While cookbooks were certainly written during the Medieval period, they are few and far between compared to the amount produced during the early modern, or “Renaissance” period. And because those later Europeans had similar tastes, by reading their recipes we can learn a lot about the way people ate centuries before them as well.
And like we’ve said before, what people ate was pies. Or tarts. Similar really.
Think of just about any old world ingredient, and you can bet there’s a Medieval recipe for baking it into a pie. With such a wealth of options, it was almost impossible to choose just four, and I feel like I’m leaving some key representations of the period off the table… perhaps there will be a tart flight part 2 in the future…
Until then, I present a humble few. . .
An Apple and Gruyere Tart…
A Marzipan Torte…
An onion tart, or an early version of quiche as we know it today…
And a peach, cherry, and red wine pie
These mainly 16th Century recipes are not all sweet pies, or rather not only sweet. They blur the line between savory foods and desserts, and would be on the table at any time alongside any kinds of other courses.
To get started, we’ll need to make a big batch of pastry crust. . .
Did Europeans suddenly wake up one day, tired of Medieval living, and decide to change course, to rebirth themselves in modern ideas and start creating good art? Or, as usual, is the story something much more complicated, gradual, and subject to the influence of other cultures from outside?
Hmm, I wonder?… Come listen for an extensive tour of the Italian Renaissance, how it began, and what it meant for people and what they ate.
That’s right! It’s a whole chicken wrapped in a pie crust.
I got the idea for this recipe years ago from Chef John from foodwishes.com, and always thought that with some extra spice and imagination, you could do a great Medieval style version. This showstopper recipe combines three great culinary passions of the European Middle Ages: 1) Lots of spices, 2) Baking everything into a pie, and 3) Cooking things that look like other things!
A couple important distinctions. While Medieval pie crusts, known at the time as coffins, were probably not designed to be edible, ours most certainly will be. And regarding my distaste for frivolous cooking techniques, a whole pie in the shape of the chicken contained within it does not feel so egregious to me as say… a roast meat made to look like a fruit or something. No jelly or wax involved here, and natural spices give it the meat yellow color . (Medieval cooks loved to dye and color their foods as well).
This recipe seems complex but is actually quite simple. We will be treating the chicken like any roasted bird, coated with salt and spice and stuffed with herbs and aromatic vegetables. We’re simply going to wrap a pastry crust around it too for some extra dimension. Almost like a primitive chicken pot pie.
How did Europe get out of its dark ages? It’s not a wholesome story, as the secret to their success was mainly the conquest and plunder of other peoples’ luxury goods, namely their foods and spices. Classic Europe.
Would it surprise if I told you that the Black Death did a lot to help as well? Come take a culinary journey through the High and Late Middle Ages, and see why.
How the times change. Today, this rye could be an expensive artisan loaf in a high end bakery. In dark ages Europe, it was food for peasants.
This is a true Middle Ages commoner’s bread, as there is no wheat flour involved. It’s almost all rye, but cut with a little barley and oats which were the only grains many serfs across Medieval northwest Europe would have had on hand. It makes a dense, chewy bread, whose texture still manages to be pleasant, that’s healthy for a carbohydrate, and packed with tangy rye flavor. It’s also very easy to make, with no kneading required, just many hours of waiting time.
Though be careful where you get your rye from. You don’t want to contract St. Anthony’s Fire like poor old Waigulf from the other side of the manor. Ate a bad loaf and was dead soon afterward, ‘e was.
In Late Antiquity, without the Roman Empire around to control everything, forest and wilderness reclaimed Europe and its people went local. Start with that, then stir to combine with a rising Catholic Church, and you’ve got a recipe for a brand new culture, one that just might be the foundation of the modern western world.
Let’s get into the Early Middle Ages.
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It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.
It’s a brief retelling of Aegean history, a story you’ve heard before, though perhaps not from a chef’s point of view. Come for the history, stay for the foods that made them special. By mastering the sea, the olive, and the grape vine, the Greeks found their own winds toward civilization.
Music by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. His original composition “Plato’s Symposium” and the whole album The Ancient Greek Tortoise Shell Lyre and much more are available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.