Food has been central to the social life of humans for thousands of years and, in medieval Europe, food consumption ranged from everyday sustenance to extravagant feasts.
The diet of the rich and poor was very different. While the upper classes and their households enjoyed fresh and imported foods, the rest of the population had to live off what the local land could produce which, at the end of winter or in times of shortage, might be very little!
Diet wasn’t just affected by the seasons, religion also played a part in what people ate. Fridays (and, in the earlier period, Wednesdays and Saturdays) were obligatory weekly fasting or ‘fysshe’ days, when it was prohibited to eat meat. There were also annual fasts such as Rogation Days, Advent and Lent, which restricted diets. Medieval cooks invented creative recipes for wealthy diners during fast periods – including mock hard-boiled eggs made of coloured almond paste inside blown shells for Lent, when dairy was prohibited!
A huge amount of preparation went into the creation of feasts. When the whole royal court assembled, hundreds of people could be sitting down to eat. For the two great feasts at Easter and Christmas, preparations had to start months ahead, when preserves were ordered and made. Fasting took place in the Advent period, meaning four weeks of lean eating to prepare for the feast.
We have compiled 11 of our favourite recipes from the Middle Ages, which you can recreate at home to make your own medieval feast! And while meat is clearly a feature, there are a surprising number of vegan and vegetarian dishes, so there’s something for everyone.
Starters and snacks
Mixed pickles (vegetarian, can be made vegan)
Take rote of persel, of pasternak, of rafens, scrape hem and waische him clene. Take rapes & caboches, ypared and ycorue. Take an erthen panne with clene water & set it on the fire; cast all thise therinne. Whan they buth boiled cast therto peeres & perboile hem wel. Take alle thise thynges vp & lat it kele on a faire cloth. Do therto salt; whan it is colde, do hit in a vessel; take vyneger & powdour & safroun & do therto, & lat alle thise thynges lye therein at night, other al day. Take wyne greke & hony clarified togider; take lumbarde mustard & raisouns coraunce, al hoole, & grynde powdour of canel, powdour douce & aneys hole, & fenell seed. Take alle thise thynges & cast togyder in a pot of erthe, & take thereof whan thou wilt & serue forth.
Curye on Inglysch, IV. 103
This recipe creates the perfect accompaniment to your Christmas cheese and crackers. Pickling was an important way of preserving vegetables in the Middle Ages, and still is.
The French Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris) had recipes for pickling walnuts and various vegetables and fruits grown on the fictional writer’s farm, but he soaked the whole lot in honey – probably ruining the teeth of everyone in his household! This recipe is not quite as sweet and is more like modern recipes.
Swap the honey for sugar to make this vegan.
- 900g mixed parsley roots, carrots, radishes and turnips
- 450g white cabbage
- 450g hard eating pears
- 6 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1⁄2 tsp dried saffron strands
- 425ml white wine vinegar
- 50g currants
- 575ml fruity white wine
- 6 tbsp clear honey
- 1 tsp of French mustard
- 1⁄8 tsp each of ground cinnamon and black pepper
- 1⁄4 tsp each of anise and fennel seeds
- 50g white sugar
Wash and peel the root vegetables and slice them thinly. Core and shred the cabbage. Put the vegetables into a large pan of water and slowly bring to the boil. Peel, core and cut up the pears and add them to the pan. Cook until they start to soften. Drain the contents of the pan and spread in a 5cm layer in a shallow non-metallic dish. Sprinkle with the salt, ginger, saffron and 4 tbsp of the vinegar. Leave, covered, for 12 hours. Rinse well, then add the currants. Pack into sterilised storage jars, with at least 2.5cm headspace. Put the wine and honey in a pan. Bring to simmering point and skim. Add the rest of the vinegar and all the remaining spices and sugar. Reduce the heat and stir without boiling until the sugar dissolves. Bring back to the boil. Pour over the vegetables, covering them with 1cm of liquid. Cover with vinegar-proof seals and store.
