Artifice was art in a high-class medieval kitchen. Tromp l’oeil, if not la palate. Aristocratic feasts, such as for Christmas, a wedding, or a knighting, were the peak time for all such tricks.
Feasts served food in courses, but the fashion for making each course a different type of food had not yet arrived (it made its way from Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries). Each course included a variety of stews, roasts and showpieces, but cooking in waves allowed the kitchen to create sufficient volume. Between each course, waiters cleared the bones and serving dishes, and they may have brought around the hand-washing ewers and towels. When the next course arrived, it included at least one eye-catching showpiece to carry around before serving.
The trick was to make some foods look like something else. Food coloring was a big part of this; meat jelly could be turned blue, red, yellow, or green. Eggs and fish also lent themselves to coloring tricks. The chef might assemble a chessboard made of alternating colored blocks of baked or jelled food.
We grind raw beef, mix it with breads and egg, and mold it like a loaf. They ground pork, mutton, beef, venison and fish, mixed it with bread, egg, spices, and coloring, and baked or jelled it in molds. I’m not sure we know how these molds worked or what they were made of. Interest in the remote Crusader-kingdom East made the “Turk’s Head,” a figure with a turban, a popular shape for molded foods. A tinsmith’s or woodcarver’s skill and the cook’s imagination could come up with innovative ideas for new molded foods in each feast.
One standard favorite was the giant hard-boiled egg, which could be styled as the egg of some mythological creature. The cook separated dozens of eggs and mixed yolks and whites; the yolks went into a smaller animal bladder, which went into a larger one filled with the whites. When I try to imagine this process producing anything but a weird lump, I realize how much training went into guild-level cooking. We’re told that they produced credible giant eggs that could be showily sliced at the banquet table; I’ll take their word for it.
Another tromp l’oeil favorite was the baked swan or peacock. Since these birds were actually very game-y, sometimes the meat was really a roast goose. When the fowler killed a swan or peacock for the feast, though, he did it very carefully so that the skin and, feathers, wings and head were left in good artistic condition. While the cooks were preparing the roast bird, someone was cleaning and mounting this as a temporary taxidermy piece. The waiters carried it into the hall with a flourish; the swan’s wings were spread as if to take off, or the peacock’s tail was fanned. The roast poultry was tucked inside.
I’ve already mentioned the giant pie with live birds, memorialized in our nursery rhyme. Pies were also highly decorated; medieval cooks went way past Martha Stewart in molding and glossing pastry scraps.
Here’s a modern chef’s take on medieval cooking disguise. He makes meat into a fruit bowl.