Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Medicine in the Middle Age| A list of healing herbs

How did the people of medieval Europe lived without health insurance, hospitals, clinics and other forms of health care that are available to us, in today’s world.
Well, most people  suffered in silence, some may not even knew they were sick, as many diseases were diagnosed later. Or even if they knew, it was more likely they had an acute pain that they could not take it anymore.

Most common for of treatment was the medicine administered to them by doctors (that had studied some classic greek and roman medicines) or, in small and remote communities, by other healers. There were physicians, barbers, surgeons, itinerary surgeons (traveling from place to place and offering their services to the wounded), healers (people without any formal training but a lot of hand-on experience in working with medicines) and apothecaries (the pharmacists of today).
The majority of medicines available in the Middle ages  were obtained from, plants, herbs and spices, that were simmered, boiled, minced, and mixed with other ingredients to make a medicine that was mainly drunk and ate, and occasionally inhaled.
Here is a list of herbs, spices, and other plants used in curing (see Daily life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman, p 261):
Hippocrate, greek physcian,
 (cca 460 - 370 BCE)
and seeds of various trees

Other healing solutions included some unusual matters like pig dung for nosebleeds or raven droppings for toothaches.

Mercury(that today we know it is harmful for human body) was also used in preparation of some medicine as well as gold or some dust gathered from Egyptian mummies. These medicine were very expensive and so only available to the very rich people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beer in the Middle Ages

This is the interior of an old inn in Bucharest, Romania.
It is called "Caru cu bere" which may translate
as "The Beer Wagon"
Photo by Baloo69 on Wikimedia Commons
 may translate as
Today, we think of beer mainly as a alcoholic beverage that’s consumed as a drink and it can get you in trouble if you don’t know when to stop. But back in the days people used beer for extended purposes and for other reasons then just entertaining around a football game.

Back in the days they even made beer soup for the entire family; parents, grandparents and kids were fed with beer soup.
Beer Soup Medieval Recipe (When beer was served for breakfast and beer bellies were well respected)  This is an article I wrote last summer for hubpages. It is a short history of beer mainly with the purpose of introducing an old beer soup recipe.

Today I want to speak about beer as a drink in the Middle Age.
Now, we may think that centuries ago the best drink of majority of people was water. And this is partially true. But what we do not know is that a better drink for our ancestors was beer. And it was quite common among people of all condition and ages.

One of the reasons why they consumed beer was that the water was often so impure that was posing a health hazard. In this regard, beer was far more healthier. The fermentation process of the grains destroys most of the harmful bacterias and other germs that may contaminate the water. So beer was a far more hygienic drink.

Beer was brewed by everyone. The earliest people we know today that they made this drink were Egyptians, some 2000 years B.C. It is said that Greeks and Romans liked wine, though they too knew how to make beer.

In the Middle Age, beer was made at home by housewives, at taverns for customers, in large commercial enterprises for mass selling. It was so popular that it became the drink of “common man” with the largest consumption in German Countries, Low Countries and England. It was even a method of payment for workers.

Beer also had its rules and regulation in cities and monasteries where monks got beer on strict ratios. In London, they had to put a limit on how much water you can draw from a well or spring. (Because they would dry out the wells). In fact, some historians have said that, for the countries mentioned above, there was one brewery for every one hundred people. In this condition no wonder why the municipality of London found them dangerous for the public water supplies.

Beer was not the only drink though. They also made wine, specially in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and other countries around eastern and central Europe. With all these drinks, medieval people did not give up on water. But this may be my next subject.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Preserving food for later use or transportation

See salt harvest - France
Rolf Süssbrich -own work
One of the most used method of preserving food in the past, before freezers and fridges was salting. Salt was a very popular item that everybody need it in quite large quantities.

Sea salt was obtained by flooding specially set constructed fields near a sea. The water evaporates and at the bottom was salt (with grit and other impurities) This salt was cheap to obtain and cheap to sell and could be produced at large scales.

More pure salt was obtained from natural springs that run through salt deposits in the ground. A series of pipes were set to capture the water of such springs. Then the water was boiled in huge kettles till evaporation leaving a better salt behind. The third way to get salt was by digging it in the salt mines.

Salt was used to preserve meats and fish, cheese and  butter.

