Many of the philosophies of how meals are taken and the types of foods that are suitable for a family meal that we hold today have their origins in medieval times. The image of a slovenly king eating a turkey leg with his hands makes for fun at a medieval faire but that image is not a good representation of how food was prepared and what kinds of things the people of the middle ages age most often.
There was a thought out approach to diet during the medieval years that, while not as scientific as present day, this system still showed a concern for health in what people ate and, moreover, the order in which they ate it. The dining experience and what went on inside the diner’s digestion system was considered to be a continuation of the cooking process by medieval chefs. So there was a great deal of emphasis on starting any mealtime with very easy to digest foods to lay the groundwork for the more substantial main courses to come.
Medieval chefs believed strongly that is those who dined on their meals ate the heavy food too early in the process, that food would “sink” to the bottom of the eater’s stomach and then get covered up with the lighter foods. The common medical belief of medieval thinkers was that this type of eating would cause that heavy food to create unhealthy gases and even spoil in the stomach which could result in serious illness or death. So much thought was put into how to carefully “mix” the foods after they had been consumed so that digestion proceeded in a healthy fashion.
If you every wondered where the custom of serving appetizers before the meal came from, it came from this medieval concept of laying down light foods before heavy ones during mealtime. Similarly, the custom in fine dining situations where the soup and salad is served before the main course is an evolution on the medieval approach to serving meals.
The actual beginning of a medieval meal would probably start with a fruit offering like pears or apples because that was considered to be the easiest foods for the stomach and bowels to take and that it would prepare the digestive system for further entries. Following the fruit course, vegetable dishes were served which would often include lettuce, cabbage, herbs, carrots or other forms of soft fruit.
Another popular dish that was offered at this phase of the meal was a “potage”. A potage generally resembled a soup or stew like mixture of meat and vegetables. Our modern stews or goulashes are descendents of the medieval recipes for potage offerings that were part of the progressive system of introducing heavier foods as lighter ones were put into the system to prepare the way.
After these preliminary dishes were offered, the heavier meats were put out for the family or guests to consume. Even then, there was an order that meats were consumed with lighter meats like poultry offered first to be followed by the heaviest of the dinner options which would be beef if it was available. Of course, many times beef was not part of the meal at all as it was expensive to produce. Generally only royalty or the very rich were able to afford the delicacy of beef as the main course of their meals.
The diversity of ingredients used for a potage varied tremendously depending on availability of certain foods and what the family could afford. For those who were not privileged, a potage of boiled wheat and eggs would often be filling but affordable to those on limited incomes. This potage base was a good place to start so that the cook of the family could add sugar, orange flower water, rum or other ingredients to give the potage more flavor and substance. If fish was readily available, that might be combined with boiled chicken or some other fowl for a mawwenny potage.
The theory of how meals should be presented that was held by medieval chefs prevailed even after the main courses were over. It was considered both polite and healthy to eat a light repast after the main courses were done. This was called a dragee. The dragee might include a spicy wine, aged cheese or spiced lumps of sugar similar to our modern candies.
It is easy to see how the modern custom of desert came down to use from medieval times. And while the ingredients of our foods has changed and we have much more medical knowledge about digestion, a great many of our modern dining customs are direct descendents from medieval society.