How to throw a medieval feast
From creating colour-coordinated menus to serving up 2,000 birds, organising a feast in the Middle Ages required a tremendous amount of work. Sharing expertise from Master Chiquart, head chef to a 15th-century nobleman, historian Richard Barber considers the challenges of producing such an elaborate event…
Imagine that you are a master chef, working for a celebrity who wants to throw a wedding dinner for their daughter, with 200–300 guests. Next imagine that you have no electricity – no refrigerators, no freezers, no light – and no gas. Your suppliers have to get everything to you fresh, and you don’t want to use salted meat for this important occasion. You are not sure exactly how much of any ingredient you will need until very close to the day. What’s more, the guests may stay on for several days. Among them there will be vegetarians or people needing special diets. To top this all off, the only transport available is horse and cart, so nothing can be brought at the last minute.
Sounds difficult? Working recently on a book on the feasts and festivals of the Middle Ages, I encountered an extraordinary handbook which described exactly how to deal with this situation. Fortunately for us, in 1420, Amadeus VIII, count of Savoy (on the borders of France and Italy) asked his cook – a Master Chiquart – to record his experiences. The house of Savoy had had a reputation for magnificence and stylish living since the mid-14th century, and Chiquart had been employed by Amadeus VIII since the late 1390s. Yet initially, Chiquart was reluctant to set pen to paper and refused to do so. He was a cook, not a learned man who wrote books and nothing like it had ever been done before. However, the duke persisted. Eventually, Chiquart set down what he had learnt in the course of his service, stylishly and with eloquence, in Du fait de cuisine.
Medieval recipe books
By the time Chiquart became the count of Savoy’s master chef, there was a common stock of recipes circulated in manuscript cookery books, and by word of mouth, which were found in princely courts throughout western Europe. What is striking is that we are nonetheless in the presence of a creative chef; Chiquart goes far beyond this basic repertoire. He either elaborates on the standard recipes, or provides new ones that have no parallel elsewhere.
Furthermore, unlike many earlier recipe books that were vague about how to actually cook a particular dish, Chiquart gives the kind of instructions that we find in a modern cookery book. The only difference between his recipes and today’s cookbooks is that Chiquart does not suggest quantities, possibly because they would have varied so hugely between the count’s private dinners and his greatest feasts. Chiquart is instructing his readers in what he has learnt of his art, part of which is to know the amounts to use. One recipe specifies that the cook should put in “just the right amount, so that there is neither too little nor too much”, implying that knowledge only comes with experience, and cannot be written down.
Preparing for a “most honourable feast”
Unlike any earlier writer, Chiquart begins his treatise on cookery with notes on how to organise a “most honourable feast”. These notes at once open a window on the mundane matters on which the success or failure of such an event depended. Cattle, sheep and pigs were to be bought from the butcher, “and for this the butcher will be wise if he is well supplied, so that if it happens that the feast lasts longer than expected, one has promptly what is necessary; and also, if there are extras, do not butcher them so that nothing is wasted.” In other words, the butcher would buy in animals and keep them in his fields until he needed them.
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The quantities were massive: for each day of the feast Chiquart recommended 200 kids and lambs, 100 calves and 2,000 poultry birds; for a major feast lasting a full week, these figures would be multiplied by five, and fish would also be needed for two fast days (Friday and Saturday).
While these numbers may sound huge, comparing Chiquart’s figures against those from English royal feasts in the 13th and 14th centuries shows that they are indeed realistic. At Christmas 1251, Henry III and his guests were served 830 red, fallow and roe deer, 200 wild boar, 1,300 hares, 385 young pigeons (squabs) and 115 cranes; and that was merely the wild game. For the knighting of Edward II in 1306, the cattle required numbered 400 oxen, 800 sheep, 400 pigs and 40 boars.
Preparations had to start early. Chiquart suggests that “subtle, diligent and wise” poulterers should have 40 horsemen at their disposal to get game, river birds, and wild birds, and “whatever they can get”. “They should turn their attention to this two months or six weeks before the feast,” he says, “and they should all have come or sent what they could obtain by three or four days before the said feast so that the said meat can be hung and each dealt with as it ought to be.” The birds must have been held in pens, just as the butchers kept their cattle at pasture. Keeping live wild birds as a kind of larder was quite normal. When Edward III went to war in France in 1346, his huge train of carts included several which were caged to hold poultry.
Spices were a vital ingredient of luxurious dishes in the Middle Ages. Chiquart divides these into “major spices” such as white and Mecca gingers, pepper, cinnamon and grains of paradise (a west African spice somewhere between cardamom and pepper); and “minor spices” such as nutmeg, cloves, colouring agents and decorative items. Also under this heading came practical items, such as wheat starch, as well as almonds, rice and candied fruits, pine nuts and dates. So that the cook could work faster, “one should grind to powder the aforesaid spices and put each separately into large and good leather bags,” Chiquart instructed.
Kitchen equipment is vital for any cook, and Chiquart provides a detailed list with practical comments such as “check the space for making sauces”, and “do not trust wooden spits because they will rot and you could lose all your meat”. Equally there must be enough fuel: “one thousand cartloads of good dry firewood, a great storehouse full of coal. If the feast is held in winter, the kitchen will need 60 torches, 20 pounds of wax candles, and 60 pounds of tallow candles to be used as lights when visiting all the various parts of the kitchen, including the separate building which houses the pastrycooks.”
