Saturday, January 10, 2015

Creating a Modern Medieval Menu - Part 1 - The Order of Dishes

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Just as we have a modern idea of how food should be served and in what order, so did the cooks who prepared meals during the Middle Ages. We may have an appetizer, main dish and dessert course. Medieval cooks would prepare a course that consisted of several dishes or a"messe". Unlike today’s menu’s a medieval course would consist of a mixture of savory and sweet dishes that were eaten in a specific order. The premise for how food should be served is largely dependent on the ideas of how to remain healthy based on medical advice handed down from the Greeks.

According to Terrence Scully "The standard health handbooks (Regimines sanitatis, Regimes de sant) normally contained a number of chapters on the physical properties of foods. Frequently also among this theoretical material there are to be found a paragraph or two in which is presented an expos of the processes of digestion and the ways to facilitate and to optimize these processes (Scully, 1989)." A very basic understanding of the principle of digestion is that the process itself required warmth, and that a healthy person should eat the bulk of their food at midday. If one were to eat a large or heavy meal in the evening, the stomach would not be able to amply digest the food. Additionally, one should never eat if any food from a previous meal remained in the stomach.

The Greeks understood that not all food would take the same time to digest, and it was thought to be unhealthy to eat a food that digested more slowly before eating food that digested quickly. Foods that were eaten at the wrong time would block the exit from the stomach of food that had already been digested. Therefore, the Greeks devised an order in which food was consumed, as determined by how easily it was digested. This played a major part in an individual’s health.

Health handbooks, therefore, were used in determining the manner of foods to be eaten and in which order based on the nature of the food and how it was prepared. For example, lettuces with oil and vinegar were believed to be more easily digestible then boiled meats or pureed vegetables which in turn, were believed to be more easily digestible then roasted meats. Many published medieval menus show a similar delineation in the dishes that were served in each course.

Although several menus that have been published contain two or more courses, the majority contain three courses. The first course contained foods that were thought to be easy to digest. Each successive course would contain increasingly more difficult to digest foods. Upon conclusion of the meal, the issue de table, spiced wines, candied fruits and nuts were served to "close" the stomach. It was believed that sugary foods dulled the appetite and would serve to close the stomach, just as foods that were considered hot and dry would open the stomach and prepare it for the process of digestion.

How should modern cooks put together a menu that can replicate a medieval dining experience? When planning a menu, the cook should take into consideration that the usual number of courses in most of the menus that have been published from period cookery books is  three courses, each containing between four and six dishes (or messes) per course. Bearing this in mind, and the Greek’s idea of the nature of food and health a formula of sorts can be developed for the creation of a modern menu.When planning your menu you should also take into consideration not only your skill level, but the requirements of your dishes, and the facilities you are cooking in. One time consuming and delicate dish can ruin your entire meal.

Many modern cooks like to tempt their diners with tasty treats on the table. The Greeks believed that before a meal the stomach should be “opened” with foods that would prepare the stomach for the process of digestion. Some suggestions for foods that would fit into this category include sweet wines, confections made with spices that were hot and dry in nature such as ginger, caraway, anise, fennel or cumin, peaches, melons, cherries, strawberries, grapes, lettuce with oil and vinegar dressings, cabbages, soft boiled eggs, or honeyed dishes.

Having satisfied the diner’s needs to nibble, the modern cook can prepare to send forth the next course from the kitchen. Remember, that the concept of having just savory dishes for a first course was unknown. It is ok to mix your dishes, both savory and sweet. The modern cook would do well to remember that their diner's would prefer three or four very well made dishes that fit with the modern palate to five poorly made dishes that do not.

Suggested dishes that are most appropriate for a "first course" would be meats or non-fatty fish, or shellfish cooked in broth, or almond milk such as sops, brewets, graves or cives. It could also contain dishes of vegetables that have been simmered, boiled or stewed, for example green leafy vegetables sometimes served with salted meat, peas or beans and turnips that have been cooked and then mashed into porres. Other dishes to consider would be pasties, or rissoles.

Following with the Greek system the next course (second) should contain those foods that were thought to be slower to digest, heavier meats which have been roasted, baked or in a pastry shell, served cold (froide sauge), jellied (jelly of fish) or sliced. The “grand char” would normally be found in this course.  A roasted meat served with various sauces would be appropriate.

Suggestions for this course include beef, game, pork, rabbit, poultry or fatty fish. It is also suggested that grain based dishes such as frumenty, isings, or bread based dishes such as guissell be placed in this course. Other items that could be included in this course are jellied and sliced dishes, nuts, aged cheeses, vegetables that have been roasted, baked or fried, pears and chestnuts. In this course it is not uncommon to find pancakes or other fried dishes such as fritters.

Suggestions for the last course include sweet dishes made with honey and sugar, glazed dishes, crepes, fruit rissoles, stewed fruits, puddings, custards, and light cakes. At many modern feasts, the Issue de Table is not observed, but suggestions to invoke the spirit of the Issue include the addition of candied fruits, spices and nuts, along with candied ginger and other sweetmeats served with spiced fruit juice or wine.


Klemettila, H. (2012). The Medieval Kitchen; A Social History with Recipes. London: Reaktion Books.

Matterer, J. (2013, April 3). Messe it Forth: The Preparation of a Medieval Feast following the Four Humour System of Food and Diet. Retrieved January 10, 2015, from Gode Cookery:

Scully, T. (1989). The Menus of the Menagier de Paris. Vol: 24-25 , 215-242.