We don’t know what was eaten at Christmas in medieval Ireland. We do know, though, there were great feasts. Gaelic chiefs provided food, drink and musical entertainment for throngs of people – all of which was recorded mainly by poets.
“The table was made of rushes spread out on the ground, while nearby they placed delicate grass for him to wipe his mouth,” wrote one poet, in 1397, of the court of Niall Ó Néill on Christmas Day.
That’s earthier than how most of us set our Christmas table nowadays, but undoubtedly those who attended this feast were well taken care of.
Turkey is synonymous with Christmas nowadays, but turkeys didn’t arrive into Ireland until the sixteenth or seventeenth century. In medieval times, poultry and domesticated fowl were kept for eggs, meat and feathers. Hens were kept in coops or small sheds, safe from predators.
As well as hens, the Anglo-Norman elite diet included geese, ducks, swans, pheasants, pigeons and peacocks. A well-dressed table for a feast such as Christmas may also have had a cooked and dressed boar’s head as its central attraction.
Hens appear to have been eaten by all, and indeed used as a form of currency. The Pipe Roll of Cloyne, a medieval document giving insight into the system of land ownership within the diocese of Cloyne in County Cork between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, makes note of hens used to pay rent. In 1364, every tenant in the townlands of Ballycotton, Ballycroneen, Accarwyn, Agnurdur and Ballycrenane had to give their lord one hen at Christmas. In 1326 in Dublin, if a hen could not be given as rent, the tenant had to pay 1d.
That tenants raised hens means they too got to enjoy eating them occasionally. The medieval method of cooking chicken, as with many meats, was to boil it first. When cooking it whole, it was first scalded by immersing it in boiling water, before being plucked, trimmed, and prepared for further cooking. Once again it would be immersed in water, brought to the boil, and the surface liquid skimmed.
Nowadays, there are special spices that remind us of Christmas – cinnamon, for one. This recipe, with chicken in a sweet-and-sour red-wine stew, reflects some of those flavours. Even though it comes from a recipe book written in the fifteenth century, it can just as easily be appreciated at a modern Christmas.
Chicken in Egurdouce
- 450g/1 lb boneless chicken meat
- 2 tbsp lard
- 100g/4 oz onion, chopped
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- ½ tsp ginger powder
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 300ml/½ pt red wine
- 2 tsp honey
- 2 tbsp red-wine vinegar
Place the chicken into a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the temperature and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken, dry, and chop into cubes. Heat the lard in a pan, add the chicken and cook until lightly coloured. Remove, and keep warm.
Fry the onions in the same pan, until they turn a pale golden colour. Return the chicken to the pan, add the spices, wine, honey and red-wine vinegar. Simmer for 10 minutes before serving.