Let Them Eat…Plates?

plates
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My husband and I once went to one of those medieval tournament shows. You know the kind–theatrical jousting, $15 drinks served in plastic chalices, and giant turkey legs dripping with grease.  We were doubtless having more fun than our server, a spotty young man forced to parade around in a spandex jester’s uniform. But I have to hand it to him, he did his best to stay in character.

He arrived at our table with the first course–a crusty bread bowl filled with lukewarm red soup.

“What kind of soup is this?” I asked.

Jester
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“Dragon’s blood,” he answered in a quavering voice, wiggling his fingers to emphasize the horrifying nature of our dish.

Now I should mention, I’m a very picky eater. I don’t eat red meat or pork, and I didn’t want to shove a heaping spoonful into my mouth only to find it was seasoned with bacon bits.

“No really, what kind of soup?” I asked.

“Dragon’s blood,” he repeated, again with the finger wiggles.

“She’s a vegetarian,” my irritated husband finally cut in (which is not strictly true, but easier than explaining my weird eating habits).

“It’s tomato,” he answered in a weary voice, hanging his head and sighing.

I tell you this not to highlight my ability to suck the life out of hard working servers, but as a roundabout way to introduce:

The Bread Bowl

Bread Bowl
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There is limited evidence (that I’ve come across–it may be out there) to suggest bread bowls in their modern form existed during the Middle Ages. A few websites claim that bread bowls were invented in 1427 by an Irish noble trying to impress the king. The king, thoroughly pleased, commissioned the world’s first bread bowl shop in Dublin. I like this story. In my mind, it plays out Game of Thrones style. The noble is Tyrion Lannister, and the king is Jon Snow (here’s to hoping). Jon is so impressed that he funds a chain of medieval-style Panera Breads.

Alas, this is all in my head, and I have no idea whether the 1427 story is true. Neither site offered any references, so I can only hope. However, even if this bread bowl origin story is little more than urban legend, the bread bowl does have a medieval cousin…

The Trencher

trencher example
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A trencher was basically a piece of stale bread (initially) that medieval people used as a plate. This website discusses trenchers in their section on unleavened bread. Although I take issue with their claim that bakers didn’t use yeast in their breads until the sixteenth century, I imagine the first trenchers probably were pieces of leftover flatbread.

Bread is Law

During the Middle Ages strict rules governed the baking and selling of bread, and that included trenchers. According to Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past (9), medieval food laws dictated that the Polish court use one type of bread for trenchers and another for eating. This would have been a loaf bread made from a sourdough starter composed of a blend of wheat and rye. That isn’t to say peasants wouldn’t have made use of their stale flatbreads, but Anyone who was Anyone (or wanted to be Anyone) would have used this type of leavened bread for their trenchers.

 The Stairway to Heaven is Made of Bread

Devil
Witchcraft: the devil talking to a gentleman and a judge This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

If you were wealthy during the Middle Ages, you were probably a little worried about your immortal soul. After all, the bible claims your chances of getting into heaven are about as good as a camel going through the eye of a needle. Fortunately, you are rich, and therefore great at finding loopholes. You realize you can write-off your sin of wealth through great acts of charity. (source). This lead to a lot of big donations–funding hospitals was particularly popular–but also feeding the poor. And what better food for the poor than your leftovers…including your stale, crusty plate.

Now if your not exactly rich, you’ll likely choose to feed your trencher to your pig instead of the poor. They’re hungry little buggers, and a fatter pig mean more bacon for all. But if you’re poor, or just really hungry, you’ll eat the trencher yourself. It might not taste all that great, but at least you won’t have to do the dishes.

The Experiment

In my last post here, I made some medieval barley flat bread. I saved one and let it set out to harden with the intention of using it as a trencher. I must admit, I let it sit out longer than I intended. A week after I made it, I found that it was quite hard and, thankfully, free of any signs of mold. I hadn’t been very careful about putting it somewhere where it would lay flat. I set it on top of a tray on my toaster oven. It got knocked around a bunch, and I found it had hardened into a vaguely s-shaped trencher. Now if I were a medieval peasant, I would probably have used this flexibility to my advantage and draped the bread over something bowl shaped to better hold my food. I have no idea if anyone actually did that, but it’s what I would do.

