The Medieval Diet: Foods and Recipes from the Middle Ages
Today when we get hungry, there is the option of quickly popping a frozen meal into the microwave or driving to a fast food restaurant and getting food in just a matter of minutes. We can also go shopping at the supermarket and stock up on a boundless supply of fresh meat, bread, fruits, and vegetables. Once we get these items home, we can conveniently prepare the food with our temperature-controlled stoves or place them in our refrigerators to save for later.
The luxuries enjoyed today, however, were not available to our medieval ancestors. With a smaller supply of food available, and no electricity for cooking and storing this food, medieval cooking often relied on preserving items to ensure an adequate supply of food was available throughout the year. One’s typical diet was mostly determined by social class. Serfs made up the majority of the population and were laborers– they tended after the animals, worked the fields, and waited on the nobles they served, among other jobs. Nobles were the upper class of Medieval Society and owned large areas of land, which serfs were responsible for working on.
A look at the medieval diet shows some dishes that are very similar to those we enjoy today, as well as some that might take you by surprise. Read on to learn more interesting facts about the food and drink of the Middle Ages.
The Roman Catholic religion had a lot of power during the Medieval Period and influenced all levels of society. A number of religious feasts and fasting days were held throughout the year including Ember Days, a set of fasting days held four times a year to coincide with the four seasons. During Ember Days, meat could not be eaten. This meat-free tart, however, could be!
Pasteurized milk was not available during ancient times, so fresh milk would quickly spoil. Almond milk was a staple item that could be drunk plain, and was frequently used to make sauces or act as a substitute for milk in many dishes.
Instead of the fruit pies enjoyed today, most medieval pies were made with meat! Mincemeat pie was just one version. A basic meat pie might include a combination of beef, pork, or game meats (such as quail meat, rabbits, or pheasants). The meat was often pounded down into a paste and mixed with currants, spices, and other ingredients, and was then cooked in a pastry.
Although eating certain parts of an animal may seem weird today, medieval cooks worked with all parts of an animal. For instance, blood pudding actually contained pig’s blood. The blood was gathered when the animals were slaughtered and saved for black pudding, also known as blood pudding, and a variety of other recipes. The blood, along with spices and cereals, was stuffed inside a clean pig’s intestine before cooking. Black pudding was a common feature of the peasant diet and was normally served at feasts.
A wide range of herbs— such as mints, parsley, rosemary, and sage— along with vegetables, were often featured in salats, the medieval term for salads. Dressing for the salad mostly consisted of oil, vinegar, salt, and even sugar.
In Medieval Society, food choices were determined by social class. Nobility and royalty typically had the greatest range of food to choose from. Manors and castles often had fishponds that offered trout, salmon, and other freshwater fish. Most of these manors were built near woodlands, where hunting was done to add game animals, such as rabbit or deer, to the menu.
Bread was the most commonly consumed food in the medieval diet, eaten by all. Dinner meals were commonly served on a trencher— bread hollowed out to act as a means of serving the food.
Potage, a soup dish, was another staple of the medieval diet. The stewed dish was made with oats, vegetables (such as cabbage and leeks), and meat.
Bottled water was not a luxury enjoyed during medieval times! In fact, most drinking water was polluted, and thus avoided. Milk could be enjoyed while fresh, and juice drinks could be made from pears, apples, and other fruits.
Medieval cooks had many uses for honey. Since sugar was not as commonplace or as affordable as it is today, honey was used to add sweetness to dishes. In addition to bread, it was also included in flan and custards, and was used to preserve food.
In the Middle Ages, saffron frequently appeared in sweet and savory dishes. Chickens were also among the most commonly reared livestock. This medieval recipe can be cooked at home to give you an authentic taste of medieval cooking.
Pure white bread was mainly a luxury for the rich, since they could the afford the wheat flour used to make it. Peasants, however, usually ate a darker bread made from the less-expensive and more plentiful rye or bran. A look at the medieval fruits, vegetables, and meats eaten by peasants and lords is also offered here.
During the Medieval Era, the range of vegetables available included fennel, onions, parsley, lettuce, beans, cabbage, carrots, and garlic.
Various methods of preservation were used in the Middle Ages, so as to keep meat and fish fresh until cooked. Pickling, which involved placing the meat in salted water and vinegar, was the most popular preservation method. Meats were also smoked and dried as a means of keeping them from spoiling.
Almond milk, combined with rice, sugar, and honey, was used to make this sweet treat.
Cook your own medieval feast with these six recipes! Authentic medieval recipes, along with a modern adaptation can be viewed here.
Medieval European meals routinely featured sweets, like this gingerbread dessert, spread throughout the course of the meal. Try some medieval cuisine from another culture by giving Hais— a Middle Eastern sweet, made by grinding bread with nuts and adding sugar— a try.
During the Middle Ages, spices were very expensive and were often imported from other regions. The rich used these spices as a means of showing their status and power. This ancient tart recipe combines three of the most frequently used spices of the time – cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron.
The Medieval Diet (pdf)
Ever ate the head of a lamb before? Can you imagine eating a meal cooked over an open fire, instead of in an oven? Take an in-depth journey, learning about the fruits, meats, vegetables, and beverages that were enjoyed during this era.
Tart flavors were very much appreciated during medieval times. Verjuice was a medieval condiment made from unripe fruits, such as apples and plums. The sour juice could be used in place of vinegar in a variety of dishes.