“Let Food be thy Medicine & Medicine be thy Food” – & Other Misconceptions About Medieval Cuisine

Selected Medieval Recipes
Hypocras
Blancmange
Mushrooms Olivier

Incidentally, all of these recipes moonlight as ‘00s metal, synthpop, or folkrock bands. Hey, music makes the best medicine.

Feast-of-the-Peacock
Feast of the Peacock, Lille 5th c. The star of this show is obviously the cat-creature, though I also appreciate the lurking poison-tester with a unicorn horn. Source.

This week on Historic Kitchen I use:

Wheaton, B. (1983). Savouring the past: The French kitchen and table from 1300 to 1789. London: Chatto & Windus.

There was a delightful selection of recipes to choose from for today’s post, such as “Turkey stuffed with raspberries and herbs,” “Milk made into bacon,” or “Iced cheese”. Examining the ingredients, I was always struck by how complex each dish must be in the construction of flavours. (Which, after a summer of Roman dishes that were all some combination of four flavours – honey, pepper, fish oil, and wine vinegar -was positively salivating!)

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
The Duc de Berry, feasting as only the French know how. Source.

When you think of Medieval food, what do you imagine? Burley men ripping into hunks of meat with their bare hands, haphazardly tossing the bones onto the floor? Tasteless porridge and plain bread? HAH! If you still need convincing after our “sallat” last week (and truly, salad is too bland of a word for that rollercoaster of taste), let me enlighten you on Medieval dining, which was actually quite sophisticated, flavourful, and rather thoughtful.

Hypocras, Ipocras

“Viandier”, in Jérôme Pichon and Georges Vicaire, eds., Le Viandier di Guillame Tirel, dit Taillevent, 1st edition, pg 98

Pour faire une pinte d’ypocras, il fault troys treseaux synanome fine et pares, ung treseau du mesche ou deux qui veult, demy treseau de girofle et graine, de sucre fin six ounces; et mettés en pouldre, et la fault toute mettre en ung couleur avec le vin, et le pot dessoubz, et le passés tant qu’il soit coulé, et tant plus est passé et mieulx vault, mais que il ne soit esventé.

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Hypocras. Where else do you so much cinnamon? Photo: Leah Moncada.

3 cups dry red wine
2 ounces fresh ginger, sliced and peeled
1 tbsp whole cloves
2 ounces stick cinnamon
1 tbsp cardamom
3 ½ cups sugar

In a stainless steel pot, heat all ingredients together, while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Do not let it come to a boil. Cook for about 15 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve to remove all the spices. Let cool. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

As Wheaton says, “this is a heavy, pungent, sweet drink, and the modern diner may wish to add a second bottle of wine.” I concur! Serve it heavily diluted in water, or else use twice as much wine for the modern taste. Make sure to use dry wine, and it doesn’t have to be good wine. Do *not* use powdered cinnamon, but whole spices where ever possible, as it clouds the wine. (The Viandier does call for powdered spices.)

This example comes from the 14th c. Sugar would have been exceedingly different in Medieval Europe, and certainly produced a very different taste. Considered a spice and a luxury product, sugar was sourced in Sicily or Spain. Honey was used as the sweetener for the masses.

Likely descending from the Graeco-Roman tradition of Spiced Wine, Hypocras lasted for many centuries, many of the ingredients remained familiar. However, depending on the region, time period, or socio-economic class, the spiced wine can include slightly different additives. Variations included spices such as “grains of paradise” or additional liquors such as brandy.

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Women drinking. Watriguet de Couvin 14th century. Source.

It was sometimes used as a medicinal ingredient to promote digestion. Upon reading that tidbit, I wan’t surprised. I have been hard-pressed to find a food item that wasn’t ever thought medicinal in the Middle Ages by someone or other. (Once again, please reference last post’s“sallat”!) Their knowledge of medicinal herbal qualities is truly to be admired at some times, but also questioned at others. (I will note that after testing, users amongst my peers noticed a distinct hindering of digestion.)

The quote “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” has been attributed to Hippocrates and widely referenced when discussing Medieval food and medicine. BUT, not without some heated debate. When analyzing primary sources from the Middle Ages, have we oversimplified the relationship between Medieval medicine and food? Hippocrates has been one of the most quoted sources influencing our interpretation of food and medicine in the Middle Ages, but should we be so quick to assume that the Middle Ages conflated food and medicine, or if this was simply a hyperbolic turn of phrase?

