So, you’re going to a medieval-themed potluck

People having a meal, Painting by Lucas van Valckenborch, 16th century
People having a meal, Painting by Lucas van Valckenborch, 16th century

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)

Roasting birds by the fire, from the Decameron, Flanders, 1432
Roasting birds by the fire, from the Decameron, Flanders, 1432

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)

tasting... from: Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger Zwolfbruderstiftungen, 16th century
tasting… from: Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger Zwolfbruderstiftungen, 16th century

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.


Gelatin for Later?

jelloeasyMany of us have grown accustomed to instant, flavoured, Jello along with the simple instructions of adding, and dissolving, one packet of flavoured gelatin in a cup of boiling water and then stirring in a cup of cold water, stirring it and then letting it set in the fridge.  This is easy, it can be done as a nearly last minute dessert (only need time to let it set) and it takes little thought apart from adding various ingredients and knowing not to add things like fresh pineapple to it (this will prevent it from setting).

So, yes, that’s easy enough so what happens when we come across recipes like this:

Gelye de chare.
“Take caluys fete, and skalde hem in fayre water, an make hem alle the whyte. Also take howhys of Vele, and ley hem on water to soke out the blode; then take hem vppe, an lay hem on a fayre lynen clothe, and lat the water rennyn out of hem; than Skore (Note: Scour) a potte, and putte the Fete and the Howhys ther-on; than take Whyte Wyne that wolle hold coloure, and cast ther-to a porcyon, an non other lycoure, that the Fleysshe be ouer-wewyd (Note: See other Cookery, No. 174, wese) withalle, and sette it on the fyre, and boyle it, and Skeme it clene; an whan it is tendyr and boylid y-now, take vppe the Fleyshe in-to a fayre bolle, and saue the lycoure wyl; and loke that thow haue fayre sydys of Pyggys, and fayre smal Chykenys wyl and clene skladdyd and drawe, and lat the leggys an the fete on, an waysshe hem in fayre water, and caste hem in the fyrste brothe, an sethe it a-3en ouer the fyre, and skeme it clene; lat a man euermore kepe it, an blow of the grauy. An in cas the lycoure wast (Note: Waste) a-way, caste more of the same wyne ther-to, and put thin honde ther-on; and 3if thin hond waxe clammy, it is a syne of godenesse, an let not the Fleyshe be moche sothe, (Note: boiled) that it may bere kyttyng; than take it vppe, and ley it on a fayre clothe, and sette owt the lycoure fro the fyre, and put a few colys vnder-nethe the vesselle that the lycoure is yn; than take pouder of Pepir, a gode quantyte, and Safron, that it haue a fayre Laumbere coloure, and a gode quantyte of Vynegre, and loke that it be sauery of Salt and of Vynegre, fayre of coloure of Safroun, and putte it on fayre lynen clothe, and sette it vndernethe a fayre pewter dysshe, and lat it renne thorw the clothe so ofte tylle it renne clere: kytte fayre Rybbys of the syde of the Pygge, and lay ham on a dysshe, an pulle of the lemys of the Chykenys, eche fro other, and do a-way the Skynne, and ley sum in a dysshe fayre y-chowchyd, (Note: Y-couched; laid) and pore thin (Note: Thine) gelye ther-on, and lay Almaundys ther-on, an Clowys, and paryd Gyngere, and serue forth.”
(From: Two 15th century Cook Books)


Isinglass or Gelatine Jelly

“3oz isinglass or gelatine
2 qts cold water
Bring quickly to a boil, boiling very fast till the liquor is reduces one-hald’ carefully remove the scum as it rises, strain it through a jelly-bag and it will be ready for use. If not required very clear, it may be merely strained through a fine sieve, instead of being run through a bag.
Rather more than 1/2 oz of insinglass is about the proper quantity to use for 1 qt of strong calf’s food stock, and rather more than 2 ozs for the same quantity of fruit juice. As insinglass varies so much in strength, it is difficult to give exact proportions. The laarger the mould, the stiffer should be the jelly; and where there is no ice, more isinglass must be used than if the mixture were frozen.
This forms a stock for all kinds of jellies, which may be flavoured in many ways.
The above, when boiled, should be perfectly clear, and may be mixed warm with wine, flavourings, fruits, etc., and then run through a bag.”
The Complete Practical Confectioner, 1890

This is likely not something you are going to prepare last minute and if you’re in a kitchen with staff consisting of one cook and help that is very unfamiliar with the dishes, it’s not going to be an easy production which means we might be less likely to go through with a gelatin dish. However, apart from drying it out and reconstituting for later use, you can at least prepare a concentrated stock ahead of time, taking a little aside to check how much extra liquid you can add (just water will do) and still allow it to set. Note: if you leave it uncovered in the fridge, it will concentrate more as it dehydrates more.