DSC_0009I didn’t have time to research and try out a medieval recipe, so I decided to use the trencher for  my lunch of leftover fajitas.
I found it to be very sturdy. The odd shape I let it dry into was a little annoying, but overall I had no problems. I finished my lunch, and it was time to eat the plate.

I’m lucky I didn’t crack a tooth.

I thought the liberal amount of lime juice in the pico and the fajita sauce on the chicken and veggies would be enough to soak through the bread. I was wrong. Dead wrong. It was like chewing on tree bark.

Attempt Two:

DSC_0024I needed a better sauce. A sauce that had been thoroughly heated. One that might penetrate the glutenous concrete of my medieval plate. I went to the cupboard and pulled out a can of spaghetti sauce. I nuked it in the microwave and plastered it all over that bad boy. Then I let it sit for a few minutes so it would really sink in.

It was better this time. A lot easier to chew, even if the texture was a bit like cardboard. Every now and then, presumably where the dough was thicker, I’d hit a bite that wasn’t quite softened enough. Fortunately, my teeth remained in tact. Overall it was edible, if not tasty.

My advice: If you find yourself magically transported to the Middle Ages, find yourself a noble and beg for their trenchers. You might be eating kitchen scraps, but it has to be better than week-old flatbread.

Medieval Barley Bread

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Bread
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“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
Mahatma Gandhi

I thought to start this post with a clever quip, or at the very least a healthy dose of sarcasm. Bread, after all, is a dry subject (I couldn’t resist). In all seriousness though, when I came across the above quote, it resonated with me. I suspect that in 1396, the year my book, Beneath the Destined Stone, takes place, this would have been how many a medieval peasant felt.

Enter the Miller:

Miller
By Zyance (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Greatest Villain of Medieval Times

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But they weren’t exactly beloved. Think of Millers as the medieval equivalent to a used car salesmen. They had a reputation (earned or not) for thievery, whether in the form of underweight bags or a little tree bark seasoning the meal. Many millers were also bakers by trade, and this offered its own opportunities for swindling. A stone or piece of iron might be baked into a loaf for added weight (Mortimer, 95).

You are what you eat

Medieval bakers thought so at least. It was common for a baker to create and name loaves of bread based on a buyer’s station in life: the knight’s loaf, the squire’s loaf, the varlet’s loaf, and so on. A nice write up of this can be found here. What exactly a squire’s loaf tasted like, we can’t be sure. Each baker had his own signature recipe. The recipes we do have  come from medieval cookbooks. These would have been the breads of the nobility. If you’re interested, several recipes are available here.


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Peasant bread ain’t that bad

nobility
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Forget the fancy stuff, I wanted to know what the poor man ate. Unfortunately, history is a rich man’s arena.

I had to make some educated guesses in my recreation. In Scotland barley or oats would have been the most common grains for the poor. Wheat was a rich man’s luxury.  Bread was often unleavened and cooked on a girdle (yes I spelled that right) or even a stone placed near the fire.

A search for unleavened barley bread lead me here. I read over the recipe and it couldn’t have been simpler: flour, salt, water, oil. I felt comfortable with these ingredients from a historical stance.

Except for the oil

olive oil
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What kind of oil would have been available to a peasant in 14th century Scotland? I found ledgers verifying that in the 14th century olive oil was being imported into Perth, the city where my book takes place.

A possibility, but one I wasn’t comfortable with. Would a peasant have been able to afford an imported oil, and if so, would they have squandered it on their daily bread? That didn’t seem likely. Perhaps they used oils from native nuts instead. Walnuts maybe? This merited more research.