Fruits were dehydrated on large wooden surfaces, often placed outside, under direct sun but also indoor, in a room with opened windows to allow air to circulate. They dried grapes, apricots, apples, dates, figs, pears, peaches and many other fruits. Some fruits were coated with sugar and dried again.  Some vegetables, like beans, peas and lentils were harvested already dried, others, specially the root vegetables and potatoes were stored in a cool dry place and sometime buried in sand in a sheltered place. They also dried all the herbs used in cooking (or healing practices).

For preserving the meat texture they also used brine (a mixture of salt and water). The meat or fish was sunken in brine and let there until consumption. The same kind of mixture was used to preserve cheese. Also, many vegetables were pickled the same way.

A brine mixture with wine or vinegar plus spices and seeds was most often used for pickling.
Wine was also used in combination with sugar and turned into syrup for preserving fruits.

The oil preservation method was wildly used for packing olives. Animal fat was used to preserve cooked meats. Fried or roasted meat was immersed in liquid animal fat and preserved until ready for a meal. Sometime, instead of fat, they used gelatin obtained by boiling hooves and feet from animals.  

People mainly preserved food for later consumption. Winter was especially hard since no vegetable could grow. The fruits and vegetable were picked and dried at the end of the season. The roots were collected at maturity and sored in dark, cool and dry places. Meats were preserved mainly at the end of fall, when most cattle were slaughter. Pigs were sacrificed even later, when the people exhausted the fodder.

People also preserved food for preventing it to spoil during transportation. As roads developed, more and more goods were trade between different parts of a country or between continents. Spices and exotic fruits were coming to Europe and later coffee and tea.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Country side diet in the middle age (aprox. 1000 to 1300)

Mediaeval farmers, paying the "Urbar"
In the middle age, most european land was own by royalty,  nobility, churches and monasteries. There were very few other individuals that own a little piece of land like chevaliers or craftsmen.  The rest of the people were considered lucky to have a little cottage to sleep over night. They were serfs, meaning that they belonged to a noble and were allowed to work the noble’s land. In exchange for their work, which occupied all day, they would receive food. That was their pay check. The food they got it was only enough to survive.

Today, it is very difficult to reconstruct the life of a peasant in the middle age. If for the upper classes there are plenty records, for the serfs historians have to dig realy dip for a piece of information. The documents that they can find are tax records, donations, wills, household inventories or funeral banquets. One of these documents shows us that in 1268, in the domain of Beaumont-le-Roger, in France, a couple would rcieve one large and two smaller breads, 2.5 a gallon of wine, 250 gr. of meat or eggs and a bushel of peas. And this pay was considered high.

These serfs were populating the rural areas and they accounted for the majority of population of a country (or kingdom). Around the house, they were given a small piece of land, like a regular backyard today, where they were allowed to do whatever they wished.  Almost all families were growing some kind of animals and birds and cultivating a small garden.  They usually had a pig, few goats or sheep, few chickens or geese. For everything they grew or raised they had to pay taxes to the landlord, in the form of produce they got: eggs from birds, meat and milk from animals.

Their diet was very boring, in terms of modern eating habits. The base of a daily meal was the bread. Often made by secondary cereals like barely, rye, spelt or a mixture of grain. Today we would consider these breads healthy compared with the withe bread but long ago, it wasn’t as easy as now to process cereals (and deplete them of all the good nutrients). The bread of peasants was very dark in color. The lighter the color of bread, the higher the social status.

The other product in their daily diet was wine. Grapes are easy to grow in a good soil and the wine making process is an old discovery. In the middle age, having a winery was such a common thing that everybody knew how to make wine. Remember, peasants got wine in exchange for their labor. If they did own a small piece of land they cultivated some grapes too. This habit had survive till these days in Europe and we can still find many family farms that cultivate grapes to make wine. So, wine was popular and was consumed by everybody in the family, like beer.

Meat was another important part in the middle age diet. People got the meat either as a pay for work, either from their own small backyard. Sometime they hunt small game but hunting big game was mostly a privilege of the nobles. The meat was consumed mostly fresh and sometime was salted and smoked to be preserved over the winter. Again, the ratio of meat was very small and most days it was not even part  of the meal. Along with meat, as a product of the sustainable small economy, went cheese, milk and eggs.

