[Sca-cooks] Terry Nutter's article was A curious question about the rotted meat mythos

Lilinah lilinah at earthlink.net
Thu Mar 13 15:49:30 PDT 2008

Johnna Holloway wrote:
>Terry's article on spicing has disappeared from the wayback machine. 
>We used to be able to get to it from this link.

Yeah, well, The Way Back Machine will not distribute info from old 
websites if some new owner of the domain (often just sitting on a 
name and using it to host c**p) has META tags that block collection. 
It's a real misfortune. I did save most of the website a couple years 
ago and below is the article you reference, slightly reformatted for 


Spices, Sauces, and Rot
"Remarks on Urban Legend #27:  Medievals used Spices and Sauces to 
Cover the Taste of Rotten Meat"

The urban myth that medievals used flavoring ingredients to cover the 
taste of spoiled meat has proved astoundingly persistent. Competent 
historians who know little or nothing about the culinary record 
retail it in survey texts. Articles in popular sources blithely 
subscribe to it.

It's nonsense, and it's demonstrable nonsense. Below, I present three 
modern observations, and then some facts about what the primary 
sources from the time have to say on the subjects of rotten meat and 

*Modern observation # 1*

It has often been observed that medievals were exposed to meats of 
variable quality, and frequently of lower quality than modern meats. 
That is true, but not necessarily relevant.

Variable quality is different from variable freshness. We know, for 
instance, that major advances in agriculture and breeding resulted in 
a tremendous improvement in the overall quality of British beef in 
the 17th or 18th century (I am unsure which) -- which is certainly 
not the same as saying that no beef before that was fresh. In 
general, to say that sauces masked the variable quality of 
ingredients is not to say that they were used to hide rot.

*Modern observation #2*

It is also widely assumed that medievals aged meat. I am not certain, 
in fact, that this is so; I can find no reference to it in the recipe 
corpus, and I find many references that clearly contradict it. It is 
a relatively common modern practice, especially with game; but I am 
far from certain that it was a medieval one. But supposing it was, 
again, that fact is not relevant.

Unless someone screws up, aged meat is not rotten. Aging must be done 
carefully, or the meat *will* rot. But the difference is clear, and 
it is easy to tell when it has happened. Aging is not a strange and 
exotic practice that Americans at home never encounter. Every fine 
restaurant I have ever been to (not to mention many 
just-sort-of-decent ones) ages its steaks. Aging can be perfectly 
safe; more to the point, when it goes wrong, that fact can be safely 
detected. Even by medievals.

*Modern observation #3*

Some people have suggested that the sauces are intended to preserve 
the meat, and pointed out, for instance, that black pepper in fact 
has preservative qualities.

Well, yes, in the sense that if you take fresh meat, and cure it with 
lots of pepper, that can help prevent spoilage. Some meats and fish 
were salted, to exactly that end; and it works. But if you take 
already spoiled meat, cook it, pour a pepper sauce over it, and serve 
it, what you get is spoiled meat with pepper on it. The same goes for 
salt, of course. Many, many recipes end by saying to pour the sauce 
over the meat and serve it forth. Whatever is going on here, it isn't 

In the case of salt, it also isn't concealment, and it isn't a habit 
tending to hypertension either. Medievals almost never left the salt 
in salt-preserved foods. They soaked them for a long time, in several 
changes of water, sometimes boiling, to leech out the salt before 
preparing. I've seen half a dozen recipes for what to do if the meat 
is still too salty after normal treatment. None involve disguising 
the salt flavor; all involve getting the salt out of the dish. It 
makes for both a better and a more healthy dish -- as they knew as 
well as we do. The medievals understood that excess of almost 
anything can be bad.

*Concerning rotten meat*

The culinary corpus addresses the question of bad meat from a number 
of angles, and its testimony is telling.

1. Recipe number 58 from Diuersa Servicia, the second collection 
reproduced in "Curye on Inglysch", describes what to do with a joint 
of venison that has just begun to show signs of going bad in spots. 
It starts by cutting away the bad spots. Next, you soak it in cold 
water, then bake it slowly in the hearth for three days and three 
nights. After that, you apply saltpeter to the area around where you 
cut out the bad bits, then soak overnight in rainwater. I am not a 
microbiologist (or for that matter a culinary hygienist); and I am 
modern enough to want to just throw the thing out and do without 
venison. But my impression, from reading the recipe and thinking 
about it, is that even by modern standards, this ought to just about 
turn the trick.

      Recipe number 57 describes how to prevent venison from turning 
(essentially, how to dress and salt it). They are *very* clear about 
not exposing it to air before salting. There are similar recipes in 
other collections, including one that preserves venison by immersing 
it completely in honey, and then sealing the container. They all 
look, from a modern standpoint, like preservation techniques.

      The whole business, both of preventing rot and of dealing with a 
joint some spot of which has begun to turn, involves a lot of time 
and effort. No one would go to all that trouble if s/he thought that 
it were okay just to add more sauce. The clear presumption is that 
eating bad meat is a bad idea.

2. More recipes than I could count say things like "Take fair flesh 
of the forequarters and ribs", or "take fresh brawn". The clear 
implication is that one is to use good meat (and that fresh is good).

      One might suppose that the reference to "fresh" suggests that 
"rotten" is a recognized serious alternative. But that does not seem 
to be the way such recipes are written. In the same manner, one sees 
instructions to take "good" herbs but never bad ones, "fair" water 
but never foul, and so on. I believe that the adjectives actually 
serve as reminders to have care with the quality of one's ingredients.

