meat days. Then take good apples and cut them in the manner of fritters. Dip in batter up and down and bake them in good oil. Lay them on a dish, sprinkle with sugar and serve them.

To make these nowadays you would have to use yeast. English ale was originally the same as medieval beer. It was top fermenting and instead of hop gruit was used, a mixture of sweet gale and other herbs such as rosemary and sage. Ale could be sweet or sour depending on the composition of gruit and the brewing. Medieval beers were never bubbly because the carbon dioxide escaped during the fermenting.

On the Medieval New Year's Day everybody celebrated The Feast of Fools. For that celebration class distinctions were abolished. Most Europeans elected a Lord of Misrule or a king of fools. In England he went as King of the Bean or in Scotland, the Abbot of Misrule. They had the power to call everybody to disorder with cross-dressing, bawdy songs and drinking to excess. The end came when the Protestant Reformation condemned all politically incorrect excesses claiming their roots in paganism. The Feast of Fools has since been celebrated on the twelfth night after Christmas.

Other recipes you might be interested in investigating which were popular over the twelve days of Christmas included:

Venison in a Sack
Goose in Sawse Madame
Wild Boar Stew
Leavened Bread
Extraordinary Spiced Wine
Ancient Fruit Dumplings

Just taste the ale before bringing it to table

Finally I leave you with a medieval caudle recipe.

Medieval Caudle

Beat up egg yolks with wine, sugar and saffron. Heat the mixture over a medium flame. Stir continually until the caudle is hot and thick and fluffy. Beat well together; set it on the fire on clean coals. Stir well the bottom and sides until just scalding hot; you will be able to tell when it becomes fluffy. Then take it and stir fast & if you need add more wine; or if it rises too quickly, put it in cold water to the middle of the outside of the pot, stir it away fast, and serve.

Thanks for this recipe to godecookery.com.


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife published 2013 by Accent Press
The Swan-Daughter published 2014 by Accent Press. Both available as paperbacks and for all e readers.


  1. Very fascinating and interesting to read about, but I'm ever so glad I live now for modern culinary delights. That farcing idea made me wrinkle my nose a bit.

  2. They also loved brightly coloured foods so the dyes might not have been to our tastes ie crushed insects ! Umm. But remember otherwise their food was unadulterated with chemicals so it is swings and roundabouts really.

  3. But cochineal, used to make things red, has an insect base, I think? And people still use it. :-) Saffron is kind of expensive. Would turmeric do? Thanks for these links. I will bookmark them for future reference for my own writing. I have Madeleine Pelner Cosman's a Mediaeval Holidays And Feasts, wonderful little book. I recommend the recipe for spiced shortbread. I made it once and my parents ate the lot before I got home from a party. :-)

  4. I love medieval food books but a couple of those sites were invaluable because I am not at home right now. I so enjoyed researching the post. Saffron yes, but it was very expensive as were most spices of course.

  5. I wonder what they meant by 'clean' coals.

  6. Yes, I wonder if it was charcoal red hot ! Can you imagine coal being clean! Or perhaps it means not over used.

  7. I think clean coals would be clear of dust and clinker. They would probably rake or riddle them to make a 'clean' hot fire. Saffron has a taste all of its own and turmeric would probably not do. But it might taste fine, though different. Saffron harvests have been bad the last few years, the price went through the roof and it now seems to lack any flavour.

  8. I have heard that mostly saffron is used for the colour and that sometimes turmeric IS used as a substitute. Saffron is very expensive even now, because you have to use the stamen and it takes about 10,000 to make a kilo. Turmeric wouldn't taste the same, true; it has a distinctive taste which is very nice with potatoes. Actually, I have never tried it for something sweet like the caudle, which sounds like what I used to whip up as a child, with sweet cooking wine, for a cold, but not warmed up. Must try it.

  9. Yes, that would be the coals issue, free of dirt and dust if possible. If you have not seen it yet look out for the TV series Secrets of the Castle which is about the building of Castle Gudelon in France. I hope I got the correct spelling. The series is fabulous and if interested in the 14thC a must watch.

  10. Paprika, in your medieval roast chicken recipe, comes from the New World so was not available to medieval cooks.

    Du Fait de Cuisine starts with a shopping list from which it is clear that Chiquart was proposing to feed several thousand people. Not your average medieval banquet.


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