Soupes dorrees. Nym oynons, mynce hem, frie hem in oille de olyue: nym oynons, boille hem with wyn, tost whit bred . . .
Sops glazed. Take onions, mince them, fry them in oil of olive: take onions, boil them with wine, toast white bread . . .
(From Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes, by Cindy Renfrow.)
So begins a recipe recorded on a medieval manuscript. There's just something magical about using a recipe that's been used for centuries. It's almost like sharing the dish with the long-gone folk who enjoyed it in the past. During the Middle Ages, feasts were a pinnacle of social gatherings, combining food, wine, companionship, and entertainment. Feasts were a way of celebrating for noble born and peasant alike. The timing of feasts had a correlation to the times of bounty, and the harvest, or to times of religious celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter.
Medieval-style feasts are still enjoyed today, in person at Renaissance Festivals or with groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, as well as vicariously within the pages of fantasy novels. Here are some tips to have a medieval-style feast of your own this holiday season.
A good feast should last for hours, alternating entertainment with several courses of food. Like a formal dinner today, a feast starts with a light course of a sallet -- a salad of lettuce and/or cabbage and herbs -- or a sop, such as the recipe for onion soup mentioned above. Cheese and bread or fruits might also be part of the first course. But medieval feasters had another reason for starting their meals with something light and easily digestible: the Four Humours.
People believed that the body was regulated by four fundamental forces, known as the Humours, and that an imbalance of the Humours affected feelings, personality, and behavior. Although they were sometimes called by different names, the Four Humours were usually imagined to be Melancholy, Choler, Phlegm, and Blood. Melancholy was hot and dry, Choler was cold and dry, Phlegm was cold and moist, and Blood was hot and moist.
Because all things -- seasons, people, animals, etc. -- were subject to the influences of the Humours, food would be prepared and eaten in a way meant to balance these forces. Thus, a dry food would be boiled to add moisture to it, and a moist food would be baked to dry it. Certain foods would be eaten together, or spiced in a particular way to counteract any excess Humour.
While dining on the first light course the feasters might be entertained by a group of musicians, or a storytelling bard. A knight may boast of a great adventure, or a dancer might perform.
The second course, which may be one of several main courses, includes vegetables and meat, fish and fowl. Dishes like Peas Porridge, a tasty pea soup; Dragontail, a sausage-filled bread loaf; or roast duck, with skin artistically slashed to drain the fat, and a sauce made with its own blood; even boiled shrimp would fill the table for a main course. Fancy dishes such as these are served to the head table first, and a person of note may need to carve a meat dish, as the Red and White Queens asked Queen Alice to do at the feast in the end of Through the Looking Glass. With exception of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, looking-glass land may be the only place where you are introduced to your meal before you carve and eat it!
The food is even part of the entertainment when a soltetie is presented. A soltetie is a masquerade for food presented in a mini-course called a entremet. At SCA feasts I have attended, solteties have included a roast turkey dressed in blue and green dyed bread and peacock feathers to resemble a living peacock, and a live dove that flew from out of a baked pie (although the dove was certainly added once the cooked pie was out of the oven!) -- a scaled down version of the old nursery rhyme of "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie."
Folk in the Middle Ages had a fascination with food that didn't look like food. A decorated pitcher made of sausage might be used to pour the gravy, then be sliced and eaten. Or food might be disguised to resemble a mythical creature, for example the cockentrice, a suckling pig with the back half discarded and replaced with a capon. After being roasted, it was then presented on a platter as a single mythical creature.
Roast pig was a favorite dish at Christmas time, too. In Sweden and Denmark, a "Yule Boar" made of bread sits on the table, presiding over the festal season. The prominence of pork at the Christmas feasts may be a holdover from pagan times, when a feasting celebration accompanied the slaughtering of beasts. Roast goose was also very common. Remember the huge goose Scrooge gives the Cratchet family in Dickens' A Christmas Carol?
Many special dishes were enjoyed in the days leading up to Christmas. Mince-pies brought a happy month each when eaten in different houses during the Twelve Days. And a special Yule cake for Christmas Eve was made from spices, raisins, lemon-peel, and flour. Even these foods must have been cooked with the Humours in mind. Wassail, a hot drink, would be offered to carolers, who were contending with the cold air: hot and moist to counteract the cold and dry of Choler. The drinking of wassail was a way of drinking to health, not only for yourself, but for someone else: a Christmas toast.
My Scandinavian mother has passed along a tradition from her ancestors: a Christmas Wreath (see below). This is a sweet bread, dotted with dried fruit, currants, and citron that is braided together and shaped as a wreath before baking. Daubed with a little butter, or eaten dipped in strong black coffee, it's the perfect way to breakfast on Christmas morning.
As the courses of a feast continued, the food became richer and sweeter, culminating with a wonderful dessert. Often as not, the dessert was a soltetie. A plate of batter-dipped entrails might be presented with great flourish, for the delighted diners to discover the batter conceals nuts and sweet fruits. In Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince books, a great feast is given at which the dessert is a confection replicating the castle of the prince who was to eat it.
Feasts are a time for the cook's best to be displayed and enjoyed, even if that best is the moldy cheese, rotting salmon, and the "great maggoty haggis" at Sir Nicholas De Mimsy-Porpington's Deathday Party in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The food should suit the guests, after all. Feasts have always been occasions of companionship and great food. So spice up some wine, cook a few treats and try having a little feast of your own. (And don't forget the roast suckling pig!)
2 c. scalded milk
1/2 c. butter or margarine
2/3 c. sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. crushed cardamom
2 tbsp. yeast
1/4 c. lukewarm water
2 eggs, beaten
8 c. flour
1 c. golden raisins
2 c. mixed candied fruit (cherries, pineapple, citron, etc.)
1. Combine milk, butter, sugar, salt, and cardamom. Cool to lukewarm.
2. Add yeast, which has been softened in lukewarm water, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Add eggs and mix well.
3. Add 4 cups flour and beat well. Let rise in a warm place for about an hour, until bubbly.
4. Add fruit and 4 more cups flour and knead. Let rise until doubled.
5. Roll into 3 long loafs and braid together. Form into a wreath shape on a cookie sheet. Decorate with more candied fruit if desired.
6. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees or until tapping the crust sounds hollow. Can drizzle with glaze (powdered sugar and warm water) when out of the oven if desired.
Currently a graduate student at the University of Head-Against-a-Brick-Wall, Carol S. Paton already sports a LIBM (learned it by myself) degree from the School of Hard Knocks. Between classes, she enjoys eating, sleeping, reading, writing, photography, making monsters, interfacing with her computer, and whining. On occasion she even goes outdoors.
Lots of information, recipes, and links!
A list of great links to sites with recipes and menus of feasts that have been held.
Dorothy Hartley, Lost Country Life.
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance.
Cindy Renfrow, A Sip Through Time, A Collection of Old Brewing Recipes.