Monday, March 26, 2012

Medieval Easter Dinner at the Bishop's House

The Middle Ages.

The medieval bishops were powerful men. They had a place in the Danish king's council and acted more like princes and statesmen than church leaders.  A bishop's residence was often a castle - a typical bishop-residence was Spøttrup castle in North Jutland which today is a medieval museum. It is one of very few medieval castles left in Denmark. Spøttrup was one of the most modern fortifications in Denmark during the 1500s with high embankments with palisades and double moats - a powerful fortification and a magnifcient residence for a bishop.

The bishop celebrated Easter dinner in the great hall together with his highly trusted employees and possible guests. The other staff had dinner in the associated rooms. On a daily basis all dishes were served at the bishop's high table only, while the staff in the other rooms had fewer dishes - but at a great feast like Easter each dish was served to everyone in the house. Easter was the greatest church feast of the year, and the account from the bishop's house reveals a little about the cuisine at that time. The commodities and the choice of menu was an expression of a wide and advanced range. The dinner had 10 dishes, and the ceremony took several hours.

The bishop sat in his high seat with his fine bishop's cap on his head and his majestic bishop-rod in his hand. He might wear a purple velvet cape, bordered with ermine, and all his guests and all his staff were dressed in their finest clothes. The table was covered in fine tablecloths in several layers. The utensils were mostly ceramics or wood and possibly pewter. In an inventory list from the bishop's household are mentioned 15 drinking horns, carved in animal horn, and 6 candelabres, a part of the table decoration.The Swedish historian Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) recounts that the Scandinavians rarely used glassware, since they had a habit of crushing the glass after drinking, and glass was extremely costy. The utensils were knives and spoons and the fingers - the fork was not yet known.

The Easter Dinner was initiated by the chancellor who said the grace, and the chaplain later read from the holy scripture. During dinner was entertainment with musicians with pipes and drums and a performance by the jester. The basic idea in these feasts was that the music and other cultural events accompanied a high gastronomic cuisine. The symbol of the Easter meal played a decisive role. The first dish was roast lamb or mutton with bread, the second was wine soup, possibly with saffron, and later boiled eggs. The festival bread, called vegge, was possibly also coloured yellow with saffron. Saffron was the most expensive spice together with pepper and reserved for the upper class. All dishes were accompanied by wine. Royal accounts shows that spices from the Middle East and India like saffron, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cumin were bought in large amounts. It was probably only the upper class, who could afford these exotic spices on a daily basis, while the less fortunate as much as possible imitated the delicate food at festivals and celebrations.

The return of the meat was important in the Easter meal after 40 days' Lent, which had been dominated by bread, cabbage and salt fish. Most meat was salted, and it was a rare thing to have the popular fresh meat like beef, lamb or pork. Venison was a very desirable delicacy, which mostly was reserved at the princes' table. A substantial part of the menu was the beverage: mead, wine and beer.

Mead, wine, beer and herbal water are mentioned as medicine in the medical books. Honey was also considered a medicine; it had to be cleansed carefully before using it in the cuisine and in the preparation of various drinks. Mead was one of the earliest known drinks;  it was produced with water, honey and herbs like sweet gale or hops and with beer yeast. It was a common thing to put a linen bag into the mead barrel. A recipe from an old medical book reports contents like: pepper, ginger, cardamom, clove and cinnamon. This brought a better taste and durability to the mead. Wine was imported and a very rare drink in Denmark. Sweet wine was preferred, maybe sweetened with honey and spices. There is a myth about the Middle Ages: that everyone was drinking beer all the time. This might not be wrong, but the beer was very thin and with a low alcohol percentage; the quality of drinking water was bad, especially in the towns - this might be an explanation why beer was preferred. The water was boiled during the brewing process, and although people did not know about bacterias, they might have noticed that beer caused fewer health problems than tap water.
Magnificent display-dishes were carried past the bishop and his guests between each serving. Large decorated centerpieces with a peacock or other animals were crowning the dish. They were not meant to be eaten, but they were shown together with decorated patés, where the lid described the content, and the whole scenery was a festive sight to the dinner party. During and after meals servants appeared with jugs and dishes with fragrant water, mostly rose-water, and with towels, for the dinner guests to wash and dry their hands. A comprehensive serving staff was present at big parties like the Easter festival. They were young men of nobility - as a part of their education they had to serve the Easter dinner to the gentry in the most distinguished way.

A cupbearer, the Kredens, had to cut the meat and the bread - and furthermore taste the food and drink before it was served to the party. At that time people were not afraid of salmonella and other food poisoning, like we are today - they were simply afraid of being poisoned by their enemies. If things went quite wrong they used an antidote called theriaca. It was an Arabic invention from the late 1100s. The content of this medicine was: *slangerod, (snake root), gentian, laurel , the best and noblest myrrh and honey. The original Arabian theriaca contained snake, which in the new recipes was replaced by a crushed powder from the root of the strong and poisonous root of the snake root- herb. It was a common advice to use the powder of this root against snake bites and as an emetic.

* Danish name : Slangerod , Latin:  Aristolochia clematitis ; English name: European Birthwort. 

A  reconstruction of an Easter Dinner anno 1520:
spit-roasted leg of lamb
wine soup
cooked beef
poached eggs
roast game tenderloin
boiled pike
venison paté
roast pigeons
fresh cheese
fig dessert.

Wine Soup in a translated version from a  medieval recipe :
4 egg yolks
50 gram sugar,
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg,
6 dl white wine,
1 cinnamon stick,
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger.

1. Whip egg yolk with sugar and nutmeg, crush saffron in a mortar and dissolve it in a little wine.
2. Mix wine, saffron, cinnamon and ginger in a pot. Boil the mix in moderate heat. Just before it boils remove from heat. Remove the cinnamon stick.
3. Whip a little wine mix slowly into the egg mass. The egg mix back into the pot while stirring. Heat the wine soup slowly while stirring, until it is smooth and hot, min. 75 degree Celsius. Serve the hot soup - accompanied by butter-toasted wheat bread.


Source: Bente Leed, Danskernes mad i middelalderen, Forlaget åløkke a/s, 1999

photo Spøttrup: grethe bachmann
images: bishop chess piece in ivory 1200s; medieval castle kitchen; Bayeux tapestry;  
Feast-Canterbury Tales; Theriaca pharmacies jar.


Out on the prairie said...

the saffron bread sounds fun to try.I will have to look up the sweet gale. I jhave made some meads, but used more fruit flavors. The spiced version sounds better.

Thyra said...

Hej Steve, yes, I'm sure the sweet gale is good for your mead. It's called pors in Danish and they use it in some Danish snaps like Brøndum. (from Aalborg). You can buy dried pors in pharmacies.

Sweet Gale is also good when you add it to a neutral snaps or vodka, it gives a fine dark golden herb-snaps. It must be fun to make mead. I have never tried that.

Sweet Gale is also called Bog Myrtle or Candle Berry in English.
I'll have to find pors soon for a snaps! Both the porse buds and later the leaves are fine. A wonderful scent.

Have fun!

Grethe ´)

Wanda..... said...

The saffron bread is something I might like, but the wine soup ingredients have me fearful of it's taste, sounds like a custard to me!

Thyra said...

Hello Wanda, I would like the saffron bread too, but the dinner sounds very heavy, and those bishops and all the others might need some medicine after that dinner, don't you think! ´)