History of the menu
The exact origins of the “menu” are unknown, but the most popular account dates back to 1541. The duke of Brunswick was seen to have a sheet of paper on the banquet table beside the plate. When asked by a guest what the paper was, he explained that it was a list of dishes to be served and by referring to the list the duke could reserve his appetite for his favourites.
Another version tells a similar story. At a dinner in 1498 Count Hugo de Mounfort was seen to regularly refer to a written parchment. It too contained a list of the dishes to be served. The idea was much admired and was soon adopted. The old-fashioned bills of fare were written on large cards and gaudily decorated with gastronomic symbols. They were so large that only one copy was placed at each end of the table.
Types of People
There were two types of people in medieval times. The very very rich and the very very poor. The nobleman’s diet would have been very different from the diets of those lower down the social scale. Cooked dishes were heavily flavoured with valuable spices such as caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and pepper. Other commonly used ingredients were cane sugar, almonds, and dried fruits such as dates, figs or raisins. The wealthy treasured these goods that were hugely expensive imported from far away lands.
Banqueting tables at grand feasts were decked out with spectacular dishes – providing the perfect opportunity for the nobleman to show off his wealth. Everyday jellies, pies, fritters and stews were accompanied by magnificent animals such as peacocks, seals, porpoises and even whales. Jellies and custards were dyed with vivid natural colourings sandalwood for red, saffron for a fiery yellow, and boiled blood for black.
Unlike today meals they were not separated into savoury main courses and sweet desserts. Instead, many dishes were laid out together in luxurious chaos. Special courtesy books, which were popular at the time, instructed diners not to fart, scratch flea bites, or pick their noses.
Unless you served in a large household, it would have been difficult to obtain fresh meat or fish. Most people ate preserved foods that had been salted or pickled soon after slaughter or harvest: Bacon, pickled herring, preserved fruits for instance. They often kept pigs, which, unlike cows and sheep, were able to live contentedly in a forest, fending for themselves.
Some peasants tended to keep cows, so a large part of their diets would have included dairy produce such as buttermilk, cheese, or curds and whey. Although if you were a poorer peasant and didn’t own a cow and due to having no refrigeration you’d get your milk from almonds. Yes, not a new concept! Bread was the staple for all classes, although the quality and price varied depending on the type of grain used. The rich would have the upper crust and the base would be a burnt offering to the peasants. Thus the Upper Crust being the rich.
Soup was the first course
Parsnip, almond milk and Barley soup served in a warm bread roll. Suggesting not to eat the bread as we have another 12 courses to go.
Rich and poor alike ate a dish called pottage, a thick soup containing meat, vegetables, or bran. I developed the first course trying to keep in mind some of the above.
The Accompaniment: A Shot of Ewes Whey liquor to warm you up.
Preservation of food was very important for these times. The meat was salted, smoked and pickled or most commonly and simply, by keeping the meat alive till needed.