Daily bread and daily spices

We round out the daily diet of medieval townsfolk with commercial bread and the spices that they had for their brewet, frumenty, porridge and soup.

In larger towns and cities, commercial bakers took their craft seriously. Of course, the finest art always headed for castles and palaces, but the cities had enough merchants’ and goldsmiths’ wives to make good baking worthwhile.

Bread was graded first on the quality of wheat: to what degree was the wheat pure, without rye or barley mixed in? Maslin, the mixed flour of the poor, was baked only to make trenchers. At the time, eating utensils included spoons, bowls, cups and knives, but plates did not become part of daily life until the Renaissance. Dinner was eaten on a day-old piece of very thick, very coarse low-quality bread, the trencher. In families where ordinary bread was used for trenchers, no doubt they were eaten as part of the meal, but in wealthier families, a greater distinction was made between real bread and trencher bread. Real bread was made of good quality wheat, and it was eaten fresh. Trencher bread made of maslin was collected at a feast’s end, to be fed to hunting dogs or the beggars lining up at the almoner’s gate.

Table-quality bread went into many different forms. Loaves could be long and thin, round and flat, small or large. They could be braided or shaped into rings; the top could be glossy from egg yolk and decorated with pine nuts or almonds. Small breads could be rolled in spices or salt. Bread could also be colored. Medieval cooks loved food coloring: saffron turned foods yellow, parley turned them green, and sandalwood or beet juice turned them red.

Pretzels were invented during the Middle Ages, whether by monks wanting to show hands clasped in prayer, or for more mundane reasons. They were sold on the street, less as a late-night snack and more as just another bread option for hungry apprentices.

While top chefs in castles used imported spices, the common people (including their bakers) had to make do with Europe’s offerings. Saffron was, technically, local, and some could afford it. But mostly they used herbs: mustard, dill, parsley, thyme and garlic. In fact, “spice” referred to any sort of flavoring, including honey, concentrated grape juice, and nuts. Salt was a spice, available to all but the very poorest. By the late Middle Ages, pepper importation brought its price down, so it was the first foreign spice to enter the common man’s diet. Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves were used in wealthy (non-aristocratic) kitchens by the 15th century.

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