Medieval Road Food

April 17, 1991|By Rosemary Knower

ON A SUNNY APRIL DAY more than 600 years ago, 29 oddly assorted people gathered at a friendly tavern on the south side of the Thames near London. They were all due to start out on a tour the next day and they spent the evening in merry conversation, sizing up their fellows.

The sharp and jolly eye that watched every maneuver -- from the uninhibited widow's roving glance to the shy blushes of the young scholar and the downright rascally tricks of the miller -- was Geoffrey Chaucer's.

Thanks to him, we can hear them as clearly as if we were eavesdropping at a restaurant in Fells Point:

"Kiss me, and we won't quarrel any more," promises the wife of Bath.

A drunken miller tells us a rude story about a carpenter. "I hope to heaven he goes and breaks his neck!" growled the carpenter.

"Hurry up!" says Harry Bailey, the innkeeper. "Time won't come back, anymore than Molly gets back what she lost by her folly." He says, "Let's not grow mouldy doing nothing."

Just in case you are inspired by these glimpses at the past and feel like frolicking off to a green meadow where the sunlight dapples on a little brook, you may want to have something nice waiting when you get home.

After all, spring pilgrimages are hard work. Our menu can be prepared and taken along -- or, if you want it hot, popped into the oven when you get home.

Cheese, leek and tuna pie

Makes 6 servings.

1 can (6 1/2 ounces) tuna packed in water

2 cups mashed potatoes

1 cup thinly sliced leeks, white part only

1 ready-pie-crust from the dairy case

3/4 cup crumbled sharp cheese (Cheddar or whatever you have && on hand)

Drain tuna then mix into the mashed potatoes and leeks.

Line a glass pie plate with the crust, and fill with the potato mixture. Top with the crumbled cheese. Crimp the edges of the pastry in a pretty pattern, and bake on the middle rack in a 375-degree oven for about 40 minutes, until the crust is crisp and the cheese browns on top.

Cool the pie. If you are going to serve it on a subsequent day, refrigerate it. If you choose to take this along for a cold picnic, just cover the pie with plastic wrap, then foil wrap, and pack. It is a good, savory pie and surprisingly good cold.

This recipe has the herbs of early spring, guaranteed to make you feel spring-y, too. Both dill and garlic, used in the dressing, were counted by medieval herbalists as "herbes for savour and beauty that were supposed to cure rumbling in a man's stomach and the hiccups."

Violet flowers were often put in spring salads. They were good for sore eyes, falling fits, and drunkenness -- which seems to have been a problem for some of the Canterbury Pilgrims who rode along roaring bawdy ballads to the miller's bag-pipe. If you have access to clean, edible blossoms, they make a lovely color accent.

Spring sallet

Makes 6 servings.

1 bunch watercress, stems off

1 cup diced parsley, stems off

1 head young leaf lettuce

1 bunch spring onions, topped

1 bunch baby radishes, topped

8, 6 baby carrots, cut into julienne strips


1/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup tarragon vinegar

1/2 teaspoon dried mustard powder

6 crisp slices of bacon, diced

1 teaspoon dill weed

1 clove finely minced garlic

salt and pepper to taste

Wash and dry the greens and toss them with the vegetables in a large bowl.

Mix all ingredients for the vinaigrette together with a wire whisk. Pour over the vegetables and greens.

... If you remember all rhubarb desserts as sickeningly sweet, you may be surprised at its lemony tartness when it is left unadorned. Most old recipes call for a great deal of sugar, but left to itself, simmered in water with a little cinnamon and ginger, the rhubarb makes a lovely pink sauce for fresh fruit. In the medieval medicine cabinet, it was used to take away anger and heal scabs or, if gargled, it cured toothache.

Rhubarb fruit fool

Serves six.

1 1/2 cups young rhubarb, washed and chopped into inch-long pieces

1 cup water

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon cold water

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon of sugar (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

2 Granny Smith apples, diced

1 cup fresh pineapple chunks

6 small ready-made graham cracker tart cases

1 cup whipped heavy cream

Simmer the rhubarb in the water for 15 minutes over low heat, until the stalks are tender and soft. Moisten the cornstarch with a little cold water to make a smooth paste. Add it to the rhubarb, along with the cinnamon, ginger, sugar and vanilla. Simmer, stirring, until the rhubarb makes a smooth, thick sauce. Cool the sauce. Add the diced apples and pineapple to the rhubarb, and coat them thoroughly. Fill the tart shells with the mixture, and top with the heavy cream.

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