Fact or Fiction: 
Myths about period cookery

Myth: In the Middle Ages, they used spices to cover up the flavor of spoiled meat.

While it is true that medieval cooks used a wider variety of spices in meat dishes than the modern palate is accustomed to, there is no evidence that this was ever done to cover up the taste of spoiled meat.  It is more likely that spices were used to vary what would otherwise be a fairly monotonous diet, especially in the winter.  Using a variety of spices was also a way to show how wealthy you were; spices were an expensive luxury item, and would not have been common in a peasant's diet.

Another factor that may contribute to the "spoiled meat" myth is that, since we are all accustomed to modern refrigeration, we can't imagine how people would preserve meat without one.  Since they didn't have refrigerators, their meat must have spoiled within a day or two, right?  

Well, actually, they had several methods of preserving meats and other foods.  It could be salted, dried, pickled in brine or vinegar, and, if the winter was cold enough, frozen.  It might even have been sealed inside a hard pastry crust that would keep out the air and preserve the meat from spoiling that way.  And of course, they had the option of butchering animals only as needed.  So while they might not have always had fresh meat as we think of it, they didn't have to eat meat that was spoiled.

However, meats that were preserved by salting or drying would suffer some loss of flavor.  Salted meat would generally have to be soaked or rinsed in water for a time to remove at least some of the salt.  Dried meats would also tend to suffer from a loss of flavor.  Spices were used to restore some of the lost flavor.

Myth:  It's very expensive to cook period feasts.

It might appear that way at first.  But there are several important things to keep in mind.
  • First, period feast menus generally contain a lot of meats, and especially a lot of game meats that would be prohibitively expensive for a modern cook to use.  But while the menu for a single course might contain twenty different meats, remember that each guest was not expected to have a serving of each dish.  Instead, you might have portions of a few favorites, remembering that there were more courses to come.

    Also, keep in mind that the game meats that would be so expensive for us to obtain were commonly available to period cooks.  Being as thrifty as any modern cook, they would use what was available and inexpensive.  Perhaps an alternative would be to serve mostly beef, pork and chicken (meats that are available and affordable for modern cooks), with small amounts of rabbit, quail, or venison so that people can get a taste of what would have been on a period table.

  • Second, cooks in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had no choice but to use whatever foods were seasonally available.  However, modern cooks trying to emulate them often forget that fruits and vegetables have seasons.  After all, we can walk into a grocery store any day of the year and expect to find oranges, apples, melons, asparagus, and strawberries.  But keep in mind that foods that are in season are usually a lot cheaper.  As an example, asparagus can be found for as little as $.99/lb in the spring; but if you put it on your menu for a fall harvest feast, be prepared to spend three or four times that amount per pound.  So you can save a substantial amount of money by sticking to foods appropriate to the season.

  • Finally, people often think that the amount and number of spices that are used will increase the cost of a period feast.  Now, it's true that if you go out and buy the spices in those fancy glass jars, you'll be paying $3-$6 for a whole jar of a spice, when you're only going to end up using a tablespoon of the stuff.  So here's Arwen's favorite money-saving tip for cooks:  Buy your spices in bulk at a local health food store (Wild Oats, for example), or your local food co-op, if you're fortunate enough to have access to one.  That way, you buy only the amount you need, and you're not paying for the glass jar.  You can generally buy all the spices you need for a feast for 100 for well under $5.


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