What did medieval people eat?

What ingredients did medieval people in Denmark have to cook with? Which method did they have to cook with and how did they preserve their food?

A while back I did a post on what the vikings ate, which I found really helpful my self when constructing new viking age recipes. I thought I would make one for the medieval period as well. This post is focused on what people in Denmark ate pre-Columbus. I am not an expert so I build this on what other people have written about the period. This is not a complete list of course but is meant as a base to work from.

The heavy basis of Danish medieval food was bread, porridge and gruel. Much of the population did survive on this and little else – especially in early spring when the stocks might be empty. That said many people did eat more interesting things than that and big portions of the population served in richer households where they would be feed. The nobility also hosted lavish feasts where left overs were given to beggars after the feast. That means that a bigger proportion than you would think actually got to taste the lavish noble food that you find in the medieval cookbook.

Ingredients

Meat & fish

cf38e82816f2824b57ff7b31750dc3ddFish and water animals were very important during lend and fast periods when the Catholic church subscribed not eating meat. 180 days a year were non-meat days – every Wednesday and every Friday.

  • Beef, in Denmark it was common for a farm to have 2-3 cows. The biggest producers had about 50 cattle for meat production.
  • Pork, they looked more like boars than domestic pigs.
  • Goat: meat and milk
  • Sheep: mutton, lamp and milk
  • Chickens: For meat and for eggs
  • Game meat: By the nobility
  • Game birds
  • Geese: For meat
  • Pigeon/squab
  • Herring, fresh, salted or salted and smoked was really imported during lend and other fasting periods. A huge export from Denmark via the Hanseatic League and the Nederlands.
  • Ell
  • Stockfish and dried fish – primarly made of cod
  • Pike
  • Salmon
  • All manner of other salt and fresh water fish: e.g. carp, garfish, redfish, bream, perch, lamprey, etc
  • Mussels and oysters, though they do not seem to have been high status food
  • Crayfish and lobster
  • Seal
  • Whale
  • Other water mammals

Grains & nuts

Tacuinum Sanitatis
Tacuinum Sanitatis

You could do a long blog post or really a book about the history of bread and the bread in the middle ages – for now I will just put a few remarks next to each item. A few grains were used as filler – that is to say that you put it in the bread to stretch the flour if you were short.

  • Wheat, expensive and sparely used in everyday cooking. Wheat wasn’t grown much in Denmark in much of the medieval period, so most it often had to be imported, which of course pushed up the price. Primarily used by the nobles and rich people or for feasts. It was also used in religious contexts. The price of wheat was about twice of that of rye.
  • Rye, most bread was rye-bread sometimes mixed in with other grains. The most commonly grown grain in Denmark.
  • Barley, used in porridge, as filler in bread and for brewing beer of course.
  • Oats, were primarily used as animal feed or as filler in bread or porridge.
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnut
  • Walnut
  • Rice: Imported and used both for porridge and as rice flour.
  • Peas: Dried and used in porridge and milled to flour in bread.
  • Chickpea
  • Buckwheat

Fruits & vegetables

La récolte des choux Tacuinum Sanitatis, XVe siècle Paris, BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333 fol. 20
La récolte des choux Tacuinum Sanitatis, XVe siècle Paris, BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333 fol. 20

Many plants that we take for granted don’t seem to be commonly grown in Denmark in the middle ages. Which seems weird as they grow just fine and are know in the rest of Europe. I need to do some more research on these but it seems that all of these were not commonly grown in Denmark until after 1520 – which is almost unfathomable.

* Things that was not common in Denmark til the renaissance.

  • Kale
  • Beets and turnip
  • Onion and leek
  • Garlic
  • Broad beans1
  • Selleri: The tops were used in cooking while the root were used for animal feed until much later.
  • Carrots*2
  • Parsnips*
  • Parsley root*
  • Beetroot*
  • White and red cabbage*
  • Apples
  • Pear
  • Wild strawberries
  • Lingonberries
  • Bilberry3
  • Blackberry
  • Plumbs
  • Cherry
  • Raspberry
  • Citrus fruits, imported or grown in greenhouses at the noble’s mansions
  • Garden orache
  • Spinach
  • Mushrooms

Spices and herbs

Illustration of a Spice Merchant, Berthold Uslaunb - From the House Books of the Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation, records of a charitable foundation started in the city of Nuremberg in 1388.
Illustration of a Spice Merchant, Berthold Uslaunb – From the House Books of the Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation, records of a charitable foundation started in the city of Nuremberg in 1388.

Spices and herbs played a huge role in medieval cooking. It does not seem that the spices were used to cover up meat that has gone bad. Herbs could be either wild plants, plants grown in gardens or in cluster gardens or of course imported in dry form. It’s interesting how many of these spices that has been re-introduced to Danish cooking over the last 20-30 years – many of which had fallen completely out of favour and things like grains of paradis are still not available in Danish stores. Some of the herbs are perhaps more medicinal then used for general food preparation.

*Imported spices from the middle east or the Asia.

  • Thyme
  • Mustard
  • Goutweed
  • Nettle
  • Ramsons
  • Caraway
  • Angelica
  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Horseradish
  • Dill
  • Fennel, seed, leafs and bulb
  • Cress
  • Dandelion, taste almost like bitter rocket. Can be used as a salad green.
  • Sorrel
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Marjoram
  • Oregano
  • Coriander
  • Sage
  • Mint
  • Lovage
  • Lavender
  • Hyssop
  • Savory
  • Borage
  • Mint
  • Anise
  • Chervil
  • Salt
  • Sugar*
  • Pepper*
  • Grains of paradise*
  • Nutmeg and mace*
  • Cloves*
  • Cinnamon*
  • Cardamom*
  • Cumin*
  • Ginger*
  • Galanga*
  • Safran*
  • Sandalwood*, a food coloring
  • Juniperberries
  • Poppy seed
  • Chamomile
  • Viol
  • Chickweed

Other foods

The Tacuinum Sanitas , Late 14th century
The Tacuinum Sanitas , Late 14th century

.

  • Milk, from cow, goat and sheep. Cows milk were generally not drunk raw.
    • Cheese
    • Butter
    • Junket
    • Buttermilk
  • Eggs
  • Honey
  • Raisin, currants, sukat
  • Dried figs
  • Dried dates (quite likely)
  • Wine
  • Fruit wine
  • Mead
  • Beer
  • Olive oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Brandy
  • Rosewater
  • Vinegar
  • Hops
  • Hemp: Used for oil, animal feed, rope, textiles

Food preparations

  • Salting of all manners of food. More on the use of salt
  • Boiling in water, stock, milk or wine
  • Drying of grain, fruits, berries, vegetables and other food stock.
  • Smoking of meat, sausages and to a lesser degree fish it would seem.
  • Fermenting
  • Baking
  • Spear roasting
  • Deep frying of e.g. dough
  • Grilling
  • Grinding things in a morter: Very importent not only for spices but for everything we would use a blender for.

Sources

I have used a number of books and websites for this list. To name some oft them:

  • Historien om danskernes mad i 15.000 år” by Bettina Buhl
  • Middelalderinfo

Food that was not eaten

0Due to being from the new world. While some meat was very fast to catch on after 1492 most plants took longer

  • Potato4
  • Tomato
  • Pumpkin & zucchini/squash5
  • Vanilla
  • Tea6
  • Coffee7
  • Cocoa/chocolate8
  • Turkey9
  • Red peppers of any kind, including chili
  • Avocado
  • Pineapple
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Corn
  • Peanut, Pecan
  • Sunflowers

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