3. If you look at household accounts for upper class households, you 
will find that they go through a staggering number of animals. On the 
whole, the delay between slaughter and consumption of four-legged 
domestic animals does not seem typically to have been long enough to 
lead to rot.

      It is true that some beef and pork was salted, even in upper 
class households; but market and household records suggest that the 
extent to which herds were culled in the fall, leading to all meat in 
winter and spring being preserved, is typically exaggerated, at least 
for the classes for which we have evidence that sauces -- or spices 
of any sort -- were frequently used.

4. Chickens and unsalted fish were normally killed immediately before 
cooking. The recipes frequently specify that; in the case of fish, 
they often detail how to kill it, and the method varies depending 
both on the fish and on the recipe.

5. The Menagier actually discusses the case in which chickens might 
be killed beforehand, and talks about how long they can be kept, 
either in an airless environment or on ice. I don't know whether 
medieval Europeans ever had regular access to ice houses capable of 
keeping ice solid all year (or to ice that had been kept in such ice 
houses, whoever controlled them), but one is described in Pliny, so 
the technology was not beyond grasp. Keeping food on ice was surely 
an option in the winter, and may have been possible in the summer as 
well. By modern standards, the Menagier is if anything conservative.

*Concerning sauces and spices in general*

1. They *won't* cover the taste. I know, in the simplest way 
possible. I've been doing experimental medieval cookery for over a 
decade. In that time, I have twice accidentally used a piece of meat 
that looked okay, but had in fact started to go over (once beef, once 
pork). Both were prepared with sauce. In both cases, it took one bite 
to tell me the meat was bad.

One might conjecture that I am making the sauces blander than they 
were made in period. Three points tell against that. First, I am 
using relatively fresh spices. There's a medieval health book 
somewhere that says that spices are more suited to the delicate 
constitutions of refined persons than herbs are, because they are 
more delicately flavored. Think that through, and consider what it 
says about the condition of the spices they were using, and how 
strong recipes made with them are likely to be.

Second, and independently, even assuming that their spices were 
fresher than ours, household accounts do not support the hypothesis 
of extravagant use.

Third, the reason I could tell that the meat was spoiled was not that 
the sauce was delicate, but that spoiled meat has a very distinctive 
and pervasive taste, that is difficult to impossible to cover.

2. Medievals in fact had elaborate theories of medicine that some of 
them, at least, applied to the design of spicery and sauces for 
particular meats; you can look them up and read them. For a single 
example: Magninus Mediolanensis wrote both an extensive health tract 
with a chapter on sauces (the "Regimen Sanitatis") and the "Opusculum 
de saporibus", a work entirely dedicated to sauces. (Scully published 
an article on the latter, "The Opusculum de Saporibus of Magninus 
Mediolanensis", in "Medium Aevum", vol. liv no. 2 (1985) 178-207.) 
The work describes in detail the characteristics of the meats, 
poultry, and fish that make them wholesome (in terms of the theory of 
the humors) and how sauces are to be used to correct the main item to 
the appropriate levels of warmth and moistness (not in the modern 
sense, but in the sense of the humors).

There is considerable dispute within the culinary history community 
on how important these theories were to working cooks; and the 
dominant view remains that, despite Scully's arguments to the 
contrary, they really didn't matter much to most cooks. But it 
remains significant that the sauces in Magninus Mediolanensis's work 
in fact adhere to the rules he gives; and that they match the sauces 
in the English and French repertoires quite closely, including the 
question of what meats to prepare how (read Magninus and understand 
the theory some medievals gave for why they didn't roast beef; to 
understand the reality, consider that they are cooking oxen), and 
what sauces to serve them with.

The material from the documentary record, including (but not limited 
to) the health handbooks, is particularly revealing on this issue. 
The information contained in it has at least three consequences.

First, it helps measure the balance of modern against period sauces 
by information more reliable than projections from purchases for 
meals and the like. Magninus Mediolanensis is particular about the 
balance of ingredients (often to the level of giving mathematical 
proportions). His proportions do not result in sauces capable of 
covering the taste of rot, even using fresh modern spices.

Second, it tells us what at least a few of them thought they were 
doing. We may grant, from the git-go, that what people are doing, and 
what they think they are doing, may be two quite different things. 
But it is hard to imagine that a medieval cook might think he was 
balancing the humors, when in fact he was trying to cover a nasty 

Third, it makes it screamingly clear that the medievals were aware of 
health hazards of improperly chosen or improperly treated ingredients 
(their reasoning may have been different from ours, but that much 
matches), and that they understood that fresh is good.

*In Summary*

Especially in the 19th century, when evolutionary theories with 
teleological overtones were in vogue, and everyone tended to think 
that the world was going from worse to better, it was widely believed 
that medievals used spices to cover the taste of rotten food. The 
view was widespread enough, and pervasive enough, that one still 
finds it even in respectable historical sources that have not done 
their culinary homework. (Culinary history remains something of a 
select niche; most historians know next to nothing about it.) The 
fact is, that not only does the record not support the view, it 
directly contradicts it, over and over and over and over and over 
again, and in dozens of different ways. No respectable *culinary* 
historian would give the hypothesis the time of day; we *know* that 
it is false.

What you see in these pages are my opinions. Nobody pays me to have 
them, and I doubt that anybody else would want to claim them.

All material on this page is copyright Jane Terry Nutter, 1996, 1997.

Terry Nutter
27 June 1997
Urtatim (that's err-tah-TEEM)
the persona formerly known as Anahita

My LibraryThing

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