May 1994, updated October 2010
Respected friends: This article may be reprinted once by any local SCA not-for- profit publication, provided no editorial changes are made without my knowledge, both my SCA and legal names are included as author, and a complimentary copy is sent to me at: 5 Howard St. Apt.006, Wilton, NH 03086. All other rights reserved.
Your group is planning an event. You want it to be spectacular, you want it to be memorable, and you don't want to bankrupt the group. It has been done, it can be done, and with the help of these suggestions you can do it- for less than you ever imagined possible. All you need is a few extra books, a little more time, and a brief excursion into a medieval cook's mindset.
To begin: Don't go near a cookbook yet. For a Rob Peter-Feed Paul Feast (From here on I'll just use the initials RPFPF) you don't start with recipes, you start with seasons- of the year. (The name `RPFP' comes from re-using the `wastes' from one dish as ingredients for others. It's rather like designing an edible jigsaw puzzle. A detailed description follows the sample menu.) My specific example applies to groups in North America, where I reside; in Lochac and Drachenwald adjustments will be necessary, though the basic principles don't change.
If the date for the event hasn't been chosen yet, you have an immense advantage. Your group must have standing rib of beef or die? Your only hope is October/November, when the price of beef plummets to its annual low. You won't run the kitchen if you can't have fresh peas? Schedule for May/June, not January.
There are several reasons for this approach. The most obvious one is that foods, even in frozen form, are much cheaper during their natural growing season. But the more important reason is psychological. We are building an illusion with our events- the illusion that we have slipped through a crack in time. Every tiny detail either adds to or subtracts from that illusion. You can't get everyone to wear museum-replica clothing- you can't even get the hall to cover the fluorescent lights- but you can make a vital contribution by what you cook and how you cook it.
Think like your ancestors. A medieval cook didn't have freezers, or controlled- atmosphere storage, or jet transport from the other side of the equator. He wasn't even trying to serve grapes in May, or fresh greens in January. You're trying to produce a feast he would recognize without going broke; use his wisdom to help you do it.
There are good books available which list the `in season'- and thus cheapest- months for a wide variety of foods. In the US and lower Canada, look in your local library for a copy of The Supermarket Handbook, which has an excellent guide. Failing that, many pre-1900 cookbooks contain the same information, especially if they were written for brides. A very brief list of typical supermarket sales, intended for the US and Canada, is appended to this article.
If you are planning an event bid, use the list to choose the month that matches your group's favorite foods. If the date is already set, use the list to choose seasonal ingredients for at least 90% of the foods served. Make sure nothing on the list is impossible for the date by medieval standards - we've got the means to make egg custard for Christmas, but they did not.
This sounds boring and frustrating and depressing to a lot of my students. They complain that it limits their creativity, or makes them feel like skinflints, or both. But it's the way it really worked in the real middle ages; once you can accept that fact and work with it, you become exhilarated by the period `feel' it gives to even the feast-planning process. You are facing and meeting the same challenges they faced and met; you are forging an unbreakable link between their reality and your own.
I give you here two menus for the months of May/June, one a standard `fantasy feast' and one based on real, period food availability. The cost of ingredients for these two feasts is virtually identical!