Cabbage chowder (vegan)
Take caboches and quarter hem, and seeth hem in gode broth with oynouns ymynced and the whyte of lekes yslyt and ycorue smale. And do therto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.
Curye on Inglysch, IV. 6
The French Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris), has quite a lot to say about cabbages, from the small spring sprouts for salads to the frostbitten winter leaves. However, the recommendation to boil cabbages all morning is best ignored! This recipe could be made as a starter, or as a main course if you add small pieces of toast and small strips of fried bacon – both well-known medieval additions.
- 600g firm-hearted cabbage or 700g open-hearted cabbage or spring greens
- 225g onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 225g white part of leeks, thinly sliced into rings
- A tsp of dried saffron strands
- 1⁄2 tsp of salt
- 1⁄4 tsp each of ground coriander, cinnamon and sugar
- 850ml chicken or vegetable stock
If using a firm-hearted cabbage cut it into eight segments and remove the centre core. If using an open-hearted cabbage or greens, cut off the stalks and cut the leaves into strips. Put into a large pan with the prepared onions and leeks. Stir the saffron, salt and spices into the stock, adjusting the quantity of salt if required, then pour the mixture over the vegetables. Cook gently, covered, for about 20 minutes or until segments of firm cabbage are tender.
‘Departed’ creamed fish
To make mortreux of fisch. Tak plays or fresch meluel or merlyng & seth it in fayre water, and then tak awey the skyn & the bones & presse the fisch in a cloth & bray it in a mortere, and tempre it vp with almond melk, & bray poudere of gynger & sugre togedere & departe the mortreux on tweyne in two pottes & coloure that on with saffroun & dresch it in disches, half of that on & half of that other, & strawe poudere of gyngere & sugre on that on & clene sugre on that other & serue it forth.
Curye on Inglysch, III. 26
Mortrews was a type of pottage or paté that contained either fish or meat, mixed with almonds. ‘Departed’ just means that the dish is ‘parted in two’ different colours. The Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris) suggested a chicken liver or meat mortrews, but this fish option would be a good substitute on ‘fysshe’ days when eating meat was forbidden.
Serves 6 as a starter
• 600g skinned cod fillet
• A pinch of sea salt
• 125g ground almonds
• 2 tsp rice flour or corn flour
• 3 tbsp deep yellow saffron water or food colouring
• 1⁄2 tsp ground ginger
• 3⁄4 tsp white sugar
Poach the fish fillet in about 575ml of salted water until cooked through. Drain off the cooking liquid into a measuring jug. Pour 275ml of this liquid over the almonds in a bowl. Press the ﬁsh under a cloth or kitchen paper to squeeze out excess moisture, then flake it. Strain the almond ‘milk’ into a jug, stirring to separate the free liquid from the almond sludge in the strainer. Put the liquid into an electric blender, followed by the flaked fish, and process until smooth. If the mixture is too stiff to process easily, add a little more fish cooking liquid. Turn the mixture into a bowl. In a small saucepan, cream the rice flour or cornflour with 3 or 4 tbsp of fish cooking liquid, then heat the mixture gently until it thickens. Stir this ‘cream’ into the fish mixture and season with salt. Put half the mixture into a separate bowl and tint it deep gold with the saffron water or food colouring. Combine the ground ginger and 1⁄4 tsp of the sugar and mix into the golden fish, reserving a little of the mixture for sprinkling. If you like ginger, increase the quantity. Serve the mortrews in six small bowls or plates, putting a coloured and a plain spoonful of mixture side by side in each. Chill until needed. Just before serving, sprinkle the remaining ginger/sugar mix on the gold portions and the remaining 1⁄2 tsp plain sugar on the white portions.
