Historical Recipes: General Remarks

So you're curious about some of the historical recipes here! That's great! This is a great way to pass the time if you're already into cooking, and it can, in some ways, help you understand more about who we are and where we come from.

Let me start with what's probably the most important remark: all of this, and all the recipes here, are pretty much European recipes -- not necessarily originating in Europe (some of them are from North Africa or the Middle Easte), but definitely cooked in Europe. This is a byproduct of two things. First, I was brought up in Europe, so (modern) European ingredients are what I'm most familiar with and easiest to get, so it's easier for me to experiment with them. Second, I am simply not familiar enough with the history (and languages!) of other regions to meaningfully attempt to reconstruct old recipes.

If you're in a position where you can meaningfully attempt to do this with dishes from other regions, I warmly encourage you to try it! It's fun and rewarding and there are many people, including yours truly, who are extremely curious about it, but just lack the knowledge required to do it themselves.

Now, on to the recipes here.

Will This Help Me Throw a Medieval Feast?

Many things won't be too medieval about it but if you like the food and the drink, it'll definitely be a good feast!

As with everything about our past, our knowledge and our understanding of these things are inherently limited. Our historical sources on culinary matters aren't too scarce -- that is, we can always wish we had more, but there are far "greater" subjects on which we have fewer sources -- especially starting with the High Middle Ages. However, there are other things to remember when dealing with these sources.

First, our sources are limited in one regard: most of the things that we would recognize as "recipe books" are about the kind of food that the cooks and servants would prepare and serve at rich people's tables. Literacy wasn't exactly widespread and books were very expensive for a while. A regular recipe book for regular people wouldn't have had much of an audience.

Of course, not all the recipes in cookbooks are about kingly dishes, and we have plenty of information sources besides cookboks. Nonetheless, as with most things about the Middle Ages, most of the things that have been preserved in writing are about the rich and victorious.

Second, our understanding of how people treated food, how they ate, what role food played in their everyday lives, how they cooked, how they shared meals, and many others, is limited because we will always see them through the curiously-tinted glasses of our everyday experience.

To name just one example: if you really like apples, you'll probably eat more apples, and make more apple pies and apple sauce and whatnot in autumn, when apples are in season. That's just because that's when it's easier and cheaper to get apples that don't taste like lemon-sprinkled sand though. If you want to make apple pie in April, you can. Most people in the Middle Ages couldn't -- and apples hold really well over winter, which is one of the things that made them so popular.

Does that mean we only know what kings, princes and nobles ate? Not at all -- but it does mean the only written recipes we have are about those. We do know, for example, that peasants who could raise animals in medieval England had a diet based primarily on grains, leafy vegetables, dairy and, when it was possible, meat stews. We just don't know that from written sources.

So Is This What People Were Eating?

Well... yes and no.

Yes, as in, these are the right ingredients, and for some dishes and cooking techniques, particularly boiled and oven-baked dishes, the taste, or at least the taste it derives from the cooking method, isn't too far, either. These things are probably fairly close to what the people who could afford them (see the caveat above!) ate. That's not the whole story though.

First, there are things that are going to be hard to emulate in a modern kitchen because the equipment's changed. The smell of smoke from firewood, for example, is something that your dishes probably won't have. It's not just that you're (probably) not using firewood in the kitchen. Dried plums, for example, were dried -- and obviously smoked! -- over fire in some regions, so they had a smokey flavour, too, which food-driers obviously can't reproduce.

Second, there are some inherent changes about the ingredients themselves. Even if you buy, say, organic, free-range chicken, it's still fairly unlikely that you'll be cooking with meat from a bird whose diet was exactly like that of its medieval ancestors. Even if it pecks corn instead of getting corn syrup-based slush forced down its throat, it's still corn, which no chicken in Medieval Europe ate.

Some of things are inevitably going to be more about construction than reconstruction. Don't sweat it: unless you're aiming for a PhD in which case by all means, yes, sweat it, this won't take any of the fun away.

Is This How Things Were Made?

Yes, but possibly not the way you think!

If you try to read an old cookbook, like Le Viandier de Taillevent, you'll note that many of the "recipes" are just a few lines long. In some lucky cases you'll see some hints about quantities. Hopefully, the list of ingredients is complete, right? (Here's a translation of Le Viandier de Taillevent, if you're curious).

