Welcome to episode 6 in the Medieval England History series. Last time we looked at medieval castles and their general sort of purpose and structure. Now we dive into the personnel, medieval cooks! If you enjoy this series please be sure to read the other episodes and listen to the voice cast on Spotify.
Medieval cooks, one of the most vital roles in the medieval times! People might not have been eating what we eat today, but I can say this, it was not that bad. A medieval cook would usually prepare the food over an open fire. Castles and noble houses later on had stoves and ovens of there own. Below are some of the cooking equipment, pans, that they would use.
A typical staple diet in medieval times didn’t quite match out 21st Century expectations. But it contained some good grub, for the time. Medieval ages saw a basic diet or food of bread (produced at Lord’s mills). Bread was not the only diet, although the most accessible and most used food source, due to the ease of production.
People of course ate a variety of meats, like chickens, geese, beef, venison and pork. Venison is considered a luxurious meat today (at least that is the impression I got) and would probably cost more than bread in the medieval ages. Back then it was mustard who took the lead as the most popular ingredients, beating salt, as salt was too expensive! Salt was reserved for the wealthy, a bit like the more expensive meats.
A cook working in the royal kitchens would live in the castle or a small village near it (either inside the walls, or just outside). As mentioned in the previous post on castles, it was a busy place and everyone had a role. Cooks were in charge of preparing meals and cleaning the kitchen. They would learn their families recipes and pass them on, as opposed to writing them down, although they probably did at some point (the first medieval cooking book appeared in the 13th Century). Preparing a meal over an open fire was commonplace, a cook used a fireplace or something called a central open ‘hearth.’ Kitchens would have stone floors, as was most common in castles. An open hearth also gave the room heat, thus the cooks would benefit from it. A hearth was usually placed in the center of the living rooms, as opposed to a separate kitchen, which came later on in the medieval ages. As the times progressed and people learned more, they realised the benefits of keeping the cooking separate from the guests, due to the smoke and potential smells etc.
Cooks used a variety of tools and pans and were not short of supplies. They had knives, iron cauldrons and pots (picture above), open ovens and hearths etc. wooden spoons, pothangers, dishes, pans and platters. All of these are still available to use today. We see open fires in many living rooms today, and it resembles the cooking methods of medieval ages. Cooks were also distinguishable by their clothing. They would wear clean clothes and woolen aprons. Cooks were highly valued in the medieval ages, especially those a part of the noble or royal kitchen staff.
Cooks were only one of many types of kitchen staff though, and I will briefly outline them, they are: pantlers, bakers, waferers, sauciers, larderers, butchers, carvers, page boys, milkmaids, butlers and scullions! These staff were in the hundreds and would all form part of the kitchen quarters. They were highly valued. You would not see a castle without a cook.
Back in the medieval ages things worked significantly differently, although many techniques have lasted through the ages in terms of food preservation techniques and food transportation. Back then, both preservation and transportation were extremely difficult. Nobles had access to more foreign foods like exotic spices and alcohol because they had the money and the man power to transport quickly. Decrees however would outlaw the consumption of certain foods among certain social classes because the poor or the manual labour of the town or village were considered to need cheaper more poor quality food. The class divide in the medieval times was extremely wide and it is a topic for another episode. But in terms of transport, from the 12th Century, there were improvements in international trade and wars meant dissemination in new food choices to the upper-middle classes of society. Those included things like access to wine and vinegar, black pepper and ginger. The rich or elite all had similar taste in food and drink.
As mentioned bread was a staple diet for many as it was widely available and the cheapest option available. Bakers would produce bread, and they were able to sell to cooks for castles and noble or royal kitchens, but the kitchens in the castle usually had their own bakers. Poor people ate things like barley, oat and rye. Beans and vegetable were eaten by all members of society. The rich would be prepared more expensive meals like swans or peacocks, venison and pork. Because meat was more expensive it was always seen at the dining table of nobles or elite. Fish like cod was popular. Elites usually ate fruits preserved in honey or served in pies, although fruit like apples, oranges, lemons, peaches and berries were more commonly eaten by the poor.
A cook would be paid daily but would not have the job security that a Marshall would have for example. This was due to the fact that a noble could travel and therefore would not need the cook. This was a rough time for holding down a consistent job for many, and back then they probably didn’t have contracts of employment.
Thanks for reading episode 6 – cooks! if you enjoyed this then like, comment, reblog and follow and of course keep a look out for regular episodes coming up in the Medieval England History series. Next time I’ll be talking about another crucial medieval occupation, the baker!