It may be surprising to learn that many medieval foods are common to our 21st century diet – such as bread, soup, meat, vegetables, honey and milk. However, modern day cooking methods (from microwaves to toasters, grills and fan ovens) have taken over from the open hearths of medieval times and thus greatly influenced what we cook and how we cook it. Methods of farming, cultivation and transportation have changed beyond recognition over the centuries and these in turn have increased the diversity of foods available today. Good examples are the tomato (unknown in Europe before the 1800s) and the avocado (regarded as an exotic import just 50 years ago). The expectations of 21st century palate are therefore vastly different to those of the 14th century.
So how do we know what medieval cookery was like? There are precious few definitive ‘recipe books’ from that time still in existence but there are two manuscripts which historians favour as most important. – one in English and one in French.
The English manuscript dates from the late 14th century (believed to be 1390) and is regarded by many people as the guide to medieval cookery. Discovered by experts at Manchester University’s John Rylands Library, “The Forme of Cury” as it was entitled, was written on a fine parchment scroll more than 600 years ago and lists around 200 recipes. The title may sound a little strange at first glance but ‘Cury’ was the old English word for cookery. It was written by “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II” with recipes intended for both the royal family and servants alike. It first came to public attention in the late 18th century when Samuel Pegge published his version ot it.
In more recent years the John Rylands Library made translations of a handful of the recipes so that their staff canteen could conjur up something unusual for visitors to try. Dishes included an early form of egg custard tart called “Tart In Ymber Day” and boiled fruit in pastry “Payn Puff”.
The French manuscript is known as Le Viandier which is a collection of dishes popularly accredited to Guillaume Tirel.
So what were the main staple foods in medieval cookery? Well, there appear to have been 5 main staples in the medieval diet: Bread – Fish – Meat – Pottage – Ale – Milk
Medieval food is a whole world in itself. Exotic and spicy dishes were common at banquets whilst plain and simple food made with vegetables and flavoured with herbs was the average diet for most peasants.
For more detailed information on the two, definitive medieval cookery manuscripts “The Forme of Cury” and “Le Viandier” visit our links page.