Spit-roasted or grilled steak
To make Stekys of venson or bef. Take Venyson or Bef, & leche & gredyl it vp broun; then take Vynegre & a litel verious, & a lytil Wyne, and putte pouder perpir ther-on y-now, and pouder Gyngere; and atte the dressoure straw on pouder Canelle y-now, that the stekys be al y-helid ther-wyth, and but a litel; Sawce & then serue it forth.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books, Harleian MS 279, p. 40
• 6 fairly thin beef steaks
• Oil or fat for grilling
• 2 tsp red wine vinegar
• 1–2 tbsp Seville orange juice
• 4 tbsp red wine
• Pinch each of ground black pepper and ginger
• Sprinkling of ground cinnamon
The original recipe calls for ‘verjuice’, a popular medieval condiment made from specially grown or (in England) unripe grapes. But another recipe from the Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris) suggests using the juice of Seville oranges. If you can get these in season and freeze them, you can use their juice as a substitute for verjuice – it makes a delicious sauce. Nick the edges of the steaks and grease them. Mix the sauce ingredients in a jug, adjusting the proportions if you wish. Then grill the steaks as you prefer. Warm the sauce and sprinkle a few drops over the meat while grilling it. Serve the steaks lightly sprinkled with cinnamon and any remaining sauce.
Mushroom pasties (vegetarian, can be made vegan)
Mushrooms of one night are the best, if they are small, red inside, and closed at the top: and they should be peeled and then washed in hot water and parboiled, and if you wish to put them in a pasty add oil, cheese and spice powder.
The Goodman of Paris, trans. E. Power
This recipe is from the Medieval household book Le Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris). At home it is likely that the fictional narrator of the book, who kept a well-furnished table, would serve a large double-crust pasty or plate pie – but on his journeys to and from the farm, small ones probably seemed more suitable.
• 450g home-made or bought shortcrust pastry, thawed if frozen
• 450g button mushrooms
• Pinch of salt
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 50g Cheddar cheese, grated
• 1⁄2 tsp salt
• 1⁄8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
• 1⁄4 tsp dry mustard powder
• 1 egg, beaten
To make this recipe vegan use vegan pastry, omit the cheese or use vegan cheese, and use soy, rice or almond milk instead of the egg to seal the pastry.
Use two-thirds of the pastry to line small, deep pans. Chill while making the filling. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Trim off and discard the bottoms of the mushroom stems, then dip the mushrooms in boiling salted water, holding them in a sieve. Drain them, pat dry, then chop or slice them. Put them in a bowl and mix them with the oil, cheese and seasonings. Fill the mixture into the pastry cases. Roll out the remaining pastry and use it to make lids for the pasties. Seal the lids with beaten egg. Decorate the tops with pastry trimmings and brush with the remaining egg. Make a small crosscut in the centre of each lid. Bake the little pies in the oven for 15–18 minutes. Serve warm.
Lamb or mutton stew
Take veel other[wise] motoun and smyte it to gobettes. Seeth it in gode broth; cast therto erbes yhewe gode won, and a quantite of oynouns mynced, powdour fort and safroun, and alye it with ayren and verious: but let it not seeth after.
Curye on Inglysch, IV. 18
• 900g boneless stewing lamb or mutton
• 425ml chicken stock
• 2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 tbsp chopped parsley
• 1/2–1 tsp each fresh rosemary leaves, thyme leaves, and savory or marjoram leaves, bruised in a mill (use less if using dried herbs)
• 1/4 tsp each ground ginger, cumin and coriander
• Salt to taste
• 225ml white wine
• 2 eggs
• 2 tbsp lemon juice
Cut the meat into 5cm cubes. Put the stock into a stewpan and bring to the boil. Add the meat and bring back to the boil. Skim if needed, then add the prepared onions, herbs, spices, salt and wine. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and cook gently until the meat cubes are cooked through and tender (1–1 1/2 hours). Beat the eggs with the lemon juice until blended, then take the pan off the heat and stir the egg mixture gradually into the stew to thicken it slightly. Do not re-boil.
