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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Camelot cuisine

Medieval banquet comes complete with goblets and hedgehogs


Talk about misunderstandings. The cuisine of the Middle Ages is probably the most maligned in history, and yet, medieval food is not crude, bland or barely edible. It is delicate, flavorful — and sweet.

Lady Brighid ni Chiarain should know. She has been cooking medieval dishes for a decade. Her real name is Robin Carroll-Mann, and she really isn’t an Irish noblewoman of the Viking era, but a resident of Morris Plains. Carroll-Mann is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international group dedicated to the study and re-enactment of the Middle Ages.

A time of castles, knights, dragons and wizards, the Middle Ages may feel like the Dark Ages to some, but to members of the society, it is a fascinating glimpse into a history that spans two continents (Europe and Asia) and 12 centuries (450 to 1600 AD). It is a time of Robin Hood, King Arthur and Shakespeare, of feasts and fasts, of fish days and fairy tales.

Divided into 17 kingdoms worldwide, the society was created in 1966 in Berkeley, Calif., by a group of science fiction and fantasy fans. New Jersey is part of an area known as the East Kingdom. Within each kingdom, which is ruled by a king and queen, are Principalities, and within those are baronies, ruled by a baron and baroness.

The Barony of Settmour Swamp encompasses much of northern and western New Jersey. Within this barony is the 45-member Canton of the Crimson Hart, just created a year ago and encompassing all of Warren County and parts of Morris and Hunterdon counties. And within this canton is the Cook’s Guild, a group of 25 or so medieval enthusiasts who love to prepare and feast upon centuries-old recipes. Using colorful titles and names, and dressed in period clothing, the Cook’s Guild meets every month.

Recently, the Cook’s Guild held a medieval banquet with all the Gothic trimmings. Golden goblets, wooden bowls, pewter pitchers and towering candlesticks decorated a long table piled with Middle Ages delicacies, such as heathen peas, fruays (apple bread pudding), daryoles (custard pie), stewed beef ribs, white bean soup, chicken stewed with beef, grain bread, honey butter and a variety of sauces, including mustard, horseradish, cinnamon and honey.

Several foods that were invented during the Middle Ages are still very much with us today, such as French toast, marzipan, chicken soup, poached eggs and honey mustard sauce, according to Lord Ben e draig. His name means “Ben, the Dragon” in Welsh and he serves as the master of the Cook’s Guild. He also answers to the name Ben Redditt of Califon.

Some medieval foods are downright familiar to the American palate, such as beef stew and custard pie. But the majority of medieval cuisine would probably taste strange and exotic to modern Americans, due to the intriguing pairing of spices and ingredients. Medieval foods are spicy in the truest sense of the word. Not spicy as the word is used today, meaning scorched-tongue-hot, but spicy, as in containing lots of spices.

Medieval feasts tended to consist of seven to eight meat dishes, according to Lady Drulina Dulent, companion of the Order of Maunche and Seneschal of the Canton of Crimson Hart. She is also known as Carol Nettleton of White Township. Game meat such as venison and rabbit, as well as domesticated meats such as pork and beef, were eaten. Poultry dishes consisted mostly of chicken, but also pigeon, peacock and pheasant.

These main dishes were flavored heavily with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, rose water and vinegar, giving foods a pleasing sweet-and-sour taste.

Hence, white bean soup, made by Redditt, is deliciously sweet and creamy like dessert, instead of savory, and stewed beef ribs, cooked with currants, taste surprisingly tart and sugary. Heathen peas are utterly delectable — surely the best way ever invented to serve peas — sweetened by an exquisite combination of crushed almonds, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

Many people might assume that the ingredients for medieval recipes are difficult to find in modern supermarkets. In reality, the ingredients are very basic: chicken, beef, eggs, milk, honey, almonds. In addition to sweeteners, the people of the Middle Ages had a love affair with almonds. It is the spices — and the way they are used — that set the basic ingredients apart from what we know today. In a sense, medieval food can be compared with the cuisine of Asia, with its emphasis on nuts, cinnamon, saffron, rose water, nutmeg, cloves and other flavorings, such as coconut milk, to sweeten main dishes.

