Recently I went on a day trip to the Warwick Castle thus igniting my interest in medieval England. I have since read enormous amounts of information on the period and downloaded pod casts and other information on the life, customs and politics of this period. The natural progression was, therefore, a post on the kind of food eaten during this time. The information available was vast and I soon realized that I would have to break my post into two parts if I wanted to do it any justice.
As is commonly known the average life expectancy in medieval England was about 35 years. Diseases and death were common with alarming low levels of sanitation prevalent. Most lived in hovels made of mud and wood. Oftentimes, an entire family of six or seven people lived under one roof which consisted of two rooms, one for living and another for cooking. Meals took place in the kitchen which normally had a stone oven or an open fire. Even the rich had limited number of rooms, with most eating in the kitchen where the hearth and fire kept them warm.
The violent times of the Dark Ages led to a primitive medieval society lacking in elegance or refinement. In the early Middle Ages food was basic and the ingredients home grown. Class distinction was enforced strictly and food was an important marker of this social status. People ate depending on which class they belonged to. Nobility like lords and bishops ate well with meats, white bread, sugary treats and wine. Peasants, farmers, craftsmen, labourers ate black bread made with rye or barley.
Much food is in the tillage of the poor: but there is that is destroyed for want of judgment
The average medieval peasant grew his own rye and barley and baked it into thick black bread in the community or in the lord’s oven. Individual ovens were expensive and not allowed for then the lord could not charge an additional fee which was collected for the use of his oven from the peasants.
The bread was often accompanied by pottage, a stew of meat or fish with grains, herbs and vegetables. Typically, the pottage was kept over the fire for a period of days and whatever was available like vegetables like leeks, onions, turnips, beets, berries and even apple cores was added to it during the course of the day. Lucky families may occasionally add salted pork or a slice of fatty bacon for flavor and protein. The result was a dish that was never quite the same twice. Pottage has consistently remained a staple diet of the poor throughout most of the 9th -15th centuries.Cheese too was a common foodstuff, made and eaten by all classes.
Water was not favoured due to its high contamination rate and low prestige value. Instead, ale was an important drink in the medieval world and was consumed as a staple food, along with bread. It was drunk by all classes and age groups. Also consumed was mead, a fermented drink of honey and water. Its alcoholic content varied from mild to that of a strong wine. Depending on local tradition it was also brewed with spices, fruits, or grain mash. Mead has had a multicultural history featuring in chronicled records of almost all civilizations across Europe, Africa and Asia. Infact, it has often been regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks. Mead later came to be used for more medicinal purposes.
Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive
Nobility had several class distinctions within itself, starting from the king or pope and moving down the social order to dukes, earls, squires and priests. An elaborate banquet was often used to impress guests with the lord’s generosity and wealth. It was also often that a lord bankrupted himself in an effort to overindulge his guests.
A typical feast served beef, pork, mutton, venison, poultry, game, fish, eggs, white bread, milk and cheeses. Vegetables were served in lesser quantities to mark a definite class distinction. Only vegetables such as onions, garlic and leeks graced a noble’s table. There was also usually a profusion of wines along with the more common ale, cider and mead. Sugar or honey was used to sweeten deserts like jelly, cold baked tarts and custards. Sugar was expensive and could only be afforded by the rich landowners.
While not serving feasts to guests, a lord’s everyday dinner usually consisted of two or three courses, mainly meats and pastries, bread, wine or ale, cheeses and nuts. Fruit was only usually served in pies or was preserved in honey.
Common meats preferred during those times were mutton and veal. During the middle of the thirteenth century, the Church forbade Christians the use of poultry on fast days with some exceptions like teal, widgeon, moor-hens, and a few kinds of shell fish. The pea-fowl played an important part in the chivalric banquets of the middle ages. According to old poets the flesh of this noble bird was “food for the brave”. Another poet of the thirteenth century said that, “thieves have as much taste for falsehood as a hungry man has for the flesh of the peacock”. Later the pea fowl was replaced by turkey and pheasant as their flesh was considered somewhat hard and stringy.
The winter months were a time of scarcity, and preparations were made during the rest of the year to ensure the availability of meat. One such preparation was the harvesting of pigeons. Preservation processes like salting and smoking were also used on meats and fish.
I will end this post with this thought – that though the rich were fed well all through the summer months and the harsh winter months, it was the poor who survived better, fending off diseases and illness. The wealthy ate few fresh vegetables and fruits consequently lacking in essential vitamins and fibre. This often led to diseases like scurvy and rickets, bad teeth and skin disorders. In comparison, the diet adopted by the poor was rich in basic minerals, fibre and vitamins. The hard physical labour kept them hardy and fit, ready to deal with the hardships of the times.
