If there is one dish that exemplifies Medieval cooking it would probably be pottage, which is basically a soup or stew. Pottage was a staple of the medieval diet, from the lowliest peasant to the royal family. There was an enormous range of pottages, from the most basic vegetable soup to fancy meat or fruit pottages with luxurious imported spices. Anything that could be thrown in a pot and boiled together could do as a pottage (or “potage”). It was typically eaten with bread or served directly in a bread trencher.
Pottages were popular not only because of their variety and seemingly endless combinations, but they were ideal for the medieval lifestyle. Some pottages could be boiled up quick and ready to serve, others would stay on the fire for days on end with additional ingredients being added from time to time.
A peasant pottage would usually consist of whatever vegetables and herbs they had on hand boiled in some stock. If desired and the ingredients were available, the pottage might be thickened with barley or bread crumbs. Only on special occasions or during the winter would they include meat. Depending on the home, the pottage would be prepared in either a large earthenware pot and left to simmer on the hot ashes or hung on a beam in a large cauldron directly over the hearth (usually outdoors). Because of the ingredients they had on hand (typically cabbage, turnips, leeks and onions), peasant pottages tended to be quite thin.
A pottage for urban dwellers or wealthy citizens would be cooked in the same method, but in a cauldron hanging over the kitchen hearth or fireplace. The difference, though, is that there was a much wider variety of ingredients and flavors. There would be little need to keep the pottage going for days for anyone other than servants, so it generally tasted better and was typically much thicker. Town dwellers had access to many more types of food and were not bound only to the foods they could grow in their tiny urban gardens. Anything available at the market that they could afford could potentially be thrown in the pot. A variety of oats and grains would be used to thicken, if desired. Meat was more widely available, as were imported spices and herbs. The wealthiest homes would serve fancy pottages like frumenty or morrew, which often included additional ingredients like exotic meats, sugar, currants, and saffron. For anyone lucky enough to dine with the nobles at court, the sky was the limit when it came to pottage-worthy ingredients.
Two Peasant-y Pottages
Regardless of who you were and what your rank was in medieval society, you would have certainly eaten a version of one of the two pottage recipes below. This would have been especially true for rural peasants who basically lived off of cabbages and leeks. However, the peasant version would have been seasoned with only salt or whatever herbs they had on hand.
These recipes are from The Forme of Cury (1390-1420), a collection by the Master Chef of King Richard II. They are made with the same main ingredients: leeks and onions simmered in chicken broth. Both are seasoned with powder douce and colored with saffron.
A few notes about the ingredients:
- Saffron was a very expensive spice then, as it is now. Though it was grown locally in England it still would have been far too pricey for a peasant, or even the average town dweller. Saffron adds very little to the flavor, depending on how much you use. Its main purpose was actually to color the food, as you’ll see in the recipe for Blaunche Porre. Dyeing food was a very common practice in kitchens that could afford the luxury. Medieval gentry especially loved turning their food gold!
- Cabbages, leeks and onions were often considered “peasant food” due to their availability (very easy to grow) and low cost. Despite this, every recipe manuscript, including those written by known court chefs, called for these three ingredients in a wide variety of dishes.
- Powder Douce (“sweet powder”) was a spice blend used liberally in medieval cooking. It was typically made with ginger, cinnamon, cloves and sugar. Chefs could create their own personalized blends or simply purchase it pre-blended, much like we do now with Italian seasoning. Here is a typical powder douce recipe, but feel free to adapt it to according your personal taste.
Caboges in Potage
Take caboches and quartre hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Onyons y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue smale and do þereto safron and salt and force it with poudre douce.
Take cabbages and quarter them and seethe them in good broth with minced onions and the whites of leeks sliced and carved small and do thereto saffron and salt and force it with powder douce.
- 1 cabbage (rough chop or quarter)
- 8 cups (2 qts) chicken broth. Use less liquid for thicker pottage.
- saffron (optional)
- salt and powder douce to taste.
No detailed directions are necessary here. All you do is simmer the cabbage, onion and leek in chicken broth. When it is soft (around 8-10 minutes), season to taste. Serve warm, with bread.
Blaunche Porre could literally mean “white leeks” but is often called “Golden Leeks” in other recipes. It also calls for smale bryddys, which are blackbirds or finches. We are going to leave the little birdies out for (hopefully) obvious reasons, but it might be worth adding a bit of chicken to the pot next time. This dish could really use it, in my opinion.
To make blaunche porre. Tak whyte lekys & perboyle hem & hewe hem smale with oynouns. Cast it in good broth & sethe it up with smale bryddys. Coloure it with saffferoun; powdur yt with pouder douce. The Forme of Cury
To make golden leeks. Take white leeks and parboil them and cut them small with onions. Cast it in good broth and seethe it up with small birds. Color it with saffron; powder it with powder douce.
- 1-2 leeks
- 1 onion
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- Powder douce to taste
- Saffron to color
*My redaction above makes approximately 2 servings. It is very important to only use the white ends of the leeks to get the right shade of gold at the end.
Suggested measurements to serve 6 (from The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black):
1 tsp saffron strands, 2 tbsp boiling water, 6 leeks, 3 medium onions, 2.5 cups chicken stock, 1/2 tsp. powder douce.
This pottage is made pretty much the same way as the caboges, but it’s better to prepare the food coloring ahead of time rather than throw the saffron in. Still, here are the directions broken down in 4 easy steps:
- Start by soaking the saffron strands in 2 tbsp boiling water for a few minutes. You’ll see the water begin to turn yellow.
- Meanwhile, bring the broth to a simmer and add the leeks and onions. I suggest dicing the onions and finely slicing the leeks. Let everything boil together for about 8 minutes.
- Add the saffron and let it simmer for a minute or two. If it still isn’t gold enough for you, go ahead and add some yellow food coloring or throw in more saffron.
- Season with salt to taste, add the Powder Douce.
You can serve this runny or drain the stock and eat it as a side dish. This pottage, like most pottages, is meant to be eaten with bread. If you’re feeling adventurous and crafty you could carve yourself a bread trencher or take the easy way out and just buy a bread bowl. Otherwise, a regular bowl will do.
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