Let Them Eat…Plates?

Gedekte tafel-source Joop anker-Author w:en:Creative Commons attribution share alike This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Kreuz_und_quer_spectaculum_2004.jpg ‎(600 × 423 pixels, file size: 168 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

“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
Epstein.Mark (talk | contribs)-, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.

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
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Author-Fritzs

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

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.


11 thoughts on “Let Them Eat…Plates?

  1. I’m not sure if it was your writing style of my previously undiscovered love for bread, but I found this absolutely fascinating! And I have a new word to help explain to my boyfriend when he asks why I’m using a slice of sourdough as a plate. By the way, as a fellow all-things-Medieval lover (though not as educated on the matter), I have to ask if you have watched the series Merlin. For dragon’s blood soup purposes.


      1. no, I wasn’t trying; was going direct from my email; but not sure what I finally ended up doing, cause I went direct to your site too and it still did it but something happened and I finally got there somehow, guess you saw


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s