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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Guest Blog: Dyann Barr: Food-Fact or Fiction in Medieval English Dining

The Great Hall of Burberry
Food—Fact or Fiction in Medieval English Dining

The stench of unwashed people, mingling with the delightful aromas of the food, didn’t curb Edmund Derrington’s appetite—especially if his partner at the table was the lovely Lady Blanche. The commotion added to his heightened senses as he felt the brush of her hand against his.

The server placed a fine porcelain plate in front of him, filled to the brim with a fine stew of beef and vegetables.  He watched in fascination as Lady Blanche took out a finely wrought golden fork from the pouch at her waist, and speared a piece of potato.

His hand felt clumsy as he lifted a ‘sop’ of bread from the stew and began his own meal. Edmund finished his stew and wiped his mouth on his napkin, hoping that Blanche noticed his good manners.

Before him, one of the lord’s servants paraded a huge crenulated, or castle shaped, pastry dish. It appeared to be filled with every sort of fowl imaginable. The servant lifted the lid of the coffer and offered each guest a portion. Bright red tomato sauce smothered the pigeon on his plate, and the aromas of cinnamon, mace, and hot pepper greeted him. His mouth watered as he speared a chunk of the meat with his knife. The morsel melted in his mouth.

Boudreaux, the French knight sat to his left, picked his nose. He wiped it on his sleeve before his stuck his hand into the dish to fish for a tasty bit of guinea hen. Broudreaux pulled out a leg, made quick work of it, and threw the bone back into the pastry before getting another piece. Edmund hid his disgust of the man, and threw the bones from his meal onto the rushes covering the floor.

Wine flowed. The meal progressed with desserts of cheesecakes, boiled sweetened rice with cherries, and pies filled with fruits and nuts. Edmund sat back in his chair with a satisfied burp. The Frenchman sitting next to him belched, let out a long blast of wind from his arse, and smiled.

*  *  *

The above little vignette was designed to show both real facts and misconceptions about the medieval English dining experience. As writers we need to do our research, make sure our data is correct before putting it before the reading public.

So what was right and wrong with our little story? Let’s see if you picked up on anything that was incorrect, or which of these facts were true.

1: Most people ate in pairs, or in fours, called covers, on benches at either side of the table. Only the master of the hall was served individually. They would dine on plates and bowls of pewter and wood.

2: Unless you were the master of the house, meals were served on pieces of stale bread, about six by four inches square, called trenchers. The bread was to serve as a platter for the diners and could be eaten after a meal, if you were a true glutton, or given to the dogs or poor to finish. These trenchers were cooked in hot ovens, and then allowed to go stale for four or five days. Then they were sliced horizontally and the nobles were given the top half, or the ‘upper crust’. The remaining bread went to the poor for alms. Sometimes wooden trencher plates were used under the bread.

3: Forks were basically used as kitchen utensils until they were introduced at the table during the Renaissance as a way to preserve the diner’s clothes. They didn’t catch on as tableware until the 1600s because some considered them too effeminate. It took the American diner to make forks a common utensil at the table. Fingers or knives were the utensil of choice when it came to getting the fare to the old pie hole. Spoons were often made of horn or wood, however, by the 1400s metals such as tin, pewter, silver and gold were popular.

4: Potatoes were not introduced to Europe until the late 1500s when the Spanish conquered Peru. They would become a main staple of many diets as the years went by, but they had no place at the medieval table.

5: The sop was a piece of bread, actually put into the stew or soup, which was used to pick up or soak up food by the medieval diner. A poor host was one who was stingy with the sops and left the diner unable to finish his meal in a timely manner.

6: Napkins were not in use at this time. The typical diner made use of the hem of the tablecloth to wipe their hands and mouths.

7: The pasty or pastry was indeed a very hard crust designed to be used as a serving dish. They were made into intricate designs, such as castles, for the amusement of the diners. These pastries were often referred to as a coffin. A removable pastry lid covered the dish. Think of the old nursery rhyme of four and twenty black birds baked in a pie.

8: Tomatoes were not used in cookery at this time.  Most people considered them poisonous.

9: Spices were in great demand. Cinnamon, black pepper, salt, mace, nutmeg and cardamom were only a few of the herbs and spices used in the medieval kitchen. Hot peppers where not used and wouldn’t be introduced until, again, the Spanish introduced it to Europe.

10: Even writers of time admonished diners to wash their hands before eating and refrain from picking their noses, touching their faces, or scratching their ‘codware’ or naughty parts during dinner. It wasn’t unusual, although unsavory, even to the medieval diner, for someone to throw the bones back into the stew. The correct disposal method was to throw them on the floor for the dogs that roamed the room.

11: The proper etiquette of the day allowed for burping, but passing gas was considered uncouth by the Emily Posts of the day.

While the nobility ate well, peasant fare was simple and poor at best. They might do with gruel of ground grain cooked to a pasty consistency. Vegetables and fruits in season, along with a small portion of meat, usually on a feast day, rounded out their diet. Bread was a major portion of the daily diet, the finest going to the nobility, while the farmer and laborer made do with course brown bread.

As a reader I hate it when I see someone unzipping their jeans in a western historical, or spearing a piece of potato in medieval romance. All I ask of any author, and especially myself, is to do the research. Make use of Google, research in the library, buy resource books, but use more than one source to back up the facts in your writing. Verisimilitude is your friend.

BIO: Dyann Love Barr lives in the Kansas City area with her husband of forty years and their cat Spook, who thinks he actually owns the house. They're just the servants who came with the property. She's a former personal chef, and her hobbies include sewing, belly dancing, acting, and playing video games with a vengeance. Dyann's premier book, A Perfect Bride for Christmas was released in November of 2010.

BLURB: A Perfect Bride for Christmas
Buy Link:

Alex King wants to follow the family tradition and marry his perfect bride on Christmas Eve. There’s one little hitch—Bianca dumps him at the altar. He wakes up in Vegas with a hangover, a ring on his finger, and in bed with his best friend, Zoe Hillman. She’s overweight and plain, nothing at all like his image of the perfect wife. So begins the shortest Vegas marriage in history.

Zoe loved Alex from the moment he walked through the law firm’s doors. He can charm the panties off any woman, but he’s never tried it with her. The chance to grab for the golden ring is within her reach until everything blows up in her face. Now, five years later she returns to Kansas City with triplets in tow and a brand new look. Catering Alex’ next wedding should prove interesting.


Marie Rose Dufour said...

Great post illustrating the importance of doing research for stories. Thanks.

JoanneR said...

What intense research! Wonderful tidbits.

Katalina Leon said...

Great post! At first I was alarmed at the mention of porcelain and red peppers! lol I really enjoyed this post and learned quite a few new facts. Thank you.

jean hart stewart said...

Loved your post. Thought I knew a lot about that era, but was pleasantly surprised. Love learning new facts. Great post..Jean

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