Cooking from the Middle Ages to the Present Day
We need to eat to survive and this is cooking’s primary purpose. But cooking is not only a matter of survival; it is also a social practice and key part of our cultural heritage. Recipes and cookbooks, as well as historical literature, testify to this. Medieval feasts in particular were not only about eating: they constituted a ritual often involving a range of religious metaphoric traditions which had an important impact on society.
This realisation was the starting point for a conference organised by the University of Graz, Austria, which I attended this summer. The aim was to reconstruct cooking themes and practices from the Middle Ages. We discussed so-called ‘dietetics’ (people’s dietary needs), ‘foodpairing’ (how best to combine different foods) and methods of preparation. In addition, we considered table culture in medieval courts.
The different aspects of the topic generated a multitude of questions: ‘what can we find out by looking into medieval cesspools?’ or ‘how did people work in a medieval kitchen?’ My own topic was how recipes have developed and circulated since the time of Maria Sophia Schellhammer’s influential Brandenburgisches Kochbuch (Brandenburg Cookbook). In what follows, however, I just want to give a short overview of some of the main points of our discussions.
In the Middle Ages, medical science had a significant influence on what was considered healthy and nutritious. This was particularly important among the higher classes. One example is the German Benedictine abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen, who is still influential today. Searching for her name on Amazon yields 104 results; most of these are modern recipe books belonging to a kind of ‘back to nature’ movement.
At the conference, however, Ortrun Riha, a historian of medicine, pointed to the great misconception of Hildegard’s works. She had distinguished between recipes for diseased and healthy people and her recommendations were never meant for everyday cooking at the time when she wrote them.
Medieval understandings of human health, unsurprisingly, bore little resemblance to modern day medicine. The most popular principle was ‘humoralism’ which posited the existence of four different temperaments: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic. These humours, changing seasons, and cooking were correlated with a concept of human wholeness and unity. Therefore, food preparation was a sophisticated task that also had to take into consideration Christian traditions of the day.
The most popular and timeless tradition with regard to religious dining culture is the season of Lent. Of course, it was subject to different variations. But in this period, food preparation became almost artistic work: How could meat be replaced or even hidden, for example in pies? What kind of meal was suitable for noble society? Which colours of food were appropriate for different phases of the ecclesiastical year?
During the conference, many of the keynote speakers mentioned several other, sometimes forgotten, examples of metaphoric food preparation such as the ‘Blanc-manger’. This contemporary famous recipe requires – depending on the cook – almond milk, sugar, lard, chicken or fish and sometimes even viola blossoms. Its popularity derives from the white colour, which was thought to signify purity and virginity.
To revive some of these culinary cultural legacies, the group of scientists tried to replicate a dozen medieval dishes. The fact that a number of ingredients no longer exist due to the reduction in biodiversity posed a considerable challenge. However, the results were persuasive (and tasty), as the pictures show:
The Swiss molecular cook Rolf Caviezel and the flavour lab scientist Fritz Treiber of the University of Graz gave an insight into the opportunities offered by modern cuisine. Nowadays, the kitchen is an experimental laboratory of analysis allowing for the segmentation of edibles and their ‘reconstruction’. New cooking techniques such as the centrifuge make for continuous innovation.
Nowadays, it is possible to explore strange new worlds of taste and culinary creation, to seek out new flavours and compatibilities, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Beer can be brewed with coffee, coffee made with earth, and three pieces of cucumber turned into different sediments and later cooked anew. Our cultural development makes the subject of cooking as diverse and relevant as it was in the Middle Ages.
For further information
The local Austrian television channel recorded our experiment of ‘reproducing’ recipes from the Middle Ages: You can see some of the results here (in German):
(relevant section 4:46 – 6:58)