Over Christmas time, it’s not unusual to feel that you may have slightly overdone things a little bit in the food and drink department and whilst turkey was not on the table during medieval times, they still enjoyed feasting and making merry!
Rachel tells us more in her Christmastide feasting blog:
You would find no turkey on the medieval table over Christmas, since the bird originates from the Americas, and had not yet made its way over to Europe. Henry VIII was the first English monarch to eat roast turkey at Christmas. The same goes for roast potatoes, these weren’t introduced to the UK until the reign of Elizabeth I. And whilst both sausages and bacon featured in the medieval diet, it’s unlikely that sausages wrapped in bacon were part of the Christmas feast.
Venison or goose were eaten, and other game birds. It was traditional to have a boar’s head on the table, to symbolise the end of the hunting season, this was also linked to a more pagan ritual in which a boar was captured, and its head cut off and offered to the god of the harvest in the hope of a good and fruitful year to come.
Whilst there was no cranberry sauce, (cranberries are another import from the Americas), what we know now as ‘bread sauce’, has its roots in medieval traditions of using breadcrumbs to thicken a sauce.
Gingerbread was a sweet treat at this time of year, also made with breadcrumbs, (hence the ‘bread’). Medieval Gingerbread was very different to the modern version. It was much more like a sweet than a biscuit or cake and was eaten by people as a treat after a meal, like a petit four. It was moulded into beautiful shapes in a variety of colours before being presented to guests. It was also limited to the wealthy as it contains expensive spices – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – which symbolised the Magi’s three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Mince pies would have featured in a Medieval Christmas, although they were originally rectangular in shape to symbolise the infant Jesus crib. They contained thirteen ingredients to symbolise Christ and his twelve apostles, this included dried fruits such as dates, figs, raisins as well as minced lamb, (which is why we still fill our mince pies with mincemeat).
The Christmas pudding that we eat today has its origins in frumenty – a spicy pudding made with boiled grains, dried fruit, egg yolks and spices. This medieval dish was left to set and cool before serving.
Drinking was as much a part of a medieval Christmas as it is today. Beer was the drink for everyday folk, as wine was mostly imported and expensive. Church Ale was a strong ale brewed for Christmas, sold in the churchyard, or sometimes even in the church itself.
A popular drink was wassail, (which comes from the Old English words waes hael, meaning “good health”), this was a hot alcoholic drink, either spiced ale or cider, the exact recipe probably varied from household to household, as well as regionally. The wassail was served in a large bowl, and the host would lift it and greet his companions with ‘waes hael’, to which they would drink and reply ‘drinc hael’, which meant “drink and be well”. Good advice for all!