[Sca-cooks] Terry Nutter's article was A curious question about the rotted meat mythos
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.
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.
27 June 1997
Urtatim (that's err-tah-TEEM)
the persona formerly known as Anahita
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