Roast unicorn anybody? What they ate in the Middle Ages!


The British Library reported in April this year that it had found a long lost medieval cookbook that included a recipe for roast unicorn – it even included a helpful picture of the unicorn being roasted.

Just as I was about to believe this incredible story from the British Library – I couldn’t help noticing that the date of the article was – 1st April, 2012. April Fools Day! However, it’s a very amusing article nevertheless and click HERE to read it.

But that does beg the question – what exactly did people eat in the Middle Ages? There are several books you can download on Amazon that give you good medieval recipes including The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black – click HERE to see. What makes me salivate is the interesting mixture of flavours that people used in the Middle Ages. We’ve got used to certain spices appearing with pork, beef, lamb, chicken and so on – but maybe we’re too rigid in our thinking.

Beef with cinnamon and ground almonds – a recipe from 14th century France – had me switching the oven on as did sausage with fennel, which you can click HERE for a full recipe. Eastern spices were highly prized by the Romans and the upper classes in the Middle Ages. It was the race to find spice that led the Old World to accidentally discover the New World at the end of the fifteenth century. Pepper was a highly sought after commodity and the most refined palates of medieval Europe would have been acquainted with spices like cardamon and cumin. The curry spice turmeric was known as Indian saffron and regarded as a cheaper alternative to the hideously expensive saffron.

England is traditionally seen as the home of roast beef and Bukkenade was a meat stew explained below in old English:

Take Vele, Kyde, or Henne, an boyle hem in fayre Water, or ellys in freysshe brothe, an smyte hem in pecys, an pyke hem clene; an than draw the same brothe thorwe a straynoure, an caste ther-to Percely, Sawge, Ysope, Maces, Clowys, an let boyle tyl the flesshe be y-now; than sette it from the fyre, and a-lye it vp with raw 3olkys of eyroun, and caste ther-to pouder Gyngere, Veriows, Safroun, and Salt, and thanne serue it forth for a gode mete.

The poor of the medieval period would have cooked and reheated various kinds of stews over a period of days. We’re grown very used to the idea of TV dinners and throwaway food but I can remember as late as the 1970s in Britain, people would re-work the previous day’s leftovers into hotpots, etc. There was no food waste issue in the Middle Ages and well into modern times.

The diet of those at the bottom of society would have contained far less protein than that of the rich and powerful. Meat every day was not something your average serf experienced. But up in the castle, the kitchen hearth and ovens would have seen great joints being smoked, roasted or stewed. Next to the kitchen was the buttery, for storing ale, and the pantry. In many castles, you can still see where the kitchens were – the normal give away is a square hole in the wall leading to a large, enclosed, dark space – the oven.

Every part of the animal could be used in the kitchen including the heads and feet. This recipe is from a seventeenth century cookbook but this kind of dish would have been known to a medieval baron:

To fricate Sheeps-feet. Take Sheeps-feet, slit the bone, and pick them very clean, then put them in a Frying-pan, with a Ladlefull of strong Broth, a piece of Butter, and a little Salt, after they have fryed a while, put to them a little Parsley, green Chibals, a little young Speremint and Tyme, all shred very small, and a little beaten Pepper; when you think they are fryed almost enough, have a lear made for them with the yolks of two or three Eggs, some Gravy of Mutton, a little Nutmegg, and juyce of a Lemon wrung therein, and put this lear to the Sheeps feet as they fry in the Pan, then toss them once or twice, and put them forth into the Dish you mean to serve them in.

If you have any medieval recipes to share – please send them to me and I’ll publish them on the blog! Here’s some medieval cookery scenes from my visits to several medieval fairs in Portugal this summer.

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