The other day I was blissfully forking an innocent looking piece of asparagus when suddenly S asked me how my love life was doing. And since she was looking rather pointedly at the asparagus I figured there had to be a connect between the two. So I inoffensively asked her why. She replied with a dead pan expression that according to a 17th century herbalist, asparagus ‘stirs up lust in man and woman’. Needless to say this grave piece of news got me thinking for this post.
As always, ecstasy dawned on India before anywhere else in the world. Since forever, foods which contain aphrodisiacal properties have aroused great interest and a keen desire to experiment with amongst Indian and westerners alike. Apart from the better known ones like oysters, chocolates, strawberries and mussels there are a wide range of natural foods like rocket, balut (or a fertilized duck or chicken egg), ginseng and even onions.
Aphrodisiacs, so named after the Greek Goddess of Love Aphrodite, have been popular throughout history across different civilizations and cultures. Some aphrodisiac foods gain their reputation due to their shape, for example the rhinoceros horn which is used in Chinese medicine. Some for smell, like strawberries, and some for its ingredients like chocolate.
The strawberry has been regarded as an aphrodisiac since as early as 200BC due to the large number of tiny seeds symbolizing fertility. Described as fruit nipples in erotic literature, strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, useful in treating impotence. Romantic lore commonly identifies chocolate as an aphrodisiac too. It is said that the chocolate’s sweet and fatty nature stimulates the hypothalamus, inducing pleasurable sensations as well as affecting the levels of serotonin which lead to heightened sensitivity and euphoria. Strangely, some don’t even have any logical reasoning behind them. For example, an oyster, a seafood, is considered an aphrodisiac simply because Aphrodite was born from the sea.
Honey is believed to increase testosterone levels while mustard’s spicy flavour increases the circulation of blood around the body making some parts more sensitive. The pineapple is rich in vitamin C and is reportedly used in the homeopathic treatment for impotence. Apart from these there is garlic, caviar, truffles, cherries, pears, milk, eggplant, cinnamon, basil, carrot, pistachio nuts, sage, nutmeg and even radishes and turnips. I once read somewhere that coffee drinkers are reportedly more sexually active than non-coffee drinkers so add coffee to the list as well.
The list is endless though none of the above has been scientifically proven. But since time immemorial lovers have tried them and retried them. So what’s stopping you from spicing up your life with a pinch of cardamom, ginger or saffron?
- Celery has negative calories. It takes more calories to eat a piece of celery than the celery has in it to begin with.
- Honey is believed to be the only food that does not spoil. Honey found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs has been tasted by archaeologists and found to still be edible.
- Cheese closes the stomach and should always be served at the end of a meal.
- Peanuts are salted in the shell by boiling them in a heavily salted solution, then allowing them to dry.
- The canning process for herring was developed in Sardinia, which is why canned herrings are better known as sardines.
- A quarter of raw potato placed in each shoe at night will keep the leather soft and the shoes smelling fresh and clean.
- Pineapples are classified as berries.
- Milk is actually considered to be a food and not a beverage.
- The table fork was introduced into England in 1601. Until then people would eat with their knives, spoons or fingers. When Queen Elizabeth first used a fork, the clergy went ballistic. They felt it was an insult to God not to touch meat with one’s fingers.
- The Mai Tai cocktail was created in 1945 by Victor Bergeron, the genius of rum, also known as Trader Vic. The drink got its name when he served it to two friends from Tahiti, who exclaimed “Maitai roa ae!,” which in Tahitian means “Out of this world – the best!”
- Before Columbus, Europe had never tasted cord, potatoes, tomatoes, red peppers, sweet potatoes, tapioca, chocolate, pumpkins, squash, coconuts, pineapples, strawberries, and much more. Why? All these food items are native to America.
- The cashew nut in its natural state contains poisonous oil. Roasting removes the oil and makes the nuts safe to eat.
- Although explorers brought potatoes back from the New World in the early 1500s, Europeans were afraid to eat them for fear that the spuds would give them leprosy. It wasn’t until Louis XVI, who was looking for a cheap food source for his starving subjects, served them at the royal table that people were convinced potatoes were safe to eat.
- In the Middle Ages, chicken soup was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
- There is no alcohol left in food that’s cooked with wine. The alcohol evaporates at 172 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cabbage is 91% water.
- The strawberry is the only agricultural product that bears its seeds on the outside.
- It takes, on average, 345 squirts from a cow’s udder to yield one gallon of milk.
