The Importance of Storage
Self-sufficiency was the alpha and omega of housekeeping in the 1632 era, and no matter how rich or poor a household was, it was the responsibility of the housewife or housekeeper to ensure the food lasted from harvest to harvest. Even the wealthiest household couldn't just suddenly order enough flour for the rest of the winter in January. Partly because it wouldn't be readily available but would take time to find and get delivered, partly because it would make everybody snigger up their sleeves at what a mess that household was. Having the wine run out after an unusually wet Christmas party was a different matter, but—probably as a holdover from feudal times—an amazing amount of prestige was tied to having the provisions in order for your people/household.
Hardly any household—regardless of size—bought all the food “ready for use.” If the cost of fire-wood was very high—or for a bachelor renting a single room—it might make sense to buy your meals in a cheap tavern or take-away from a cook-shop, but for an ordinary household of any class the task of managing the food was every bit as important as earning a wage. An experienced housewife or housekeeper was essential.
The most important food products were those which stored well: the grain, the pulses, the salted fish and meat, the sauerkraut (preserved cabbage), and the cheeses. Milk, eggs and fresh vegetables (aside from the winter-hardy kale) were often available only in summer, and fresh meat only for a few weeks after the slaughter in the autumn or early winter.
This article takes a look at which food items would be available and how they would have been preserved. The information is presented in twelve sections:
Grain, beer and bread
Pulses and other vegetables
Game and game birds
Fish and shellfish
Fruit, sweets and sours
Herbs and spices
Alcohol and other beverages
As a conclusion, there'll be a few speculations about the changes brought about by the Ring of Fire.
The Products and Their Preservation
1. Grain, beer and bread
Flour of any kind could be bought in barrels from the millers, but since the whole-meal flour the mills produced tended to get rancid fairly quickly, people preferred to store it as whole kernels, and get it milled as it was needed. Barrels also weren't ideal for long-time storage, so the grain would be kept in heaps on the attic floor, where it could be stirred and aired to prevent spoiling.
In Germany barley and rye would be the most important crops, and beer, bread and porridge were the three most common ways of getting the nutrients from the grain. Beer was a good way of getting the nutrients from the hard barley, while at the same time providing the sanitary and storable liquid needed due to the heavily salted meat and the scarcity of drinkable water. Rye would be used mainly for baking the coarse daily bread, but both grains would also be boiled and eaten as porridge or gruel. Wheat was much less common in Germany, and would usually be found only in the wealthier households, while oats was regarded as food for horses and the poor.
The three ways—brewing, baking or boiling—of getting the nutrients from the grains were of approximately equal importance to the population as a whole, but the choice between porridge, beer or bread wasn't always a free choice. Porridge—from milled or un-milled grains—could be made in a simple clay pot, providing you could buy or gather the fuel for the fire. For bread you either bought it baked or had to pay a fee for using an oven—unless your household was so big that you had your own big masonry hive-oven—while for making beer from your grain you needed equipment and space. So how a specific household combined their grain products depended entirely on their resources of space, equipment, money, etc.
The beer commonly brewed in 1632 was not suitable for long-time storage, but this problem has been more closely described in the article “The Daily Beer” (Grantville Gazette, Volume VIII).
Home-baked bread, on the other hand, usually had to be stored for at least some weeks, as only the wealthiest households could afford to heat up the big oven more than once every month or fortnight. In-between the baking days the oven-baked bread could be supplemented by pan-fried items similar to waffles, pancakes, and donuts in the households that could afford them, while the poor households could bake a mix of young beer and flour in a covered clay pot placed in the warm ashes in the fireplace. Wealthy households also baked in the ashes, but they had metal pie pans with lids designed to hold glowing coals for the baking of pies, tarts, and other delicacies.
2. Pulses and other vegetables
Everybody ate peas, but only the poor ate beans. This was not a matter of flavor as the flavor would depend almost entirely on what had been added during the cooking. Instead it had to do with the prevalent belief that you became what you ate. In other words: delicate and refined food would make you delicate and refined, while coarse and simple food would make you coarse and simple. The basic tenet was that the closer something grew to the ground, the coarser it was, but exactly which food items were considered delicate and which were simple varied beyond all logic—and had nothing to do with digestibility and only some connection to price. And it certainly does not explain why dried peas were considered delicate and dried beans were considered coarse.
