Get those humours balanced

15th July 2005 at 01:00
If it moves, kill it. Then eat it. That might have been the culinary ethos of the Prince Bishops of medieval Durham. But the cuisine of the Middle Ages didn't just revolve around a spit. They made some pretty interesting pies too, as Stephanie Northen discovers in the second of our summer series on al fresco dining through the ages

Pity poor Thomas Plum. Back in the high summer of 1465, he got fourpence for carrying the Duchess of Buckingham's lunch to a hunting lodge from the nearby village of Writtle in Essex. Those pennies represented a day's wages and Tom would have earned his money. Aristocrats were not in the habit of wolfing down a quick sandwich before calling their hounds and leaping back on their horses. They required something more substantial.

Lunches were great rituals for the lords and ladies of the Middle Ages.

They would take two to three hours, involve many courses and "much ceremonial bobbing and bowing", says Dr Chris Woolgar, author of The Great Household in late Medieval England. Standards were not allowed to slip even on their beloved hunting trips - the closest the aristocracy got to the back-to-nature spirit of a picnic. Showing off was a way of life and no one was better at it than the Prince Bishops of the palatinate of Durham. These virtual kings of the North, who were tolerated as a buffer between England and Scotland, set taxes, raised armies and minted money. They might have been bishops but, says local historian Jim Cole, they were "absolute scoundrels", and what really interested them was hunting and fighting.

When Hugh Pudsey, one of the first Prince Bishops, set out on a Great Chase in the late 12th century, he didn't pack a hamper and a tent. He wanted to kill nature, not commune with it. So he had a hall built in his forest, and obviously he needed a chapel. Also essential were a butchery, store house, bedchamber and privy. And if that wasn't enough to keep the peasants busy, they could look after "the hawk-eyries in the bailiwick of Ralph the Crafty", and "go on the roe hunt when the bishop says so". Hugh Pudsey's base was Auckland castle, which is today the home of the Bishop of Durham.

The Prince Bishops had 13 others to choose from, but this was the favourite, says Mr Cole, a senior guide at the castle, because it was in the Wear Valley, the second largest hunting ground in England after the New Forest.

Nowadays, the 800 acres that surround the castle offer several excellent spots to set up a picnic table. Many a Great Chase would have trampled through this walled former deer park. Picture all those richly-dressed gentlemen blowing their own horns and trumpets. "There is a nice account from the Earl of March in around 1390 all about his new green hunting clothing, his new crossbow and his knives," says Dr Woolgar. "His companions are kitted out as well. It reminds me of a crowd at the bottom of a cable car with everyone dressed in their outfits and piling into the restaurant when they get to the top rather than going for a walk."

Women were invited too. Fine ladies were at home with the blood, snorts and smells of a hunt. Even nuns were used to the weight of a hawk on their wrist. While the nobs hunted the noble stag with hounds, it was the servants who went armed with bows and arrows to sort out the food supply.

Medieval food, at an aristocratic level, was all about "balancing your humours", that mix of phlegm, bile, and blood thought to determine personality, says Dr Woolgar, who is also head of special collections at Southampton University library. It was linked to ideas of Christian virtue - a unicorn, for example, could only be successfully hunted with the aid of a virgin.

While the servants sat around the hunting hall consuming huge quantities of spit-roasted beef, pork and mutton, those on the high table often preferred fish to the clearly more carnal meat. Cod and herring were popular, but so were "dull-tasting pond fish" such as bream, roach, tench, pike and lamprey. A vast range of birds was consumed: heron, crane, curlew, bittern and bustard, as well as duck, pigeon and chicken.

Everything was spit-roasted, stewed or baked in pastry. They washed it down with wine, while the servants quaffed ale. Thanks to Gaston de Phebus, a 14th-century French count and keen hunter, we have a fabulously illustrated record of Medieval blood sports. Gaston is shown in one picture (above) taking a break from the chase. There he is on the grass, surrounded by companions and servants. Gaston's status is clear. He is the only one eating his picnic off a fine cloth spread over a table. Everyone else is eating off cloths spread on the ground, tucking into roast fowl and pastries.

Pies and pasties, both sweet and savoury, were popular in the Middle Ages.

Ordinary folk could pick up a greasy offering from a town pie shop, while the aristocracy prized their pastry cooks, adept at turning leftover meat into something rather delicious. Pie recipes were often sophisticated and imaginative, flavoured with dried fruit, spices and herbs, and sometimes displaying Moorish influences imported with the Normans, who numbered Sicily among their conquests. Small tarts, chewettes and coffins were all easy finger food for a society that was not to be blessed with forks for a few hundred years.

Chewettes could be filled with pork, onion, chicken and spices and were not a million miles from the contemporary pork pie. Haddock, cod, cream and herbs were tasty alternative fillings. Coffins were stiff, oval or coffin-shaped shells made of flour and water, while darioles might be filled with egg, cream, chopped dates, figs, prunes, sugar and were sometimes fried instead of baked. These days you cannot eat your pie in Hugh de Pudsey's hall, but you can at least still visit it. And you might catch a ghostly whiff of roast venison in the cool of what is now the castle chapel. Eventually even the Prince Bishops put away their horses and turned to God.

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