4. The Late Middle Ages (ca. 1250-1520)
The increase in population, technical innovations and cereal production is continued until about 1300. But first problems arise: new available land for settling and agriculture becomes scares, famines become more and more dangerous, soil erosion and leaching reduce the fertility of the fields, shortage in wood as fuel and building material due to excessive clearance becomes apparent. The beginning of the little ice age - a dramatic climate change - causes rougher and colder weather with a series of sudden episodes of extreme weather events which increased soil erosion and famines. This development is the reason for many farmers to leave their land and go live in towns. The final stage is reached in about 1348 when the black plague nearly depopulated vast regions of Europe.
As dark as it may sound, the epidemic resulted in greater wealth for the remaining people. Due to lack of workers and degenerated soils agriculture had to be reduced and pasturing - which involved much fewer numbers of staff needed - were extended. The woods and forests recovered, import of basic and luxury food stuffs grew. Meat and cereal production reached about the same level as in the early middle ages. Famines continued to be a common thing but the consequences could be cushioned by municipal affords and trade.
Chickens and cattle were very important. Whole cattle herds were driven from Hungary to Northern Germany, from Switzerland to Scandinavia. Cereals from the corn basket in the east were traded throughout Europe. Norway, e.g., became completely dependent on cereals imported by the Hanse, resulting in the Hanse dictating Norwegian trade polices. Poland, which did not have enough salt wells, had to cover its demand for salt from trade with France and using even the most unprofitable natural wells. Wine was brought from the Rhine, from Burgundy and the Mediterranean to England and Scandinavia. In short: long distant trade with basic and luxury goods became an integral part of daily live and could determine about live and death. Another new phenomenon is the extreme specialization in crafts which can, also, be seen in the food production sector: from different kinds of butchers and bakers to waffle and pasty makers.
Especially in the very late Late Middle Ages there can be seen a tone down of the fasting regulations. The 15th century is characterized in this respect by a very high number of papal dispensations for eating lard, butter, eggs and dairy products on fast days and in lent. All sources show that this is merely the final stage of a process that had started much earlier. As the increasing number of clerical sermons on the sin of breaking lent, ingredient lists of recipe collections and other written evidence suggest, people started stretching the rules far earlier.
When referring to kitchen practices and the art of cooking, now there is a broad base of written sources available. There are laws of different towns which were supposed to limit the most extreme expenses on feasts but not daily food consumption. Control about the later was mainly not derived by laws but by social regulations expressed in sermons, literature and social pressure within the community. Wealth and the availability of food stuffs on the nearby markets, also, were an important means of indirect limiting regulation. Most laws were not for dictating the appropriate kind of alimentation but for ensuring food safety, quality and expenses. It is important to say that the high number of such laws and the dense frequency in which they sometimes had to be past or altered over and over again shows, that those shortcommings and irregularities continued to exist and were very hard to battle against. Sermons and literature, on the other hand, do not reflect reality. Statements like that of Johannes Boemus at the beginning of this paper were thought to give an ideal example how people should act. It was meant to give an example how modest someone may live. In sermons and literature there is a highly moral component which limits the level of reality.
Other sources are menus and descriptions of feasts, plans of provisions for servants and employees, rations for inhabitants of hospitals or for soldiers, travel memoirs and pictures. Another category of sources are the most direct: handwritten or (later) printed recipe collections. We are used to cook books with a contents divided into categories of recipes which first list all the ingredients needed and then precisely explain how to produce the meal. Medieval recipes are, on the contrary, mostly very vague, leaving lots of room for interpretation and different readings. There are hardly any measurements or time spans mentioned because they were written for experienced cooks who knew their trade and just needed a memory aid. Interpretations were only limited by money, cultural conventions, medical advices and the imagination of the cook. The oldest known recipe collection written in German language is the "Buoch von guoter spise" (Book of good food) from around 1350. It is part of the only still existing of formerly two volumes, bound for the episcopal protonotarius of Würzburg, Michael de Leone, which contained literature, minne songs, sermons, tracts on the plague, health advice, patterns for official documents and much more.
Foreign imports were, e.g., almonds, sugar, saffron, two kinds of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and macis. One of the common misconceptions today is, that most people could not afford black pepper because it was an imported good. The written sources show clearly that it has been the cheapest of all traded spices. It was part of the daily ration for wardens and prisoners in Burgundy in the 14th century and has been so widely common in France that its reputation was so low as to substitute it in fine cuisine with the than more expensive "crains de paradis" (meleguetta pepper). Other more exclusive kinds of pepper were white pepper, long pepper and cubebs.
The cooks of the wealthy - but in some respect the poorer population, too - could choose from a more or less wide variety of spices. At least in the kitchen of the upper classes they were extensively used. The recipe collections and cook books often combine many spices in one dish. But this does not mean, as often stated, that medieval dishes are heavily over-spiced. Those dishes were thought for feasts and big events. I.e. the host wanted to show off that he could afford the best and of that the highest amount, he wanted to give an impression of his wealth and status. So, this is not the ordinary every day preparation.
Secondly, using many spices does not mean to use much of every spice. On a contemporary standpoint using to much of a spice could mean sever damage to the body. The balance of the bodily "fluids" or "juices" had to be maintained - known as the theory of the humoral pathology. Using the wrong ingredient combination or to much of a spice could cause an imbalance and therewith illness and harm to the patient.
