Ask any real estate agent and they will tell you the kitchen is the heart of the home. However, in medieval times unless you lived in a castle it was not a separate room. The “kitchen area” was the area between the fireplace and entrance. Cooking on an open flame in one fashion or other was the only means of cooking, making the kitchen a dark and smoky place. In wealthier homes, the kitchen was kept on the ground floor to protect the other rooms from indoor smoke. With the advent of the chimney, the kitchen was moved from the center of the floor to the wall.
In a castle, the setup was a bit more complex and took up most of the ground floor. The kitchen itself had ovens and large fireplaces for roasting and cooking meat. The fireplaces could be large enough for a person to stand in. Attached to the kitchen was a buttery, a bottlery, the pantry and various storerooms. The Buttery, despite its name, had nothing to do with butter. The name came from butts or barrels of ale stored there. The servant in charge of the Buttery was the Butler. The bottlery was where bottles of wine were stored. The pantry contained the perishable foodstuffs, while the storeroom contained the non perishables and kitchen utensils.
Food could be prepared by boiling, baking, smoking, salting, frying or spit roasting. Spit boys were stationed in the fireplace to turn roasts or joints of meat on metal rods over the flame. An assortment of pots, pans, skillets and cauldrons were used to prepare meals. Knives, ladles, pottery and wooden bowls, forks and scissors were also important tools. For cooks preparing spices to complement a dish, a mortar and pestle were used.
Many medieval recipes call for food to be finely chopped, mashed or diced, so there was a lot of prep work for cooks. This was due to the belief that the more processed the food the more efficiently it would be absorbed by the body. The cooks took this as an opportunity, and used the finely ground food to build elaborate designs and dishes. A common process was farcing. This was where the animal was skinned and dressed, then the meat was ground with nuts and spices and then returned to its skin or put in the mold of a different animal.
Common people had simpler fare. The main meal was pottage, a thick stew made by boiling vegetables and grains. Meat or fish was added if it was available. It was kept in a pot over the fire and more ingredients were added as the pottage was eaten. Despite its ever changing nature, it sounds bland and unappealing.
For the medieval traveller, dining on the open road depended largely on your social class and the hostelry you chose to stay at. For the majority, this meant a tavern and for a lucky few, early coaching style inns. The food in these establishments was pretty hit and miss, for the budget price you could expect the omnipresent pottage, as above… its quality dependent on the skills of the cook and the availability of the produce. For those with slightly more means, there could be a pie of some description, generally consisting of locally “sourced” game, or a chicken or two from either the local market, the garden or a nod and a wink.
If you were of noble stock, you could expect to pitch up on the household of some local gentryman and expect a decent meal to be thrown together, no expense spared. The onus being on the house to show their hospitality worthy of such a visitor. Nobody wanted to be shown up for poor victuals and lack of beds for their spontaneous guests.
Abbeys were another port of call for the well-off traveler. With home-grown vegetables and locally sourced meat, with substantial funds available, placing oneself on the hospitality of the local Abbott was a popular choice. The less well-off traveler could at the very least expect a bowl of nourishing broth, some bread and a little ale, in return for some show of piety and a few pence in the coffers.
Eating out in town, was a similar affair in local taverns. Or on market days a pie from a vendor. Often the quality was determined on your personal ability to tolerate the contents. Examples of food poisoning from tainted meat are not unheard of.
Castle or common home, abbey or tavern, the kitchen was a busy, bustling place. A tradition that carries forward to our modern homes.