 

 

Ask and you shall receive

After three hours without even a hint of a book or article that might contain what I was looking for, I decided I was going about this the wrong way. Instead of looking for information, I began looking for people I could ask. I e-mailed Derek Hall, an archaeologist in Perth who specializes in medieval pottery, and Dr. Giles Gasper at Durham University. One of Dr. Gasper’s areas of interest is monastic life, and I happened to remember that monks often ate unleavened barley bread. Perhaps he would know.

I can’t say enough good things about these men. Both responded quickly and were very helpful. Derek Hall informed me that the only oil there is archaeological and documentary evidence for is olive oil. Dr. Gasper gave me two references to check out and did me one better and referred me to his wife, an expert on medieval food.

I couldn’t believe my luck

Seriously, what are the odds? I immediately went to her website www.eatmedieval.com and lost myself in her pages. I encourage you all to check out her website and blog. You won’t be disappointed. I shot her an e-mail and, like her husband, she was quick to respond and extremely helpful. She agreed that olive oil would likely have been too expensive and felt animal fat or butter were more appropriate choices. She also said many peasant breads would have had no fat at all–just flour or oats, water, and salt.

The Recipe

I toiled between butter or no fat at all, finally deciding to just go ahead and add it. Everything’s better with butter, right?

DSC_0018

Ingredients:

2 c. barley flour

1 TBS butter (melted)

Pinch of salt

Warm water

*I had to do a bit of hunting for the barley flour. It wasn’t available in any of my local grocery chains. I finally found it at a nearby natural food co-op. Health food stores will be your best bet.

Directions:

Combine barley flour, butter, and salt. Slowly stir in warm water  until you have a smooth dough. The amount of water will vary based on climate and other factors. If you’ve added too much water and the dough is sticky, just throw in a little more flour. You should end up with something that looks like this:

DSC_0027Let the dough rest for at least a half hour. I waited exactly a half hour. I’m not sure how this would turn out with a longer rest time. I wouldn’t wait too long though, or you run the risk of catching airborne yeast.

After the dough has rested, roll into egg-sized balls. I ended up with nine. Roll them into thin disks, approximately the size of a tea saucer. The dough is surprisingly easy to work with and not at all sticky.

DSC_0031Then throw them onto a hot frying pan and let cook for about three minutes per side. I did not use any oil or butter in the pan. They didn’t stick. I kept the heat on medium/high.

When you’ve finished cooking them all, you should have something like this:

Barley Bread Platter

Peasant Food Fit for a King

The taste and texture reminded us (Me, my husband, and friend Dave) of whole-grain pita bread. It is thinner than pita, which I preferred, though it didn’t have the handy pocket.

The verdict: Not bad! 

Next we tried it with butter. This upped it from Not Bad to Pretty Darn Good.

Then we tried it with cheese. We chose cheddar, because that’s what happened to be in my fridge. Oh. My. God. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Delicious.

After a few more bites, we all agreed that the dish needed some fruit, something sweet and juicy to play off the flavors. I only had blueberries on hand. Now this is not a period-appropriate food for medieval Scotland, so let’s pretend I had some wild strawberries. The fruit upped the game to a whole new level. It all just worked together. I knew then that this would not just be a one time thing. I was hooked.

The Real Test

I brought in the pickiest eaters I know.

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Just kidding. I didn’t fead peasant bread to Snoop Dogg.

I fed it to them.IMG_1321

Cute, right? Don’t be fooled. When it comes to food, this pic is more accurate:IMG_0764

Seriously, water-boarding couldn’t convince these kids to eat something they don’t like.

So I called the little devils over and handed them some barley bread and cheese.

And they ate it!

Not only did they eat it, the next morning they asked if they could have the bread and cheese for breakfast. Holy crap!

I’d call that a success…

In conclusion

This recipe was inexpensive, simple, and pretty darn good. I will definitely make it again.

*I’ve left a few pieces out to harden so I can use them as trenchers. Stay tuned for the results.

About this blog

//
What is this blog about? 

