Wednesday, 19 August 2015


This topic occupies my thoughts this week partly because a sudden drop in temperature has convinced my body that it’s autumn, inspiring a considerable appetite and incessant daydreaming about various dishes; and partly because the last three books to arrive at my door happen to be on the subject. I’m just now through revising my seasonal price lists for the Shropesyre campaign, to the extent of my capacity for historical accuracy, providing the comestibles available in the West Midlands at different times of the year.

A trio of culinary reads

First, a brief review of the books. The leftmost tome was someone’s graduate thesis, and the fact that I’d even want to read such a book, let alone purchase it in hardcover, tells you pretty much all you need to know about the depth and intensity of my medieval geekery. Bread and Ale for the Brethren by Philip Slavin gives detailed statistical accounts of the types of provisions produced and purchased at Norwich Cathedral Priory from the high to late Middle Ages, using that data to extrapolate the number and lifestyle of the monks, lay brethren, servants, visitors, and livestock that resided on the premises. It contains a lot of detail on the hearty diets of the monks, and the methods of obtaining the various foods they ate.

In the middle, The Medieval Kitchen, is more picturesque with its copious colour illustrations, but as the author is a culinary specialist rather than a historian, the social and cultural exploration is simple and oftentimes shallow, although she does do much to dispel a number of popular fallacies about medieval cuisine—including the popular myth, sadly perpetuated in Bread and Ale for the Brethren, that the upper classes never ate fruit or vegetables; Hannele Klemettila cites copious evidence that these were consumed in reasonable quantities both raw and cooked, and just didn’t show up on household registers because they were usually obtained cheaply and immediately. The final section of the book contains dozens of recipes for assorted delights that I’m going to put off preparing until I move to my new house—partly for lack of an oven in the current one, and partly just because I want to keep my body fat low for as long as I can.

Possibly helpful to that end is The Hermit’s Cookbook on the right, by a professor of medieval studies, which uses the history of Near Eastern and European monastic diet styles to explore the development of Christianity from its inception. Interspersed with historical accounts are numerous recipes for things monks and hermits actually ate, including one for boiled tree bark, with an excursion into the customs of certain Native American and African cultures who habitually used this ingredient in breads and porridges. Yum.

Year wheel of farming in medieval England, original source unknown

Rhythms of Food

With agriculture so intrinsically tied to the society and culture, and food such a dear commodity, the rhythms of farming are keenly felt. The wheel above breaks down, month by month, the sort of activities in which ‘peasants’ (read: the majority of the population) are likely to be engaged. This is here to illustrate the reason I have four different price lists for comestibles, broadly divided into four seasonal groups. Prices reflect availability.

I won’t reproduce my price lists in their entirety here, because visually they’re quite similar to those listed under ‘Grocer’ at Tao of D&D, but his campaign is set in a time period called either Late Medieval or Early Renaissance, depending on your politics, when farming methods were already considerably more advanced than what we’re working with. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just describe the differences.

The trial run of this campaign took place in spring, just before Lent, which is the time of year when food of all types is hardest to come by, so fasting was convenient as well as culturally expected. Meats and fish would tend to arrive at market salted and in small quantities, along with a smattering of vegetables that preserve well, like turnips, parsnips, some cabbages, dried beans, and so on. The animals aren’t making copious amounts of milk or eggs yet, either, although a number of lambs are slaughtered around Easter, so such fresh meat becomes more available then.

Summer sees better weather for fishing, with the waves more mellow, so fresh fish is more easily obtained. (Salt fish, though, the typical serf’s meal, is cheap throughout the year. More on that later.) Fresh fruit starts to become available here, along with certain vegetables, and more milk and eggs. (Incidentally, most of the sheep shearing also takes place in early summer, which can become important for the PCs because wool is the biggest industry in the shire, with regular exports to the continent.)

