French Medieval Food

Bread, accompanied by meat and wine, was the centrepiece of the medieval diet. Vegetables were more for peasants, both in reality and imagination. Not all foods had the same cultural value. Each had its place within a hierarchy extending from heaven to earth.

Cereals were the basic food, primarily as bread. Oats were eaten as porridge, mainly in the Atlantic regions of Europe. By the end of the Middle Ages, wheat had become the most sought-after cereal. Rye was cultivated only in the roughest soils, whilst millet was a speciality prominent in the south west of France. A recent arrival, buckwheat, began spreading through Brittany.

Vegetables were a daily part of the peasant’s diet. Cabbage, in particular, was king of medieval gardens. In towns, itinerant vendors sold green vegetables (spinach, leeks and cabbage) used for making purées and soups.

Fruit was considered fit for the nobility, at whose tables it was served.
Pears stewed in wine were often the “ending” eaten at the end of a meal.

With the exception of human milk for nursing infants, doctors did not recommend milk, decrying its excessive moisture content. It was mostly consumed as cheese or butter.

Boccace, Le Décameron, Flandres, 1432
Paris, BnF, Arsenal, manuscrit 5070 fol. 223v

Onions were a very widespread vegetable among peasants. Like garlic, onions had numerous medicinal qualities.

The inhabitants of medieval towns liked their bread white, made from pure wheat, finely sifted. Mixed with bran, the bread of the poor was dark, like the slices on which food was placed during mealtimes. Whilst peasants had to have their bread baked in their lord’s oven, in towns, bakers were plentiful.

Tacuinum Sanitatis, XVe siècle
Paris, BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol.24

During the last centuries of the Middle Ages, meat-eating predominated. This period was marked by a proliferation of butchers’ shops.

Deer, wild boar, herons and pheasants, pursued on foot or hunted in flight, were considered noble game. Country folk also hunted hares and small birds, using the noose or the trap.

Tacuinum Sanitatis, XVe siècle
Paris, BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol. 80 v.

Refraining from meat during Lent and on days of abstinence, that is to say over 100 days a year, was required by the Church. Fish consumption, particularly herring, the fish of the poor, was accordingly very large.

Salt was the most widespread means of preservation. Salted bacon gave taste to the peasant’s soup and salt barrel herring (herring salted on board fishing vessels and then placed in barrels) was his staple food during the long weeks of Lent.

Wine growing developed considerably during the Middle Ages and peasants who did not cultivate a few vines were rare. Taste preferences were for light, usually white, wines; full-bodied red wines became fashionable in the 14th century.

Until the 14th century, sugar was still largely regarded as a medicine and French cooking used sugar only in dishes for the ill. Sugar-coated almonds and other spice preserves were served at the end of choice meals to promote the guests’ digestion.

Sources, Exposition Bnf, La gastronomie Médiévale en images.

The best Medieval Recipes Book

Le viandier by Guillaume Taillevent :

How to cook a peacock

White Brewet Of Capons

Or poultry or veal, it is best to boil it and take the broth, once it is cooked, and to put it aside. Blanch the almonds, and crush them, and soak them in the broth of the poultry, capons or veal, and then strain the almonds through a cheesecloth, and take a reasonable quantity of powdered white ginger, and infuse with verjuice and white wine, and put a large quantity of large lumps of sugar to boil. When it is boiled, put the broth separately in a nice pot and also the meats (that is, the poultry, capon or veal), and, when serving it, put your meats in a dish with your broth.

Chicken with Fennel

Chicken with fennel

Take the chickens, cut them up, fry them, and when they are fried add the quantity of water you prefer; then take “beards” of fennel, “beards” of parsley, and almonds that have not been skinned; and chop these things well, mix them with the liquid from the chickens, and boil everything, then pass through a sieve. Add it to the chickens, and add the best spices you can get.

This chicken recipe, with its tan and green sauce and its subtle flavor of fennel, is remarkable. It is another light dish that would not be out of place on the most inventive of modern menus.

