DINING OUT IN MEDIEVAL LONDON
by REBECCA SLITT See here
"When Londoner William FitzStephen proudly described his city in the late 12C, he found many things to praise. Its trade enriched all of Britain; its soldiers were brave & glorious; its scholars dazzled everyone with their knowledge. But, perhaps surprisingly, William also noted London’s distinctive food options.
"Pointing to the rows of stalls & shops that sold food to the travelers who passed by the banks of the Thames, he explained that, “All things desirable are ready to hand.” According to William, “[a] public cookshop [is] appropriate to a city & pertaining to the art of civic life.”
"The dramatic rise in urbanization & trade that took place in Europe after 1100 C.E. opened up a new world of food for many townspeople. The First Crusade enabled contact between Europe & the Middle East, allowing people from England & France to develop a taste for the more diverse spices & flavors available in the Levant. More importantly, it fostered the development of trade routes so that those foods could make their way back west. Within these new urban trade centers, townspeople had easier access to these new foods.
"Medieval urbanites had a different relationship to their food than country dwellers did. Townspeople grew less of what they ate – although many did grow some, even in cities – than their rural counterparts. Townspeople also bought more, & had access to more varied foodstuffs. This variety was greatest in the huge Italian city-states like Venice & Genoa, which dominated the Mediterranean trade routes & enjoyed closer proximity to the sources of spices & other Asian-grown foods.
"But even in London, at the far northwestern edge of Europe, people had a greater diversity of food & drink than their counterparts in the country. Londoners, for instance, could even obtain wine relatively easily, although this had to be imported from places like Italy & France, & was hard to transport over land because of its weight.
"Grain products, especially wheat & barley, dominated the diet of most northern Europeans, whether they were urban or rural. Sometimes the grain was consumed in the form of bread; sometimes in the form of ale.
"Medieval ale was less alcoholic & more substantial than modern varieties & it was a legitimate source of nutrition. Many people brewed their own ale, or bought it from a local brewer. Making & selling ale was an especially popular job for women who lived in towns. The modern English surname Brewster (meaning specifically a female brewer) reflects the legacy of this medieval occupation.
"Because bake-ovens were expensive, hard to build, & dangerous to operate in the close-packed wooden houses of a medieval city most urbanites didn’t bake their own bread. Instead, some people used the ovens of professional bakers. They made the dough at home & then brought it to another oven to be baked. Other medieval city-dwellers, however, simply bought bread. In Paris, for instance, each village around the city had their own distinctive style of bread that bakers brought in for sale.
"The best bread was, of course, also the most expensive. Remains found in medieval graveyards show a distinctive pattern of wear on the teeth, which tells us that even bread made from the highest-quality flour in late-medieval London had a coarser grain than modern bread.
"Even larger medieval cities like London & Paris still had some green space within them, enough for many residents to have gardens where they grew their own fruits, vegetables, & herbs. This provided a larger variety of fresh foods to the urban population, & ensured that most people had nutritionally balanced diets. Some people even kept animals on their little patches of land. Chickens were especially popular, as were goats (good for milk as well as meat) & pigs.
"People in medieval England ate a lot of fish, much more than most modern people do. Fish was easily available because no part of Britain is more than 70 miles from the coast. Christian dietary restrictions indirectly contributed to this emphasis on fish as eating other kinds of meat on Fridays as well as during Advent, Lent, & other important religious holidays was prohibited. London’s proximity to both the ocean & trade routes meant not only that its residents ate a lot of fish but also that they had access to a wide variety of types of fish.
"The biggest difference between urban & rural diets in medieval England was in the range of available spices. There’s a persistent belief that the heavy spicing of medieval food, especially meat, was intended to hide the fact that the food was slightly off, but this is undoubtedly a myth. While preservation options, especially for meat, were certainly more limited in the Middle Ages, medieval people could still tell when food was past its prime. They also understood that eating it in that state would cause serious illness. But the people who could afford spices on a regular basis were the wealthiest ones – the same people who could also afford high-quality food & were, therefore, the least likely to be forced to eat spoiled meat.
"Instead, there were two main reasons for the abundant spices that we see in medieval recipes. First, people simply liked the flavors. Medieval palates appear to have favored different combinations of spices than modern ones. They especially liked contrasts between sweet & sour or sweet & spicy. For instance, a fifteenth-century English cookbook includes a recipe for a pie filled with ground pork flavored with honey & black pepper; a fourteenth-century recipe gives instructions for a fish pie that includes white pepper, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, & sugar.
"But such heavily spiced dishes also had a social appeal as the high cost of spices made them a status symbol. Serving guests a dish flavored with three different kinds of pepper – as many recipes called for –told everyone that you could afford to buy expensive things.
"Ginger, cloves, pepper, & saffron were the most commonly used spices. Cane sugar, which was also regarded as a spice, was cultivated in Spain as well as the Middle East, & it was highly prized as an ingredient in both food & medicine. Saffron seems to have been even more popular than it is today, despite its high cost. It’s still one of the most expensive foods in the world – it can sell for more than $10,000 a pound. The cost didn’t stop medieval cooks – or, at least, medieval recipe-writers – from using it often. Saffron was also popular because of the distinctive yellow-orange color that it gave to food: it made your wealth visible.
"Several spices were much more common in medieval Europe than modern Europe. For instance, galingale – known to modern chefs as galangal – is mostly found in Thai cooking today, but was very popular in medieval recipes. When Marco Polo found a source of galingale on his travels, he was overjoyed because he knew there was a big market for it back home. Melegueta pepper – also known as grains of paradise – is another spice more common in medieval European cooking than in its modern Western counterpart. Today this spice is found mainly in Middle Eastern specialty stores, but recipes from late-medieval England & France took it for granted that cooks would have access to it.
"All of these recipes come from elite households: nobles or very wealthy commoners. Those were the only people who would need to give instructions to cooks on how to construct elaborate dishes. Only these people would have had access to the wide range of spices & ingredients described in the recipes & only these people would have known how to read the recipes in the first place. Large cities like London were the also the sole places with wealthy non-nobles – the families of merchants, lawyers, civil servants, jewelers – who could support this kind of food culture.
"At the other end of the social scale was the cookshop. As William FitzStephen wrote, these were unique to cities, because only in cities would there be a critical mass of people without kitchens of their own to support these businesses. Cookshops were so abundant in twelfth-century Jerusalem that French-speaking residents named one street Malquissinat: “the Street of Evil Cooking.” In London, cookshops clustered in two main places: near the river where they would be convenient to the water-borne traders, pilgrims, & travelers; & in poor neighborhoods, where tenement dwellers lacked a hearth over which they could cook. Like the residents of modern urban “food deserts,” many impoverished medieval Londoners had to rely on takeout food.
"Late-medieval Londoners ate well, thanks to their trade connections & their creative use of space. They also had a wide range of foods open to them: fresh fruits & vegetables, flavorful spices, abundant meat & fish & wine."
Rebecca Slitt received her Ph.D. in medieval history from Fordham University. Her academic work focuses on aristocratic culture & historical writing in 12C England.