- Ever wonder how Swiss cheese is made? As the cheese ferments, a bacterial action generates gas. As the gas is liberated, it bubbles through the cheese, leaving all those holes.
- Cheese is the oldest of all man-made foods.
- The white part of an egg is called the glair
The other day C came visiting. Being an Australian I assumed he would like the occasional beer on a warm summer evening. So when pat came his response ‘I don’t drink alcohol’ I was taken aback. Turns out he belongs to a Christian order which prohibits the consumption of alcohol, pork, all kinds of shellfish and any form of work on a Saturday.
Now I belong to a family which eats pretty much everything under the sun (though I am impartial to sushi much to A’s dismay!). So when I hear individuals say that I don’t eat so and so because my religion does not permit me, it amazes me. Does God really care about the dietary habits of roughly six billion people who live on this earth (and I’m not even counting the rest of the universe)?
It is commonly believed that Indians are vegetarian, but in reality almost 60% of the country’s population eats meat products in some form or the other. And though Hindus abstain from beef, I also know of several (including Tamil Brahmins!) who love a nice juicy steak. I have also heard of Mormons avoiding caffeinated beverages, Jewish laws restricting consumption of certain dairy products and fish, Islamic ‘Haram’ foods like frozen vegetables with sauce, some margarines and even bread or bread products that contain dried yeast. And I won’t even get into Buddhist eating practices which I have written about at length here.
I have often toyed with the idea of becoming a practising Epicurean. Epicureanism is a philosophy founded in 307 AD by Greek philosopher Epicurus. He advocated a lifestyle which derived the greatest pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, though in moderation to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence. The emphasis was placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on those physical. Therefore, according to Epicurus, with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten.
My question is therefore does it really matter to God what one eats? Or will we have to produce a list of all the things we have eaten in our lifetime on Judgment Day?
My vacation evenings were normally spent with my left balancing a book, my nose stuck right inside it and my right hand breaking off a part of a spicy fish chop. The Macher Chop, as called in Bengali, was bought from a shop near my house. My favorite was with the fish stuffing though one could also buy with egg or mutton. I can still taste the hot, tangy, sweet and salty flavor of the mashed fish mixed with potatoes and dressed up with hot green chillies.
Though the long periods of time away from home have dulled the memory of the chops over the years, last week the thought came back to me in a rush and I have been craving them ever since. So last evening I decided to stop on my way home and buy some. I remembered the shop as a small hole in the wall with one guy dividing his time between tending to his customers and frying the bread crumb rolled chops in a wide cauldron of boiling oil. Yesterday I saw that liberalization has touched him too. His little hole in the wall is now a large shop with blazing lights and he has two young helpers to serve the huge coterie of customers waiting impatiently for their turn.
Reaching home, I hastily bit into the chop and savored the still rich taste of the fish stuffing. The outside was crispy brown and the inside crumbly with a hint of coriander, chillies and onions, just the way I remembered it. Typically, memories of food taste better in our mind than the present reality. This time, however, my memory served me right.
F likes eating with all the accoutrements of the western world. This means he likes his fork, spoon and knife and he will not let go of this even in the face of adverse circumstances like eating off a (totally flat) banana leaf or eating fish which is so packed with bones that it’s hard to come out alive. The degree of eccentricity can be gauged when one sees him at the dinner table picking away at a buttered roti with a knife and fork for more than a couple of hours and the rest of us are on our way back home.
Like F, many westerners who travel to countries where people eat with their fingers, like Iran or India, are squeamish about letting their fingers do the work for them. I have seen young Europeans struggle on with the forefinger and the thumb of BOTH hands with very entertaining results. Sometimes I wonder what all the fuss is about. Most countries have eaten some food or the other with their fingers. Japanese sushi, Arabic falafel, Mexican tortillas, Spanish tapas, the list is endless. In the court of Roman Emperor Hadrian the food was served on low tables and Romans helped themselves to the food with their fingers.
A billion Indians will tell you, the best and probably the only way to enjoy your tikka and curries is with your fingers. All you have to do is wash your hands and dig in. We are programmed to finger-eat for god’s sake.
The Asian landscape is dotted with temples. From the renowned (and certainly wealthy) Tirupati in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India to the Emerald Buddha (or Phra Kaew Morakot) in Thailand, each of these places of worship have their own unique ‘prasadam’ or temple food, depending on which part of the world you are in.
