Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Middle Ages: From Fasting to Feasting

In contrast to the few non-specific references to eating in Anglo-Saxon literature, medieval literature, particularly that dating from the later Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries),  contains far more references to food.   Fish, stews, pies, bread and sweetmeats, all washed down with ale and wine, are scattered through the pages of many texts from the period.   

 A medieval feast, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th century French book of hours 

The Church played a prominent role in Medieval England.  That is not to say that everyone believed in God and attended church every Sunday, but the year was shaped by the various high days and holy days of the liturgical year, and the Church made its presence felt in the practices and rituals of everyday life.  This was clearly seen in food practices of the period, which are then reflected in contemporary literature.    Approximately one third of the year was defined as a period of fasting, which meant severe restrictions on what could be eaten: this included Wednesdays, Fridays (in commemoration of Christ being crucified on Good Friday) and Saturdays; Advent (the season of approximately four weeks that leads up to Christmas) and Lent (the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter).  Meat could not be consumed at these times, though fish could, and in Advent and Lent it was customary to refrain from eating all animal products, including eggs and dairy.  These restrictions account for the eating practices of Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day), the day before Ash Wednesday, when pancakes were – and still continue to be –  made as a way of using up all the dairy products in the house before the 40 days of Lent.  

Complaints about the constraints of a Church-regulated medieval diet, particularly for those who lived away from the coastline and thus had little, if any, access to fresh fish, are expressed in a 15th century poem, “Farewell Advent” by James Ryman, who is thought to have been a Franciscan friar from Canterbury.   In the poem the speaker complains about the hardships he and his fellow-humans have endured during Advent.  They have been going “hungrye to bed”, and “For lak of mete... were nighe [nearly] dead”.  Deprived of “puddings” and “souse [pickled pork]”, and since “There was no freshe fishe, ferre ne nere”, and “Salt fish and salmon was too dere”, their diet has been a paltry one.  The speaker refers to “stinking fishe”, “plaices thin, / Nothing on them but bone and skin”, “browne” “musty” bread and “thin” and “soure” ale.  That being the case, it’s no surprise that, despite his clerical status, Ryman cannot wait to see the back of Advent and welcome in the festivities of Christmas.  The full poem can be accessed at:
However, in other literature from the period references to fish are far more positive.  

 Medieval net fishing

In the best-known English text of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1380s – 1400), one of the storytelling pilgrims, the Franklin, who is described as an Epicurean, keeps bream and pike in a fishpond (for personal consumption).  Pike, a fish rarely eaten nowadays, is also referred to as a foodstuff in The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1430s).  This book, often described as the first autobiography in English, recounts the later years of an East Anglian wife and mother, from Kings Lynn, and her desire to pursue a religious life in the world, as opposed to within the constraints of a convent, a decision that often set her at odds with the religious establishment of the day.  She records that she was invited to dinner “on a fish day at a good man’s table” and was “served with various fish, such as red herring and good pike” (trans. Barry Windeatt, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 288).  And in fact fish play a central role in the Christmas festivities of the late 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (about which there will be more in my next post).  Fish are served up in a myriad of ways at the Green Knight’s court.   The original text reads: 

........................................................and fele kyn fische3,
Summe baken in bred, summe brad on þe glede3,
Summe soþen, summe in sewe sauered with spyces,
And ay sawses so sle3e þat þe segge liked.  (ll. 890-893, from W. R. J. Barron’s edition, published by Manchester University Press, 1974)

This translates as: “and many kinds of fish, / Some baked in pie-crust (or bread), some grilled on the embers, / Some poached (or boiled), some in stew flavoured with spices, and all with sauces so skilfully made as to please the knight.” 

As luck would have it, I found in one of my old university text books (The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose, ed. Douglas Gray [Oxford University Press, 1988]), a medieval fish recipe, taken from a late 15th century manuscript: “Sawmon Irosted in sauce” (Roasted salmon in sauce).  The original recipe reads:
Take and cutte a sawmon rownde in peces.  Roste hem apon a gredeyrne.  And take wyne and poudere of canell (cinnamon), and drawe hit thorowe a streynour; mince onyons smale, and do togeder, and let boyll.  Then take venegur or verjus, and poudere gynger, salte, and do therto.  Then ley the sawmon in a dyshe, and poure the seryppe all aboute, and serve it furthe.  (page 134)

As you can see, medieval recipe writers were far from precise in their ingredients (no measurements) and in their instructions (no timings)!  But this is my version of it, with a little more precision than the original version.  

Ingredients (per person):
1 salmon fillet
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot (chopped finely)
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
60ml red wine
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
Salt and pepper

Brush the salmon fillet with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, season lightly with salt and pepper, and then cook both sides evenly, either in a griddle pan or under a hot grill.  Warm the other tablespoon of olive oil in a small saucepan, and then fry the chopped shallot until soft and translucent.  Add the cinnamon, fry briefly, then stir in the red wine and bring to the boil.  Reduce to a simmer, then add the vinegar, ground ginger and salt; continue to simmer until the liquid has reduced by one third.  Pour over the salmon; I served it accompanied by mushrooms and spinach (stir-fried in olive oil).  

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