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How peasant staples took over upper class tables

Ida ArdeleanJun 28, 2019, 7:44:37 AM

When you think of what a mediaeval peasant ate, what comes to mind? Groats, vegetables, fish and bacon if he was lucky? Bread and pottage? Ale? 

Well, it is a common misconception that a peasant would be mostly a starved, thin, harrowed man who aged before his time, lost his teeth before he hit 20 and died of malnutrition, disease or overwork before he managed to see his 30th birthday. The real peasant of the day consumed over 3500 kilocalories per day and was a brawny man whose physical strength and stamina helped him along with the daily tasks of the harsh mediaeval world. To be able to work, he needed food; and to get food, he needed to work.

There were, of course, periods during the year when food was scarce, or when the harvest didn't deliver. Then the peasant suffered. Many died of hunger if they didn't have enough in the pantry to tide them over until the next harvest. But this was not the usual order of things. Like today, it was understood that a working man needed food and unless the calamity stroke, he would get it. 

So, what did the mediaeval peasant eat? And how come modern educated professionals seem to be reverting to the same?

The mediaeval England was not a country for the faint of heart. Though the climate was not as harsh as that of our more northern neighbours, the growing period was not as long as in the south and the variety of fruits and vegetables was not as great. Since no one on this side of the pond had yet heard of a potato, grains were the main carbohydrate. Rye and barley were the most common, with wheat only available to the rich. Oh how the tides have turned! Nowadays, rye sourdough and pearl barley dominate the tables of the professional class. The urban poor eat wheat, the grain that since the middle ages has been hybridised beyond any recognition to increase yield and gluten content. 

But let's have a look at the mediaeval peasant's main meal of the day. Apart of bread, cheese and ale, what else would he eat to give himself the energy and strength for work? He needed more sustenance, as farm work in the middle ages was much more heavy than nowadays. They didn't have machinery, everything had to be done by hand. 

The mediaeval peasant's main meal would be served in daytime hours. The evenings were dark, they were for rest and sleep. It was easier to eat and cook when the sun was still up. The likelihood was he wouldn't be eating meat every day. For the peasant class, meat was a highly prized commodity. However, rivers and streams were abundant in fish, most notably salmon. Cooked salmon was as delicious then as it is today, with one little difference. Nowadays, it's a delicacy, back then it was a staple, when available. 

Availability and seasonality was a very important factor in mediaeval food. Unlike today, no one, no matter how rich, ate fresh strawberries in January. They were simply not available. So the modern movement for sustainability and seasonality, deemed elitist, was just a part of life for the mediaeval peasant. 

What would the peasant have to eat alongside his salmon? Well, choice was quite abundant. Fresh peas and beans, leafy green vegetables, a slice of sourdough bread, cooked barley pottage. Does that sound familiar? I'm sure you heard of it all from many a nutritionist or dietitian. Many a glossy magazine extolled the virtues of fish, wholegrains and greens. The mediaeval staple became the preserve of the rich and famous. Or at the very least the well off.

What happened, then, to the chicken and the white bread that once crowned the tables of many a nobleman? Well, in the age of battery hens and mass monocropping of hybridised wheat, these once delicacies suffered a dramatic fall in status. Whereas in the days of yore, only those who could afford not to have eggs were willing to kill a young chicken, today the price of poultry fell so dramatically that chicken meat became some of the cheapest in history. Bread made from bleached wheat flour has a longer use-by date and some particularly processed loaves seem unable to spoil. This makes production and distribution cheap as chips. 

Another example of reversing trends is the well-known sugar. In the mediaeval period, the sugar bowl was put on the table in front of the most important guest of the house. It was a highly prized ingredient, certainly not available to the masses. Sweetness in the mediaeval world came from honey and seasonal fruits, though both of them required work to obtain. 

Fruit was also not consumed the way it is today and was only available at specific times of the year. Mediaeval nobles cooked their fruit in pies and compotes, as it was the belief of the day that fresh fruit could cause indigestion and other stomach issues. Raw fruit was mostly enjoyed by the poor. Nowadays, fresh fruit is relatively expensive, which makes it less affordable for the common man, however, processed jams and pies (which likely do not contain much of the fruit in the first place) are simpler to store, have a longer shelf-life and are therefore cheaper. 

Clearly, we have come a long way since the Middle Ages, however, have we become any healthier? Are our ways any better that theirs? We eradicated some diseases but have created new ones, some with a much higher death toll. Healthy food seems to be growing ever more exclusive, natural products are becoming available to a smaller circle of people. Unless you have a farm in the area that can provide you fresh, healthy ingredients, you are bound to shop in supermarkets or corner shops where food is sometimes of a particularly substandard quality. And the tragedy of modern day is: hardly anyone knows any better. 

Banner: painting by Pieter Breughel the Younger