“In order to better prepare the said feast without reprehension or fault, the house-stewards, the kitchen masters and the master cook should assemble three or four months before the feast to put in order, visit, and find good and sufficient space to do the cooking. This space should be so large and fine that large working sideboards can be set up in such fashion that between the serving sideboards and the others the kitchen masters can go with ease to pass out and receive the dishes.”
The stewards were evidently in charge of the guest list. They appear in Chiquart’s book to tell the cook how many partridges in tremollete sauce (evidently regarded as a special delicacy) should be put in front of each important guest, ranging downwards from six for a king. These birds were not necessarily for his own personal consumption: a treatise on etiquette explains that a lord’s plate must be piled high so that “you can share your plate courteously to right and to left along the whole high table, so that if you so wish, everyone can have the same food as you”.
There could be complications: “there could be some very high, puissant, noble, venerable and honourable lords and ladies who do not eat meat, for these there must be fish,” records Chiquart. The need to serve fish would also apply if the feast fell on a fast day. Furthermore, some of the guests would have arrived with their own cooks who would prepare certain dishes. Space and provisions would need to be found for these cooks so that they did not hold up the service of the feast as a whole. Another challenge was invalids: “it would be a miracle if there were no ailing or sick people, nor afflicted with any infirmities or maladies”, writes Chiquart. So, having talked to the doctors, he offered 16 recipes for restoratives and special fortifying dishes, including stuffed crayfish and a purée of spinach and parsley.
Chiquart describes a festival to be held over two days. A real event of this kind was held in 1403, when his master the count of Savoy married Mary, daughter of Philip the Bold of Burgundy. Chiquart’s team was required to present a dinner on the first day, as well as dinner and supper on the second day. The wedding celebrations were held on a Friday and Saturday, so meat was not included. These were ‘lean days’, when eating meat was prohibited by the church. Meat was also banned for the whole of Lent and other specific dates in the church calendar.
Menus were arranged according to certain basic principles, and the order of service generally conformed to an accepted pattern. At a great feast, the dishes would also be colour-coordinated to demonstrate the cook’s skill. In Chiquart’s first menu, the predominant colours for the first course were gold and green; produced by saffron, egg yolk, green vegetables, herbs and gold serving dishes. The second course of ‘bruets’, or almond milk stews, was white, while the third – lampreys in beef gravy – was red. This was followed by a course of German stews cooked with onions or fish in batter in a green sauce, which had to be carefully judged to come out as a bright and festive green, not a sombre dark green. Decorative pies made up the final course. In another menu, the final course was a spectacular four-coloured blancmange, in which the colours were sharply defined by cooking the four sections separately.
Meat and fish were the most important dishes on the menu. If served roast or boiled, they were always accompanied by a sauce, and Chiquart gives 15 recipes for them. The value placed on sauces is indicated by the name given to a cinnamon sauce in a German cookery book, called a “sauce for lords”. Interestingly, cinnamon seems to have been very rare in Germany, but was used quite widely elsewhere in Europe.
Soups and stews, which might be based on almond milk or eggs, formed the majority of dishes. Yet they were complex, requiring a careful balance of meats, colours and spices. The list of ingredients for Chiquart’s German stew is as follows: “Capons, pork or lamb, kid or veal; onions; bacon fat; almonds; beef stock; good white wine, verjuice; white ginger, grains of paradise, a little pepper, nutmeg, cloves and mace, saffron for colouring, a lot of sugar; salt.”
All this had to be carefully supervised by the master chef. The kitchen staff on the count of Savoy’s payroll was 20 strong, compared with 34 at the much larger and grander court of the fabulously rich dukes of Burgundy. Chiquart had a kitchen clerk who instructed the cooks as to the number of portions to be prepared: throughout his book, he refers to directing “your companions”, and a high degree of organisation and teamwork was essential. Individual cooks were usually specialists in a particular area with their own assistants, the most skilled being the pastry-maker and sauce cook.
Food as theatre
At this time, the presentation of feasts could be very theatrical. Between courses, there were often dramatic interludes, full of elaborate symbolism, with musicians and members of the court taking part. The most famous feasts at the court of Burgundy involved all kinds of creatures, played by men in pantomime horse fashion:
“My lord the duke was served at table by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet and sounding it as loud as he could, and then by a monster, consisting of a man riding on an elephant, with another man, whose feet were hidden, on his shoulders. Next came a white stag ridden by a boy who sang marvellously, while the stag accompanied him with the tenor part."
Part of the responsibility for these interludes fell to the cook’s department: pies containing 24 musicians, statues made of special sugar and pastry, and even elaborate moving devices for which carpenters were brought in.
Considering the immense resources and skills needed to create such an elaborate feast, it is easy to see why Stuart playwright and poet Ben Jonson, two hundred years later, praised Chiquart’s successors in the kitchen to the skies:
“A master cook! why, he is the man of men
He’s a professor; he designs, he draws,
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies,
Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.”
Richard Barber is the author of The Prince in Splendour: Court Festivals of Medieval Europe (The Folio Society, 2017)
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in May 2017