I wish I could answer that question in one concise sentence. Problem is, if I give you the short answer–history, gardening, survival, cooking, and writing–I’ll sound indecisive. I mean, pick a topic, right? And what do any of those things have to do with time-travel?

Time Machine
License: (license) photo credit: time machine via photopin (license)

Allow me to explain…

It begins with my back. Two years ago, I was the lucky recipient of not one, but two back surgeries (How else is a stay-at-home mom supposed to get a vacation?).

I didn’t squander my new found free-time. Oh no. I binge-watched the hell out of Netflix. I bombarded my husband with unreasonable requests for ice-cream sundaes and grilled cheese sandwiches. And I read. Or perhaps I should say, I re-read. I made my way through all my favorite books, starting with Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles and ending with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

If you haven’t read Outlander, it’s about a WW2 nurse who goes back in time to 18th century Scotland. It’s freaking amazing. And seven books later, I still wanted more.

Outlander-Jamie Lego
License: (license) photo credit: Jamie with Donas via photopin (license)

Unfortunately, Gabaldon’s most recent book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood hadn’t been released yet, so I had to look elsewhere to get my fix.

IMG_0860
Me a year later with a group of dedicated fans at the release party for Written in My Own Heart’s Blood

I should have known better. I’d been down that path before. There are hundreds of books about time-travel and Scotland out there, but few are worth the paper they’re printed on.

Fool me a hundred times, shame on me…

Like I said, I should have known better. The book I downloaded might as well have been named Fifty Shades of Tartan. It was about a model/surgeon/virgin/insert cliché here, who had traveled back in time to 8th century Scotland. By a happy coincidence, she looked exactly like the dead wife of her love interest, a broody, misunderstood Laird who just needed someone to love.

Garbage. 

But garbage that changed my life.

It happened during dinner—not mine, but our model/surgeon’s meal with her brawny Laird. I could have forgiven the whisky they drank together (unlikely before the 15th century), but I could not forgive the fork. She was eating with a fork. A fork! I’d never been so insulted by an eating utensil. Knives or fingers, sure. But a fork! Not in 8th century Scotland. No way.

Fork
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I could write something better than this! I scathed in a fit of naive arrogance, all the while muttering fork like it was a different sort of four-letter word.

Angry Seargent
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I decided then and there to write my own book. Why not? I had a month of lying in bed, waiting for my spine to fuse together, ahead of me. Might as well spend it writing the Great Scottish Time Travel American Novel.

There will be no forks in my novel! I shouted in a manic fit to my pillows.

megaphone
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books
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And so I began my research. I scoured the internet, cleared the shelves of the public library, and tore through academic journals. I e-mailed professors, museums, and archaeologists. Documentaries replaced my prime-time lineup (God bless you, Mike Loades).

And with each new bit of information, scenes began forming in my head. By the end of my recovery, I had the first draft of my book.

And it was awful.

It turns out writing is hard. Damn hard. It’s an art founded on technique, and I had no technique. At that point a fork would have been the least of my problems.

So I joined a writing group (http://toledowriters.com) and with their gentle form of constructive criticism, I began to learn the art of writing.

Writing is Rewriting

writing
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And I’m still rewriting. But I think I have the makings of something really special.

But until then…

pee jar
License: (license) photo credit: Green Urine Sample Bottles GVSU Family Health Center via photopin (license)
cloth
License: (license) photo credit: Washing, colorcoded II via photopin (license)

I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the Middle Ages. I can’t be the only one who finds it fascinating they used to set dye with urine (please tell me I’m not the only one).

My plan is to pick a different topic each week: What kind of foods did people eat? How did they make ale? What kind of herbal medicines did they use? What about toilets and cleanliness and dying their own clothes? I might even try things out for myself (maybe not the pee dye…) and document it for you. There will be a little bit of everything, some things you might even find useful (in the event of the apocalypse).

So if you love history, or just want to learn how to avoid doing dishes by eating off trenchers, join me each week as I journey back in time. I promise there will be no forks.