Once upon a time I was a scholar, specializing in the Middle Ages. Some of my work involved research into medieval food and cooking, and being a foodie, of course I had to conduct my inquiries into this fascinating field most thoroughly and completely. Vegetarian recipes from the Middle Ages are rare, but not to the point of non-existence, and here are some that caught my fancy.
A few tidbits about Medieval cooking
Sources: The Medieval recipes we have today come from books compiled for kings and noblemen; the average peasant could not read or write and even if he could, he would not waste his time writing down recipes for the boiled vegetables and oatmeal he usually ate. Also, for the most part we only have recipes for the fancy dishes. There are very few examples of salad recipes, for example, because it was assumed that any cook could prepare simple vegetables. This gives us a somewhat skewed view of what normal people consumed, but it does not make exploring this world any less fun.
Spices: Spices were extremely expensive, There is a myth that Medieval food was so heavily spiced to disguise the odor and taste of rotting meat. This is simply not true. Spices were used because the people liked the taste. It is best to think about the spicing of Medieval food much as one thinks about a fine curry today – highly spiced, yes, but as a complement to the food and not a disguise.
The Recipes Themselves: The recipes we have from the Middle Ages are not like the recipes we find in modern books. There are no precise directions to use two-thirds of a cup of currants, or to bake at 375F for 45 minutes. Instead, we find more general directions, with instructions to take a handful of currants, or to cook hot, until done. There were no ovens with precise temperature settings and thermostats, only open fires or enclosed cooking spaces relying on wood fires for heat. Quantities, and sometimes even the precise ingredients themselves, were left to the discretion of the chef. With respect to spices, for example, so many recipes call for “strong spices” or “sweet spices,” and we are left to our personal tastes and hints from other sources, such as literature, to determine exactly what we should use.
The Presentation: This is not so much an issue with vegetarian food, but presentation was an important aspect to Medieval cuisine. Remember that we are talking about food for royal banquets here, not everyday nosh-on-the-run. Part of the art of presentation was artifice and disguise. Foods were carefully prepared to look like other foods or items, or to bring images to mind. One recipe for rabbit that I once found instructed the cook to slaughter the rabbit in such as way as to collect the blood, which was then cooked into a sauce with enough colouring agents to make the sauce look like blood. Another, for a fowl dish, had the cook keep the birds’ heads and feathers, and then reattach them after cooking to make the birds look alive again. Our tastes and sensibilities have changed, but this is something to keep in mind when thinking about Medieval haute cuisine.
Almond Milk: Almond milk is obtained by steeping ground almonds in hot liquid and then straining out the almonds, so that the milk is thick and smooth, not gritty. Almond milk is strained through a clean cloth or a fine strainer. A cheesecloth works well too. The thicker the milk the better, and the more almonds you use in proportion to the liquid, the thicker and richer the milk will be. An ideal proportion is something like 2 oz ground almonds to 1/2 liquid. Commercial almond milk is also available.
If you are interested in Medieval vegetarianism, check out this link: http://www.ivu.org/history/renaissance/middle-ages.html
Soups and Appetizers
I have tried to indicate sources for all the recipes. The translations, where applicable, are mine, as are any mistakes.