In Medieval times, food was medicine, religion and status. And in Medieval feasts, an art-form
The Medieval poor mostly ate pottage – basically cabbage soup with some barley or oats. Their bread was made from barley.
They did get to drink beer with every meal, even “small beer” at breakfast.
The beer, though? Also made from barley.
Meanwhile, the nobility and the rich would eat anything that moved: eels, swans, porpoises, peacocks, snails, and assorted other animals.
They enjoyed expensive spices like Saffron and Cardamon while salt was often too pricey for poor people.
Medieval banquets often featured showy dishes called ‘subtleties’. These are recipes meant to shock and entertain as much as nourish.
They included live eel pie, animals spliced together, dead animals made to look alive and live animals made to look dead.
Here is some of the weirdest Medieval food.
The medieval recipe for Roast Hedgehog is :
Obtain a hedgehog and cut its throat. Then, it needs to be gutted and either wrapped in pastry or roasted.
If eating hedgehog seems strange to you, imagine a dose of hedgehog!
The prickly creature was recommended for medical conditions, from throat inflammation to leprosy.
For quinsy (throat inflammation) :
“Take a fat cat and flay it well, clean and draw out the guts. Take the grease of a hedgehog and the fat of a bear and resins and fenugreek and sage and gum of honeysuckle and virgin wax. All this crumble small and stuff the cat within as you would a goose. Roast it all and gather the grease and anoint him [the patient] with it.”
Das Kockbuch des Meisters Eberhard, a 15th century cookbook, recommends hedgehog for lepers :
The meat of a hedgehog is good for lepers. Those who dry its intestines and grind them to a powder and eat a little of that are made to piss, even if they can not do so otherwise.
If your hedgehog refuses to co-operate in the roasting :
Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water, and then it will straighten itself.
If you could afford it, meat was replaced at Lent by an extraordinary array of seafood, including seal and porpoise (dolphin).
Porpoise was apparently a favorite of Katharine of Aragon.
In fact, it was listed as a royal fish, not to be eaten by members of the lower classes unless special permission was granted.
In 1526, a fast meal served to Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon included ‘soup, herring, cod, lampreys, pike, salmon, whiting, haddock, plaice, bream, porpoise, seal, carp, trout, crabs, lobsters, custard, tart, fritters and fruit’.
And this was just the first course!
The Forme of Cury is one of the oldest known English cookery manuscripts and was written by King Richard II’s cooks around 1399.
It contains 196 recipes, one of which is for porpoise furmenty: a type of sweet, spicy wheat porridge.
“Take clene whete and bete it small in a morter and fanne out clene the dust. Waisthe it and boile it tyl it be tendre. Take the mylk of Almonds & boile them. Take up the porpays out of the Furmente & leshe hem in a dishe with hot water.”
Translation: boil some wheat with almond milk and lob a porpoise in it.
The recipe for Garbage goes like this :
Take faire Garbage chikenes hedes, ffete, lyvers, And gysers and wassh hem clene. caste hem into a faire potte. And caste fressh broth of Beef, pouder of Pep, Canell, Clowes, Maces, Parsely and Sauge myced small. then take brede stepe hit in the same brothe. Drawe hit thorgh a streynour cast thereto And lete boyle ynowe. caste thereto pouder ginger, vergeous, salt, And a littul Saffereon And serve hit forthe.
Take good giblets (garbage): chickens’ heads, feet, livers, and gizzards, and wash them clean. Throw them into a nice pot, and add fresh beef broth, powdered pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, parsley and sage chopped small. Then take bread, steep it in the same broth, draw it through a strainer, add and let boil till done. Add powdered ginger, verjuice (sour grape or apple juice), salt, and a little saffron, and serve it forth.
Simply put, it’s a stew made from broth, chicken heads and feet, livers and gizzards, and spices.
It may be the worst-named medieval dish but it’s apparently quite tasty .
Ever wondered about the lack of alcohol in chicken soup?
If so, you should definitely check out cock ale: a type of 17th-century beer flavored with a skinned cockerel and various spices.
To make this rather rude-sounding beer:
Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.
The drink’s medicinal qualities were advertised in John Nott’s Cooks and Confectioner’s Dictionary, which claims it’s
“good against a Consumption, and to restore a decay’d Nature.”
In 14th century England, roasted swan with a sauce called Chaudon was considered a delicacy.
The cookbook Utilis Coquinario describes the proper way to “prepare a swan” and make a Chadon sauce.
It consists of minced, boiled swan innards mixed with bread and powdered ginger, colored with blood.
For to prepare a swan. Take & undo him & wash him, & do on a spit & lard him fair & roast him well; & dismember him on the best manner & make a fair carving, & the sauce thereto shall be made in this manner, & it is called: Chaudon. Take the issue of the swan & wash it well, & scour the guts well with salt, & boil the issue all together til it be enough, & then take it up and wash it well & hew it small, & take bread & powder of ginger & of galingale & grind together & temper it with the broth, & color it with the blood. And when it is boiled & ground & strained, salt it, & boil it well together in a small pot & season it with a little vinegar.
If you want to really show off, you could make Reclothed Swan.
The swan is cooked and then reclothed in it skin, including its plumage.
