Inspirations, Worldbuilding

You’re sitting in a tavern; or, Food in the Middle Ages (part 1)

Tired of feeding your party the same staple food everytime they go out to eat in a civilized place? We’ve got your back: follow us for some tasty medieval recipes, and historically accurate food lore.

You’ve gathered your party in the most welcoming of places: an inn or a tavern. They’re probably staying the night, just after they eat some supper, and drink some ale.  Food’s quite good, they’ve got eggs and bacon, some pork, some mushroom… Damn, what else?

Well, there’s so many options. And most of them came from a book called Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson which I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who’s interested in the subject. Apart from the obvious: a description of the foodstuffs eaten back then, the book’s also full of information on medicinal use of them (medicinal in a medieval sense, as in: garlic as a preventive against the plague). I’m not going to elaborate on that – please pick up the book if you find the topic interesting; it’s a nice read. Instead, I’m going to focus on the food widely available for standard humans, with an occasional note on the richer households. Medieval feasts are omitted, and will be discussed in the future.

As it’s a rather lengthy topic, we decided to split it into a few parts: in this one, we will be discussing standard foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, starting with grains, legumes and vegetables. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll continue with herbs, spices, dairy, meats and sweets etc., and discuss the dietary needs and cooking styles. There’s an amazing number of things you can prepare using just a camp-site and some copper-cheap cooking utensils.

If you’re here just for the recipes, there’s a list of online sources at the end of the article, but we will be providing you with much more in each part of this series, and finalising with some proper, climate-adjusted menus. Stay tuned!

 

Middle Ages and Fantasy Land

Obviously, not everything about the Medieval cuisine is going to be applicable in a fantasy setting. Historically accurate “back then” would deprive us of the potato, tomato, corn, cacao or the turkey, and we shouldn’t even consider things like chocolate, avocado or chilli. Of course, in your RPG, you’re more than welcome to mix and match, add or remove any produce as you see fit. Creating your recipes you’d do well to remember that before the invention of the freezer, refigerator, stove etc. preparing and storing food was more complicated, and groceries usually didn’t travel more that a couple of miles, with the exception of expensive spice etc. You’re not bound by any of the following rules, epecially if there’s magic involved in the process. (I could write a separate article on how an low-mid-level cleric and druid can influence the life of a standard farming village and virtually eradicate famine, at least in D&D.)

With the “do what you want, it’s a fantasy setting”, let us proceed.

Standard foodstuffs of the Medieval Times

Firstly, there’s more to the peasant food than just the turnips. As terrible as the bad harvest and diseases were, people usually had an access to the stable foods: bread, dairy products, cheap cuts of meat, and preserved fish. Depending on the season, this was enriched by fruits and vegetables, and spices – black pepper being the most common.

Grains

  • Wheat was mostly used in bread, but it was also used in stuffings, potages, soups and sausages. Depending on the culture, it was baked leavened or unleavened; unleavened bread can be baked on the flat stones in the fire, even in the campfire. The most expensive bread what the white one, from best quality wheat. (Later, in 18th century, Alum-(K) was used to whiten the flour and raise the price of bread without raising the costs.) The poor and the victim of famine would mix bits of flour with barley, oats, beans, chestnuts, and vetches, just to get more flour. Unable to afford bread from a baker, many would gring the flour themselves, turning it later into unleavened bread or into porridge. In the society, bread was commonly used as plates or bowls, and the white flour was used for pies, tarts, cakes, fritters etc.
  • Barley produces leavened bread that is coarser, denser and darker that wheat bread. Barley water was used as a remedy against fever. Also used for production of beer and ale.
  • Rye was also used for bread-making, especially by poorer folks. Possible and deadly adventure hook: when attacked by a certain fungus, rye develops a disease called ergot. The consumption can lead to hallucinations, “dancing mania” and death.
  • Oats were mostly eaten by poor people and used as animal fodder.
  • Milled was commonly used by peasant in soups and porriges, or made into bread. Also used as animal fodder.
  • Rice was classified as luxury item in 13th-century Europe, and in 15th century it was widely cultivated in Northern Italy. Used mostly as the rice flour, for stuffings, sauces, or as a side dish.

