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In medieval times, fasting and abstinence were part of life.
Fasting meant eating only one meal a day after 3 o’clock. In later medieval times, people could eat after midday and grab a smaller meal or snack later too. The only exemptions to the fasting rules were the poor, the young, the old, and the sick or pregnant.
Until the 15th century, abstinence had to be adhered to on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as the entire Lenten and Advent periods. Religion was central to people’s lives. Almost everyone followed these dietary rules.
People weren’t allowed to eat animal meats or fats, which included dairy. Poultry or eggs weren’t allowed either. Because of that, fish was important in the medieval diet. For who could afford it, it was the main substitute for meat.
As part of my research, I search medieval documents for references to food. One of the manuscripts I have turned to is The Account Roll of the Priory of Holy Trinity, Dublin, 1337–1346.
It has accounts spanning almost nine years for the priory of what is now known as Christ Church in Dublin, the beautiful cathedral in the south inner-city and the city’s oldest building. From the document I learned that in Lent of 1338, the fish served at the prior’s table was dominated by oysters, followed by salmon.
Other fish included herring, eel, turbot, plaice, trout and gurnard, undoubtedly cooked in interesting ways. Curiously, in medieval times the same food was served at every meal during the day. Bread was always part of the meal too, since the potato had not yet arrived in Ireland.
During Lent, if milk was called for at his table, the prior would have been served almond milk. So popular nowadays, almond milk was made and used as a substitute for dairy milk during medieval times of fasting.
To make almond milk, cooks first soaked almonds in warm water for an hour, before peeling and crushing them, then soaking them again, and finally pouring the mixture through a piece of cheesecloth or muslin.
Nowadays you could simply soak ground almonds in warmed water, before running the mixture them through the same type of cloth. Try it!
Here’s a fish recipe for the season, though, one I adapted from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (about 1430-1450), edited by Thomas Austin.
Medieval-Style Salmon Roast in Sauce (Serves 4)
- 4 darnes (or cutlets) of salmon
- 200 ml. wine (I used white, but red is good too)
- 1 tsp. cinnamon powder
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp. oil
- 2 tbsp. vinegar
- 1 tbsp. ginger powder
Griddle, grill or fry the salmon. Salmon cooks best when it is placed over a fairly high heat, just long enough to turn the flesh opaque. Allow to cool slightly before gently removing and discarding the skin. Separate the flesh into chunks, removing any bones in the process.
While the salmon is cooking, heat the oil in a pan and add the chopped onion. Cook the onion for approximately 5 minutes, until it turns golden. Add the cinnamon, ginger and vinegar to the onion. Cook the mixture for 1 minute, then slowly add the wine. Simmer for 2 minutes. Once the salmon is cooked, add it to the onion mixture, and gently mix. Serve hot.