Take it and split it between the shoulders, and cut it along the stomach: then take off the skin from the neck cut at the shoulders, holding the body by the feet; then put it on the spit, and skewer it and gild it. And when it is cooked, it must be reclothed in its skin, and let the neck be nice and straight or flat; and let it be eaten with yellow pepper.
Lampreys with Hot Sauce
Not familiar with lampreys ? Picture this: a writhing eel with scaly gray skin, and a face like a suction cup ringed with row after row of full of sharp little teeth.
The best bit – it sucks the blood of larger fish.
The Romans not only considered lampreys a delicacy, those who could afford it also kept them in ponds as pets.
In medieval Europe, they continued to be eaten by the wealthy, especially on meatless days.
Fun fact : King Henry I of England was said to have died of eating lampreys excessively in 1135.
Not content with real life animals, chefs also enjoyed splicing together bits of different creatures to make a beast they called a cockentrice.
The Cockentrice was a fanciful and imaginative banquet dish which combined a pig and a chicken into one “new” animal.
The idea being, to create a new kind of animal for eating that would not only feed hungry folk but amuse and amaze them as well.
Basically, the chef cooked a pig and chicken, cut them both in half, then attached the front half of the pig to the rear half of the chicken.
It was then stuffed, put it on a spit and roasted, gilded with egg yolks, saffron and occasionally gold leaf before being served to the king and queen as a ‘ryal mete’.
In case this was too understated, there’s a variation called the Helmeted Cock in which the bird rides the pig, while wearing the coats of arms that honored the lords present.
This marvel was apparently served as a side dish in between main courses!
An even more dramatic special effect was when dinner was not only mounted and dressed but also made noises or breathed fire.
The 15th-century “Viviender” has a recipe for making a dead roasted chicken sing as if it was alive.
This is done by filling the tied neck of the bird with quicksilver and ground sulphur, and then reheating the animal.
It was more common to have a boar’s head, swan, piglet or fish breath fire by combining cotton with alcohol and lighting it.
For really grand occasions cooks would assemble a range of edible wonders to from a complete allegorical scene, such as a “Castle of Love”.
Hand in hand with dishes that made animals look lifelike were dishes that made them look dead and cooked when in reality they were still alive.
One such bizarre creation was the live chicken that’s made to look roasted.
First The bird was to be plucked alive in boiling water, then covered in a glaze that made it look like roast meat and finally put to sleep by tucking its head under one wing.
Then it was to be put on a platter with other roast meat.
The “Viviender” describes what is to happen next:
When it is about to be carved it will wake up and make off down the table upsetting jugs, goblets and whatnot.
An easier way of grossing out the diners was to serve live eels or birds in a covered dish trick.
The famous “four-and-twenty-blackbirds baked in a pie” fits into this category.
The live birds would be inserted into a pie immediately before serving.
When the top of the pie was cut open, the bird would escape to the amazement of the dinner party.
To be fair, the Italian cook Maetro Martino suggested adding a real pie in with the live birds.
Dishes made to look digusting
Sometimes dishes were made to look disgusting just prior to serving.
A recipe in a middle English cookbook called “Liber cur cocurum” (Book of Cookery) suggests making a meat or fish dish bloody by sprinkling dried hare’s or kid’s blood over it.
Another suggest covering dishes with “harp strings made of bowel” to make the food look as if it were full of worms.
In both cases, it’s possible that the gruesome garnish was put on by someone intent on discrediting the cook.
Not as far-fetched as it may seem – there is a recipe in the same book describing how to get back at a cook.
For kitchen revenge medieval-style, throw soap in the cooking pot, which will make it constantly boil over.
Roast Without Equal
One dish, Rôti Sans Pareil, must be the direct ancestor of the modern turducken.
But the 3-Bird Turducken has nothing on This 17-Bird Royal Roast.
It comes from L’almanach des gourmands, an 1807 cookbook written by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimond de la Reyniere, a man so outlandish he faked his own death to see who would attend his funeral.
His creation was called the rôti sans pareil—the roast without equal.
It was formed by stuffing 17 birds inside each other like Russian dolls! In order, they were:
Roast Cat as You Wish to Eat It
Cat lovers, maybe skip this one.
A medieval recipe calls for the cat to be decapitated and the head thrown out, as “eating the brains will cause him who eats them to lose his senses and judgment.”
The recipe then calls for its body to be flayed, cleaned, and inexplicably be buried underground for a day and a night.
Then it was to be roasted with oil and garlic.
You will take a cat that is fat, and decapitate it. And after it is dead, cut off the head and throw it away because it is not for eating, for they say that eating the brains will cause him who eats them to lose his senses and judgment. Then flay it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well, and then wrap it in a cloth of clean linen. And bury it beneath the ground where it must be for a day and a night; and then take it out of there and set it to roast on a spit. And roast it over the fire. And when beginning to roast it, grease it with good garlic and oil. And when you finish greasing it, whip it well with a green twig , and this must be done before it is well-roasted, greasing it and whipping it. And when it is roasted, cut it as if it were a rabbit or a kid and put it on a big plate; and take garlic and oil blended with good broth in such a manner that it is well-thinned. And cast it over the cat. And you may eat of it because it is very good food.
We really, really don’t wish to eat it.
Chiefs still recreate some of the weirdest Medieval food. Here’s a bonus video. Hope you enjoy seeing a modern chef take on the Cockentrice.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.