Legumes

  • Beans, especially green beans and fava beans, were eaten by the poor and by monks. It was eaten during Lent, and used for bread-making in the time of famine.
  • Peas were eaten both green and dried, as a useful source of protein. Most common were pea soup and potage, peas eaten with bacon, or as peas on a spit: mixture of peas and eggs, fried and then roasted. Suspiciously close to an omelette.
  • Chickpeas were mostly common in the Mediterranean cuisine.

Vegetables

  • Garlic was an important flavouring across Europe, but it’s mostly known for its medicinal purposes: it was regarded as a cure for headached, joint pains, snake bites, plague and evil eye. Add some anti-vampiric flair, and you’re already in a fantasy setting.
  • Onions were added to a variety of sauces, broths and stuffings, roasted with meats, and eaten raw.
  • Leeks were usead as a sweeter and milder alternative for garlic and onions.
  • Cabbage and kale usually ended up on the tables of the poorer folks, but there were a lot of them. Apparently, there is some written evidence that in Bavaria the cabbage was eaten three to four times a day. It was boiled or made into sauerkraut.
  • Lettuce was eaten at the end of the meal, or (with added vinegar) at the beginning, as an apetizer.
  • Turnips were eaten boiled with beef or butter, or picked. Greens were put into potages.
  • Parsnips, apart from being a staple food and easily preserved until winter months, were also usead as a substitute for honey and sugar.
  • Carrots, which may come as a surprise, were not orange. The roots came in tasty purplish red variety, and the inferior yellowish-green. The orange ones were only introduced in the Netherlands in 17th century. Regardless of colour, they were eaten by poor and rich alike.
  • Beets were consumed as both root and the greens, and were a staple for peasants. In the richer households they were usually used only in sauces and broths, or as a colouring agent.
  • Radishes are not menioned in European sources up until 13th century, but they were popular with ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, so there’s no reason to exclude them from your fantasy setting.
  • Gourds and melons, while not extremely popular, were known, and appreciated in hotter climates for their thirst-quenching properties.
  • Cucumbers were eaten far and wide, and used both for food and for their medicinal properties (against fever, during heat waves, and for calming people hot-headed people).
  • Asparagus was usually eaten boiled and seasoned, sometimes coated in flour and fried.
  • Eggplants were brought to Europe by Arabs and embraced in Spain and Italy. They are usually peeled, cored, and stuffed, or chopped, fried, seasoned, and cooked.
  • Spinach was frequently boiled together with other green vegetables or fried; also used as food colouring.
  • Mushrooms were a common thing on a medieval table, as they could be gathered without much hassle. Common field mushroom, porcini cep, king bolete, chanterelles and morels were usually available to most folks, while the truffles were exclusive and expensive – just like today.

 

The grains, legumes and vegetables were predominant on medieval tables. Meats were less common and while nutritious, never became the main source of calories. We’ll cover those later!

 

Where to find recipes

Obviously, you can do your own Google search for ‘medieval recipes’, ‘medieval cookery’ etc. However, I strongly believe in curated sources, so here’s a list of my favourite recipes for tavern meals, with vegetables, grains and legumes as the key ingredients:

Galletes of chickpeas

Roasted rice

Salad of roots

Cabbage pottage

Mushroom pasty

Parsnip pie

White peas in gravy

Eggplant caviar

 

For the interested, featured image is a painting by Joachim Beuckelaer, Market Woman with Fruit, Vegetables and Poultry.

1 thought on “You’re sitting in a tavern; or, Food in the Middle Ages (part 1)”

  1. I am all about this! I used to write a food blog, and I won’t allow any foods in my Medieval Fantasy setting that weren’t available in real medieval Europe. It has no mechanical impact on the game, of course, but it adds flavour (or takes it away, if there’s no chiles!). It’s funny, though, because other kinds of historical anachronisms, like having a rapier or leather-bound books, don’t bother me at all.

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