gelatin This picture shows some flavoured JELLO, some clarified gelatin and non-clarified Isinglass gelatin. The first two examples seem to produce a heavier and firmer gelatin but it could also be that the isinglass solution was just not as concentrated as it did get a little more firm over time. To me, the easiest way to deal with gelatin is to make up a clarified stock ahead of time and refrigerate, even if it’s just making it a week ahead to save time before you add all the other ingredients you want such as wine, spices and so on. Just reheat it until liquid and add what you need while it’s still in liquid form. gell2Do not worry about ruining the gelatin by boiling and refrigerating it, this picture is the from the same batch after reboiling and refrigerating several times. The firmness is more or less the same though I did add water over time as some was lost to re-cooking and dehydration in the refrigerator.

Another viable option for those really pressed for time or in need of more refrigerator space, is to freeze it. Yes, I do realize that if you let frozen gelatin thaw, it will not be the same as before you froze it and it’s even a decent way to separate liquids from the gelatin, however, it is still usable. All you have to do it reboil it and re-set it (this is a good time to add whatever you need to add at this point). The pictures below show some prepared gelatin I froze and the same stuff after it was boiled and allowed to set.

frozen gelatin
frozen gelatin
same gelatin reboiled from frozen and let to set again
same gelatin reboiled from frozen and let to set again

As you can see, gelatin can handle a lot of abuse so it’s quite fine to make up batches well ahead for future functions, just so long as you’re just making your base product. A fancy moulded dessert, or object for show, isn’t going to improve with time so that should not be made too many days ahead.

Silly reason not to drink soda

While there are several good reasons not to drink soda such as their being too much sugar or the gas makes me feel uncomfortable or that acid drinks are not great for my teeth, the fact that it could curdle milk is probably… well no, it is quite a silly reason.

Here is the “You’ll Never Drink Soda Again” webpage, showing such horrors as milk being added to dark pop and having it curdle and separate.

A Quick little look at milk in drinks:

If I took some somewhat unhealthy drinks such as sugary lemonade and coffee and compare them to drinks we consider to be healthy such as apple juice and orange juice…


and then add milk to this and wait a little:

IMG_0668 IMG_0683


We would have some pretty gross looking separation in the most acidic drinks, in this case that would be the Apple and the Orange, which are also more healthy beverages than the sugary lemonade (to the far left) and the coffee (to the far right). If anything, the acid is breaking down the milk and creating an easier to digest product. This is also the basis for cheese which can be made from easily found acids such as vinegar or by using rennet, which is commonly taken from the stomachs of animals (so guess what milk might do in our own).  img42-1
This is what we were seeing in the Coke/Milk page, the acid reacts with the milk and it separates into liquids and solids. In cheese-making, this would be the curds and whey.

Back through time, we took this idea and developed posset drinks, caudles and other concoctions to take advantage of this reaction which would help it to thicken, when they included milk. (eggs are another which makes it more custard-like, but not all drinks had them. Sometimes they may be carefully mixed and worked in to create a smooth drink but other times it could be quite curdled. See below for a few recipes. 


Of course, I don’t have to go back too far to find an acid + milk drink, in fact, I would be looking at “milk and Pepsi” which had some popularization due to it being the favourite drink of the fictional character “Laverne” from “Laverne and Shirley” which aired from the mid. 70’s to 1980. I even remember trying it in my youth because of that show.

So next time you read about some food being so awful for such reasons as because “it denatures the protein found in the milk”, do consider that it might not actually be a bad thing or may actually be quite delicious and not overly harmful in moderate amounts.


A sample of recipes that combine acids and milk to make drinks and sauces

To make a sacke creame
“take a pinte of creame and 8 eggs but 2 of ye yolks and beat it very well, and boyle ye creame and eggs together, stire it all ye while on ways, and then put in a quarter of a pint of sacke and still stire it on wayes. Let it but just boyle, lay your mace a litell while in roswater, then take it out and put in ye rosewater and sweeten it with suger.”
(1651, Jane Parker)

to make a (Sack) possett
“take a quart of milke, take 5 eggs, ye whites of but 3 of them, let ye milke boyle and let it be almost cold againe, befor you put in ye eggs, beat ye eggs very well, with halfe a pint of sacke, sweeten it with suger, then put it in to ye milke, and set it over ye fore againe till it begins to curdle, then put it into a bason, set it with embers rond about it, but not uneder ye botom of it, so let it stand till it is whalled, like a custard, stire it with a spone, then take it of and strew sinamon and suger mixt together on ye top and serve it.”
(1651, Jane Parker)

