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FOOD IN MEDIEVAL TIMES
at all. It was in the big medieval cities, such as Paris, London, Venice,
and Florence, that cookshops first catered to the needs of the busy
urban dweller. Pies, roasted birds, standard sauces, waffles, and con-
fections were all available to the discerning consumer planning a fancy
meal. Taverns and alehouses, too, often served more than liquid re-
freshments to the patrons.
When we look at the way food was prepared in the later Middle
Ages, what stands out is a predilection for color, spices, shapes, fine
texture, a sweet-and-sour taste, and drama, lots of drama. If medieval
cooks had had access to our modern food processors, they would have
had a field day. Instead, kitchen staff spent hours and hours pounding
ingredients in a mortar, or straining them through a sieve cloth to
achieve the desired fineness that allowed for the perfect coloring or
shaping of a dish. Spices, the more exotic and costly the better, were
used extensively, both for their taste and their colors, and so were
sugar and almonds, the two main ingredients in marzipan, a sweet-
meat already popular in medieval times. To counteract the sweetness
of a dish, wine, vinegar, or that tart juice of unripe fruits known as
“verjuice” were frequently added. This seems to suggest that sweet-
and-sour was the preferred taste in food. And then there were the
food theatrics, peacocks, swans, and pheasants cooked and redressed
in their plumage and made to breathe fire, pies filled with live birds, or
boar’s head colored in green and gold, to name just a few. Playing
with food, far from being discouraged, was elevated to an art in aris-
tocratic circles. So popular were these surprise dishes, they even had
their own set place in the sequence of a fancy meal: after the fruits,
potages, and roasts, and before dessert, cheese, and breath mints in
France, for example.
Italy was already fond of pasta then and managed to export this
fondness all the way to Britain, from whence comes the oldest surviv-
ing recipe for ravioli. By far the biggest innovations in medieval cook-
ery came from contacts with the Arab world. A whole host of
foodstuffs, from spinach to eggplants and oranges, they introduced to
Europe, along with a variety of cooking techniques, dishes, and dish
names. If there is one thing broad-based studies on the culture of food
make clear, it is that internationalization is not a modern concept.
Since time immemorial food has traveled. Some plants and animals
not indigenous to Europe had already arrived in prehistoric times,
while others were introduced by Alexander the Great and his army, or
by the Romans as their empire expanded westward. And when the
Arab influence on European food and cookery began to wane in the
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