Vegetables were largely consumed in the middle age. The little backyard of a cottage that belonged to a peasant had a garden were women, children and elderly folks that lived in the house would cultivate legumes, greens and leaves such as cabbage, onion, garlic, turnips, a variety of beans and peas, leeks, spinach, squash,  etc. From the wild, they would complement with mushrooms, asparagus and watercress and few of the aromatic herbs like basil, fennel, marjoram or thyme.   

These folks in the middle age were completely dependent of the weather for their survival. If the year was bad (too dry or too wet) and the cereal crop was compromised then they could face famine. In between 1000 and 1300, four major food crises affected Europe (1005-6, 1032-33, 1195-97, 1224-26). Though, the human species survived till these days and writes stories like tis one on the Internet!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The art of eating together - conviviality

wikimedia commons
 Giulio Romano, Amore e PsichePalazzo Te a Mantova.
 Conviviality is seen as a distinguishing sing between animals and humans. Since prehistoric times, people have gather to find food, to cook food and to eat together. Not only is this conviviality a sign of civilization but also a  sign of social status. The richer the meal, the higher the class.

Even since the neolithic revolution, when societies started to settle and aggregate around fertile lands, forming communities and building cities, people have organized parties. These parties, called banquets, were very often a privilege of the ruling classes. Until the second half of the 20th century, food was consumed for survival all over the world. And is still a problem til these days in some parts of the world. So, only the rich could afford to throw a party.  Some foods were considered a sign of luxury and abundance.

During centuries, the banquets of the rich served multiple purposes: to show off, to make friends, to indebt someone or to pay respect. And not everybody invited to the party had the same treatment, like today. There were discrimination as we would put it in modern times. The guests were separated by social status: there were sovereigns, and vassals, there were servants and employees. There were even gods invited to come and they were a set at a separate table (later, when the party was over and the guests were gone, the host would eat the meat reserved for those gods).

The hierarchy and power position among the participants at a banquets was shown through the place everyone sat at the table. The higher the position in society, the better place at the banquet table and also the better the food.

A very successful party or a very important one was often recorded in writing to be remembered by the posterity. That’s how we know now when it took place, where, who came to the banquets, what kind of food was served and in what quantities (because the bigger the quantity, the richer the host) and what other events took place, if any.

Over time, conviviality became an art to be learned and shown.  
Search for history of food

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Phoenicians and their foods

Phoenicia. Kordas, based on Alvaro's work
Maybe we became a little sophisticated in our cooking lately but, to be honest, we still eat the same food as millenniums ago.

Take for example Phoenicians. They ate cereals, specially wheat and barley often imported from Egypt. They made porridges, breads and flatcakes that grew in popularity and crossed the borders  and survived for centuries. They also had vegetable gardens where they would grow peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans, plus a bunch of fruits.

Most popular fruits were pomegranates and figs.  The pomegranate fruit was regarded as the fruit of fertility, due to it’s seeds abundance. Figs were considered a delicacy and were exported to other neighbours (egyptians). Other fruits they cultivated were dates, apples, quinces, almonds, limes and grapes.

Grapes were also used to make wine, just as today. The wine-making process was well developed and there are evidences that wine was “running like water” in a city called Ullaza, meaning that they had a great production of wine. (1) Wine was wildly used in religious rituals.

Oils were used in cooking and it is said that its extraction begun in the third millennium B.C.E.
Phoenicians also ate meats (sheep, cattle, rabbits, chicken, doves, and game), milk (a highly appreciated product) and honey (used in cakes and imported from Judah and Israel), fish, salt.

The essential diet in Carthage and Punic Empire especially its western territories (Sardinia, Sicily and Spain) was a dish named puls - a porridge made from mixed cereals. It was embellished with cheese, honey and eggs.

Here is a simple recipe from Cato, a roman  who fought in the punic war and wrote a book called De Agri Cultura:
“Add  a pound of flour to water and boil it well. Pour it into a clean tab, adding three pounds of fresh cheese, half a pound of honey, and an egg. Stir well and cook in a new pot”.

1. Food, a culinary history Ed. by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montari, 1999, p.57