A Brief History of Food: The Mediæval Kitchen
Possibly the most significant year in English history, 1066, saw the end of Anglo-Saxon England and start of the reigns of first the Norman and later the Plantagenet kings. Throughout the following centuries, and in most households, meals were cooked on an open hearth in the middle of the main living area, making efficient use of the heat. For most of the Mediæval period this was the most common arrangement, even in wealthy households, where the kitchen and dining hall were combined. Later a separate kitchen began to appear. The first step in this evolution saw the replacement of the central hearth with fireplaces set into the walls of the main hall. Later still a separate building or wing containing a dedicated kitchen was built. This was often separated from the main building by a covered arcade so that the smoke, odours and bustle of the kitchen could be kept out of sight of guests, and the fire risk lessened.
Ovens were used but were expensive to construct and only existed in fairly large households and bakeries. It was common for a medieval community to have shared ownership of an oven to ensure that the bread baking essential to everyone was made communal rather than private. There were also portable ovens designed to be filled with food and then buried in hot coals, very similar to the Roman testum (also known as clibanus).
For most people, almost all cooking was done in simple pots since this was the most efficient use of firewood and did not waste precious cooking juices. Thus Pottage, a generic name to various stews or thick cereal porridges, was the most common dish. It was eaten daily by everyone from the lowliest peasant to the Lord at his high table. Stews could be prepared much like a soup or so thick that they could be almost sliced. Cereal based pottages were mainly savoury, but some could be made sweet by the addition of seasonal fruit. Pottage was made from whatever was available and could be a combination of vegetables, pulses, lentils, barley, herbs and stock, with the addition of meat for those who could afford it – or poach it!
The cooking utensils familiar to us, such as frying pans, pots, kettles and waffle irons, were all used, although most were often too expensive for poorer households. In larger households, other tools more specific to cooking over an open fire might include spits of various sizes, and material for skewering anything from delicate quails to whole oxen. There were also cranes with adjustable hooks so that pots and cauldrons could easily be swung away from the fire to keep them from burning or boiling over. Such utensils were often held directly over the fire or placed in the embers on tripods. No medieval cook would be without assorted knives, stirring spoons, ladles and graters.
In wealthy households one of the most common tools was the mortar and sieve cloth, since many medieval recipes called for food to be finely chopped, mashed, strained and seasoned either before or after cooking. Skilled cooks took the opportunity to elaborately shape the results. A typical procedure was 'farcing' (from the Latin farcio, 'to stuff'), which involved skinning and dressing an animal, grinding up the meat and mixing it with spices and other ingredients before returning it to its own skin, or moulding the mixture to the shape of a completely different animal. Fine-textured food was also associated with wealth; for example, finely milled flour was expensive, while the bread of commoners was typically brown and coarse.
To feed a large noble household or the even larger retinue of a royal court could involve hundreds of kitchen staff. Many of these individuals had specific tasks:
Pantlers who oversaw the storage and preparation of bread in the pantry.
Bakers making pastry and the many and varied loafs of bread.
Waferers who specialised in making crisp, often sweet, very thin, flat, and dry biscuits.
Sauciers specialising in producing all manner of sauces.
Larderers responsible for the storage of meat and fish.
Butchers who slaughtered the animals, dressed the flesh and prepared the standard cuts of meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish.
Carvers skilled at disjointing the meat and slicing it uniformly to obtain a maximum or satisfactory number of portions.
Page boys, young male servants.
Milkmaids employed to milk dairy cows and prepare dairy products such as cream, butter, and cheese.
Butlers, a middle-ranking member of the servants of a great house, in charge of the buttery (originally a storeroom for "butts“, that is casks, of wine and ale).
and countless scullions who performed the most physical and demanding tasks in the kitchen, such as cleaning and scouring the floor, pots and dishes and assisting in the cleaning of vegetables, plucking fowl, and scaling fish.