FF RPFPF (marked with a *) `day board' morning meal apples *Strawberries *cream grapes *sallet of greens yellow cheddar cheese *cottage cheese, *cream cheese, *hard white cheeses sliced roast beef *boiled eggs sliced ham *Pea soup with and without shredded ham *mushroom soup *chicken soup soft white bread *hard-crust wheat bread honey butter *honey *butter *herbed butter lemonade and iced tea *barley water, herbed honey drinks Feast Feast Roast beef *stewed beef roast chicken *a minced dish using chicken backs and thighs Roast pork *suckling pig, or ducks/geese carrots *Asparagus, with sauce wine and blackberry soup *wine and apple/raisin soup bread *Wafers *flavored creams *stewed fruits giant stem-on strawberries Quiche Lorraine *egg pies (such as galantine) *eggs poached in broth *pork pie *hanony champignon, or other mushroom dish *Chicken pie *Leeks *seethed yellow peas *a warner made of baked chicken pieces fresh peas with mint *frozen peas with choice of sauces Warner made from fruitcake *Warners made from: sugar paste, egg cake, homemade marzipan bread *bread *soup with new onions and vegetable stock bacon and spinach salad *mixed greens salad with dressings *White leche made with chicken roast lamb *farm-bought weanling, or collops of, lamb chestnut polenta with cheese *Noodles baked with cheese strawberry-rhubarb pie *Strawberry tarts, *custard tarts, and *spiced sweet pastry *A warner of jelly Lemonade *orange-cinnamon drink, iced tea *Persian mint drink, *rose water drink, *strawberry and other syrops *something made with almond milkIn case you hadn't noticed: there is a full extra course, and a total of 18 extra dishes and 3 extra drinks, in the RPFPF. (You would not want to serve the RPFPF dishes in the order listed, since each course would not have a suitable blend of textures and flavors if you did. They were listed in that order only to compare directly with the fantasy feast menu.) Yet I claimed that the RPFPF feast could be brought in on the same budget.
Simply by thinking like a Medieval cook. We, not to put to fine a point on it, are a bunch of compulsive wastrels. If we were working in a real medieval kitchen we'd be beaten on an almost hourly basis for this sin - and sin, in the sense of misuse of a gift, it certainly is.
Here is the obvious waste in the `fantasy feast' menu: Roast beef - bones, fat and scraps. Baked chicken - bones, fat, scraps, necks, giblets. Roast lamb - bones, fat, scraps. Fresh peas - time. But there are two other forms of waste in the FF menu, that don't show at all to the modern person. One is wasted money; the FF version makes many poor choices for a May/June feast. The other, and the most important to me, is the wasted opportunity.
The FF menu could be served to, and by, any modern person at any time of year. It would be a heavy meal, for a special occasion; but there's nothing in it to say `It's Spring' except the peas and the strawberry- rhubarb pie, both of which are available frozen year-round. The RPFPF menu would empty the treasury if served in September, and require hocking the crown jewels in February; but in May/June, it's a powerful celebration of the bounty of the season, and a powerful example of the effect of the season on the diets of our ancestors. Yet it's no more expensive than the FF version.
Start with the FF `day board'. Apples at their nadir of quality, grapes airlifted from the opposite hemisphere, ham and beef out of season and at the highest cost of the year - wasted money, once you are paying attention to seasonal prices. Yellow Cheddar cheese, modern lemonade, iced tea and commercial white bread - wasted opportunity. None of these four existed in period (Cheddar wasn't dyed until well after the mid 1600s. Modern lemonade was invented in the late 1600s; period lemonade was completely or nearly waterless and probably tasted like liquid candy! Tea wasn't drunk cold until sometime during, or perhaps after, the American Colonial period. Commercial soft white bread is the wrong texture and requires bleached wheat flour.) ...and none of them inspire a feeling of past time.
The RPFPF version of the same meal substitutes seasonal strawberries and salad greens, for a cost reduction that allows added cream. Pea soup with ham pieces uses the scrape-the-barrel winter leftovers at a fraction of beef's price. Buy the medieval-sized `pullet' or `peewee' eggs, which are a market glut at this time, at almost scandalously low prices- and get more servings for the same weight of eggs as well. Wheat bread costs more per loaf, but people take less and it's more filling. Separating the honey and butter is a godsend to people trying to avoid fat, and recent evidence says the combination may not be as medieval as we used to think.
The 'Fantasy Feast' calls for beef, whole baking-sized chickens, a roasting-quality hunk of lamb, and blackberries - wasted money. It also uses carrots, quiche lorraine, fruitcake and strawberry-rhubarb pie- wasted opportunity.
Since I know many SCA people would gut and serve the cook if the feast had no beef, the RPFP feast includes it, but as stewed beef which can be made from bargain cuts, and which has at least a marginal claim to historical accuracy. A cow which did not recover from calving would be eaten, in spite of her emaciated and hormone-flabby condition; but the result would certainly not be a set of lovely large roasts!
