Culture is a multifaceted thing that expresses itself in hundreds of ways, from the manner in which people of a certain culture dress to the types of structure in which those people live. It is arguable, however, that cuisine is perhaps the most important part of any culture. It is certainly used very often as a symbol for cultures and peoples: what does a hamburger signify if not America? Who but the French are brought to mind by a baguette? Their function as synecdoche is, however, not the only cultural function for the dishes people eat. Everyone in the world needs food in order to live, after all, and so the mere act of maintaining one’s own existence is tied via eating to one’s culture. It is possible, therefore, that we in the modern world may through replicating the creation and consumption of dishes from the cultures of the past gain some understanding of the way in which the people of those cultures lived. As such, we set out to recreate dishes from Early Medieval England for both ourselves, our classmates, and the visitors to our fair, in the hopes of allowing all of us to become more connected in some small way to a people separated from us both by distance and by time.
1. Deciding What to Cook
The first of many decisions we faced was what sort of food we wanted to make. We didn’t want to represent the higher class of Early Medieval society with their roasted meats and elaborate feasts — for one, it would have been near-impossible to roast a deer on a college campus, let alone procure one; and for another, we wanted to represent a group of people often overlooked by textbooks and history novels: the average person in Early Medieval England. Online, we discovered the Early English Bread Project, which told us about the various different flours used to make hearth cakes, a staple in the Medieval diet. We initially selected wheat and barley flour to mix for bread dough, but a lack of barley flour in local stores led us to fall back on oat flour, which may not have been used along with wheat by contemporaries, but certainly would have been available. Hearth cakes, we learned, are the simplest of creations: nothing but flour and water mixed into dough and baked like pancakes on an open fire. No grease, no salt. (Although they would have been consumed with butter or cheese to disguise their bland taste.)
Naturally, a diet of hearth cakes alone would have left one wanting for a good many nutrients, so after perusing a few books, we decided on stew as the second component of our meal. Stew would have been ubiquitous to Early Medieval England, made with whatever vegetables and meats were available thrown into a pot together. Fava beans, onions, garlic, carrots, and a few select spices all would have been around, and we chose to add in bacon as well, as most meat would have been heavily preserved with salt, like bacon.
The process of learning how one makes a hearth-cake in the Anglo-Saxon style began, for us, in the kitchen on 2nd Cassat with a frying pan, some bags of flour, and a faucet. Since we planned to make a few mistakes and could regulate the stovetop’s temperature more easily than a fire’s, we decided to prototype our bread there before making our cakes properly in the fire-pit at Mai-Fête Island. Our first few attempts to bake these cakes were flawed: we mixed together our oat and wheat flour more or less randomly in a bowl and added water, as we had been instructed to do by our recipe.
When we flattened out our cakes and laid them in the pan, however, they remained wet for far too long and, when they finally cooked, had both an unpleasant chewiness and a leathery toughness to them that made it clear we were doing something wrong.
We discovered, after experimenting and eventually reducing the amount of water in the mixture, that this was a drier dough than that of, say, a pancake, closer to the consistency of modern bread dough than we had initially thought. Once that problem had been fixed, we discovered that our hearth-cakes tasted quite acceptable, if a bit chewy, and moved on to preparing the ingredients of the bean stew.
To begin with the stew, we prepped the carrots (a bag full of about 9 carrots) by washing them in the sink and chopping them into appropriate chunks. Initially, we were unsure how thick a stew carrot should be. We started with chopping one-third inch thick cylinders, but then proceeded with a diagonal slicing motion, which yielded jagged peaks. However, if we could have gone back, we should have made the carrot pieces even smaller because as long as we cooked our stew for, they still came out undercooked. For the onions (three of them, two round one flat) we peeled the skins off and sliced away any signs of decay, and diced them. For garlic (two cloves), we merely peeled the skins off and threw them directly into the pot.
Unfortunately, none of Northfield’s local stores carried fava beans, so we had to make do with Lima beans (six hearty cans). After dumping in all of the ingredients, we poured in a 3:5 ratio of water and set them to cook over charcoals for about 2 hours, mixing approximately every 5 minutes to prevent the stew from sticking to the bottom.
The stew being served
Making the hearth-cakes in the fire on Mai-Fête was a substantially different task than making them on the stove in Cassat had been. The problem in Cassat was figuring out the proper ratio of ingredients to use in order to create the cakes, while the problem on the island was ensuring that the we didn’t burn or undercook the cakes in the uneven heat of the fire. All in all, however, despite the edges of every cake being routinely burnt and some cakes occasionally being produced which somehow managed both to be undercooked and burnt, the quality of bread production which we managed to achieve at the fair itself was higher than in the Cassat kitchen.
Hearth-cakes, it turns out, taste better when made in the cooking fires for which they were developed (and when accompanied with goat cheese or butter). Our visitor taste-testers even found them palatable, and there was something pleasantly hardcore about having to pull the cakes out of a fire and brush literal ash off of their outsides before eating them. We were connecting with Early Medieval people via an experience they would have had on a daily basis.
Our overall experience left us with considerably more faith in Early Medieval cooking than we’d previously had. The main challenge of cooking a stew of charcoal was the time it took; we did not anticipate it taking any more than an hour and a half, but it went well over that time, closer to two hours. It delayed our funeral procession, which allowed the rain to roll and, once we got moving, rain on our parade. There was a limited supply of charcoal as well, and we expended a good amount of lung-power into breathing and sustaining the life of the embers. However, once we started running out, we realized we could retrieve the burnt wood from our firepit, where the hearth-cakes were cooking, to feed our supply and keep the soup cooking.
The hearth cakes, while rustic and rather chewy, were actually quite palatable with salted dairy products, and the stew wasn’t half bad with bacon. Moreover, we gained some insights into the specific knowledge and skills that people in Early Medieval England would have had that we otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. Through trial and error, we learned what the ratio of oat flour to wheat flour to water should be in dough to keep it from getting either too sticky or too dry, how thick the hearth cakes should be for even baking, where they should be placed in the fire to minimize scorching on the exterior without leaving the inside doughy. Bakers of hearth cakes a thousand years ago would have had this process down to a science, barely needing to think about how long to leave their bread on the fire for or how much water to add to their dough. Even for us, towards the end of our three hour festival the process became a bit more streamlined, and we turned out fewer charred and rock-hard cakes. In the end, the world of Early Medieval people became just a bit more real to us through their cooking.