Thursday, 22 November 2012

Medieval Cooks and Food Illusions

I'm enjoying the BBC's 'Food, Glorious Food' season and as usual I have my eye out for servants. Clarissa Dickson-Wright's program shows that the medieval nobility and gentry demanded meals which were both filling and entertaining. Cooks created 'illusion foods', dishes which confounded diners' expectations. For instance meat-free 'hasteletes' were crafted from dried fruits - hasteletes were usually entrails. Yum. Below, Heston Blumenthal similarly creates 'meat fuit' by making plums out of a bull's ... er ... plums.

Even more spectacular examples of theatrical food abounded. Blackbirds baked in a pie? Small fry to Philip the Good whose chef encased a  live orchestra in a giant pastry shell at the Feast of the Pheasant. As Nicola McDonald explains, lords who commissioned such displays weren't just trying to demonstrate their hospitable natures and their largesse. Hosts who presented their guests with roast peacocks returned to their feathered skins, or rigged up cooked fowl to jump around in their dishes, showed that they had "power to conjure life itself and, by implication, death." (1)

Contemporary depiction of Philip the Good's feast (1454)

But what do these culinary shows tell us about the cooks who prepared them? Well, clearly these servants must have been highly skilled artists, but they also catered for their households' day-to-day necessities in hot, noisy and smelly kitchens. Successful cooks must have been skilled in directing staff, the many underlings who helped cook and prepare food. Furthermore, McDonald points out that lords expected their cooks to be knowledgeable in medical matters since they prepared the foods and drinks which would increase or purge their lords' humours. Indeed, beginner cooks trained for several years; cooks belonged to guilds and so worked as apprentices and journeymen before setting up their own shops or joining households as servants.

But despite their years of training and medical knowledge, their  application of elbow grease and artistic finesse, cooks suffered from an "image problem" in the Middle Ages. (2) Chefs in literature were often portrayed as drunken, stupid and bad-tempered. Melitta Weiss Adamson has speculated that educated elites looked disdainfully on chefs because they catered to the body, rather than the spirit. Chaucer's apprentice cook in his unfinished 'Cook's Tale', for instance, although an amiable fellow, is sacked because of his drinking and gambling.

So next time you watch Heston's  ice-cream pork pies or 'meat fruit', spare a thought for the unacknowledged culinary artists of the Middle Ages.

(1) Nicola McDonald, "Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion," in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-150.

(2) Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood Press, 2004).

1 comment:

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