“1 quartyrn of red wyne, 1 quartyrn of whyte wyne halfe quartyrn brandye sugar to taste, 1 bowle of milk, half pound cream quartyr of a nutmeg. Milk the cow into the bowle or pour from a height.”
(Grace Acton, 1621)

For a cup of Zabaglione:
-In a pot heat up 4 egg yolks, sugar to sweeten, some cinnamon and sweet wine (the wine can be diluted with water or broth if too strong), being sure to stir constantly.
-When the drink thickens, take it from the heat and pour into a cup.
-This is served in the evening and at bedtime.
(The recipe for this can be found in: The Art of Cooking, composed by Maestro Martino of Como, 14th/15th century)

Cawdel Of Almaund Mylk.
“Take Almaundes blaunched and drawe hem up with wyne, do þerto powdour of gyngur and sugur and colour it with Safroun. boile it and serue it forth.”
Forme of Cury, 1390

A fine Caudle
“Take a Pint of Milk, turn it with Sack; then strain it, and when ’tis cold, put it in a Skillet with Mace, Nutmeg, and some white Bread sliced; let all these boil, and then beat the Yolks of 4 or 5 Eggs, the Whites of 2, and thicken your Caudle, stirring it all one Way for fear it curdle; let it warm together, then take it off and sweeten it to your Taste.”
The Complete Family-Piece, 1737

To mak a posthot
“put cow mylk in a pan and set it on the fyer and when it is at boiling do ther in other wyne or ale and no salt then tak it from the fyer and kele it and assone as the curddes gaddure take up the curddes with a saucer or a ladille and serue it and straw ther on pouder of ginger and ye may tak the sam curdde and lay it on the clothe and presse out the wyne and drawe it through a strener with swet wyne put ther to pouder of guinger and sugur and mele it to gedure and serue it as a stonding sewe for sopers and straw ther on anise in comfettes.”
A Noble Boke off Cookry, 1468

The Red Herring in Period Pastry

After a recent book dive into tracking down my oldest recipe for butter tarts (The Canadian tart I never thought of as Canadian) and an afternoon of making and rolling out pastry, I had a few thoughts about the whole process.

What is pastry anyway? Ever look into a fairly old cook book and look for a pie recipe? Chances are, you may end up finding it in the pudding section and that makes sense because it’s the filling that is featured, not the casing so much which is just there to… well… hold it or envelope it. Another common term on looking for pies is not so much pastry but simply “paste” because this is what we are making, how it cooks up is a different matter and the design is related to the purpose.

So, first off we have to remove all notion of “period pastry” and “modern pastry” and that all pastry must equal “flaky pastry”. What we need to consider if what the pastry is for. Does it need to keep it’s shape? Do we want it to be light? Is it going to hold liquid or a solid mass? Various questions come to mind. Often when I hear the phrase “makes period pastry” what is really meant is that the person makes raised pies that keep their form when baking. Those being a dense paste designed to hold shape and contents while baking, but those are not the only period pastry and even those are not all alike… there is no ubiquitous period pastry, just as there is no one shape or purpose to a period pie.

So far on looking at pies, and just off the top of my head (aka: with no notes in hand), I can think of rye pastes made with mostly flour or meal and water and maybe rubbed with fat after it’s cooked, warm pastes made for standing pies that have little good in them to others with butter and sugar and all that’s good. There are also pastes cooked in butter in very thin layers, pastes that are designed to be flaky and others that just sound like nothing special… paste of flour, butter and egg yolk or flour, butter and a little sugar… they all vary but what you are doing with it will determine just how much butter to flour or how much egg you are going to use.

And this is where my day of making up pastry came in… didn’t use a recipe, didn’t do anything special, I just simply took 2 cups of flour (my scoop is an old tin 1 cup measure) sprinkled in a bit of salt and daubed large globs of shortening into it and mixed it with a fork… it didn’t feel like I had enough for a somewhat short pastry (which is what I wanted) so I globed more in… mixed it up, looked good… stuck it under the tap and poured in a little cold water, mixed it up a little and balled it up a little with my hand, looked good, if it wasn’t enough, I would have added a little more water. Also, because this is a short paste with the purpose of being flaky, I was careful not to handle it, this is because if it is over handled, the fat would melt into the paste causing it to cook up flat. The opposite is true for a pastry that needs to keep it’s shape… you want the butter to be warm enough to liquefy so it will work evenly into the paste and better keep it’s shape while it cooks. Egg on the other hand, can warp it’s shape but can also make it better for eating but I do find it also has a far shorter working time as it dries out more quickly. To make a raised pie, a few yolks only can improve it’s edibility while not causing the pastry to warp/bubble too badly… and yes, you can indeed eat the pastry and it is good.



