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27 Jul

Food and Cuisine in the Middle Ages

Food was an obsession for the medieval society but the majority of population consisting of serfs had to be satisfied with little. Their main foods were gruel and porridge combined with whatever was available in the nature like cabbage, beets, onions, garlic, carrots, various legumes such as beans and peas, and variety more or less nutritious vegetables. Cereals such as rye, barley, buckwheat, millet and oats were the main ingredients of the majority of meals of all classes of medieval society, while bread became one of the basic foods in the 12th and 13th century. Besides having nutritional value bread was also of great religious importance which clearly indicates the phrase Give us this day our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer.

A scene from the Labours of the Months depicting gathering acorns for pigsReligion played an important role in the medieval food and cuisine. The Christians were forbidden to eat meat and all animal products with exception of fish on certain days like Lent and fast. Pork was the prevalent meat, while its importance in medieval cuisine also reveal the Labours of the Months which depict twelve scenes of rural activities for each month of the year and dedicate two months to the pigs. November usually depicted gathering acorns for the pigs and December killing the pigs for the feast days at the end of the year and to prepare meat for the winter.

Medieval social elites paid lot of attention to food not only for pleasure but also to express their wealth and social status. Medieval nobles and wealthy social groups ate diversified and exclusive foods with rare and expensive ingredients, various spices such as pepper and cinnamon, while even salt was commonly affordable only to the wealthy individuals.

Food was considered a status symbol and medieval banquets, large meals or feasts organized on special events and occasions such as birthdays, weddings, holidays and various charitable gatherings or celebrations are the best evidence. Besides quantity and diversity of food that was served and revealed the social status of its organizer the medieval banquets also determined the social status of a guests by his/her seating place on which greatly depended the food that was served. Guests ranked lower in the social hierarchy were served with less exquisite foods. Gluttonous eating and drinking was very characteristic for the medieval nobility as well as for the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church which played a key role in the emergence of medieval vineyards. French scholastic philosopher William of Conches (c. 1090 – after 1154) refers that “most of bishops seek throughout the world the best dressmakers and cooks who could prepare delicious porridges for them”.

Nobility and other wealthy individuals ate meat of domesticated animals such as pork, lamb and mutton, chicken and beef as well as wild game which was a privilege of the medieval nobility. Those who lived close to water also ate fish which was considered less prestigious and was often eaten as an alternative to meat on fast days. Like lower medieval social classes, medieval social elites also ate lot of various cereals and bread which was made out of wheat and tasted better than the darker and coarser bread eaten by the lower classes of feudal society.

Miniature of a monk tasting wineAlcoholic beverages were preferred drinks during the Middle Ages: wine, bear and ale depending from geographical position. Wine was a common drink in France, Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries, while majority of population in Central and Northern Europe drank beer or ale made of barley, while wine was affordable only to the highest social classes.

Fruits served fresh, dried or preserved were popular during the Medieval Times and were often used as sweeteners because sugar and honey were very expensive and unaffordable to the majority of the medieval population. Lemons, citrons, bitter oranges, pomegranates, quinces and grapes were consumed in the Mediterranean countries, while apples, pears, plums and strawberries were commonly eaten in Central and Northern Europe. Figs and dates were popular all over Europe but they were considered luxurious foods and were very expensive in Central and Northern Europe.

A notable change in the medieval food preparation and cooking occurred during the period of Crusades when the Europeans came into contact with the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. However, the greatest change in medieval cuisine occurred after the rise of bourgeoisie, while first cookbooks were issued in Denmark in the middle of the 13th century and widespread in France, Italy and Germany in the 14th and 15th century.

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