Spring chickens are delicious, but not very large. The big chickens that look good served whole become available cheaply only in late June - but that's no reason to do without. Buy the smaller whole chickens on sale and bone them out. Do something complicated and elegant with the white meat, something weird and fun with the drumsticks, and you've still got enough parts left to make a total of four extra dishes from the stuff left on the plate or in the trash when you serve them whole.
Lamb is the classic spring food. But Supermarket lamb roast isn't cheap, even in the spring. With a little extra work, you may find a farm that sells weanling lambs- smaller, better price per-pound, and infinitely better tasting than the supermarket `lamb' (actually up to six months old, which used to be called- and still tastes like- `young mutton'). The farm weanling would cost the same as an equal weight of supermarket `lamb'. But if you're stuck with the latter, buy a cheaper cut for cooking in steam or broth as collops, or cutting up for a mixed dish.
Both pork and suckling pig are down in price (though both will be cheaper still during the fall slaughtering season) and popular. In some areas, duck and goose are at their yearly low and should be substituted. What you save by using less or cheaper beef, chicken and lamb will cover a heftier weight of any, and leave enough to fill out the veggie side of the meal impressively.
Eggs and dairy plummet in April/May and begin their climb back up in June. By watching the sales you can take advantage of the glut- all the butter-based pastries, cream soups and sauces, egg-based pies and custards and flans and cakes anyone could possibly eat. But use these basics as a beginning, not an end - don't content yourself with just one method of preparation. Use yolks in custards and endores, whites in cakes and soft meringues- twice the food from the same eggs. Use the meat bones for soup stock, the fat to add some trace of proper flavor to the meat pie crusts, the chicken giblets for a spiced mince to enhance High Table or set out with the desserts for sweet-haters.
Even in season, there's so much waste in fresh peas that they're a budget-breaker, and shelling the fool things is worse than paying for them. Frozen peas plummet in price during fresh pea season, since they're less attractive to the buyers then, but there's nothing wrong with the quality. So: for every ten pounds of peas you need get ten pounds frozen and one pound fresh. Hull the fresh ones, boil the pods, then cook the frozen and fresh peas in the pod-broth. No one will taste the difference and the savings will buy a lot of asparagus.
Use all the edible vegetable scraps in the pies and soups, and the hard, stringy, or otherwise unservable bits in the soup stocks. You paid just as much for the asparagus bottoms as the tops; In a mixed dish their stronger flavor and less soft texture are an asset. The same applies to broccoli stems and green onion bulbs.
Wafers do have to be made at home. (Borrow an Italian member's pizelle iron, or a scandinavian's or German's mandeln-maker. Better yet, talk them into doing it, since they have the experience.) They are thus more time-consuming by far than purchased bread. But even if the group has to buy the wafer irons, they're still cheaper than the equivalent servings of commercial bread, add more to the illusion, provide more variety, and are better for your group's reputation.
Wine soup would be another rarity for spring. By using the stronger-flavored apples and raisins (which in the middle ages would be fit only for soup by June) you can get away with far cheaper wine and still produce a deliciously luxurious product. (Not to mention all the flour and spices you can buy with what the out-of-season rasberries would have cost you.)
Carrots and enough dried fruit for fruitcake probably wouldn't be around in a medieval May or June. Substitute more seasonal foods and you've improved both the budget and the ambiance.
This system certainly isn't as easy as the usual pick-your-favorites-and-pay method. It demands more thought, more planning, more careful preparation. It means foregoing eggs in January and asparagus in October. But it pays benefits far out of proportion to the extra work it costs. Not only the obvious ones, such as more food for less money; not only the less obvious ones, such as less waste, though both of those are of value. The biggest benefit is neither tasted or banked.
RPFP feasts are more real. Your feast and feasters are drawn back into the rhythm of the land, the pattern of the year, the inevitable and inexorable march of seasons. That pervasive background of medieval life, lost to our air-conditioned and freeze-dried modern selves, returns to place everyone again in a world where time and tide and growing season are beyond our control. It works. It helps.
Bon chance et bon apetit.-
Alizaundre, Demoiselle de Brebeuf, C.O.L. SCA
Friend Honour Horne-Jaruk, R.S.F.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (firstname.lastname@example.org)