The peas would be harvested from the fields when all the peas were mature and the entire plant was dry. The plants would then be threshed until the pods split, and the hard, dry peas could be swept from the floor. The hard outer skin of the peas would allow them to keep for years if kept in dry conditions, and most households would have a sack standing in the attic or larder. Dried peas cooked to a soup or mush was one of the most common dishes in Germany, but where the poor would often make a stew with a few vegetables and perhaps some salted pork, the rich ate the thick mush mixed with cubes of smoked ham and shaped in richly garnished moulds.
The beans, which were the European broad bean types, would be harvested and stored in much the same way as the peas, but since they were regarded as coarse food digestible only by peasants and other hard workers, only the simplest ways of cooking were normally used. Still, beans played a very important role in the nutrition of the time, since they were the best source of protein during Lent for those not able to buy fish.
Chickpeas were not grown in Germany but were imported from the Mediterranean area and considered a delicacy.
The most important of the green vegetables was the winter hardy green kale, which was the primary or only source of vitamins during the winter for the major part of the population. This was grown by everyone with access to a small fenced plot, a kailyard, and was usually harvested on the day it was eaten in a soup, gruel or stew. Head cabbage kept well as whole heads in a cool cellar, or could be stored for years if fermented to sauerkraut. Other vegetables that stored well, such as beetroots, parsnips, swedes, turnips, onions and carrots, were widely grown but used mainly to add a bit of variation to the porridge, pea and kale dishes.
Fresh, cultivated greens—such as lettuce, spinach, green peas and cucumbers—were grown only for the wealthier households, but as soon as spring brought out the first green leaves, everybody would go gather young leaves from dandelions, beech, arugula, sorrel, chicory, and all the other edible wild plants—not to eat raw, which was considered unhealthy, but to stew in the first spring butter or add to their gruel. The northern European custom of serving a stew or soup with seven or nine different greens for Easter is a remnant of this need for fresh vitamins and flavors after the long winter.
Another food gathered from the wild was fungi. These were considered the excrement of the earth, and thus among the most debasing of foods—which didn't keep the rich from importing truffles, and the poor from gathering mushrooms in the fields. Mushrooms could be pickled in salt or vinegar, but would more often be dried.
A pig was the only large animal you could keep without owning land to keep it on. In the country, the branded pigs with an iron ring through the snout would be let loose to forage in the forest, while in towns they could be fed on garbage, either in a sty behind the house or by letting them roam the streets and feed on the garbage thrown into the open gutters.
The acorn-fed pigs from the country were a very important part of the general economy. When a forest was sold, its value was not calculated on the wood, but on how many pigs it could feed. Usually the pigs would be tied to stakes on the fallow (not cultivated) fields during the summer and only allowed to roam once the harvest was over, but in areas with many pigs a herdsman—or boy—could be paid to look after the pigs. His task would be to keep them in the forest and away from the fields until the harvest was in, and then keep track of them until they were ready for slaughter around Christmas. The pigs didn't necessarily belong to the person or village owning the forest. Especially near large towns such as Hamburg, and in the large forests of central Germany, merchants would buy up piglets in the spring, and pay villages or estates for the use of their forests. This was an especially lucrative business in the few years every decade when the beech and oak trees would produce many extra seeds. In such years as many piglets as possible would be bred and sent into the forest to fatten.
In town, bakers, brewers, mills, butchers and taverns would often raise a few pigs in a pen behind the house as a sideline, feeding them on the organic leftovers from the main business. Town-pig from smaller households, on the other hand, would be allowed to roam the streets and find their own food in middens and gutters. This caused a lot of complaints, and from time to time various councils and rulers tried to forbid free-roaming pigs in towns. That never really worked, as those pigs were too important a part of the economy—and in many towns were also the only garbage-removal going on.
Pigs would usually be slaughtered at the household rather than by the butcher. It was a major undertaking, starting with the buying of salt and cleaning the big tubs and barrels to hold the meat. The pig would then be tied and placed over a bench with the head hanging over the side, so that the blood could run into a tub once the throat was cut. The blood would immediately be taken to the kitchen and stirred with water and barley or rye flour. Once it had cooled it would be mixed with cubes of suet, dried fruit and spices, before being stuffed into cleaned intestines and boiled to black-puddings.
While this went on the pig would be scalded, scraped and the organ meat removed. The intestines and suet would be sorted and cleaned for immediate use, and the belly lard cut to pieces and started rendering down to lardons and melted fat. This fat would be used both for frying and to spread on bread for the entire winter, and—as butter wasn't commonly available even in summer and oil had to be imported from the Mediterranean—it was quite normal that no other fats would be available until the next autumn. Keeping the fat from getting rancid was of major importance. After some months the fat in the jars would often have gathered bits of soot, etc. from the open fires, and would have to be cleaned. This was done by placing the fat in a big bowl and pouring boiling water over it, so it melted. Once it had cooled and solidified, any impurities could be scraped off the bottom of the layer of fat which floated on top of the now cold water.