Can’t wish reverse documentation true

I’m really not sure where to stick this, but this place seems as good a place as any, that is, what I have to say about about reverse documentation. Reverse documentation being that thing people do when they want to prove something is period to a specific era but not necessarily because they have any provided evidence to suggest it might be period to that era. Now, that does not mean that it can’t be done, but when it is done successfully, under those circumstances, it’s going to be full out, pure horseshoe swallowing luck! Yes, a skilled researcher can likely have an easier time documenting it, but only if it actually can be documented at that point in time, you just can’t wish it true and then find the right person to document it, it just doesn’t happen that way.

Half documentation doesn’t make it true either. I can document a sausage, I can tell you that medieval people ate them and I can also tell you that they had bread, they prepared mustard and that they knew how to use lactic fermentation to preserve cabbage, but I can not tell you that they would have slapped a cooked sausage in a bun with sauerkraut and mustard. I could tell you that it would be a rather high possibility that they did not. It wouldn’t be that they did not have the palate for it, it just wasn’t something thought of in a world where these foods were sharing a different role in people’s nourishment than they do today.

A More Period Kitchen?

As it is, a typical hall kitchen just isn’t going to anywhere near the period counterpart but for so many cooks who play in the SCA, this is what we have to work with. The other option tending towards the camp kitchen where we really can go full tilt period with the right resources, time and desire!

Now, to add a bit of my own background, on getting involved in the SCA, the simple idea of cooking outside or using wood fuel did not excite me, at least not on it’s own as it was a part of my everyday life in the first place. I could have taken advantage of my experience with this but did not because the novelty wasn’t there, I suppose. Because we had a wood fired kitchen range, I often chose to cook outside in the summer to keep the house from heating up too much, of course, if there was a chilly night, I would whip up a weeks worth of food and we did have a fancy electric burner thingy for quickly frying stuff without having to make a fire…. but back to period cook places…

A little imagery to inspire you

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These are but two of many examples of cook spaces, and even though one is inside, the setup is generally the same. You would need storage, a place to prepare your food (table) and a place to cook it.


This field kitchen scene from Scappi, shows some storage and food cooking and preparation stuff. We have a pot on a trivet over the fire and two pots hanging over the fire at the back. Low to the ground and in front of the fire, we have items roasting on spits. The scale is not overly easy to guess, but such are things in older woodcuts, but the set up is the same we see in other art depicting cooking areas.

From what I have come to know from personal experience, in order to get a very good boil in even a modest sized pot before what feels like the days end, you need to place it above and very near a good hot fire. And by a good fire, I am talking about stuff like maple that will not only burn hot but burn good and long and not something fast growing like spruce which is pretty short lived and only really good for kindling. I particularly like fruit woods for a good heat… note, seasoned wood in particular, if available.

When roasting meat, you want to get a fair bit of heat on it, you want to get it evenly heated and cooked but not charred by the flame or smoked out and sooted. This means your going to have it spitted next to, but close to, the fire and rotating. If you have ever roasted a wiener on a stick before, you are probably well aware of the heat being the hottest near the burning log but obviously you want to keep it away from the fire itself, or else it would get burned, you also want to keep it out of the smoke because of all the debris that can collect on it…. mmmm charcoal floaties. Cooking a larger chunk of meat, or other things, on a spit is the same thing, except it’s heavier so you not going to be balancing it on one end, but rather skewering it on a large spit supported at either end and rotating it. You can also place a bowl or deep plate under it to catch the drippings to either baste it with or to use other dishes such as sauces and condiments.

outdoor range?
outdoor range?

Frypans and small pots can also be used over the hot embers around the firepit, generally, a trivets are a good tool to own for this. And for the late 16th century and on, hot embers can even be kept in an ember pot and used in your foot warmer 🙂 (or for lighting pipes, but I do not partake in that stuff).

Those times that I’m wrong

Or at least those times that I’m that careless, though it may more than likely be me being wrong.

buttersliced What was that? Well I was looking at an article on butter I wrote and re-uploaded to this site and noticed that one picture was of cheese and not butter. I knew the painting and it was a still life of cheeses with the cheese in the plate being thinly sliced, at least that would be the logical theory. The mistake must have been based on the assumption of butter being placed in a pottery bowl but without regards to a prepared cheese coming to the table in this manner as well. This makes sense! While a wheel of cheese can sit easily upon the table, slices would be easier to manage on a plate, as would butter which would present a fair bit of grease (well, being grease/fat after all).

Of course we must also keep in mind that this is also art with odd assortments all over the table, things the viewer of the time and the painter would recognize and in familiar settings but with artistic arrangement, being either more of something or something not being quite natural but not so entirely different as to see similarities with painting set in more realistic situations with people placed at the table.