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Eat Like a King: Food for the upper crust in medieval times

September 02, 20223 min read

Eating in the Middle Ages was nothing like it is today. There was no grocery store or packaged foods. If you want chicken for dinner, you’d have to chase it around the house first.


Peasants pretty much existed on bread and their own home-grown garden vegetables. Some also had meat, milk, cheese, eggs, berries, fruit, nuts and even honey depending on what they owned or lived near and what they had to trade for them.

But, the best foods (or at least what they thought were the best foods) went to royals and nobles — the more rich and powerful people. The most common foods depended on where they lived and the type of foods they could grow in their climate. Citrus fruits and olives, for example, were common in warmer places like Italy. In northern places, like England and Germany, they grew foods that could survive the cold.

Of course, preserved foods could travel. So rich people could buy foods that were imported, or brought in from other countries. They also ate more meat because they could afford the higher prices.

Rich people had big feasts with many courses

  • Medieval doctors believed that a person’s stomach worked like an oven. First you had to open the door. The first course was the apéritif, which means “to open” in Latin. They opened the stomach with a drink, like wine or champagne or another sweet appetizer such as sugar-coated ginger.

  • The main part of the meal started with foods that you could digest easy, like an apple.

  • Next came foods still easy to digest like vegetables, chicken or broth.

  • Pork and beef were considered the hardest to digest, so they came next.

  • Finally, these medieval people would close the stomach with a digestif. This could be another kind of drink, like brandy, or something sweet to help the stomach digest everything they just ate. One common digestive food was a candy-coated almond called a dragée. Today, we call them Jordan Almonds.

Foods were often dressed or decorated to look entertaining on the table

Food became art and the chef had to be an artist! Maybe you have seen pictures of a pig dressed with an apple in its mouth. A clever cook might have replaced all the beautiful feathers on a roasted peacock. Or he might stand up a cooked fish to make it look like it’s still swimming on a wave of vegetables.

Meats could also be ground down to small, wet bits and molded into shapes, like a castle or a knight on a horse. Then they could decorate those shapes with more foods, like fish eggs, cut up pieces of fruit, cheese, herbs and other meats.

Many feasts had entertainment between courses

Entremet means “between servings” in the Old French language. Entremets were originally small, sweet foods, like muffins or cookies. But over the years, they evolved into dancing and other forms of live entertainment. One complete dinner could last for hours in medieval times.

You probably know one famous example of entrement from a nursery rhyme that describes live black birds flying out of a pie. It must have been a really big pie!

Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened

The birds began to sing;

Wasn’t that a dainty dish,

To set before the king?

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_cuisine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ap%C3%A9ritif_and_digestif

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forme_of_Cury

Image: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry)

Download our FREE Medieval Foods crossword puzzle

Food_in_the_Middle_Ages_Crossword_Puzzle.pdf

Ask a parent or teacher to download our crossword puzzle, which uses vocabulary terms about medieval foods from both articles: Eat Like a King and Peasant Foods.

Download the crossword puzzle

Peasant Foodsmedieval diet
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J.J. Caroll

Bookstore Curator

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