Le Viandier is one of the worst in this regard but that's really how these books were written. The Forme of Cury, which is about a century newer than Le Viandier, gives this glorious recipe for something that we'd call an apple pie:

For To Make Tartys In Applis. Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.

(Got all that? It says "For to make Tartys In Applis: take good apples and good spices and figs and raisins and pears and when they are well ground up, color well with saffron and put it in a pie crust and bake it well")

How many apples, figs, raisins and pears? How much spices? What spices?

It seems like most of these books were meant mostly as a quick references. They're cookbooks, not modern recipe books. Just like everyone's mom has a slightly different recipe for apple pie today, everyone had a slightly different recipe for apple pie back then.

So in most cases, we don't know the exact quantities, and the exact baking time, and the exact oven temperature and whatnot. In that regard, we obviously don't know if "this" is how things were made -- but we don't know it because then, as well as now, everybody made a slightly different apple pie. Everyone was playing by ear to some degree, and sometimes innovating, too -- in this regard, the whole process is accurate, even if it inevitably seems like the recipe isn't!


One of the first things someone notices about many medieval and renaissance dishes is that they're full of spices and kindda sweet. And I don't mean the deserts. Everything. It seems like even recipest that use pork fried in lard also tell you to toss in a few raisins and plums and pears. And ginger. And saffron. And maybe some almond milk, eh?

There are actually several reasons for this! Like a lot of other things about life -- whether today or 1000 years ago -- things are a little more complicated than History Channel would have you believe.

Some of this can be attributed simply to the fact that taste is a fashion, just like everything else, and so maybe things were sweet back then for the same people why men wore knee-high flowery stockings in the 1700s: they kindda liked them. (I mean what's not to like about knee-high flowery stockings, they're frickin' fabulous!)

That doesn't quite tell the whole story though. There's more to culinary fashion (or any kind of fashion) than just liking the taste. Today, lots of people "like" Coke and drink it, but that's not just about liking the taste of Coke: they like how refreshing it is, or it brings back memories of childhood, or signals something to their peers and so on. These mechanisms aren't new at all!

This brings us, yep, to the subject of spices. Seasoning was expensive. Even salt was pretty expensive back then. It was extracted in many places in Europe (the Domesday Book, in the 11th century, mentions several places in England, for example) so it was generally available from local sources, or at least near, safely(-ish)-accessible sources, but it was taxed by pretty much all governments. Many spices had to be brought in from North Africa, the Middle East, or -- at best -- Mediterranean Europe, so they were even more expensive than that. Some, like saffron, are expensive even today.

So spices were not just a matter of taste, they were also a matter of social status. Well-spiced food wasn't just about personal taste, it was also a way of displaying status.

What about all that fruit? Fruit was used both to make some frequently-used sauces and seasonings, like verjuice (a tart, acid sauce, sort of like modern-day vinegar), and as an ingredient for many dishes that we wouldn't really put fruit into these days, like veal quiche. What gives?

Well, on the one hand, it was a matter of availability. Fruit was a cheap source of seasoning. The tart, acidic verjuice wasn't just good on its own, it also allowed you to use less of that expensive salt and was cheaper and more readily available than wine or vinegar. Fruits like prunes, raisins, or even the more expensive (at least in more Northern regions) figs or dates, were also a cheap and easily-available source of sugar, at a time when honey and sugar were both expensive.

There's also a more utilitarian explanation, which is the most often-quoted, and it is likely valid in a lot of cases, but it's definitely not the only reason. Fruit and especially spices helped mask rotten or poor-quality ingredients.

So okay, spices definitely help with that, and it's quite possible that, back when refrigerators weren't everyday items, the occasional odd-smelling piece of bacon would find its way into the pork pie.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. First of all, most of the people who would eath the kind of things we have in cookbooks could afford fresh ingredients, they didn't need spices to hide the odour of spoiled meat. Second, it's highly unlikely that people in the Middle Ages couldn't figure out the correlation between odd-smelling food and morning diarrhea. Clearly, a lot of effort was put into making sure no meat went to waste -- it's unlikely that they'd have tempted fate (and their often empty coinsack!) by spicing it heavily instead of eating it before they'd take any chances.