Haddock in tasty sauce
Shal be yopened & ywasshe clene & ysode & yrosted on a gridel; grind peper & saffron, bred and ale mynce oynons, fri hem in ale, and do therto, and salt: boille hit, do thyn haddok in plateres, and the ciuey aboue, and ghif forth.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books, Laud. 553, p. 114
This dish is a type of civet, which is a form of stew, usually made with meat of game. In old dishes the cook is usually told to ‘drawe’ a fish, animal or bird, so this recipe interprets ‘yopened’ to mean that the fish or meat should be cut open and boned. It could then easily be cut in pieces and eaten with a spoon. Oil could be used by strict (and wealthy) dieters for frying food in Lent, but poor people would probably use butter, and omit the costly saffron, as we’ve done here as it’s still costly!
- 900g haddock fillet
- 75g onions, peeled and finely chopped
- Oil or butter for frying
- 1⁄4 tsp ground white pepper
- 75g fine soft white breadcrumbs
- 125ml brown ale
Skin the haddock fillet and cut into several pieces. Put enough salted water into a shallow pan to cover the fish and bring it to the boil. Put in the fish and simmer for a moment or two, then cover the pan and remove from the heat – the fish will continue to cook in the hot water while you make the sauce. For this, fry the onions in the fat until just beginning to brown. Mix the pepper with the breadcrumbs and add them to the onions with the ale and 225ml of the water used to cook the fish. Process until smooth in an electric blender, then simmer for a few minutes to reheat.
While simmering, drain the remaining water from the cooked fish and put the pieces on the grill rack. Brush them with a little melted fat, then place them under a hot grilling flame until they are just beginning to glaze. Cut them into bite-sized or serving portions and spoon some sauce over them. Serve the rest separately. If you don’t like ale or beer you can use cider instead.
Cherry pottage (vegetarian)
Tak cheryes & do out the stones & grynde hem wel & draw hem thorw a streynour & do it in a pot. & do therto whit gres or swete botere & myed wastel bred, & cast therto good wyn & sugre, & salte it & stere it wel togedere, & dresse it in disches; and set theryn clowe gilofre, & strewe sugre aboue.
Mnesitheus, quoted in Oribasius, Medical Collections 4, 4, 1
This cherry pottage was a genteel dish, being made with wine and white bread, and called for the use of precious white sugar! Soluble gold gouache can be used to gild the tops of whole cloves, but don’t eat them as they are very strong – they’re just for decoration here.
- 900g fresh ripe red cherries
- 350ml red wine
- 175g white sugar
- 50g unsalted butter
- 225g soft white breadcrumbs
- Pinch of salt
- Flower heads of small clove pinks or gilded whole cloves (according to season)
- Coarse white sugar for sprinkling
Wash the cherries and discard the stems and stones. Purée the fruit in a blender with 150ml of the wine and half the sugar. Add a little more wine if you need to. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the fruit purée, breadcrumbs, remaining wine, sugar and salt. Simmer, stirring steadily, until the purée is very thick. Pour into a serving bowl, cover and leave to cool. When quite cold, decorate the edge of the bowl with flowers or whole cloves, and sprinkle coarse sugar over the centre.
Cream custard tart (vegetarian)
Doucetes. Take Creme a gode cupfulle, & put it on a straynour, thanne take yolkes of Eyroun, and put ther-to, & a lytel mylke; then strayne it throw a straynour in-to a bolle; then take Sugre y-now, put ther-to, or ellys hony forde faute of Sugre, than coloure it with Safroun; than take thin cofyns, & put it in the ovynne letre, & tat hem ben hardyd; than take a dyssche y-fastenyd on the pelys ende, & pore thin comade in-to the dyssche, & fro the dyssche in-to the cofyns; & whan they don a-ryse wet, teke hem out, ee serue hem forth.
Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books, Harleian MS 279, p.50
- Pulverized dried saffron strands
- Shortcrust pastry made with 225g flour, 65g butter, 40g lard, and cold water to mix (use butter instead of lard to make this vegetarian)
- 6 egg yolks
- 350ml double cream
- 125ml milk
- 65g white sugar
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
Soak the saffron in 2 tbsp water until the water is deep gold in colour. Add the pastry to a 20cm pie plate or cake tin with a loose bottom, with a depth of 5cm. Bake ‘blind’ in a preheated oven at 200°C for 15–20 minutes, then remove the filling of dried beans and return the case to the oven at about 160°C for 6–8 minutes until dried out and firm. Remember a cake tin is deeper than a pie plate so the case in it may need longer baking than usual. Beat the egg yolks lightly in a bowl, then beat in the cream, milk, sugar, saffron water and salt. Pour the custard into the pastry case. Bake it at 160°C for about 45 minutes or until it is just set in the centre. Serve warm. Make small tarts if you prefer. The full recipe quantity of pastry will make 36 tarts, using a 7.5cm cutter. You will need two thirds of the filling for them.
Rose pudding (vegetarian)
Take thyk milke; sethe it. Cast therto sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes, dates ymynced, canel, & powdour gynger; and seeth it, and alye it with flours of white rosis, and flour of rys. Cole it; salt it & messe it forth. If thou wilt in stede of almounde mylke, take swete crem of kyne.
Curye on Inglysch, IV. 53
- Petals of one white rose
- 4 level tbsp rice flour or cornflour
- 275ml milk
- 50g caster sugar
- 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp ground ginger
- 575ml single cream
- Pinch of salt
- 10 dessert dates, stoned and finely chopped
- 1 tbsp chopped pine nut kernels
Take the petals off the rose one by one. Blanch the petals in boiling water for 2 minutes, then press them between several sheets of soft kitchen paper and put a heavy flat weight on top to squeeze them dry. (They may look depressingly greyish but blending will improve the dish’s colour.) Put the rice flour or cornflour in a saucepan, and blend into it enough of the milk to make a smooth cream. Stir in the remaining milk. Place the pan over low heat and stir until the mixture starts to thicken. Put in a (non-medieval!) electric blender, and add the sugar, spices and rose petals. Process until fully blended, then add and blend in the cream and salt. Turn the mixture into a heavy saucepan, and stir over very low heat, below the boil, until it is the consistency of softly whipped cream. Stir in most of the chopped dates and pine nut kernels and stir for 2 more minutes. Turn into a glass or decorative bowl and cool. Stir occasionally while cooling to prevent a skin forming. Chill. Just before serving decorate with the remaining dates and nuts.
Piment or medieval mulled wine (vegan)
Pur fait ypocras. Troys vnces de canell & iii vnces gyngeuer; spykenard de Spayn, le pays dun denerer; garyngale, clowes gylofre, poeure long, noiey mugadey, mayioyame, cardemonii, de chescun i quarter donce; grayne de paradys, flour de queynel, de chescun dm. vnce; de tout soit fait powdour &c.
Curye on Inglysch, IV. 199
Piment was the general name for sweetened spiced wines in the Middle Ages. The first recipes for spiced wine appeared at the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. The recipe above is for Hypocras, another type of spiced wine but it contains long pepper (poeure long), the grains of paradise (grayne de paradis), spikenard (spykenard), which are very hard to get hold of today.
The drink became extremely popular and was regarded as having various medicinal or even aphrodisiac properties. Spices were among the most luxurious products available in the Middle Ages.
- 2 ltr red wine (check the label to ensure that ingredients are vegan if you want to make this recipe vegan)
- 175g white sugar
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tbsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp each ground cloves, grated nutmeg, marjoram (fresh if possible), ground cardamom, ground black pepper and a pinch of grated galingale (if available)
Warm the wine until it just begins to steam. Add the sugar and allow to dissolve. Mix all the spices and herbs together. Stir half this mixture into the wine, then taste and slowly add more until you achieve a flavour you like (you will probably need most, or all, of the mixture). Simmer your ‘mix’ very gently for 10 minutes. Strain through a jelly bag (which may take some hours). Bottle when cold, then cork securely. Use within a week.
We would love to see your medieval feasts – send us pictures of your creations using @britishmuseum on Instagram and Twitter. Happy cooking!