Often, for smaller events, parties and gatherings (whatever the theme), potlucks are offered, but what to bring? Not everyone knows what type of foods would fit well with a medieval theme and not everyone is going to want to research or read through books written hundreds of years ago, but we also don’t want to break the theme of the party by simply bringing our usual potluck fare.
So… what to bring?
Well the easiest thing to do is to cull your list of unknown and lesser known foods to those in medieval Europe. (yes, some of these food might be known in the 16th century and yes, some adaptations existed in various places/cultures but I am hoping to simplify to make this easier, not more complicated)
This means avoiding, as best you can: Potatoes, tomatoes, corn (as in maize), peppers (capsicum) and American squash. Also avoid baking soda and baking powder raised items such as cakes, cookies and what we generally know as soda bread.
So what’s left?
Lots of stuff really.
People throughout the ages enjoyed salads, these were either cooked or uncooked vegetable dishes which ranged from leafy greens to cooked roots with sauces or dressings to rather complicated compilations of fruit, vegetation and even cold meats. A plate of pickled capers would be considered a salad.
Some simple dressings would be made of a combination of things such as oil, sugar and/or pepper and/or salt and some sort of souring agent such as orange juice or vinegar but a dressing did not have to include all those items, or it could have extra items.
From the Garden:
See above, not all salads were cold.
Generally speaking however, there are lots of items to choose from and it doesn’t have to be all about cabbage and turnips either, as the renaissance grew, so did many food choices. There were carrots, parsnips, garlic, fennel, greens from beets and spinach or even stalks from chard and both greens and bulbs from onions and leeks and so on. Artichokes, cucumbers, gourds, asparagus, peas and beans (fava) and a host of stuff we don’t even see so much any more.
While many recipe books show these items as being fancifully prepared, this was not necessarily how they were always done. Of course if your looking to impress or being of a nobler character, you may wish to use a known recipe, but if you just want to maintain a theme and bring something that isn’t glaringly modern, many of these items can be prepared much the way we still prepare them today. This is boiled, baked (being in a pie or in a casserole) or roasted… also fried… There is a lovely, and very simple, 16th century dish from Bartolomeo Scappi of new peas, still in the pod that are sauteed in oil with chopped parsley and garlic and dressed with orange juice and pepper. This is how simple a dish can be, yet still be very delicious (and travels far better than say, other types of fried foods, such as fritters and the like). Equally simple is a mushroom dish from the 14th century “Forme of Cury” which involves nothing more than chopping up mushrooms, slicing up a leek and cooking them in broth with a bit of saffron and pepper. (makes a lovely side for roast meats btw)
Meat! (and other animals, yes, even fish!)
Meat is probably one of the easiest things to prepare when your not sure what to bring and don’t quite know much about medieval (or renaissance) foods. This is simply because of roasting. From the earliest of times, roasted meat seems to be a thing and there isn’t much you necessarily need to know about dressing it… salt and pepper are still viable seasonings. (and yes, we can get into many variations and details about carving and so on, but for now… simple)
As for choices of meat, well let’s just say that they prepared far more species than we generally do today.
Other, somewhat more complicated recipes can be found for boiled, baked and fried meats, not to mention sausage/force-meats, but not all need be so complicated either. Some 15th century directions for Lobster (or crab) mainly involved boiling it (like we do today) and serving it cold with vinegar.
Sweets (the finishing course)
While many meat and garden dishes can be indeed sweet, I’m talking about your standard idea of the dessert. Happily, medieval people too enjoyed a finishing course of sweet things, as well as nuts, cheeses and varying other things.
One of these easiest preparations is raw. That is, some raw fruit prepared for the table as well as cheeses and nuts, though then, as today, something a bit more prepared may be appreciated. (noting some foods were considered healthier prepared various ways)
Some simple suggestions: Fruit pies (apple being a good example), Fruit sauces (such as applesauce), cheese pies, rice pudding, sugar/spiced nuts, fruit pastes, stewed fruit… with seasonings not being far from what we still use today such as our very common sugar/cinnamon combination.
This, of course, is a very simplified rundown of items that are not going to stand out as being horribly modern on a sideboard full of other offerings at a Medieval-themed Potluck. (the actual variety of things to choose from are astounding in both number and variety though not all entirely suited to a Potluck setting)
Some other things to consider are food safety (being able to keep foods at needed temperatures, contamination issues and cleanliness for some examples), what makes sense to prepare on site (since some foods are better fresher than others) and how well your dish is going to travel in general. Aside from this is also keeping in mind that people have allergies and food sensitivities, as well as food choices, so the courteous thing to do is listing out all the ingredients so people can make informed decisions.
**Keeping in mind that while most of us do make efforts to not cross contaminate (you do this right?), most of us do not have fish-free or gluten-free or nut-free kitchens so there is always an amount of risk that can not be avoided at Potluck events.