It may be the 21st century, but three things have come together in the last few weeks that have had me thinking like a medieval peasant. I’m on a health kick where I’m trying not to eat any pre-packaged food, I’ve gone crazy over experimental cooking, and I’m broke. But being the medieval apologist that I am, I saw this as a brilliant opportunity to think like a peasant when it comes to eating. And that’s exactly what I did this weekend.
The first thing I made was bread. Super simple! No, I mean that! It’s a lot easier to make bread than you would think. This particular recipe for honey wheat bread involves only ingredients that would, in fact, have been on hand in your average peasant household of the 12th century. Water, yeast, butter, honey, salt, and flour. That’s it.
Granted, in the Middle Ages they didn’t use lovey rectangular load pans. They baked their bread in circles. But I think that would have worked for this recipe too. I’ll have to try it sometime. … Sometime when I don’t want to make turkey sandwiches out of my bread.
Bread is easy. What happened next was a fit of pure experimental cooking.
Now, when I get in a mood for experimental cooking, it’s either going to be awesome or a disaster. What started this experiment was my desire to make something I could take to work that was not pre-packaged but that I would still think was delicious. And yes, I thought to myself, “what would a medieval peasant do?”
First, I knew that I will eat just about anything in pastry form. I thought about it … and yes, that passes the medieval peasant test. Medieval peasants would have had access to flour, be it wheat flour or some other kind. Chances are they would have had at least some access to butter or lard for shortening. Add to that a pinch of salt, which would have been harder to come by but not impossible, especially in the 12th century, and voila! Pastry!
Next I thought about what’s seasonal. If I had lived in the Middle Ages, what would I have had access to in December? The answer is vegetables that store easily in their natural form. So I went out and bought turnips, butternut squash, carrots, peas (not frozen), onions, and an enormous sweet potato.
Okay, is the sweet potato medieval? No. Not at all. Sweet potatoes were originally cultivated in Central and South America and gradually spread northward. Not as far as Pennsylvania though. But I like them and they work well enough to illustrate the point. They are root vegetables that are in season even when fresher greens are not.
So, sweet potatoes aside, I chopped up all of my seasonal, local veggies and threw them in a big pot. Then, still thinking like a medieval peasant, I rolled out some pastry dough and cut it into circles. I filled each circle with my root veggie mix, threw on a little salt, pepper, basil, and turmeric and ….
Wait, I here you say that neither pepper nor turmeric are medieval spices. True.
Black pepper is native to south India. However, it was not only known in medieval Europe, it was a highly prized luxury item. During the 12th century the Italians had the monopoly on the pepper trade through their Mediterranean trading partners. It became so expensive through the Late Middle Ages that the Portuguese sent ships south around Africa to obtain black pepper themselves. Yes, the great push of 15th century exploration was so that Europeans could get their hands on pepper more easily. But would a medieval peasant have added it to their experimental cooking? No way.
What about turmeric?
Also Indian. And pretty much unheard of in medieval Europe. Its introduction into western cuisine wouldn’t happen for many more centuries, until the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent. But it’s delicious and research shows that it prevents cancer, so it made the cut.
Okay, so I included two very not medieval spices in my “medieval peasant” cooking. So what spices would they have used? The would probably have used the spices that every peasant grew in their cottage garden, things like thyme and tarragon, basil, sage, coriander, rosemary, and dill and other things mentioned in this spiffy article. Whatever grew locally. These herbs would also be used as medicines – and a lot of them are far more effective than modern allopathic practitioners like to give them credit for.
So what about my experimental cooking? Well, it turns out that making a medieval Hot Pocket is a little harder than it looks. I should have cut the circles bigger or filled them with less stuff. This first batch kind of looked like a disaster.
So I gave up on authenticity and pulled out a large muffin pan to make pot pies.
They turned out much prettier. I’m sure that your average medieval peasant housewife would have done a better job with the freeform pies than I did. In fact, there are these fantastic little things called pasties that I think I ate my weight in when I visited the UK a few years ago. Pasties have meat though and I think a bit more of a sauce than I came up with. They also most certainly have their origin in medieval cuisine. But most medieval peasants would only have had access to meat during festivals and holy days when their lord provided it.
Incidentally, my original purpose – creating something portable that I can take to work for lunch – holds up to my medieval analogy. I’m sure medieval peasant farmers headed out to the fields with lunch in tow too, and what better to take with you than a self-contained pastry pocket meal?
In the end, my experiment was designed with the completely biased but also probably true belief that medieval peasant cooks were creative and knew how to make the most of what they had. Just because they were poor by modern standards doesn’t mean they ate nothing but gruel. There are a lot of ways to take common, inexpensive, seasonal and local ingredients and make them into something delicious. It also helps if you happen to like the taste of turnips.