Well. There’s a research topic if anyone is looking for one.

Blancmange of capon for a sick person, Blanc mengier d’ung chappn pour ung malade

From the Sion manuscript of the Viandier, Paul Aebischer, “Un manuscrit valaisian du ‘Viandier’ attribué à Taillevent,” p. 95

Cuisiez en yaue; broiez amandez grant foison, du broion du chappon; deffaitez de vostre boillon, passez parmy l’estamine, faitez boullir tant qu’il soit liant; pour taillier, versez en une escuelle ; fillez demie douzene d’amandez pellez, et les asséez sur la moitié du bout de vostre escuelle; en l’autre moitié, de pepins de pomme de grenade et du succre.

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Blancmange from the Sion manuscript of the Viandier. Photo: Leah Moncada.

2 ½ lbs breast meat of capon
2 quarts good chicken stock
1 cup finely ground almonds
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp cardamom
6 blanched almonds, slivered
pomegranate seeds
sugar

Poach the capon breasts in the chicken stock until they are cooked (20 minutes). Once cooled, cut up into small pieces and grind in a food processor. Beat in the ground almonds and spices. Slowly add some of the broth to make the mixture “agreeably moist but still rather stiff”. Scoop into a bowl, add almonds to one half and pomegranates to the other. Sprinkle sugar over the second half.

While optional to the recipe, these particular spices were found on a shopping list for blancmange in the Ménagier de Paris, a 14th c guidebook for wifely behaviour written in the guise of a fictional man instructing his younger wife. I had been under the misconception that spices were frequently used to cover the taste of meat that was past its prime. That is, until I stumbled upon vehement medievalists who devote much ink to arguing against this “Moldy Meat Myth”. The publication of one chemist in the mid-twentieth century has upheld the surprisingly stubborn belief that rotten meat was regularly consumed during the Middle Ages, when in fact meat was salted, cured, smoked, and treated. Bad meat is bad meat, and they knew just as well as we do it would have made them sick.

Such food preservation techniques would have drastically altered the taste of meats. However, fresh meat was as common as preserved. (Chickens for the peasants, while the nobility could afford the more expensive meats.) In the winter, meals were restricted to preserved meats. However, cooks frequently used recipes such as soups to ‘restore’ the meats by infusing them with liquids again. It is important to remember that food preservation methods played a key role in the medieval diet.

Blancmange is one of the recipes from the earliest manuscript of the Viandier. Its method of preparation, while simple, has fluctuated slightly over the ages to reflect the changing trends in common foods. A quick history of blancmange, and its use of sugar and almonds, reveals more about the history of France than one might assume.

Due to its bland nature and soft texture, blancmange was probably very easy to consume on a queasy stomach. (Note that this is very different from being medicinal.)

Blancmange was also frequently used as a “liaison,” or binding agent in French cuisine. I decided to try it out myself, and selected an absolutely divine mushroom recipe:

Mushrooms Olivier Champignons à l’Olivier

François La Varenne, Le Cvisinier françois (1654), p. 121

Estans bien nettoyez, coupez les par quartiers, et les lavez dans plusieurs eaux l’un apres l’autre pour en osterla terre; Estanns bien nets, mettez-les entre deux plats avec un oignon et du sel, puis sur le rechaut, afin qu’ils jetterez leur eau. Estans pressez entre deux asiettes, prenez du beurre bien frais, avec persil et siboule, et les fricassez; apres celas mettez-les mitonner, et lors qu’ils seront bien cuits, vous y pouvez mettre de la cresme, ou du blancmager, et servez.

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Mushrooms Olivier. Photo: Leah Moncada.

4 cups mushrooms, washed and quartered
1 small onion
½ tsp salt
¼ cup cream or blancmange (optional)
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp thinly sliced scallions

In a heavy skillet, slowly heat the mushrooms, onion, salt and 1 tbsp butter. Stir frequently, and cook until the mushroom juice collects along the bottom. Drain it off into a small container for later use in another recipe (broth or sauce). Add the remaining butter, the parsley, and scallions. Cook until the mushrooms and scallions have just begun to change colour. Add the blancmange and stir until evenly melted over the mushrooms.

As I mentioned above, this recipe is a WINNER. It would be interesting to see how it tastes with mushrooms that would have been common to Medieval France.

I hope you enjoyed this session of Historic Kitchen!

This was originally published on Musings on October 30, 2015.

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