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Fresh Meat & Fish

The availability and use of fresh meat, poultry and fish in the Middle Ages

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Depending on their status in society and where they lived, medieval people had a variety of meats to enjoy. But thanks to Fridays, Lent, and various days deemed meatless by the Catholic Church, even the wealthiest and most powerful people did not eat meat or poultry every day. Fresh fish was fairly common, not only in coastal regions, but inland, where rivers and streams were still teeming with fish in the Middle Ages, and where most castles and manors included well-stocked fish ponds.

Those who could afford spices used them liberally to enhance the flavor of meat and fish. Those who could not afford spices used other flavorings like garlic, onion, vinegar and a variety of herbs grown throughout Europe. The use of spices and their importance has contributed to the misconception that it was common to use them to disguise the taste of rotten meat. However, this was an uncommon practice perpetrated by underhanded butchers and vendors who, if caught, would pay for their crime.

Meat in Castles and Manor Homes

A large portion of the foodstuffs served to the residents of castles and manor homes came from the land on which they lived. This included wild game from nearby forests and fields, meat and poultry from the livestock they raised in their pastureland and barnyards, and fish from stock ponds as well as from the rivers, streams and seas. Food was used swiftly -- usually within a few days, and sometimes on the same day -- and if there were leftovers, they were gathered up as alms for the poor and distributed daily.

Occasionally, meat procured ahead of time for large feasts for the nobility would have to last a week or so before being eaten. Such meat was usually large wild game like deer or boar. Domesticated animals could be kept on the hoof until the feast day drew near, and smaller animals could be trapped and kept alive, but big game had to be hunted and butchered as the opportunity arose, sometimes from lands several days' travel away from the big event. There was often concern from those overseeing such victuals that the meat might go off before it came time to serve it, and so measures were usually taken to salt the meat to prevent rapid deterioration. Instructions for removing outer layers of meat that had gone bad and making wholesome use of the remainder have come down to us in extant cooking manuals.

Be it the most sumptuous of feasts or the more modest daily meal, it was the lord of the castle or manor, or the highest-ranking resident, his family, and his honored guests who would receive the most elaborate dishes and, consequently, the finest portions of meat. The lower the status of the other diners, the further away from the head of the table, and the less impressive their food. This could mean that those of low rank did not partake of the rarest type of meat, or the best cuts of meats, or the most fancily-prepared meats; but they ate meat nonetheless.

Meat for Peasants and Village-Dwellers

Peasants rarely had much fresh meat of any kind. It was illegal to hunt in the lord's forest without permission, so, in most cases, if they had game it would have been poached, and they had every reason to cook it and dispose of the remains the very same day it was killed. Some domestic animals such as cows and sheep were too large for everyday fare and were reserved for the feasts of special occasions like weddings, baptisms, and harvest celebrations.

Chickens were ubiquitous, and most peasant families (and some city families) had them; but people would enjoy their meat only after their egg-laying days (or hen-chasing days) were over. Pigs were very popular, and could forage just about anywhere, and most peasant families had them. Still, they weren't numerous enough to slaughter every week, so the most was made of their meat by turning it into long-lasting ham and bacon. Pork, which was popular in all levels of society, would be an unusual meal for peasants.

Fish could be had from the sea, rivers and streams, if there were any nearby, but, as with hunting the forests, the lord could claim the right to fish a body of water on his lands as part of his demesne. Fresh fish was not often on the menu for the average peasant.

A peasant family would usually subsist on pottage and porridge, made from grain, beans, root vegetables and pretty much anything else they could find that might taste good and provide sustenance, sometimes enhanced with a little bacon or ham.

Meat in Religious Houses

Most rules followed by monastic orders limited the consumption of meat or forbade it altogether, but there were exceptions. Sick monks or nuns were allowed meat to aid their recovery. The elderly were allowed meat the younger members were not, or were given greater rations. The abbot or abbess would serve meats to guests and partake, as well. Often, the entire monastery or convent would enjoy meat on feast days. And some houses allowed meat every day but Wednesday and Friday.

Of course, fish was an entirely different matter, being the common substitute for meat on meatless days. How fresh the fish would be depended on whether or not the monastery had access to, and fishing rights in, any streams, rivers or lakes.

Because monasteries or convents were mostly self-sufficient, the meat available to the brothers and sisters was -- usually -- pretty much the same as that served in a manor or castle, although the more common foodstuffs like chicken, beef, pork and mutton would be more likely than swan, peacock, venison or wild boar.

Continued on Page Two: Meat in Towns and Cities

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