Through the Gullet

Helen Cooper

During the Christmas celebrations of 1251, Henry III and his court ate their way through 830 deer of various kinds, 200 wild swine, 1300 hares and 115 cranes. Basic supplies for the feast to mark the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1467 began with 104 oxen, 1000 sheep, 10,000 capons and six wild bulls, washed down with a hundred barrels of wine. These occasions were meant to demonstrate munificence such as humbler kitchens could not imitate; but humbler kitchens did their best. The Parisian householder who set down a series of sample menus for the instruction of his wife in the 1390s suggests as a ‘dinner for a meat day’ 31 dishes divided into six courses, among them veal pasties, black puddings, hare casseroled with nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon, roast rabbits, capons, partridges and carp, eels served inside-out, savoury rice, lark pasties and flans of chopped meat or fish well sprinkled with sugar. The final course consisted of fruit, sweets, nuts and spiced wine. Menus for suppers follow.

A ‘meat day’ indicates a normal day, not a fast. Every Friday, throughout Lent and on the eve of many major feast days of the Church, its faithful sons and daughters refrained from meat and animal products. Fasting was, however, a comparative term, and there seems to have been no difficulty in feeding the body while also keeping to the letter of the requirements of the soul. Almond milk was substituted for cow’s milk; freshwater and saltwater creatures loaded the tables of the well-to-do: porpoise frumenty, roast seal, salted whale, lampreys with red wine and cinnamon, bream pies, cuttlefish fritters, stuffed salmon, tench served with slices of bread soaked in wine.

For those who set the requirements of their souls somewhat higher, eating could be reduced to the minimum necessary for survival. Ideal hermits were portrayed in saints’ lives and romances as living off what God might provide in the way of roots, berries and wild herbs, or at most as tending a small garden. The distinction between those who cooked their food and those who ate it raw in the Middle Ages was less likely to mark out the civilised from the savage than the secular from the spiritual. Official withdrawal from the world did not necessarily mean privation, however. Anti-monastic satires regularly castigate the good living to be found within those monasteries that believed in keeping in practice for their responsibility to provide hospitality to distinguished guests in the manner to which they were accustomed. Chaucer’s Monk has a particular fondness for roast swan – which, like peacock, was best prepared by having its skin and feathers removed in a single piece before cooking, and then being reclothed in them for serving at table. The Lord Abbot in the 15th-century Jehan de Saintré seduces Jehan’s fickle lady with a Lenten between-meals collation that starts with spiced wine and sugared figs and proceeds to five further kinds of wine, salmon, lampreys and assorted other fish, all eaten while the Abbot and lady tangle feet beneath the tablecloth.

The seduction episode is especially curious since Jehan de Saintré starts off as a narrative courtesy book: a book of good manners and, supposedly, good morals in the guise of a story about how to please God and your lady. The selection and proper serving of food was a commonplace element of courtesy books, for noble eating was part of the visible demonstration of a gentlemanly or aristocratic lifestyle, like attending Mass daily, washing before meals and not wiping your knife on the tablecloth. A number of the menus and recipes that survive come from books of instruction for squires in their years of education, for young men seeking service in noble households or for the upwardly mobile middle classes. The Parisian householder’s specimen menus are incorporated in a book of instruction for his young wife, who was a quarter his age – 15 to his 60. The aim of the instructions, he says, is not just to tell her how to run a household, but to enable her to win the heart of the husband who will inevitably succeed him, and so to live the rest of her life in happiness. He may not be as conscious as the author of Jehan de Saintré that the shortest way to a lover’s heart is through the gullet – he believes that feminine modesty and obedience will do much of the job – but the cookery section of his treatise probably did more to improve her future domestic bliss than his inclusion of the story of Patient Griselda and other improving material.

Medieval cookery was not just a matter of delectation and display, however: healthy eating was much emphasised, and the dietary principle of keeping the humours in balance governed the preparation of dishes for centuries. The food-conscious Franklin of the General Prologue is anxious that his fish (wet and cold, like the water they come from, no matter how well-broiled since) should be served with a sharp sauce, spices being hot and dry. People of different temperaments were supposed to select foods to promote a proper balance of the humours: the melancholy, cold and dry by temperament, should shun birds of the dry and cold element of the air such as curlews and plovers; pigeons, on the other hand, were humid, and therefore good for both melancholics and hot and dry cholerics.

