Across all eras of human history, people have craved luxurious and extravagant foods not only to excite the palate, but also to show off social status. The aristocrats of the Middle Ages (the fifth to 15th centuries) may not have thought of themselves as "foodies," exactly, but they certainly were obsessed with exotic and delectable fare.
Medieval banquets were grand affairs, and they promised a spectacle of strange, ostentatious dishes. These massive feasts differed from the usual diet in the sheer variety of foods offered, and were usually arranged for special occasions, such as wedding parties and holidays. Read on to find out more about the bizarre, shocking, and tantalizing dishes that once filled those banquet tables.
Before the meal, guests could expect a dazzling array of (usually) edible sculptures crafted from sugar and other delicate materials like marzipan or pastry. These were referred to as "warners," because their arrival would warn diners that their feast was soon to arrive. These magnificent displays, or "subtleties" as they were called, were meant to be more of an entertainment than anything else. Often, servants paraded a new subtlety out at the end of each course to signify its completion. They came in the form of rare birds, exotic animals, coats of arms, or even famous people, and were usually accompanied by a poem, song, brief play, or recitation.
During Henry V's coronation feast, the subtleties included more than 20 swans clasping lines of a poem in their bills. Other wild examples included scenes of pilgrims and knights - the "pilgrim" made from pike meat with a lamprey staff, the "knight" a rooster decorated with a paper helmet and placed atop a cooked piglet as its steed.
What better way to boast of your wealth than to serve up the flashiest fowl you can find? Peacocks - cooked and served with their lovely plumages reattached - created quite a stir at the tables in the Middle Ages. The birds' skin and feathers were removed and the meat was cooked. Afterward, a layer of spices was added, and the skin and feathers were wrapped back on. Gold leaf or other decorations may have been added at this point.
Nobles enjoyed offering all variety of beautiful birds, including herons, swans, pheasants, and cranes, saying their meat was "more suitable to the tables of kings and princes than the lowly and men of little property."
Medieval gourmets ate a lot of different animals - rabbits, cows, pigs, goats, fowls, sheep, deer, and boars, just to name a few. Even hedgehogs and porcupines sometimes ended up on plates. A single banquet menu once consisted of a veritable zoo of creatures, with 12 pigeons, 12 chickens, six rabbits, two herons, a whole deer, a sturgeon, a pig, and a kid goat appearing in just three of the massive six courses. Some feasts may have included a roast boar stuffed with sausages that would pour out of its belly when the beast was carved.
Pies were often seen on the table among other roasted and stewed meats, containing layer upon layer of pigeon, rabbit, or pork. The sometimes intricately decorated crust on the outside was usually not intended to be eaten and existed to keep the meaty insides fresh and protected. The truly discerning palate would prefer only fresh meat as opposed to salted, preserved cuts. However, no animal parts went to waste, including the bladder, stomach, and womb of the pig, which were often used as sausage casing.
Pottage was a staple of medieval cuisine, and appeared at nearly every banquet. This hearty stew often showed up around the first course of a feast. The mixture was a hodge-podge of grains, bits of meat, egg yolks, and seasonal vegetables like cabbage or spinach.
Chefs would boil the pottage for hours until all the ingredients became as one. It was usually served with ale, wine, and bread, with the finest loaves being reserved for the elites. This stew mainly acted as an appetizer for the rich gourmands of the Middle Ages.