The origin of organic food is perhaps from the Buddhist temples of South East Asia. Traditionally, temple food is made from seasonal vegetables handpicked from mountains and gardens. The ‘ohshinchae’ or the five simulative vegetables garlic, green onions, leeks, wild rocamboles (or garlic) and Chinese squill are not permitted in any offering given to God. The belief is that these bring bad luck, evil spirits and lust. Meat too is avoided. The lack of these ingredients naturally makes temple food bland but positively healthy. Strangely, this genre of food has now made its way to chic restaurants in cities like Seoul claiming to offer ‘real temple food’. Some also go as far as to offer ‘fusion temple food’. Makes one ask, what next?
In Hinduism too food plays a central role in rituals and worship. ‘Prasada’, in Sanskrit, is the offering made by devotees to God and then consumed. Like Buddhists, Hindus too don’t offer onions, garlic, mushrooms or meat ascertaining Buddhism’s deep foundation from within Hinduism. Like Buddhist scriptures, Vedic scriptures and Ayurveda explain that these foods excite the more passionate elements of the human psycho-physical constitution. Therefore, the food offered to God consists primarily of rice, vegetables, sweets and fruits. Some Hindu temples are renowned for their prasadam like the famous ‘laddu’ available in Tirupati prepared from ‘boondi’ (little sugary balls), dried fruits, saffron, spices and sugar. The present consumption for this is a staggering 1, 40,000 pieces daily. Such is the craze that the Special Officer at this temple has recently announced that a buffer stock of 3, 00,000 laddus will be kept ready at all times.
Interestingly, some Hindu ceremonies completely contradict everything the Vedic scriptures say as far as food is concerned. For example, the Bengali community in Eastern India offers lamb or mutton, in the form of a sacrificial goat to Bhadra Kali, a form of Goddess Durga. In the historic Dakhineshwar Temple in the state of West Bengal in India, Goddess Kali turns vegetarian once every seven years. The legend goes that the founder Rani Rasmani had a son-in-law who was vegetarian. Unable to bear the sight of blood he pleaded with his mother-in-law who promised him that Goddess Kali will not be offered meat once every seven years .
And finally to take it a step further the Goddess is sometimes even offered country liquor by organizers. Just goes to say that the gods can have fun too.
hag·gis – noun Chiefly Scot. A traditional pudding made of the heart, liver, etc., of a sheep or calf, minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned, and boiled in the stomach of the animal.
S gave me a can of Haggis last weekend and has been checking with me since to see if it has been consumed. So this morning I decided that now was the time to do so. At first I was at a loss as to how the damn thing should be heated. I had to pry the wrapping off the can to get to the instructions on the reverse side. This is how it looked.
After much tribulation I managed to get the casing too off the Haggis (which was sealed with little metal clasps) and heated it in the microwave for four minutes (as specified). I then put the meat on buttered toast with cheese.
My first reaction was that I can taste the bread and I can taste the cheese but why can I not taste the Haggis. The reason being that the substance is largely tasteless. Maybe my gustatory system is not working as well as I would like it to but the fact of the matter is that it IS rather insipid.
The bit of Haggis that was gifted to me had venison liver as the primary ingredient. Although there are many recipes, it is normally made with sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal’s stomach for approximately an hour. Truth be told, the only thing I could taste was the oatmeal. The instructions ask you to eat it with mashed potatoes and turnip (or neeps and tatties as the Scots say), or on toast (as I did) or mix it up with whisky and serve with a generous portion of fresh cream. I strongly doubt anything can augment a taste which does not exist in the first place.
Interestingly, Haggis is still very much a part of everyday Scottish life. So much so that Haggis Hurling is a popular sport with a World Haggis Hurling Championship which is held each year. The challenge is to hurl the haggis as far as possible for distance and accuracy from atop a platform (usually a whisky barrel). A split or burst haggis is immediately disqualified (in keeping with its ‘historical’ roots that the haggis must be fit to eat).
Currently the import of Haggis into the USA is illegal. If only it were the same with Asian countries.
When I was in college and living away from home my friends and I spent a bulk of our time feeling hungry. Finances were scarce and I did not have my own transport so whatever was consumed had to be substantial, within spitting distance and cheap as hell.
And so we discovered the joys of hostel cooking. In this post I shall introduce you to two dishes.
Please note that this method of making toast does not require a toaster or fire. It instead needs an iron. Yes, the kind you iron your clothes with. Spread butter evenly on a slice of bread (preferably fresh). Switch on the iron and turn the knob till it reads ‘Cotton’. Gently lay the buttered bread on top and hear it sizzle. Turn over after a minute.
PS: My roommate and I had a dedicated iron which was used purely for toast making purposes.
This preparation does not need fire or even an electric kettle. It does need a modern bathroom. You ask why? Beeecaaauuuse a modern bathroom has a geyser, which in turn has piping hot water. Need I say more?
Disgusting you say? A necessity, when you are a poor student.