Period recipes can be challenging to decipher. Taken from old texts and manuscripts from museum archives, they are mostly written in old English, with words like mylke (milk), almaundys (almonds), oynon (onion), poddyng (pudding), garlek (garlic), wyne (wine) and egges (eggs). Recipes may also issue esoteric instructions such as “Take mylke warm from a cow,” “Take fayre rybbes of beef,” “Stirre it wel til it be somewhat thik,” or the classic but not helpful “Cook it til it be enough.”

There are many secondary sources of medieval recipes as well, such as cookbooks translated by food scholars. One such classic is “Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes” by Cindy Renfrow (Society for Creative Anachronism Publications, 1991). It is the medieval equivalent of “The Joy of Cooking.”

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church ruled the preparation of food, as it did most aspects of life. This is evidenced by many recipes that begin with, “If it be a fish day ....” Fast days, partial fast days and Lenten days often dictated menus that required abstinence from meat, eggs or dairy products.

The process of translating old English to modern recipes is called redacting, a skill society members can learn in classes. That is when measurements, cooking times and temperatures are added, too, as they are nonexistent in medieval recipes.

“Medieval recipes are a lot like Grandma’s recipes,” says Carroll- Mann. “Take a little of this, a little of that, cook it till it looks done.”

The people of the Middle Ages used boiling and stewing as the primary method of preparing food, says Nettleton, because it was most convenient to cook in a large pot over an open hearth. For dishes that required baking in an oven, some households had outdoor ovens made of rock or mud and sticks.

Medieval people avoided drinking water, thinking it was dirty and dangerous. Instead, they drank wine, ale, cider and mead, a wine made from honey. They subsisted mostly on meat and bread, ate few vegetables and fruits, and avoided leafy green vegetables like the plague (pun intended).

“Greens were considered garbage,” says Nettleton. “That’s what they gave animals.”

Some foods hadn’t yet been “invented,” such as potatoes, tomatoes and corn. Some of these foods would be introduced to medieval Europe by explorers returning from the New World, such as Christopher Columbus, who is credited with bringing tomatoes to Europe.

Perhaps the most persistent myth about medieval food, say society members, is that people of the Middle Ages were spice-obsessed because they needed spices to preserve bad meat.

“The myths running around medieval food are that they ate rotting meat and used spices to cover up the taste,” says Carroll-Mann. “Spices were very expensive. They were a luxury item. Meat was fairly cheap in comparison. Nobody was going to throw a month’s wages on top of rotting meat.”

“People liked to eat, even then,” she adds. “Nobody liked food that was spoiled or burned or lumpy.”

The myths that degrade the Middle Ages come mostly from Hollywood movies, says Carroll-Mann, which showed hulking men with straggly beards inside damp castles, gnawing on giant haunches and throwing them on the floor.

The great medieval banquets of banner-bedecked Hollywood castles may be partly authentic, but medieval people did not throw food on the floor or gnaw incessantly on bones, she says. It is true that they ate with their fingers. Forks had not yet been invented, though spoons and knives were available. But they ate civilly, she says, even without utensils. Books on manners at the time instruct eaters not to, for instance, stick their entire hand into a common bowl, but to eat neatly using just the tips of the fingers.

Most of the dishes re-created today are the foods eaten by upper classes. During the Middle Ages, poorer classes had no time to create recipes — and were barely literate, besides — and they certainly could not afford spices. Instead, they subsisted on bread and cheese.

The noble classes, in contrast, had armies of servants, whose only role was to create cuisine. There were no time-saving devices back then, and no need for any, because the only job of a kitchen worker was to make food all day long. The more complicated a dish was, the greater its esteem in the eyes of the one eating it.

“It’s fun recreating medieval dishes,” says Lady Rhiannon de Licorne of Carreg Cennen, a noblewoman of Welsh/Norman descent, also known as Bev Altrath of Asbury. “It goes back to when I was a kid, reading about Robin Hood and King Arthur. It’s all those fairy tales that start with ‘Once upon a time ....’ It’s a romantic time period.”

Society members earn their titles of nobility as they progress up the ranks of medieval society. These include lord, lady, knight, master, mistress, herald and baron. In addition to re-creating the foods of the Middle Ages, members can also take classes and workshops in archery, sewing, chivalry, gaming, full armored combat, dance and fighting.

“I’ve loved it from the first day,” says Nettleton, who, as Seneschal, is president of the canton. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years.”

A drop in the bucket, medievally speaking.