If you've ever been to the restaurant Medieval Times or eaten at a Renaissance Faire, then you've been horribly misled about medieval diets. The real story of medieval foods and cooking is actually simultaneously a lot more disgusting and a lot more boring, depending on who was doing the eating. But there definitely weren't any turkey legs, okay?
So what did people eat in the Middle Ages? Bread, soup, meat, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Does that sound boring? Well, they also ate porpoises and deer guts. How did people cook in medieval times? They cooked everything, any way they could, because they thought that even raw fruits and veggies were disease-ridden. Read on for some more interesting facts about the medieval diet of nobels and serfs. Huzzah!
Medieval People Used Almond Milk
It may be a trendy "alt-milk" popular among vegetarians and vegans in the 21st century, but during medieval times, almond milk was prepared for pretty practical reasons. When the Church declared a fast day, for example, people couldn't eat meat or animal milk, so cooks turned to almond or walnut "milk" as an alternative, and even used it to make butter. It was also handy because it could be stored "with no danger of degeneration," unlike animal milk, which spoils quickly. Almond milk was such a common ingredient, in fact, that all existing cookbooks from the period call for it.
There Was 'Fast Food' in Medieval TimesPhoto: Bibliothèque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Sure, knights weren't riding their horses up to little windows and buying cheap food after a long day of jousting or anything, but there was a form of "fast food" in the Middle Ages. There weren't any Big Macs (or White Castle burgers!) to be had, but people did enjoy meat pies, hotcakes, pancakes and wafers prepared "for immediate consumption." Medieval fast food joints, like modern ones, had pretty poor reputations. Researchers at Penn State say that "the common view of them was that they were dishonest and dirty" and that some made "meat pies from tainted rabbit, geese and offal" or tried to "pass beef pasties off as venison."
Peasants Ate a Ton of Bread and Grains
So this is like the opposite of paleo, right? Most people in medieval Europe ate 2-3 pounds of bread and grains per day, including up to a gallon of (low-alcohol) ale. Grains such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley were boiled into porridge, made into bread, and, alas, only occasionally paired with poultry, pork, or beef (medieval folk instead ate peas, lentils, and fish to get their protein fix). For the record, 2.5 pounds of rye bread is a whopping 3,000 calories and a gallon of ale is an additional 1,500 calories... but considering that work days in the summer for a medieval peasant lasted as long as 12 hours, it was pretty easy to burn through all that bread.
Raw Fruit and Vegetables Were Not to Be Trusted
Eating exclusively raw food is a modern trend that would have confounded medieval folks. Researchers from The British Library Board say, in fact, "All fruit and vegetables were cooked - it was believed that raw fruit and vegetables caused disease." The Boke of Kervynge ("The Book of Carving") from 1500, for example, warned against salads and raw fruit in particular: "Beware of green sallettes and rawe fruytes for they wyll make your soverayne seke." ("Beware of green salads and raw fruits, for they will make your master sick.") Fresh herbs were fair game for medicine and cooking, but all other greenery needed the disease cooked out of it.