The history of medieval food and cookery has received a fair amount of attention from the point of view of recipes (of which many survive) and of the general context of feasts and feasting. It has never, as yet, been studied with an eye to the real mechanics of food production and service: the equipment used, the household organisation, the architectural arrangements for kitchens, store-rooms, pantries, larders, cellars, and domestic administration. This new work by Peter Brears, perhaps Britain's foremost expert on the historical kitchen, looks at these important elements of cooking and dining. He also subjects the many surviving documents relating to food service - household ordinances, regulations and commentaries - to critical study in an attempt to reconstruct the precise rituals and customs of dinner.
An underlying intention is to rehabilitate the medieval Englishman as someone with an appreciation of food and cookery, decent manners, and a delicate sense of propriety and seemliness. To dispel the myth, that is, of medieval feasting as an orgy of gluttony and bad manners, usually provided with meat that has gone slightly off, masked by liberal additions of heady spices.
A series of chapters looks at the cooking departments in large households: the counting house, dairy, brewhouse, pastry, boiling house and kitchen. These are illustrated by architectural perspectives of surviving examples in castles and manor houses throughout the land. Then there are chapters dealing with the various sorts of kitchen equipment: fires, fuel, pots and pans. Sections are then devoted to recipes and types of food cooked. The recipes are those which have been used and tested by Brears in hundreds of demonstrations to the public and cooking for museum displays. Finally there are chapters on the service of dinner (the service departments including the buttery, pantry and ewery) and the rituals that grew up around these. Here, Brears has drawn a wonderful strip cartoon of the serving of a great feast (the washing of hands, the delivery of napery, the tasting for poison, etc.) which will be of permanent utility to historical re-enactors who wish to get their details right.