Autumn is the time of greatest abundance, with the harvest of copious fruits and vegetables. Fish now come to market pickled as often as fresh or salted. All sorts of sweets like flans are ubiquitous as well, and the alehouses are serving cider and perry as well as the standard yeasty-tasting brew. November is ‘Blood Month’, when many animals are slaughtered around Martinmas because of the expense of keeping them alive through winter. Some of the meat is sold fresh at market, but much of it is salted and dried for consumption through winter and spring.

In winter, fresh things are obviously scarce. Any fruit eaten will likely be dried, as will be the peas and pulses, and aged or dry cheese will be encountered more often than fresh. At the alehouses, one might drink caudl, made from old ale thickened with egg yolks and sweetened with sugar or honey and spices; or find blood pudding a nice alternative to bread and cheese with pottage. (Simply making a skilled cut in a cow’s neck and draining off the blood in a controlled manner provides meat-like nutrition and calories without necessitating slaughter.)


PCs are generally expected to consume a normal middle-class diet of three pounds of bread plus one additional pound of other types of food, plus three pints of ale, divided over the course of two meals daily, dinner (around mid-morning) and supper (in the late afternoon). Breakfast is optional, and most NPCs they encounter will not eat it unless they’re of a higher echelon of society. This amount may be reduced by a pound and a pint in times of inactivity, but must be increased by the same amount if the character has been in combat the previous day; the party is generally assumed to be on the road. Liquid refreshments may likewise be adjusted downward somewhat in cooler or moister weather, and upward in dry or hot weather, although the party need not consistently rely on ale, but can often fill their waterskin (one gallon) or boget (1/2 gallon) in a town or inn well, or take their chances with river water (unless you’re a paladin, boiling it first is highly recommended).

No specific nutritional requirements are in place in our current house rules, so it is taken for granted that the heavily bread-based diet is supplemented with whatever other foods are available to the PCs. The standard fare is likely to be potage (meat and vegetables boiled to a thick mush), whatever they can hunt, trap, or scavenge in their travels, or whatever is on offer at the inn if available. 

With adventuring parties so inclined to depend on them, rations are considered to be easily available at every town market. They come in two types: dry and fresh.

The cheaper dry rations come in a burlap sack, and require a cooking pot and access to sufficient water and fire for cooking; they would be inedible raw. Salt herring, for one thing, is about 1/3 salt by volume and about the consistency of plywood, so it has to be parboiled before it’s fit for human consumption at all, and even then won’t be terribly appetizing. The legumes are likewise raw and dry and require boiling, and the ground grains can be mixed with hot water for a kind of primitive frumenty, although players with their characters’ happiness in mind might want to add such things as cheese, fruit, vegetables, or even sugar if they’re really extravagant.

The fresh rations, heavier to carry and more expensive, would be the choice if the party doesn’t have a cooking pot or enough water, or doesn’t want to make a fire, or doesn’t want to spend time cooking that could be spent covering more ground. For a meal, a round loaf of bread is stuffed with seasonal vegetables and locally-available cheese, and a string of sausages is included. These items will also only last a few days at the most if the weather is warm.

Another choice recommended to adventurers, available at many inns, is the bustard in clay. This is quail, along with legumes like beans or peas and root vegetables like turnips and onions, encased in clay and baked in the fireplace. One bustard thus prepared counts for half a day’s calories on the road.

Food served in personal residences will have considerably more variety, and if the PCs decide to establish a permanent base requiring household provisioning, as was done in an earlier campaign, the remainder of the items on the price lists provides a guide to the expected fluctuations in such cost over the course of the year.

Naturally, many players will be indifferent to what their characters consume; they just want to get to the business of adventuring. These, it turns out, tend to be the type of people for whom food in the real world is often simply something taken to quell hunger, rather than for enjoyment or considered attention to nutrition. That’s fine; plenty of other goods and services are available in the world for sale, purchase, and capture, and whether or not the party cares, there will always be a potential ally whose eyes light up when offered a steaming mug of mulled wine, or an official to be bribed with an expensive jar of nutmeg jam.

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