An absolutely tantalizing idea from online book review magazine InD’Tale: authors are invited to submit a recipe with a photo, preferable with the author in it. (Fellow authors, if you would like to submit a recipe, contact Melody Prat at melodyprat (at) indtale (dot) com.)
Food is a favorite subject of mine, and soon I will submit a recipe for beef stew. But I would like to have it close to what people in the eighth-century Francia and Saxony, the settings for my novels, might have eaten, especially if it fed a peasant family. For peasants, beef stew would have been a treat. They were too poor to eat meat every day.
Animals on a peasant farm lived longer than those belonging to the nobility. The peasants were apparently letting the animals get as big as possible before the slaughter. When meat was available, peasants were more likely to have beef than pork. Beef could come from an ox that had broken its leg or was otherwise unable to pull a plow or cart. Or it could be slaughtered in late fall because there was never enough fodder to sustain all the animals through the winter.
With that in mind, let’s look at the ingredients.
Chuck roast. Close enough. Even if I knew how cattle were butchered in the Middle Ages, it would be impossible for me to re-create the beef. The animals themselves would have been different. For instance, the popular Black Angus is a Scottish breed that goes back to the 19th century, and it has been improved since then.
Livestock also lived under different conditions than they do today. Cattle spared from the fall slaughter would have spent the winter in a byre and grazed in the field allowed to grow fallow in the summer.
Beer or ale. Of course. It was the breakfast beverage of choice.
Barley. Most stews would have grain, and peasant ate barley and rye. I will have to compromise and use pearled barley. Because of the barley, I am skipping the flour usually used as a thickener.
Herbs. Could use these fresh or dried, depending on the time of year. Parsley, thyme, and basil are among the choices.
Choice of vegetables is determined by time of year, too. By late fall, onions, garlic, carrots, radishes, and turnips would be harvested and in storage. The root cellar could also include celeriac, but since I live in a small Indiana town, I will substitute celery.
Mushrooms. Medieval folk could have found some in the woods, and mushroom can be dried for later use. Note to anyone considering wild mushrooms: Get them only from someone who knows what they are doing and has hunted mushrooms a long, long time. As in the mushroom hunters have gray hair and wrinkles. Lots of both. If you get the wrong mushroom, you might need a new liver. Seriously.
Green peas. A colorful, tasty addition, which I usually use frozen. I’m not above cheating, but peas are a spring crop. If the scenario is late fall, the only ones available in the fall during the Middle Ages would have been dried, assuming they were not already eaten.
Potatoes. Out of the question. Those are a New World food.
The challenge: can I create a dish similar to what medieval folk would have eaten but still be delicious to a modern palate? Stay tuned.
For a great source for food history, visit foodtimeline.org.