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Londoner's Larder - Cuisine from Chaucer - Amazon.UK
Despite few references to feasts and only a handful of descriptive passages detailing the foods of his period, it is still possible to gather a rather lengthy list of the foods, dishes, livestock, & game that Chaucer mentions in his writings. From The Book of the Duchess to The Canterbury Tales, from drinks to desserts, from Ale to Ypocras, this list represents the broad range of foodstuffs and prepared dishes that fed the average 14th c. Englishman

The Canterbury Tales : Geoffrey Chaucer -

The Franklin and the Cook

One of the longer food descriptions in the Tales occurs during the Franklin's introduction in the prologue:

A Frankelyn was in his companye;/A Franklin was in his company;

Whyt was his berd, as is the dayesye./White was his beard, as the daisy.

Of his complexioun he was sangwyn./Of his complexion he was ruddy.

Wel loved he by the morwe a sop in wyn./Well loved he in the morning a sop in wine.

To liven in delyt was ever his wone,/To live in delight was ever his wont,

for he was Epicurus owne sone,/For he was Epicurus' own son,

That heeld opinioun, that pleyn delyt/Who held the theory, that complete delight

Was verraily felicitee paryft./Was verily perfect felicity.

A householder, and that a greet, was he;/A householder, and a great one, was he;

Seint Julian he was in his contree./Saint Julian he was in his country.

His breed, his ale, was alwey after oon;/His bread, his ale, were always equally good;

A bettre envyned man was no-wher noon./A more envied man was nowhere found.

With-oute bake mete was never his hous,/Without meat pie was never his house,

Of fish and flesh, and that so plenteous,/Of fish and flesh, and that so plenteous,

It snewed in his hous of mete and drinke,/It snowed in his house of meat and drink,

Of alle deyntes that men could thinke./Of all dainties that one could think of.

After the sondry seasons of the yeer,/According to the various seasons of the year,

So chaunged he his mete and his soper./He varied his meat and his supper.

Ful many a fat partrich hadde he in mewe,/Full many a fat partridge he had in coop,

And many a breem and many a luce in stewe./And many a bream and many a pike in pond.

Wo was his cook, but-if his sauce were/Woe to his cook, unless his sauces were

Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his gere./Poignant and sharp, and ready all his carvers.

His table dormant in his halle alway/His table stationed in the hall always

Stood redy covered al the longe day./Stood ready set all the day long.

Although Chaucer was an over-weight man, it is known that he was very conservative in his diet and did not go to extremes in either quality or quantity. Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don't give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

The Canterbury Tales is a much different matter. Chaucer once again treats food only as a literary prop, but the types of dishes and foods that his characters consume are very effective clues to their personalities, habits, and traits, and help bring The Canterbury Tales to life. The Summoner's disreputable personality is heightened by the fact that he was fond of garlic and onions, a diet that would lead to a bad complexion and foul breath. The Prioress, who perhaps loves the finer life a bit too much, ate only the daintiest of morsels and fed her dogs only the finest of white bread while peasants were lucky to get only brown. The Franklin's generous character and wealth are reflected in the mention of his table, which was always prepared for dinner and where it "snowed" all manner of food and drink. At his house there was the finest of wines and meat pies, and his ponds were well-stocked with delicious fish. Friars, known for their love of good food and wine, were frequent guests of such wealthy men of property, a fact Chaucer's friar comments on at one point. Chaucer's monk was also a lover of the good life, and enjoyed hunting so much he usually preferred catching a rabbit for his dinner over ecclesiastical fare.

In contrast to these rich pilgrims is the poor widow of the Nun's Priest's Tale, who leads a simple life: "Of spiced sauce she had no need at all. No dainty morsel passed through her throat; her diet was in keeping with her coat...she drank no wine, neither white nor red. Her table was served most with white and black, milk and brown bread, of which she had no lack, broiled bacon, and sometimes an egg or two."

Of course, the character of Roger Hodge, the wealthy quildsmen's hired cook, adds a great deal of culinary detail to the Tales. He was quite proficient at several dishes, including blancmange and mortreux, both common and popular during Chaucer's time. His cook could roast, boil, broil, and fry, but an intense depth is added to his character when it is revealed that he sells stale pasties and his stuffed goose frequently contains some of the flies that infest his shop! Clearly, Chaucer uses food as a way of introducing important elements of his pilgrim's characters, and even to infuse a little humour

Chaucerian cooking has been the subject of a few modern cookbooks, including Pleyn Delit, Maggie Black's The Medieval Cookbook, and Fabulous Feasts, and it's possible to plan a Chaucerian feast based simply on the material in these books. Those new to Medieval cooking should begin with the recipes found there. Pleyn Delit also features several model Chaucerian feasts, both small and large, while Fabulous Feasts has a chapter entitled "A Chicken for Chaucer's Kitchen," where Squire Geoffrey embarks on a fictional journey through the food sellers and markets of London in order to procure ingredients for a farsed chicken. The chapter is rich in information and details on 14th c. London and its food districts.

However, going directly to period sources for research should be the goal of any historical food recreationist, and to accomplish this task one can rely on several medieval cookbooks available today which were also around during Chaucer's time. The primary recipe source for Chaucer is The Forme of Curye, compiled by the cooks of Richard II. Chaucer would certainly have eaten some of the dishes prepared by these very cooks, and such recipes as blankmanger and mortreux are found here. The Forme of Curye is available today as part of a 14th c. recipe collection called Curye on Inglish, which also contains 3 other manuscripts from Chaucer's time: Diuersa Cibaria, Diuersa Servicia, & Utilis Coquinario. These four main resources provide a wealth of Chaucerian material.

Appearing shortly after the arrival of The Forme of Curye, a collection known today as An Ordinance of Pottage may have been modeled on Curye, and contains corresponding recipes. It is in print today, with redactions by Constance B. Hieatt.

Other invaluable books that are contemporary with Chaucer are Le Viandier de Taillevent, the cookbook of Guillame Taillevent written in the 1370's and recently edited for publication by Terence Scully; Chiquart's 'on Cookery': A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (American University Studies Series, IX : History, Vol 22), also written in the 1300s; and Le Menagier de Paris, a set of domestic instructions & recipes written around 1393 by a wealthy Parisian householder, a man very similar to Chaucer's Franklin.

The next best source after these would probably be Thomas Austin's Two 15th-Century Cookery-Books, originally published in 1888, but featuring English manuscripts from 1425 - 1450. This is a little out of Chaucer's time period, but close enough to still be considered a viable reference.

In addition, Terence Scully's The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Studies in Anglo-Saxon History) provides an excellent background in understanding the nature of cooking & food production in Chaucer's time, as well as detailing the presentation of courses in period banquets.

2000 James L. Matterer

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