The subject of medieval food is wide and varied. What you ate would have depended not only on which estate you were born (clergy, aristocracy or peasantry) but also the seasons, beliefs and where you resided. Added to that, wars, bad weather and failed crops sparked food shortages and famine. So this post is a broad overview and covers the bare bones (no pun intended) of food of the middle ages.
It was believed that the body was governed by the four Humours. These were four different fluids which were produced by different organs within the body – Black bile, Phlegm, Blood and Yellow bile. For a person to be healthy and remain healthy these Humours must be balanced. This balance was achieved through medicine, practices such as bloodletting (lovely!) and through diet.
The Humours corresponded to a particular temperament, organ, nature, element and even a season.
Black Bile – Melancholic – Spleen – Cold Dry – Earth – autumn - Saturn
Yellow Bile – Choleric – Gall Bladder – Warm Dry – Fire – summer - Mars
Blood – Sanguine – Head – Warm Wet – Air – spring - Venus
Phlegm – Phlegmatic – Lungs – Cold Wet – Water – winter – Moon Goddess
So for some medieval cooks, having and balancing the four Humours in a meal was sometimes more important than the taste. During a meal (particularly in a wealthy household) the different dishes would compliment and counter balance each other. For example, fish was seen as being cold and wet and would be served with spice and sauces which were seen as hot and dry.
Another belief was that food was ranked in order of importance by its closeness to heaven. Basically in a descending order – Sky (birds), Ocean (fish, shellfish etc.), Earth (cattle, pigs, sheep etc.), Earth (trees & bushes) and then finally, Ground (vegetables).
While the aristocracy’s diet was varied, the peasant diet was much more limited. In good years, peasants grew vegetables and herbs in their small gardens or a small strip of land in the fields. Common vegetables would have been cabbage, legumes, onions and spinach along with herbs such as garlic and parsley. Fruit trees included apple, cherry and pear. Important components of their diet were pottage (a soup like stew made from vegetables, herb and bread crumbs), ale (made from barley, rye, herbs, honey and water), and dark, brown bread made from barley and rye. Depending on the household there could also have been milk, cheese, eggs, butter, chicken, fish and pork (seasonal). Generally, because of the lack of grazing land in winter, the pigs were usually slaughtered around Christmas. If it was possible, the peasants kept the other animals (cows, sheep & chickens) alive as they could provide more than just meat.
Meat and fish were preserved by salting it. There were two methods, dry and brine curing. With dry salting, the food was covered with salt and allowed to cure for five to eight days. Whereas the brine method had the food soaked in salty water for two to three days. The salted food was then hung on hooks and left to dry; after which it was stored in barrels. It could last up to three months.
They preserved fruit and herbs by drying them in the sun; and vegetables were bottled with brine and vinegar.
Hmm... it seems to me, we have only just scratched the surface. I might have to break this up into more than one post.
Thanks for dropping by.