Additional, most spices were on their way to the consumer for a very long time, poorly wrapped - concerning modern standards - and under influence of the elements. It could take months or even years from the harvest into the dishes. Temperature fluctuations, light, air, weather had many chances on influencing their taste. So it could be possible, that more of a spice was needed than today, because it had partly lost its flavour.
As mentioned above there were hardly any measurements given. So we can not directly judge about the amounts used, really. But some recipes state that the taste of a dish should contain more flavour of one spice, e.g. cloves, than of others. Or it said to "use thrice as much caraway seed as pepper" or "be careful none of them stands out". This gives the impression of a very well balanced and harmonic spicing.
To learn all those things important for running a domestic kitchen, medieval cooks had to pass a very long time of apprenticeship - often starting as a child and doing minor things like turning the spits. Learning was done by watching the other cooks and by practical work. The recipes mostly were past on verbally and had to be memorized. The recipe collections therefore can be seen as memory aid for dishes which were not cooked every day. The kitchen masters had a smaller but different repertoire of food stuffs at their disposal than today, so they had to be very imaginative to provide a varied diet. Organizing and supervising the kitchen and its staff, choosing the right dishes for daily and festive meals, controlling the ingredients and their storage, deciding which decorations to use an the food, knowing the basics of medical dietary and a lot more afforded a lot of skill, knowledge and artistic means. Besides the trained professional cook - most of them were men - existed another category of kitchen managers, often employed in wealthy but not to rich households. Those were commonly women known to prepare good food. They were mostly not professionally trained and had learned their business from their mothers. These cooks did not earn as much money as the professionals.
The table like hearth now dominates the kitchens of the wealthy against other kinds of fire places. But the fire on the ground still continued to exist in many households and regions. If possible the kitchen was located in a separate building to ensure fire safety. The building ensemble and location of the kitchen were highly dependant on local conditions, especially in towns there was not enough room for separate buildings. So one or more rooms of the house had to by furnished for cooking. The common characteristics shared by kitchens - no matter if separate house or just a room - are: fire safe construction (stone, bricks, ...), at least one chimney spanning above the fire place or the whole room and at least one fire place on the ground or on an elevated hearth construction along one of the walls or less common in the middle of the room. Often, there is an oven for backing - either handled from the kitchen or apart from it. As shown by ethnological records, the firing opening of a tiled oven could be used for baking, too. In front of and hanging on the walls there could be shelves holding the necessary equipment. If possible, a well was situated close to the culinary wing. Cellars, larders, storage pits and the attic were used to store ingredients. One example of the more fancy establishments was the culinary wing of the castle of Heidelberg consisting of a room for slaughtering, one for baking, the kitchen for servants and lower guests, the kitchen for the aristocratic family and its guests and rooms for storage, food dressing and accommodating of staff.
The equipment used for cooking consisted of a wide range of materials. Pots with and without lids, storage vessels, pans, strainers, funnels, candle holders and moulds were made of clay. Wood was used for bowls and dishes, moulds, spatulas, spoons for cooking and a lot more. Cauldrons, kettles, pans, bowls, vessels for washing the hands, plates for serving, spoons and other things consisted of alloyed metals; tripods, pans, spatulas, knives and hatchets, meat forks, spits and so on of iron. Stone was used for culinary purposes, too: slabs for confectionery, hand mills, mortars etc. Other materials are textiles made of plant or animal fibres (cloths for filtering, sieves, ...), clean straw and hay (mats, stands, ...), bone and horn. The amount of metal increased even in poorer households. A special feature introduced in the 13th century was glazed pottery which reached some regions in Germany not before the 15th century.
The most common methods of food preparation were boiling in water or wine, baking and roasting on a spit, a grill or in a pan. Often different methods were combined in the process. Perboiling was used to get rid of "dangerous" fluids in medical sense, to make it easier to remove bones and fish bones, to extend the live span of perishable foods a bit and to give the cook an example of what to do with still usable food remains.
The most common parallel in European medieval cookery were almond based recipes such as a dish often called "blanc manger" - ancestor to but quiet different from the modern time British recipe. The varieties are numerous and there are many different regional recipes to be found. The origin of this class of food is thought to be the Muslim world. The French and English examples are characterized by the use of flowers and fruits, the German on the other hand more often contained lard and sugar. The way on which foreign dishes reached the Western world is most often very hard to grasp. It seems that there are several tracks to follow. Muslim influence reached Europe through the Islamic conquest of Spain and Sicily. From Spain some dishes might have been introduced to France and Italy. The Norman conquerors of Sicily liked the Islamic culture, art and cuisine they were confronted with very much and the anglo-norman elite of Great Britain was in very close contact with their brethren in the Mediterranean. So recipes travelled relatively fast and easy from the South to England. Another track begins on Sicily, also. From there the cuisine spread throughout Italy and France finally reaching Germany. The details are still hard to identify and to prove and there is a lot of speculation on this sector given the lack of useful historical culinary sources from the time this process most likely took place. But the astounding similarities between Medieval Sicilian and English recipes and the apparent differences between French and English cuisine indicate a more direct influence in this sector from the far South to the North. Other common features and differences can be seen, too. French and British were big pasty lovers, the Germans less. French and British cooks used agresto and verjuice (juice of green, unripe apples or more often grapes), whereas the Germans liked vinegar. Raw eggs, dry white bread and "amidon" - a preparation of wheat starch - were common thickeners. White bread seems to have been a bit more famous in Germany and amidon basically unknown. In Britain they might have used a bit more amidon compared to the French.