Medieval cookery

Translators: Ian Bailey and Jean-Marc Bulit

Thickening sauces with bread or almonds, a taste for tart flavours and spicy aromas

Medieval cookery is an integral part of our European cultural heritage.

In effect, cookery books appeared throughout Europe, from the 13th to the 16th century. Apart from a few small regional differences, the same recipes, common to the whole of Medieval Europe, can be found from Denmark to Italy, and from Spain to England. The cooks used common culinary techniques, the European elite classes had similar tastes in food and doctors held common views on dietary matters. For over four centuries one can find the common bases which make it possible to speak of European Medieval cookery.

We maintain that this gastronomy is a European heritage every bit as precious for our cultural studies as the architecture of castles or gothic cathedrals.

Unfortunately, from the 17th century onwards, the partisans of a new cuisine declared that all that had come before was of no value. It is thus that medieval cookery was forgotten for several centuries.

False ideas are still spread today by many history books and cookery books:

Currently, historians of gastronomy
(JL. Flandrin, B. Laurioux, O. Redon, F. Sabban,
S. Serventi, ...), and chefs such as Alain Senderens,
Yves Pinard (Restaurant du Grand Louvre),
Guy Martin (Le Grand Véfour, specialist of Maître Chiquart)
and Marc Meneau (l'Espérance in Vézelay)

Oldcook: medieval cookery, principles and techniques - medieval cook

know the value of Medieval cookery, for...
they have actually used the recipes of famous cooks of the Medieval era:

Maître Chiquart,
Maestro Martino,
Robert de Nola,
Bartolomeo Scappi,
Lancelot de Casteau, etc...

Bases of Medieval cookery

  1. A liaison for sauces with bread or almonds
  2. A taste for tart flavours
  3. The flavour of spices
  4. Stock for sauce dishes
  5. Meat or poultry grilled or cooked in sauce
  6. Fats
  7. Tarts, pies, and pastries
  8. Catalonia special: Sofregit and Picada
  9. The beauty of colours
  10. Vegetables
  11. Local particularities
  12. Unknown products in Medieval Europe

1 - A liaison for sauces with bread or almonds

The romans used flour for thickening and this custom was revived from the end of the 16th century. However, Medieval cookery preferrred the use of bread for thickening sauces. It was grilled, soaked in stock, ground in a mortar and pestle (though our modern mixers do the job just as well and quicker!) and generally passed through a cheesecloth. This bread thickening was sometimes replaced by a liaison of almond powder (thickening with almond milk particularly dominates in catalonian gastronomy).

Advantages: bread thickening colours sauces, giving - just as almond thickening - a different sensation on the tongue and develops the aromatic, tart flavours (whereas flour masks. them).

Almond milk: Take powdered (skinned) almonds, add water or stock, mix well, leave to stand for 1 hour. Pass through a cheesecloth, pressing thoroughly to obtain a white, milk-like liquid. Proportions: allow 120 to 200 g of powdered almonds for a litre of water or stock.

Other bases | Top of page

2 - A taste for tart flavours

Besides gherkins, mustard, escabèche or devilled sauce, we have often lost the taste for tart flavours.
Cooks have, however, rediscovered the interest of a squeeze of lemon in sauces (Ducasse...). In the Middle Ages, most sauces which accompanied grilled meats (or poultry or fish) were very tart. Meats (or poultry or fish) in sauce were acidified with a blend of wine and vinegar, wine and verjuice (white grape juice) or wine and vinegar and verjuice. Certain sauces were rendered sweet and sour with sugar, honey or fruit (raisins, prunes...).

An excellent verjuice from Périgord can be found at
Domaine du Siorac

- Other bases | Top of page -

3 - The flavour of spices

Medieval cookery used spices in large quantities, mainly because spices were reputed to have dietetic qualities (they enhance digestion), but also because they were a luxury item.

Spices were dried and powdered. The main spices used: first and foremost,
Oldcook: medieval cookery, principles and techniques - ginger ginger
and cinnamon, followed by (powdered) cloves, nutmeg, mace, saffron (for colouring), malaguetta pepper (Guinea grain, or grain of paradise), pepper, but also cardamon, galanga (galingale) and long pepper. Mostly, they were mixed with wine, vinegar, verjuice, or stock (sometimes passed through a cheesecloth) before being mixed into the rest of the dish towards the end of cooking (to keep the aromas intact).

Medieval recipes are, mainly, presented without proportions for the ingredients. While cookery books of the Middle Ages recommend that spices be used according to the guests' own tastes, the quantities used are often far more than in our current-day practices.
For example: for 2 kg of meat or poultry, we easily used 1/4 to 1 level teaspoon of each, ginger, cinnamon, etc... and up to 3 level teaspoons of all spices. Proportions vary according to the desired tastes.

