Historical Fiction

How do medieval-themed restaurants get it wrong?

For some people, renting Camelot on DVD just isn’t enough. Neither is a trip to the museum, nor sitting down to read A Short History of the Middle Ages. These people want something closer to the real thing. So they visit a medieval-themed banquet to experience the food of that bygone era.

Since 1983, when its first “castle” opened in Kissimmee, Fla., Medieval Times Entertainment Inc. has served over 20 million diners. Today, the company operates eight restaurants across North America; the newest castle, in Hanover, Md., opened last year. Not to be outdone, Las Vegas’ Excalibur Hotel & Casino serves about 10,000 rogues and wenches a week.

But there’s one problem. Medieval-themed feasts aren’t medieval. The vegetable soup (dragon tail soup), bland roast chicken (baby dragon), baked potato (dragon egg), and doughy desserts certainly seem pre-modern, not to mention pre-food-processor. It’s like the food is the culinary equivalent of the classic stereotype that casts medieval people as belching, rugged simpletons. But throngs of bachelor partiers, group tourists, and amateur historians are being deceived about what it was like to chow down en masse during that long, dark period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire (fifth century) and the Renaissance (15th century).

Here’s how they get it wrong:

Myth No. 1:Medieval food was bland.
Medieval chefs used spices as enthusiastically as the boy bands of today use hair products. Yes, medieval chefs did serve plain roasted meats, but they also served many meat dishes that featured thick, gooey sauces very heavily flavored with ingredients like ginger, sugar, vinegar, wine, raisins, mace, cloves, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, and honey. “Mawmenny,” a typical dish, consisted of ground beef, pork, or mutton boiled in wine, which was then served in a wine-based sauce thickened with pounded chicken and almonds, then flavored with cloves, sugar, and more almonds (this time fried), and then festively colored with an indigo or red dye. Medieval food, in fact, was not unlike Indian food of today: sweet and acidic flavors combined, spices used by the handful. If anything, the concentrated, bold flavors would overwhelm the modern palate.

Myth No. 2:Medieval chefs were lousy when it came to presentation.
In the days of courageous knights and fair maidens, presentation went way beyond the present habit of dribbling some raspberry coulis or balsamic reduction around a central, tiered heap. Medieval feasts were all about display. Peacocks were cooked, then returned to their skin to be ceremoniously presented in their original plumage. Animals were stuffed inside other animals like culinary matrioshka dolls—a pig stuffed with a rooster, which would itself be stuffed with roasted pine nuts and sugar. A recipe called “glazed pilgrim” consisted of a pike boiled at the head, fried in the middle, and roasted at the tail; this was then served alongside a roast eel. Food coloring was used liberally: red (sandalwood), yellow (saffron), green (mint or parsley juice), black (burnt bread crumbs).

Myth No. 3: Medieval feasts were merely big.
While a Medieval Times castle seats anywhere from 900 to 1,500 people a night, and the Excalibur’s Tournament of Kings about 2,000 (a thousand at each seating), no present-day medieval feast comes even close to approaching the enormity of some of the Middle Ages’ heavy-hitters. We don’t know exactly how many people attended the marriage feast of Henry III’s daughter in 1251, but we do know that they gorged on 1,300 deer; 7,000 hens; 170 boars; 60,000 herring; and 68,500 loaves of bread. Feasters at the enthronement party for England’s Archbishop of Neville in 1465 consumed 1,000 sheep; 2,000 pigs; 2,000 geese; 4,000 rabbits; and 12 porpoises and seals. No less than 11,000 eggs were eaten at a 1387 feast for Richard II *. By comparison, the Excalibur goes through a paltry 2,000 Cornish game hens each night.

Myth No. 4:Medieval feasters ate off pewter plates.
Actually, they ate off rectangular pieces of stale bread called “trenchers” (which were fed to dogs or peasants once the meal was finished).

Myth No. 5:Medieval feasters had atrocious manners.
True, the tined forkwas still centuries away from making it into the cutlery drawer, and even kings ate with their hands. Nonetheless, etiquette was alive and well in the Middle Ages. A medieval dinner guest avoided boorish behavior such as blowing on his soup (he might have foul breath), scratching his head (a dislodged louse might find itself drowning in the gravy), wiping his hands on the tablecloth, licking the serving dishes, picking his nose, or drinking out of a shared cup with a full mouth (backwash is an age-old problem). And if the lords and ladies of the era had possessed cell phones, it’s safe to say they would have turned them off.

Myth No. 6: Medieval feasters ate in set courses.
The idea of eating one main dish during every course, which is called service à la russe, didn’t become popular in Europe until the 19th century. Before that, grand meals were eaten much the way North Americans eat Chinese food today, with many dishes served simultaneously. At the coronation of Richard III in 1483, for example, there were three courses, each of which included at least 15 different dishes. The third course, which was never eaten because the feast ran late, included three meat, two fish, five bird, and two fruit dishes. Courses would often end with a “sotelty” (subtely); similar to an amuse-bouche, a “sotelty” was an ornamental offering, usually made from dough or marzipan, which showed off the chef’s skill. Often, they resonated with the political theme of the occasion. All the sotelties (there were three, one for each course) served at the coronation banquet for Henry VI cited his politically hopeless claim to the throne of France—the second sotelty, for example, depicted Henry in between his father and the Sigismund, the holy Roman emperor who supported his claim.

Myth No. 7: Medieval people ate food they couldn’t possibly have eaten.
A tomato might seem medieval when used as the foundation for the Excalibur’s “dragon’s blood soup” (not to be confused with Medieval Times’ “dragon tail soup”), but medieval people simply could not have eaten food that wasn’t present in their world. Tomatoes didn’t make it to Europe until Spanish conquistadors brought them back from South America in the 1500s. The same goes for potatoes (dragon’s eggs). Similarly, the Excalibur’s roast Cornish game hen is a recent chicken breed that was popularized by a 1960s poultry mogul.

Medieval food was many things—garish, over the top, unsubtle. But it wasn’t crude. And neither were medieval people. So, the real question is: Where does the familiar medieval stereotype come from? As with all questions of intellectual decline, Hollywood deserves some blame. (The studios had a thing for bringing the Middle Ages to the big screen in the ‘50s: Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, The Black Shield of Falworth, The Black Knight.)Yet historical stereotyping, wherever you find it, is symptomatic of a deeper societal ill. Gustave Flaubert famously wrote, “Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times.” When it comes to slander caused by ignorance, history is sometimes on the receiving end, too.

Those still craving their history fix can take solace, however. After all, medieval people must have attended the odd crappy feast, too. During an evening of inappropriate food, some of them surely wondered: What is the king thinking? My own such moment came during a medieval-themed feast near the Tower of London, which was hosted by “Henry VIII.” Not only did it feature a historically inaccurate king—Henry VIII was a Reformation king—and historically inaccurate food, it culminated with a historically inaccurate conga line. Indeed, since the dawn of dinner parties, people have found themselves asking: Am I the only one who thinks this dinner is lame? So, while the medieval feast of today may not be historically authentic, it gets you to that bygone era just the same.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2004:Originally this article stated, “No less than 11,000 eggs were eaten at a 1387 feast for Richard III.” The sentence was incorrect. Richard III ruled from 1483-85. It was Richard the II who ascended to the throne in 1387. Return to corrected sentence.