Most modern knowledge about food in the middle ages comes from period cookbooks, how-to manuals and menus. This means that little is known about foods from places which didnt leave cookbooks or written records of daily life. Additionally, common knowledge was not usually written down and has been lost. Fortunately, many cookbooks from all over Europe and the Middle East have been found.
Some of the cookbooks found included menus which give us insight into the order and contents of the meal. A modern menu might include an appetizer, a salad, a meat and a veggie dish and then a dessert. Medieval European meals for the middle class and nobility were structured very differently and did not usually have a specific dessert course. It was customary to intersperse sweets throughout the meal. They were often used as a way to pause and refresh the palate between courses. In Europe, a standard menu was broken down into courses. Each course might consist of several meat dishes and a veggie dish followed by a sweet.
Medieval sweets used less sugar and more honey that modern palates are accustomed to since sugar was expensive and not always available. From the different types of sweets made in different regions, we get an idea what ingredients were readily available.
A large number of English cookbooks have been found and some date back to the late 1300's.
English sweets included many types of cakes, custards, and fritters such as funnel cake. They used strawberries, apples, figs, raisins, currants and almonds. They also made cheese-based sweets including cheesecake. A large number of English cookbooks have been found and some date back to the late 1300's.
Cariadoc's Miscellany - desserts
"+" is pronounced like the "th" in "that". It represents the thorn character which we no longer use.
Most of our knowledge about medieval French cuisine comes from 3 books. The first, Le Menagier, was written as an instruction manual for the young wife of a well-to-do Parisian. It contains a lot of information about menus, ingredients and general food preparation. All three contain many recipes.
French sweets appear to be less common and the menus found from this country are meat heavy and mention few sweet or veggie dishes. Recipes for baked or sweetened fruits seem to have been standard. There are mentions of shelled nuts which suggests they used several types. Having made several of these, the recipes are simpler and easier than the English recipes.
Source: Du Fait de Cuisine
The large German cookbooks I've seen are absolutely full of recipes. Surprisingly, they don't name most of the recipes but refer to them categorically (i.e. A meat dish, A clever food - clever seems to refer to sweet).
Germans had many recipes for tarts, puddings, and pastries. They used a wide variety of fruits ranging from apples and strawberries to dates and oranges. Almonds appear to be the only nut they cooked in desserts. One cookbook had a large section on how to sugarcoat virtually anything sweet. I've seen almost hundreds more sweet recipes in these few German cook books than in all the English cookbooks mentioned above. This suggests that either the Germans were very fond of sweets or the English didn't write down their recipes.
Source: Ein Buch von guter spise
Source: Ein New Kochbuch
Source: Das Kuchbuch der Sabrina Welserin
Most Italian recipes come from one set of books. They were written by a librarian to the Vatican.
Many Italian sweets are more meatless dinner foods than dessert-like sweets. Unlike many of the previous regions, most of our Italian recipes come from one cookbook. A large number of torta recipes (mashed filling in a thin pastry crust). Other Italian desserts include fried dough and canisiones which are still eaten today.
Source: Cariadoc's Miscellany - desserts
The basic Middle Eastern dessert appears to have been a variation on fried dough covered with honey and candy made by boiling honey with nuts. They used little to no fruit in their desserts and a lot of honey and rose water. Many types of nuts are mentioned in these recipes (almonds, walnuts, pistachios...) Some of these recipes including Hulwa are still made today.
Source: Cariadoc's Miscellany - desserts
Modern recipes usually have precise measurements. Medieval recipes were often vague guidelines. There may have been several reasons for this. Perhaps what is ommitted was common knowledge. Perhaps giving exact measurments would give away the cooks "secrets". Perhaps each cook had their own measuring system and standardized measuring devices werent common.
Here are a few medieval recipes translated into English. Some contain comments added by the translator. Following some recipes is a modern attempt called a redaction.
To make gingerbrede. Take goode honey & clarifie it on + e fere, & take fayre paynemayn or wastel brede & grate it, & caste it into + e boylenge hony, & stere it well togyder faste with a sklyse + at it bren not to + e vessell. & + anne take it doun and put + erin ginger, longe pepper & saundres, & tempere it vp with + in handes; & than put hem to a flatt boyste & strawe + eron suger, & pick + erin clowes rounde aboute by + e egge and in + e mydes, yf it plece you, &c.
1 c honey 1 c breadcrumbs 1 t ginger 1/4 t pepper 1/4 t saunders 1 T sugar 30-40 whole cloves (~ 1 t) (or 5 t sugar, pinch powdered cloves)
Bring honey to a boil, simmer two or three minute, stir in breadcrumbs with a spatula until uniformly mixed. Remove from heat, stir in ginger, pepper, and saunders. When it is cool enough to handle, knead it to get spices thoroughly mixed. Put it in a box (I used a square corning-ware container with a lid), squish it flat and thin, sprinkle with sugar and put cloves ornamentally around the edge. Leave it to let the clove flavor sink in; do not eat the cloves.
An alternative way of doing it is to roll into small balls, roll in sugar mixed with a pinch of cloves, then flatten them a little to avoid confusion with hais. This is suitable if you are making them today and eating them tomorrow.
Take fine dry bread, or biscuit, and grind up well. Take a ratl of this, and three quarters of a ratl of fresh or preserved dates with the stones removed, together with three uqiya of ground almonds and pistachios. Knead all together very well with the hands. Refine two uqiya of sesame-oil, and pour over, working with the hand until it is mixed in. Make into cabobs, and dust with fine-ground sugar. If desired, instead of sesame-oil use butter. This is excellent for travellers.
2 2/3 c bread crumbs 2 c (about one lb) pitted dates 1/3 c ground almonds 1/3 c ground pistachios 7 T melted butter or sesame oil enough sugar
We usually mix dates, bread crumbs, and nuts in a food processor or blender. For "cabobs," roll into one inch balls. Good as caravan food (or for taking to wars). They last forever if you do not eat them, but you do so they don't.
Ein spise von birn (A food of pears)
Nim gebratene birn und sure epfele und hacke sie kleine. und tu dar zu pfeffer und enis und ro eyer. znit zwo dunne schiben von dunne brote. fulle diz da zwischen niht vollen eines vingers dicke. mache ein dunnez blat von eyern und kere daz einez dor inne umm, und backez mit butern in einer phannen biz daz ez rot werde und gibz hin.
Take roasted pears and tart apples and chop them small. And add thereto pepper and anise and raw eggs. Cut two thin slices from thin bread. Fill this in between not too full, of a finger's thickness. Make a thin leaf of eggs and turn that therein about and bake it with butter in a pan until it becomes red and give out.
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