Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Danish Kitchen in the Middle Ages

.A Brief Summary 


The medieval food in Denmark is first of all known from cookbooks handed over from the 1200s and forward. They tell us about what was used in the upper class kitchen,  and since the information is supplied with archaeological examinations and accounts, it can bring us a broader picture, which reveals that the medieval Danish kitchen had a surprisingly international mark. The commodities used were mostly locally produced, but the cooking was similar to the French, English and German sources and the spicing was strong and Middle east.


P.Bruegel: Fight between Carnival and Lent
An important element in the medieval food culture were the numerous Lent days. The Catholic church of the Middle Ages dictated common Lent each Wednesday and Friday, a stronger diet in the 40 days before Easter and in shorter periods up till other ceremonials. All in all it gave 180 Lent days a year. There were special rules about the food in over half the year. The Lent before Easter demanded to renounce all animal food -  but butter, egg and cheese were allowed on the weekly Lent days. Lent food was first of all renouncing meat. Instead people had fish.


The basic food was for the main part of the population mostly bread and butter, made by rye and barley, and to this in lesser amount came oat, wheat, buckwheat and millet. The daily bread was baked on rye, while the broad population had wheat bread only on festival occasions. The barley was used for beer brewing and for porridge. Corn could be stored and used all year, but the food was in general much dependent on the season.

Cattle and swine were usually slaughtered in November and December, and most of the meat were conserved by salting. Poultry like hens, chicken and geese gave fresh meat all year. Cows and sheep gave milch in summer, but not in winter where the fodder was too bad. The milch was not drunk, but conserved as butter and cheese. Meat came also from wild-living animals, but game-hunting was mostly reserved for king and aristocracy.
Plucking cabbage in the garden.
Food like fish played an important role during the numerous Lent days -  and fish were eaten both  fresh salted and dried  Vegetables are almost never mentioned in the written sources, but they must also have been a big part of the food. Even in the cities many people had their own cabbage garden,  where they cultivated green cabbage, peas, beans, onions, red beets and spice herbs.


The meat - which had been salted down - had to be  watered out in several changes of water hefore it could be used as food. Therefore it was often spiced heavily while cooking. One of the myths of medieval food is that the strong spicing had to drown the taste of rotten commodities, but this was not the truth . The price on spices was very high and it must have been cheaper to get hold of some good meat instead.
Medieval dinner at a prince's house
Royal accounts show that Middle east and Indian spices like saffron, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cumin were bought in large quantities. It was probably mostly the upper class who could afford the exotic spices on a daily basis, while the less fortunate impersonated the fine food as much as possible at their festivals. An example of the medieval taste for spices is delivered in todays Christmas food where the composition of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and clove dates from the fine food of the Middle Ages.
Spice herbs like parsley, marjoram and thyme plus garlic, horse radish and mustard recur in the recipes and must have been available to everyone, since they can be cultivated in Denmark. Sugar must also be included with the spices. Sugar was bought in the shape of cane-sugar, imported from the Middle East and therefore very costy. The dishes were instead sweetened with honey and raisins.

Brewery 16th century

Another myth about the Middle Ages is that everyone drank beer all the time - which is not quite wrong. In return most beer was very thin and with a low alcohol procent. The quality of water was extremely bad, especially in the cities - and this is one of the explanations why people preferred beer. The water was boiled during the brewing process, and even though people knew nothing about bacterias they might have experienced that beer gave lesser problems about sickness than the drinking water. Beer was brewed in most large households for their own use for both adults and children. A stronger beer was brewed for festivals, and if people could afford it they bought the strong German beer which was of a good quality. Wine was imported too, and sweet wine was preferred, eventually sweetened with honey and spices.

source: Danmarkhistorie, Mad og drikke i Middelalderen, Aarhus Universitet, Kultur og Samfund.
photo: wikipedia

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