The Medieval Kitchen provides adapted recipes from a group of French and Italian cookbooks, and its compilers have done an admirable job of using thermostat-controlled ovens, blenders and food processors to mitigate the wearisome labour of plucking, hacking, grinding, pounding, straining and spit-turning. They also take a practical line on what modern cooks might be prepared to take on: whole stuffed calf is out; so is the recipe for a pie of live singing-birds, though they outline the technique for making it. This is not cooking for the squeamish – on cuttlefish, ‘remove the eyes and discard’, and there are unspeakable things to be done with chicken gizzards – even if the compilers recommend a proper degree of faintheartedness when it comes to patting flat a toffee mixture with a moistened palm. They do, however, give a recipe for rabbit en croûte – ‘coax your rabbit into a crouching position’, encase it closely (with the usual abundance of spices) in pastry, then add pastry ears and tail, black beans for eyes and a slash below the point of the nose for a mouth. They are prepared to compromise on some things, suggesting a substitute for crane if the local supermarket doesn’t stock it, and recommending communion wafers (‘unconsecrated, of course’) when the details of a tart base are missing; but they also advise rearing one’s own sucking-pig, mandating any friends visiting Beijing to bring back some cassia buds, and (for Americans) obtaining decent bread by mail order from France.

It is often assumed that the medieval diet was restricted, but, as the cassia buds and cranes indicate, it could include as a matter of course foods that to us seem exotic or unobtainable. Spices from the East arrived at Venice by the shipload. Pellamountain, elecampane, rosewater and verjuice could all be procured or manufactured without difficulty. Peacocks, larks, curlews, teal, herons and bitterns were easy to come by. In the mid-15th century Maestro Martino summarised the best way to serve various kinds of meat, and his suggestions included goat (with garlic sauce), haunch of hart (as meatballs) and bear (in a pie). Regional variations were surprisingly few: honey replaced sugar as one moved north; neither bear nor pomegranates are mentioned in England, nor seal in Italy. Cooking without potatoes or tomatoes may be hard to imagine, but the Italians did not, as legend would have it, need to wait for Marco Polo for the invention of pasta: lasagne was known – and, in the era before forks, it was recommended that it should be eaten with a sharpened stick rather than the customary spoon or fingers – as was, more surprisingly, a version of alphabet spaghetti.

By contrast, some items that were easy to get were eaten much less than one might expect. Neither flour nor eggs were used at all commonly for thickening, bread being the near-universal substitute. Even in recipes intended for use outside Lent, milk figures much less often than almond milk, which must have required nuts by the hundredweight to service all the recipes that needed it, not to mention the labour-intensive work of shelling, blanching, pounding and straining them. Crêpes were more likely to be made with wine than milk. Milk was too common, in both senses: medieval French accounts of fêtes champêtres describe shepherds and shepherdesses feasting on curds and cream, butter, cheese and crème fraîche, custards and cheesecake – all of which is meant to sound delicious, but is intended, equally, to mark the difference between a peasant feast and an urban or courtly occasion.

Food for the peasantry was distinguished by its comparative simplicity of preparation and its reliance on local produce. This meant that diet differed radically in times of plenty and times of famine. According to Langland, in prosperous periods peasants might eat chickens and geese, bacon, cheese, eggs and leeks and other garden vegetables. If the harvest failed, however, boiled peas and bread made of beans and bran was as much as could be hoped for; and those made destitute by famine or war could be reduced to living – or dying – on the water in which cabbage stumps had been boiled.

The disparity between rich and poor was no greater in the Middle Ages than it is now, but it was more evident – women and children died of starvation not in sub-Saharan Africa but on the dunghills of Paris in the bitter winters of the early 15th century, outside the door of the householder’s young widow. The corollary of feasting was the distribution of the leftovers to the poor: to allow food to spoil was far more sinful than to eat well. Preachers regularly condemned gluttony and the frivolities that accompanied feasting (cut-out paper table decorations, in particular, stirred the feasters’ admiration and the moralists’ wrath in equal measure), but anxiety about feasting was more likely to be expressed in terms of its cost rather than its sinfulness. The London Pui, a merchant society devoted to the worship of the Virgin and the composition of love-poems for an annual feast (the author of the best song got a free meal, perhaps providing Chaucer with a model), limited its menu by statute because the expense was discouraging people from joining.

Good eating reinforced social hierarchy, promoted social harmony and helped to feed the poor – all politically and spiritually correct in the Middle Ages – but the results were less good for the animals. Archbishop Neville’s wild bulls came, presumably, from one of the isolated herds of wild cattle still remaining in England; there is now only one herd left, at Chillingham in Northumberland. Henry III’s order of 200 wild swine from the Forest of Dean was sufficient to reduce the population in the south of England beyond the point of recovery. The rarity of the bittern may owe something to its tastiness; and bear pie, unless it was made from animals retired from baiting or dancing, must have speeded the retreat of the species from southern Europe. Things could, however, have been even worse. One of the more surprising recipes circulating in the Middle Ages was St Augustine’s outline of a kind of muesli of figs and chestnuts on which Noah might have fed the lions on board the ark (an idea aimed at persuading sceptics of the historicity of Genesis). Without that muesli, there might have been rather fewer varieties of animal to grace the tables of the hungry.