Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mmmmm, Nothing Better Than Medieval Sugar Chicken

File under *yech*:
What is most striking about Medieval cooking instructions is the often massive use of sugar in what seems to be otherwise savory dishes. An example from Le Ménagier de Paris, French recipes from the 14th century reads, “Take capons or chickens killed the appropriate length of time before…cook them in pork fat with water and wine. When they are through cooking take them out. Take almonds, peel and pound them and add some of the cooking stock from the chicken…Strain the almond stock mixture. Then take pared or peeled white ginger and grains of paradise moistened as above, and put the mixture through a fine strainer. Mix with the almond milk. And if it is not thick enough, add starch or boiled rice. Add a little verjuice and put in a great deal of white sugar…”

While a modern-day cook might easily accept almond as a typical Medieval means of thickening sauces, the “great deal of sugar” might cause some hesitation. In Libro di Cucina from the 14th century Italy, a recipe that uses four chickens calls for a pound and a half of sugar, and in Viandier de Guillaume Tirel from the 15th century France, a dish with one suckling pig requires a pound of sugar. Sugar was used not only as an ingredient to be melted within a dish—it was often also sprinkled on top of the finished dish. A 16th century French court physician remarked that they use at least as much sugar as salt. Plantina in late 15th century Italy declared that sugar could spoil no dish.

Persians learned about sugar cane and sugar-making technology from Indians in the sixth century. Using sugar in dishes was considered a great sign of wealth and prestige. Arabs, who conquered Persia in the seventh century, spread sugar cane as they conquered Northern Africa, Sicily, and Spain. Western Europeans were introduced to sugar through the Venetian sugar trade. It was used to coat bitter medicine in order to make swallowing easier. Indeed, sugar was considered medicinal in its own right, as well.

Physicians followed the teachings of Galienus (2nd century CE), who thought of one’s health in terms of the balance of the four humors: hot, cold, dry, and wet. Food was one means to achieve the balance, and different foods were thought to have some of these four qualities. Sugar was considered to encourage warmth and moisture in the body, the ideal Gallenic state, and was therefore highly regarded. On a more practical level, a sweet taste was necessary to counter the strong acidity of verjus (juice of unripe grapes), another common ingredient of the Medieval period.

While the amount of sugar in Medieval dishes surely strikes a modern cook (or diner) as excessive, it may be worth noting that at this time in early history (and well into the 17th century), the distinctions between “savory” and “sweet”, and that between “main course” and “dessert”, were non-existent.

OK, so I understand why they did it...but this just about kills the "authenticity" of the food at the local "Renaissance Fair" or the Medieval Times banquet, doesn't it?

1 comment:

Jimmy K. said...

I am not sure they used as much sugar as we use today. Nearly every thing we buy that is canned or packaged has sugar in it. Last night I made a pear-cherry crisp. 2 cups of sugar for a 1 quart backing dish, confectioner sugar on top. Drank a glass of sweet tea with sugar while making the desert and another at dinner. The main dishes or at least one, the shrimp had honey mixed into the coating batter. I am sure there is some sugar I over looked.