Medieval German aristocratic diet
For the nobles, diet is not only used to survive, but also has a social and cultural function. It is a confirmation of power behavior and a “tool to show their power.” The actions on the table have therefore become a cultural symbol of the nobility. But one thing is that in fact, the Middle Ages was very long, so various aspects of aristocratic life in different periods were very different.
The nobility of Charlemagne was very different from the nobles of the 12th and 13th centuries, and the distance between the 12th and 13th centuries and the 15th century until the definite end of the Middle Ages was not small. At the same time, once a stable rule was obtained, the living habits of the nobles who always had the privileges, especially their diet, changed less. Even in the early modern times, the food types of some nobles did not change much, but the cooking methods and some seasonings changed. . Therefore, this article cannot distinguish the similarities and differences between the courts of different periods, but can only talk about a general term, which is roughly the content of the German region in the middle of the 12th to the 17th century.
On the whole, the aristocratic hierarchy of the upper-class German society has not only the general characteristics of German food culture and the general characteristics of European aristocratic food culture in terms of food culture but also unique connotations that are different from German civilians and other international aristocrats.
The type and structure of the diet of the German nobility
If you want to talk about the differences between the various classes of German society from the perspective of staple food, it can be summarized as: the nobles (including priests) mainly eat meat, and the lower classes such as farmers mainly eat vegetarian food (non-meat).
Meat food is an indispensable one in the diet of nobles (especially secular aristocrats). Abundant meat is a significant mark that distinguishes aristocrats from common people. In fact, until the early modern times, due to the small amount of livestock raised, meat was usually only served by a small number of upper-class nobles, and the lower-class seldom could enjoy meat on the table. In the Middle Ages, nobles often roasted whole livestock, whole poultry, whole game, whole fish, and sometimes even whole calves, and placed them on the dining table to show their generosity and luxury. For the church princes, although some monasteries insisted on abstinence and gave up meat, most of the high priests, such as archbishops, bishops, and monasteries, enjoyed meat like secular nobles.
There are two main sources of meat. Most of them come from raised livestock and poultry, mainly cattle and pigs, and a small part of goat meat and mutton; poultry are mainly chickens, capons, ducks, and geese. Some nobles also supply peacocks in the Birds and Animals Garden.
Another part comes from a large amount of game. This in itself was also a by-product of the hunting privileges of the nobles in the Middle Ages and modern times. Among all kinds of game, there are large animals such as wild boar, deer, roe deer, hare, chamois, ibex, bear, and small animals such as squirrel, hedgehog, and badger. Quails, partridges, pheasants, wild ducks, pigeons, sparrows, and even herons, cranes, and swans are also delicacies on the noble table.
But the latter three are relatively rare, and are usually only eaten at the king’s table. In some nobles’ celebration banquets, wild game was used very much. In 1568, the wedding ceremony between William V, Duke of Bavaria and Rena of Rottlingen, ate 200 deer at a time, making it the largest wedding ceremony in the 16th century.
Relevant materials in the 16th and 17th centuries indicated that certain courts consumed a lot of meat. Some palaces consume two pounds of livestock meat per person per day, plus a lot of game, poultry, and fish. In contrast, “vegetables are relatively less important.”
In the Middle Ages, German farmers had much less meat in their daily lives. Even if they had meat, they were common pigs and sheep. For them, even poultry such as chickens, ducks and geese are luxury items.
Fish are also frequent visitors. Under normal circumstances, farmers’ tables are mostly common fish such as lampreys, European catfish, graylings, and trout. The nobles are more picky and like salmon, pike, perch, and eel with delicious and tender meat to meet their higher standards of living.
Grain was a staple food in the Middle Ages, and bread was a staple item. However, there is a clear difference between the upper and lower levels of the German society. Under normal circumstances, the lower classes, including farmers, eat cheap black bread made from rye and oats (we have also heard of inferior bread mixed with wood chips and stones from the bakery). And white bread made of fine wheat flour is almost only seen on the tables of nobles.
The nobles are also very particular about drinks. In addition to milk, pure juices and flavored wines are the preferred beverages of the nobles. The most famous wines in medieval Germany were produced in grape-growing regions such as Breisgau and Alsace in the Upper Rhine region. In addition, before the 13th century, mead (the family wine of the people of the Old World) was also a common alcoholic beverage on the table of nobles.
Beer was still the drink of the lower class at the time and was despised by the nobles. In fact, beer only became the mainstream alcohol after the 15th century (early beer without hops, pure fermentation, including other drinks at the same time, more to ensure drinking water quality). Compared with the aristocracy, the lower class mainly drank fruit juice and white wine. It was only after the 13th century that they had the opportunity to taste mead.
Fruit is indispensable in noble recipes. On the one hand, the nobles enjoyed apples, pears, cherries, plums, strawberries, and gooseberries (currants) like the farmers, and at the same time they tasted grapes and raisins, which were rarely enjoyed by ordinary people. More importantly, the nobles will enjoy some exotic fruits, such as figs, dates, limes, lemons, almonds and so on. Almonds occupies a special place in the edible fruits of the upper class. Almond cream is a substitute for milk during Lent before Easter, so it is indispensable.
Condiments are indispensable in the dining culture of the upper aristocracy. Some local spice plants such as shallot, coriander, mint, sage, dill, parsley, etc. are important seasoning ingredients. Imported condiments are more important. Pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, saffron, etc., are all expensive condiments that ordinary civilians cannot expect. This is exactly a cultural and social effect pursued by the nobility.
In terms of taste, people in the Middle Ages preferred spicy food. At that time, large amounts of salt were usually added to preserve meat for marinating. In order to cover the saltiness, spicy seasoning is a better choice.
Sugar is even more important. In the Middle Ages Europe was relatively backward in obtaining raw sugar processing technology, so people often used honey as a sweetener. Although the Italians already knew about raw sugar in the 8th century AD, for Europe, it was not until the Crusades that they learned about the processing of raw sugar from the East. Because cane sugar relies on imports, it is expensive and belongs to luxury goods, and usually only the upper-class nobles can enjoy it. The price of sucrose is also very different from today. Some materials indicate that 11 pounds of sugar was equivalent to the value of a horse at that time.