Intro-P-Cookg-art - 2/8/09
"Clotild's Brief Intro to Period Cooking" by Domina Clotilda Suessionensis.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Clotild's Brief Intro to Period Cooking
by Domina Clotilda Suessionensis
It's been my experience that many people are scared of "period food" -- whether it's cooking it or eating it. I've heard that it is "yucky" (it's not), or that it's difficult to do (no more so than modern, most of the time) or that "medieval people used a lot of spices so they could cover up the taste of rancid meat" (a complete myth). Period cooking can be lots of fun, and although there are some definite differences between period food and modern food, there are some surprising similarities, too. In addition, the period-food gourmet typically finds a lot of interesting new things to eat that would never have crossed their palate in the mundane world.
How big were the differences between medieval food and modern? Take this small test -- can you identify which foods below were available in Europe prior to the discovery of the new world, and which ones weren't? (Hint: it's six of one and a half-dozen of the other. Answers are at the end of the article.)
As you can see, the availability of ingredients makes a bit of a difference in how a medieval person would approach cooking, compared to how a modern person would cook.
In the SCA, there tend to be three approaches to period cooking:
The first option will, of course, feed the masses, but doesn't add to the historical atmosphere. For some people, that's not important -- so long as they have good-tasting food on the table, they don't care whether it's historically accurate. For others, a feast is part of what sets the mood of an event, and they'll feel that the blatant anachronisms are not enjoyable even if the food is tasty.
The second option is often a decent balance between offering dishes that seem familiar to the modern crowd while still remaining within the confines of what is perceivedly medieval. This means that you won't get glaring anachronisms at dinner (no corn, no turkey, etc.) but the dishes won't diverge much from an expected "norm." For some cooks, this is the first step into "period" cooking.
The third option, cooking medievally, requires some additional reading and experimentation, but results in dishes that are as close as we can get to the medieval. For some people (including myself) this is a passion. Food is a great constant between the middle ages and today, because with a little study and an adventurous attitude, we can eat very similarly to the way our ancestors did.
There are plenty of resources available for the aspiring period cook. People have been writing down recipes since ancient times; we have Greek recipes, Roman recipes, barbarian recipes (raw bacon, anyone?), medieval recipes and Renaissance recipes, all faithfully written down in the original languages. From Apicius' De Re Coquinaria to Sir Kenelm Digby's Closet Reveal'd, you can find a wealth of cookbooks from almost every time period. And cookbooks aren't the only sources for recipes -- there are also household management books, medical treatises, agricultural books, and accounts of actual feasts.
A variety of modern historical cooking books such as Pleyn Delit and Take a Thousand Eggs or More offer both the original medieval recipes and the authors' modernized versions. Online, I recommend Master Huen's Gode Cookery site (aptly named http://www.godecookery.com) and Duke Cariadoc's Miscellany (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cariadoc/miscellany.html).
If you do want to take the plunge into redacting a recipe yourself, you'll be pleasantly surprised -- it's not as difficult as you'd think. If you've ever followed a "grandma" kind of recipe (for example, my own grandma's recipe for dumplings: "take a little Crisco and a flour and a little milk and mix it until it's like biscuit dough"), you already have some idea of what redacting a medieval recipe is like. The instructions often don't include amounts, or leave out parts they'd consider "obvious," or (alternately) include every step from killing and cleaning the animal to preparing it and cooking it in the recipe.
The first hurdle is the translation. For recipes in other languages, translations are often available; for Middle English recipes, on the other hand, translation is part of the fun. Take for example this simple recipe (try and read it aloud before you look at the
Hanoney. Take eyren, and drawe the yolkes and white thorgh a streynour; And take oynons, And Shrede hem small; And take faire butter or grece, and vnneth ouere-couer the pan therewith; And fry the oynons togidre; than late hem fry to-gidre a lite while; And take hem vppe, And serue hem forthe so, al to-broke yn a dissh.
Hanoney. Take eggs, and draw the yolks and white through a strainer; And take onions, and shred them small; And take fair butter or grease, and scarcely over-cover the pan therewith; And fry the onions together; then let them fry together a little while; And take them up, And serve them forth so, all broken in a dish.
Basically, this is scrambled eggs and onions. Rather than stir the eggs to scramble as we do today, the instructions call for putting the eggs through a strainer to scramble them. The onions are sliced in small pieces and fried in a buttered pan, then the eggs are added and "fried together (with the onions) a little while," and finally the dish is served forth. Pretty simple, right? Well, you've just redacted a medieval recipe.
The biggest hurdle to most people is the difference in taste. Medieval people often used many spices (sometimes unusual spices) in foods; some theories claim that, rather than hiding the taste of spoiled food, this was a form of "showing off" -- after all, spices imported from India and points east were expensive. But more unusual to many people are combinations of ingredients that modern people are not used to -- such as cooking meat with sweet sauces or with fruits. In addition, many medieval recipes are for fish dishes, as almost everyone in Europe was complying with the Roman Catholic Church's restrictions against meat-eating on Fridays. Yes, their meals were different, but I can tell you from personal experience that they can be really delicious, too. Before I tried it, I would never have though a quiche with chicken and cherries would be good -- but it is wonderful.
A well-planned and -cooked period meal, replete with delicious dishes beautifully presented and served, helps to make the Middle Ages come alive -- whether it's at a feast, in your encampment or just in your home kitchen. What's more, tasting the dishes that your persona would have eaten makes living the Current Middle Ages even more real. So if all this discussion whets your appetite for period food, don't be afraid to give it a try!
ANSWERS to the food guessing game:
Darice L. Moore works as a marketing communications specialist for a large business technology consulting firm. She loves to write and is addicted to research, especially on pre-1000 European cultures. Currently she is obsessed with period cookery, early period textiles and Renaissance dance. She and her husband Walter live in Largo in a house stacked to the ceiling with books.
Domina Clotilda Suessionensis is a sixth-century Frank from Neustria who is currently serving as the Minister of Arts and Sciences for the good gentles of the Shire of the Storm. She enjoys the domestic arts and always has too many projects going on for her own good.
Copyright 2007 by Darice L. Moore, 11027 129th Ave. N., Largo, FL 33778. <magistra at tampabay.rr.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.