Serving the food: the food entered to a procession in the grandest banquets, (sometimes to fanfare or music) and the food was covered by inverted dishes to keep it hot on the long walk from the kitchens.
Carvers to the household would serve the lord’s family and the important guests attending the top table – all the serving, spooning, boning of fish and carving of the foods on the main table would be done by these skilled professionals, in a very exacting method and system, which never altered or deviated from established protocol, and the food was placed on the trencher for the guest to eat.
Food was served in ‘messes’, quantities to be shared between two, three, or four people. Pottage and stew were eaten from bowls with spoons, but slices of roast meat and other dishes were cut with a knife and placed on ‘trenchers’ – thick slices of bread – to be eaten with fingers. The trencher, soaked with meat juices was then eaten (?), given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs and was replaced when required, a hearty eater was known as a good trencherman.
Exotic spices, which were very expensive in this period, were served on ornate silver and gold dishes to maximise their value and rarity. Inlaid gilt bowls of sticky sweetmeats were eaten with silver forks, but some of the most impressive plates were the alms-dishes, used to serve food to the poor after the feast was over.
The removen or remouvoir, was to clean the tables between the courses of the banquet and feast. This was also a good time for the ‘entremets’, (various manifestations which appear in the intermissions between courses at great banquets) – these are the organised entertainments and staged pageantry; like musicians, the court fool, jugglers, etc. or the arrival of the subtylte.
A Subtylte (or indeed an entremet): this is a dish of food that is surprising in some way, the way it looks or the ingredients used in it – it is never as it seems – it is something to bring a wonderful spectacle to your guests. Subtyltes came about when the medieval cook took an interest in forming foodstuffs into strange figurative shapes: designs of mythical creatures and saints or coat of arms etc. In essence, they should hold a culinary surprise and delight.
A subtylte could be a statue, made of sugar, pastry, or other edible ingredients, or be inedible, but have edible things inside them etc. – normally they were brightly coloured and finished in gold leaf. For example a boars head is a traditional subtylte served at a feast; this was either a real boar’s head, roasted with birds etc. inside them, or a fake model of one, made from marzipan and gilded in gold leaf.
Henry VI’s coronation banquet in 1429 featured a ‘Custard royal’, with a golden leopard sitting on it; boars’ heads in castles of gold; and a baked meat fashioned in the form of a shield, quartered red and white, and set with gilt lozenges. The second course included a white leche, sat on it was a red antelope with a crown about its neck, with a chain of gold; and a fritter garnished with a leopard’s head and ostrich feathers.
Cardinal Wolsey had this to say about them in 1527 (at a feast for the French ambassadors at Hampton Court) “Anon came up the second course, with so many dishes, subtleties and curious devices, which were above a hundred in number, of so goodly proportion and costly, that I suppose the Frenchmen never saw the like … there were castles … Paul’s church and steeple … beasts, birds, fowls of divers kinds and personages, most lively made and counterfiet in dishes; some fighting, as it were with swords … some dancing with ladies, some in complete harness, jousting with spears …”
Ending the Feast: the ending of a feast is called the Voyed or Voidée; where refreshing comfits, ginger breads, cheese, wafers and candied fruits and seeds are served with a mulled wine. These sweetened treats were thought to aid the digestion of the meal.
The final ceremony of the meal mirrors the beginning; it involves the washing of hands. The Lord of the feast is offered the bowl first, similar to the ceremony at the start of the meal. The diners would dip their fingers into bowls of clean water, and then more water was poured over their hands from a jug held by the servants. Their hands were then dried with a clean napkin handed to them by a page. In 1556 on leaving the table it is written that each guest was to bow to the Lord and withdraw, saying to his companions in the ‘mess’ ‘Much good do it ye’
The duties of the almoner: the almoner (normally a priest) was expected to collect all the uneaten food at the end of the feasts and distribute it to the poor; leftover food was rarely kept to be served twice at the same lord’s table. Bishop Grosseteste, in 1240, wrote down the duties expected of the almoner, “nothe of the halle, ne be wasted … but wisely … be hit distribute and deportyd to poure men, beggars, syke-folke and feballe.” The poor, aware of the feast, would wait by the gate for the alms to be distributed.
The Types Of Food And Dishes Served At A Medieval Feast
We know the types of food that would have been served by someone like Alice de Breyne in 1413 because an English menu dating from around the same period goes thus … Boar’s head enarmed [with tusks], brouet of Almain to pottage [broth], therewith teals ybaked and woodcocks, pheasants and curlews. The ii [course] partridges, coneys and mallard [roasted], there with blandshire [ground poultry blancmange] caudel ferre [wine, thickened with egg yolks] with flampoyntes [open pork pie with pastry points] of cream and tarts. The iii course plovers, larks and chickens farsed [stuffed] and therewith mawmene [poultry with sauce].
And from, ‘The Book of Carving’, Wynkyn de Worde, 1508. “First set out mustard and brawn, potage, beef, stewed mutton, pheasant, swan, capon, pig, baked venison, custard, leach and Lombard, meat fritters with a subtlety, two potages, blanche manger and jelly.
For the main dish: roast venison, kid, fawn and coney, bustard, woodcock, partridge, plover, rabbit, great birds, larkes, doucettes, painpuff, white leach, amber jelly, cream of almonds, curlew, brewe, snipe, quail, sparrow, martins, perch in jelly, petty peruys, baked quinces, leach dewgarde, sage fritters, white apples or pippins with caraway in comfits, wafers and hippocras; all these are pleasing.”
We also know from such extant recipe manuscripts as, ‘The Forme Of Cury”, written in about 1390, that dishes in the medieval period were highly spiced – using ground salt, pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, ginger etc. (using far more spice than we add to our food). They also added ingredients which dyed the food vivid colours, for example, ‘saunders’, a red dye made from ground Sandlewood bark.
Also a very common ingredient, and a very distinctive taste, added into dishes was verjuice: in the “Art Of Dining: A History Of Cooking And Eating”, by Sara Paston-Williams, 1993, published by Past Times, she says, “Fresh fruit was occasionally used to dress meat, fish and poultry. Much more common was verjuice, (green-juice) an acid liquid rather like mild vinegar, produced from unripe fruit such as grapes, crab-apples and wild gooseberries; the name was taken from the French vert, for green and jus for juice. The fruit was fermented and stored in wooden casks, ready for use in cooking.”
What they didn’t eat much of: Wynkyn de Word, in 1508, had this to say about fresh fruit and vegetables, “Beware of green salads and raw fruits as they will make your lord ill …”
Many people in this period were suspicious of green salads, fresh fruit and drinking water, fearing that these things made them ill, being ‘the cause of putrified fevers’ and the like, a theory which held sway in the opinions of most people for centuries, and was perpetuated by physicians.