Friday, October 5, 2012

Medieval Food

When asked to list what foods people ate in the middle ages, most people think of huge feats of meat, bread, and copious amounts of alcohol. 

Something like this, really:

But when pressed for details, those details can get a little... odd. 

The most common "fact" to crop up was that people ate a lot of meat, but the meat was usually spoiled, but seasoned with a lot of spices so you couldn't taste it.

While it is true that there was no refrigeration as we have today in the middle ages, they did have ways to preserve food. The easiest way was to keep it on the hoof. Meat markets didn't look like like they do today, with rows of refrigerated meat in plastic wrap, instead they looked more like this:

See, the animals at the market were alive. They were only killed when they were just about to be eaten. Any meat left over was preserved via curing. Think beef jerky, or summer sausage.

There's a double whammy to this particular myth, because not only was meat pretty fresh, spices were expensive. I think Medieval Cookery phrases it best, "Considering that spices were more expensive than meat, why would they spend the equivalent of $10 of spices to cover the spoiled taste of a $2 chicken? It'd be much cheaper (and nicer) to just buy a fresh chicken."[*]

So where did this particular idea come from? The most likely culprit is a book called The Englishman's Food: Five Centuries of English Diet, by Jack Cecil Drummond and Anne Wilbraham. Published in 1939, Drummond and Wilbraham mistook the word "greene" when describing meat in period medieval documents to mean "tainted" or "rotten" -- when in fact it meant "fresh." [**] So all the recipes written describing how to chemically tenderize meat with vinegar, they took to mean ways to combat decay. 


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