Attention: pepper was always used in small quantities; pimento and paprika were unknown in Europe
Spices = flavour, and not spiciness.

Other bases | Top of page

4 - Stock for dishes with sauce

You prepare the stock with chicken or beef cooked in water as simply as possible, with or without vegetables (leeks, turnips, carrots, onions). Above all, avoid commercial stock, which is already seasoned.

Other bases | Top of page

5 - Meat or poultry grilled or cooked in sauce

Meat and poultry are often blanched in Medieval cookery (cover with cold water, then simmer for a few minutes before draining). They are then seared on the grill or on the spit, before being cooked in sauce. They can also be simply roasted and served with a sauce. While beef, which was less popular in the Medieval era, was certainly tougher than it is today, game, mutton or poultry (particularly capon) were probably every bit as tender as we find them today.

Other bases | Top of page

6 - Fats

Olive oil, bacon and lard were much used. Butter was virtually absent from recipes until the Renaissance: being confined to peasant cookery. Peanut oil was still unknown in the the medieval era.

Other bases | Top of page

7 - Tarts, pies and pastries

No clear distinction was made between sweet and savoury in the medieval era. Tarts, pies and pastries were the common speciality of the cook (for meats) and the pastry-cook (for the pastry, as it was he, and not always the cook, who had the oven). Cakes were the speciality of the oubloyer. Flaky pastry was still unknown at this period.

Pastries allowed the medieval cook to develop his architectural creativity: and medieval cookery lent itself to theatricality. Of course, the pastry crust allowed the meat juices and aromas to be enveloped and conserved. It was, however, also often used as a "surprise parcel" to hide from the guests' view whole animals and sometimes several types of bird. Pastry came in shapes capable of solliciting the guests' admiration.

Other bases | Top of page

8 - Catalonian Special: Sofregit and Picada

Most medieval culinary techniques were common throughout Europe, except for 2 particular Catalonian preparations:

A sauce is thus obtained, often made sweet and sour by adding sugar and vinegar, verjuice or pomegranite seeds.

Other bases | Top of page

9 - The beauty of colours

Colours were particularly put to best advantage in medieval cookery. Directions for colours often feature in recipes: civets must be brown, such-and-such a sauce must be green; a medieval recipe which has survived to this day is called none other than blancmange (literally, "white food"!).

Other bases | Top of page

10 - Vegetables

The vegetables eaten in the Middle Ages: leeks, turnips, cabbage, Swiss kale, spinach, gourds (the european marrow), cress, all sorts of salads and greens for porry, and chestnuts. The carrot was white or yellow, being close to the parsnip. Leguminous vegetables: peas, chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, fasole and vetch were frequently used. The common bean, which came from America, was still unknown, but a European bean was eaten (haricot dolique, eaten dry): the mongette, also known as the haricot cornille or haricot dall'occhio, currently grown principally in Italy.

We presently have more medieval recipes using spices than those using herbs (whereas, on the contrary, ancient Roman cookery used a lot of herbs). However, we know that very many good weeds were commonly used: dill, aniseed, basil, spring onion, cummin, coriander, lovage, mint, oregano,
Oldcook: medieval cookery, principles and techniques - rocket rocket,
parsley, rosemary, savoury or sage, etc...
Herbs which have more recently been forgotten were also commonly used: aurone, hysop, rue, wild mustard...
On the other hand, tarragon and chives were still unknown in France (Though tarragon seemed to be known already in Spain) and the common thyme (thymus vulgaris) was never used in medieval cookery even though this herb has grown wild throughout southern Europe since time immemorial (the medieval cook preferred to use another variety of thyme, the wild thyme: thymus serpillum).
The thyme + bayleaf bouquet garni is a recent blend of herbs!

Cereals were also used: wheat, spelt, millet, oats, rice (coming from Asia, Spain or Italy, it was a luxury item).

In the Middle Ages, vegetables and meat (poultry and fish) were presented separately during the meal. Besides sauerkraut, a speciality from Alsace, meat and poultry recipes in sauce with vegeatbles, such as cassoulet or petit salé aux lentilles did not yet exist.

Other bases | Top of page

11 - Regional characteristics

Some historians insist on the differences in cooking between the different European countries. We consider these differences minor compared to the similarities. We will, however, so as to be objective, evoke a few differences between Southern cooking (though English cooking should often be counted within it, just as the cooking of Lancelot de Casteau !) and Northern cooking (North of France and Germany):

Other bases | Top of page

La cuisine médiévale