In some cases, spices definitely helped mask odd-smelling meat, but not necessarily because the meat had gone bad. Some birds, like peacocks, were eaten as a display of social status, even though their meat is pretty awful. You really wanted some spices with that, even if the bird was young and therefore didn't taste too peacock-y. Even animals whose meat wasn't bad on its own could develop a somewhat strong taste depending on what it was fed, so seasoning it would help.

Spices also played a role in other culinary exploits. Spit-roasting was a very common preparation method, for example, but if you try to do that with poultry, you quickly find out that the damn bird won't sit on the spit too readily, and that the thin, skin-covered meat dries quickly. Stuffing it helps with both of those. The stuffing mixture typically included suet and some other types meat, flour, vegetables, dried fruits, and spices -- the fruits and the spices helped with the flavour of the whole thing, but, of course, also made the stuffing more solid.

How Do We Know About These Things??

Written Sources

Written sources trump anything, and fortunately, we have a quite a few of them. Some of the most famous one are listed below.

Apicius (De re coquenaria)

This one's a little tricky: Apicius isn't the author. Marcus Gavius Apicius was a Roman aristocrate who loved luxury, extravagance -- and food! -- so much that they basically named a cookbook after him. A cookbook called "Apicius" was basically like a recipe book called "Stuffing your Face" today.

While it is thought that the book was compiled in the 1st century, the surviving version is probably from a little later, in the 5th century, and we have it in the form of a manuscript from ca. 900 A.D. We also have a sort of an abridged version of it in the form of "Apici exceprta a Vinidario", probably from no later than the 9th century, which includes some recipes that aren't in the "real" Apicius manuscript, which we have from around 900 A.D.. It's not clear what the relationship between the two is -- that is, it's not clear if the surviving manuscript of the "real" Apicius is incomplete, or if Vinidarius, whoever he was, added some of his own contributions in his version, which would suggest that there were several versions of the Apicius text in circulation at some point.

Le Viandier de Taillevent

Le Viandier is generally credited to Guillaum Tirel, a famous cook at the French court in the mid-14th century. However, the earliest version of this book is definitley older, probably written around 1300.

Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria Liber de Coquina

These are, technically, two separate cookbooks, and they likely have two different authors, too. However, they have generally been used together, so they're often referred to as the two parst of a single book called Liber de Coquina (confusingly enough, the second part bears that name, too). The first part (generally called just the Tractatus) is from ca. 1304-1314. The second part is less easily datable but it's probably from the 14th century, too.

The Forme of Cury

The Forme of Cury is a pretty extensive collection from the late 14th century. The original manuscript has been lost but we have some copies. Cury means "cooking" -- it's from the French "cuire" -- it doesn't have anything to do with curry :-).

Le Menagier de Paris

Le Menagier de Paris also dates from the 14th century. It's not just a cookbook, it's a very patronising set of instructions for young French wives.

Utilis Coquinario

(Note: link above is to Google Books. Sorry :-( ) Utilis Coquinario is an English cookbook from around the same time as the Forme of Cury. Not much is known about it or its author, but it is of interest for both historical and linguistic purposes.

The astute reader has probably noticed that there's, like, this huge gap between the Apicius and everything else. What happened in the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th century? Did people not cook back then?

They certainly did, but we don't have any cookbooks from the period -- not from Europe, at least. We do have some cookbooks from the Middle East, like the Kitab al-Tabikh. I don't know anything about them, though, nor much about how much they circulated in Europe.

Non-written sources

The Middle Ages weren't that long ago, so archaeological evidence can help us somewhat. See, for example, this paper:

Reconciling organic residue analysis, faunal, archaeobotanical and historical records: Diet and the medieval peasant at West Cotton, Raunds, Northamptonshire

Archaeological discoveries aren't recipes, but they do help us figure out some things. They may not tell us exactly how things were prepared in detail, but they do at least tell us a few things about the main ingredients, about the cooking methods and so on.

Paintings and other kinds of graphical sources are also useful to some degree. Here's an example:

Les festins, from Roman de Lancelot en Prose, France, 15th Century

This tells us a bit not only about the dishes, but also about how they were served, under what conditions and so on.

As with any other subject, though, non-written sources are tricky to interpret. Without context, it's hard to know what a lot of things mean, so you're always liable to draw the wrong conclusion from them.