1 free-range chicken
2/3 cup (100 g) unblanched almonds
a handful of fennel or dill leaves
a handful of parsley
2 cups (1/2 liter) water
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine spices (see below)
2 tablespoons lard or oil
Cut the chicken into serving pieces and pat dry. Melt the lard in a casserole over medium-high heat and brown the chicken. When it is golden brown, add the water and salt to taste. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 40 to 45 minutes or until tender.
Meanwhile, wash and thoroughly dry the herbs. Grind the almonds finely in a blender or food processor, then add the herbs and blend to a paste.
Remove the chicken from the casserole and keep it warm in a very low oven, covered loosely with aluminum foil.
Add the almond mixture to the casserole and reduce over medium heat until the sauce has thickened.
Arrange the chicken on a serving platter and strain the sauce over the chicken. Sprinkle with the spices to taste and serve.

Summertime Cerulean Blue Sauce

Sky-blue sauce for summer

Take some of the wild blackberries that grow in hedgerows and some thoroughly pounded almonds, with a little ginger. And moisten these things with verjuice and strain through a sieve.

Toward the end of summer, when blackberries are at their best, this cerulean blue sauce will add zest to your September meat dinners. The pectin in the berries helps the sauce set to a lovely midnight-blue jelly that is a visual foil and a delicious accompaniment to white meats such as veal and chicken.

1 quart (1 liter) blackberries
1/3 cup (50 g) unblanched almonds
2/3 cup verjuice, or a mixture of two parts cider vinegar to one part water
1/4-inch slice ginger, peeled
saltPuree the blackberries in a food processor or food mill, and strain the juice, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible. In a mortar or in a blender, grind the almonds and ginger, then mix with the blackberry juice. Contact with the air will turn the mixture a dark blue.
Add the verjuice and strain once more. Season with salt to taste.

The Medieval Kitchen

Recipes from France and Italy

The Medieval Kitchen

Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi

Translated by Edward Schneider

Visitors attending the Joan of Arc festival in Orleans France have an opportunity to try French food that was popular during the medieval period. Items include various types of French sausage.
304 pages | 12 color plates, numerous line drawings | 6-5/8 x 9-3/8 | © 1998

The chicken pasty

Recipe by Daniel Myers

This is a rather simple recipe, but breaking the pastry shell at the table has a certain dramatic flair. I added the saffron to the dough for color (as well as smell and flavor) as was often done in period.

While the breading around the cooked chicken can be eaten, it’s still pretty tough. I figure this was an early version of a roasting bag.

1 cup flour
1/8 cup water
1/2 tsp. salt
1 pinch saffron

1 game hen
several fresh sage leaves
1 strip bacon, diced
dash salt

chicken pasty

Grind saffron, place in wat

er, and allow color to diffuse. Mix the salt and flour together, and then add water a little at a time, mixing with a fork, until it forms a pliable dough. Use additional water as needed. Roll out dough and place game hen in the middle. Cover with sage and bacon pieces. Add a little salt and the fold dough over chicken, sealing with water where the dough overlaps. Bake at 350°F for one hour.

Alternately, you can coat the game

hen with a mix of 1 tsp. of powder fine and 3 beaten eggs before wrapping in dough.

Source [Libellus De Arte Coquinaria, Rudolf Grewe, Constance B. Hieatt (eds.)]: Recipe XXX. Quomodo condiatur pullus in pastello. Man skal et unct høns i tu skæræ oc swepæ thær um helæ salviæ blath, oc skær i spæk oc salt, oc hyli thæt hø mæth degh; oc latæ bakæ i en hogn swa sum brøth. Swa mughæ man gøræ allæ handæ fiskæ pastel, oc fughlæ oc annæt køt.

Recipe XXX. How to prepare a chicken pasty. One should cut a young chicken in two and cover it with whole leaves of sage, and add diced bacon and salt. And wrap this chicken with dough and bake it in an oven like bread. In the same way one can make all kinds of pasties: of fish, of fowl, and of other meats.

Source [Le Menagier de Paris, J. Hinson (trans.)]: Chicks may be placed in pastry, back down and breast up, and broad slices of bacon on the breast; and then cover.

Item, in the Lombardy fashion, when the chicks are plucked and prepared, have beaten eggs, both yolks and whites, with verjuice and powdered spices, and moisten your chicks in it: then put in pastry with slices of bacon as above.

Source: Northern Europe, 13th c. France, 14th c.