A lot has changed since the Middle Ages, and that’s putting it mildly! Advances in healthcare, technology, and more have increased the lifespan of the average person by more than forty years since then. Suffice to say, things are a lot better now.
Another major improvement since the Middle Ages? The food. While they were certainly able to concoct elaborate fare, chefs of yore prepared dishes that would sound crazy to modern diners. When you see what they loved eating, you won’t be surprised why we live longer now!
1. Swan: If you really wanted to impress folks at your dinner parties in the 14th century, it didn’t get any finer than a meal of fully cooked swan. The regal bird was prepared by two different methods—spit-roasted or with its entrails boiled and minced along with some ginger.
The real joy of having a swan for dinner came from the presentation. However the bird was prepared, it was presented to the guests reconstructed—right down to putting the feathers back on the bird!
2. Umble pie: Being told to eat “umble pie” might sound an insult, but to medieval folk, this was a real treat! Umble pie was made of the entrails of whatever wild animals were available, namely squirrels, deer, and the like.
3. Porpoise: During Lent, most people didn’t eat any meat. Instead, they dined on fish dishes. One of the most cherished was a soup made of porpoise, almond milk, wheat, and saffron. Sorry, Flipper!
4. Cat: In medieval times, it wasn’t uncommon to eat a cat, so long as you chopped off the head and threw it away. Why? “Because it is not for eating, for they say that eating the brains will cause him who eats them to lose his senses and judgment,” said one cookbook.
That’s not even the most bizarre part of the recipe, either. Once you’ve cleaned and prepped the cat, you need to bury it for “one full day and one full night” before digging it back up and roasting it. Ick!
5. Singing chicken: In medieval times, the way food tasted was one thing; how it looked was another altogether. Serving food that looked like it was still alive was common. To drive home the point, the infamous “singing chicken” sounded like it was alive, too!
A singing chicken was prepared by stuffing it with sulphur and quicksilver. When it was reheated, it began to whistle or “sing” as if it were still alive. Why this was something you’d want to be confronted with before chowing down is anyone’s guess.
6. Lamprey: When you look at a lamprey you probably aren’t thinking, “Yum, lunch!” This fish doesn’t just have a toothy suction cup for a face; it also survives on sucking the blood out of other larger fish! Not exactly traits one looks for in their dinner.
That said, it was an incredibly popular dish. In fact, it was so popular that it is said the death of King Henry I of England was caused by eating too many of these fish. How would you like that fact on your tombstone?
7. Sheep’s penis: Another weird food that the wealthy couldn’t get enough of back in medieval times was sheep’s penis. This reproductive organ was stuffed with the yolks of 10 eggs, saffron, milk, and fat, and then it was sprinkled with cinnamon.
8. Garbage: In medieval times, nothing went to waste. That’s why literal garbage was a popular dinnertime treat. It was usually made from chickens’ heads, feet, livers, and gizzards. It was stewed in broth, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, parsley, sage, and bread, and served with ginger.
9. Cockentrice: Just when you thought medieval chefs couldn’t get anymore unhinged, they invented this dish. As if swans and “singing chickens” weren’t awe-inspiring enough, chefs stitched the lower halves of pigs to the top halves of chickens. It was covered in egg yolks and saffron before being presented to guests.
10. Helmeted cock: Not all of the wacky inventions of medieval chefs were intended to be the star of the culinary show. For example, the “helmeted cock”—a roasted chicken dressed in armor and served atop a roasted suckling pig—was meant to be enjoyed as a side dish.
11. Hedgehog: Sorry, Sonic. In medieval times, hedgehog was very often what was for dinner. The little critters had their throats slit, were stuffed with assorted herbs, and then very often baked in pastry. You’d think their spikes would get in the way!
12. Roasted peacock: Here was another delicacy that people couldn’t get enough of when it came time to chow down. Like the swan, it was redressed in its feathers after cooking. Also, peacock was believed to be a food that would last for up to 30 days after it was cooked.
13. Beaver: In the Middle Ages, there were few foods as delectable to the palate as beaver. The critter was a popular treat on fasting days, since its tail was used in a so-called “cold food”—the only type of food permissible during a fast. Think that’s strange? Just check out the art from this time period; beavers were often depicted biting off their own testicles.
In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec finally decreed that all parts of the beaver could be eaten on a fasting day. His logic? The creature was such a good swimmer than clearly it had to be a fish. Not sure how that logic tracks, but cool, Bishop. Whatever you say!
14. Cock ale: This might sound like nightmare fuel to modern folks, but in medieval days, it wasn’t a party until someone uncorked this stuff! Cock ale was made by crushing a boiled rooster and adding it to a sack along with four pounds of raisins, nutmeg, mace, and half a pound of dates. It’d sit in ale for a week and then ferment in a bottle for 30 days. Yum?
15. Tableside entertainment: As you’ve probably gathered by now, a huge part of medieval dining was about entertainment. Some cooks would go as far as to sedate live animals, like frogs, by getting them drunk and presenting them at dinner on a tray. When they woke up and dashed off the table, people couldn’t seem to stop clapping.
You might get annoyed by having to wait in line to order your sandwich at lunch, but remember things could be worse—you could be forced to swallow down some cock ale for dinner!
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