Once the slaughtered pig was cold, it would be placed on a table and cut into the desired parts. The sides, shoulders and hams would be carefully rubbed with salt and placed in the tubs and barrels, only to be removed and cleaned again the next day, before getting yet another salt-rub, and being packed with more salt and placed under pressure. A brine now had to form to cure the meat and preserve it until next year. If a brine did not form, salt would be dissolved in water until the solution was strong enough to float an egg with a heavy coin on top, and this would be added to the tubs and barrels. If smoked meat was wanted, some pieces were removed from the tubs after a few weeks and hung in the chimney or smokehouse for two to three weeks.
The organ meat could not be stored by salting or smoking. The heart, liver, lungs, kidneys—along with some of the bits and pieces of meat and fat not suitable for curing—would be boiled and finely chopped before being mixed with spices, and often dried fruit as well. This organ meat paste would sometimes be stuffed into intestines as a kind of liver sausage or haggis, but most often it would just be stored in a jar and sealed with fat to preserve it. These lumps of fried meat paste, called faggot, had to be eaten within a month or two, usually for breakfast along with the porridge and beer.
The rest of the small bits and pieces of meat would also be finely chopped, but stuffed into intestines, cured in salt and smoked. These cured sausages had the advantage of being not only suited for storage, but also needing no further preparation before eating.
The tenderloin was not suitable for salting whole, but it could be smoked to make it keep a little better. Usually, however, it was scraped to a very fine tartar-like paste, mixed with grated fat, herbs and spices, and either turned into an especially fine cured sausage or used as the filling in a pie to be eaten fresh.
Another part of the pig that would not keep for long was the tail and backbone. This was usually chopped into hand-sized pieces, along with any other removed bones, and boiled for several hours, before the soup was sieved and chopped cabbage and barley grain added. When served, the soup would be reheated, and the bones either scraped for any remaining meat or broiled on a grid, before being served with bread and mustard.
The head, shank, tail and trotters would be cleaned and boiled with onion, herbs, spices and vinegar until the meat could easily be picked off the bones. This would be either pounded to a paste in a big mortar or chopped more or less finely, before being turned into brawn (head cheese) with an aspic (jelly) made from the reduced cooking liquid. How long a brawn could keep depended largely on the salt and vinegar content of the aspic, but even in cold weather it had to be eaten within weeks.
The town-households not raising their own pigs would buy a whole or half pig from a nearby farm, but still had to do the cutting and preservation. In households where such an undertaking was impossible—whether due to lack of finances, facilities or skill—the winter meat instead had to be bought from the merchants as pieces or barrels of salted pork plus, perhaps, some smoked ham or bacon.
By 1632 the most common way of preserving pork was by salting it, but the old method—from before the salt from the salt-domes at Luebech became available—of drying the meat was still used in the inland mountain areas where the air was dry. Smoking for preservation had to be done in such a way that the smoke had lost its heat before it reached the meat—or else the meat would cook and quickly spoil. This could be done by hanging a few pieces of meat high in the chimney, but if more than this was to be smoked, a tall smokehouse had to be built. Such smokehouses were usually built on an estate, or owned in common by a village, and people would pay a fee for their use—with or without being charged for the firewood for the smoke. In town the professional butchers might have a smokehouse, and in some areas—such as Westfalen—such acorn-fed, mountain-cured hams became an luxury export item. Another commercial pork production—in, for example, Hamburg—specialized in making much cheaper barrels of salted pork to sell to the ships and armies.
Cows at the time were small, only around four feet to the shoulder, and would usually be slaughtered only when they grew too old to breed—and thus produce milk and calves. The castrated bulls kept as draft animals would be slaughtered when they grew too old to work. This meant that beef would usually be from old and stringy animals, and as it was difficult to digest, beef was considered a low class food except for boiling for soup stock. Beef kept fairly well once salted, but it was much less common than pork.
The calves born to the small cows were little larger than a mid-sized dog, and as veal doesn't keep well no matter how it is preserved, most veal was eaten as fresh meat. It was considered a most healthy food, but the price would be much too high for most households. How many animals a farm or estate kept alive over the winter was determined by the —usually very limited—amount of fodder available. As a result nearly all bull-calves—as well as any heifers not need to replace an old milking cow—were killed or sold in their first autumn, and veal was usually only available in that season.
Horses were generally too valuable as working animals to slaughter, and would be kept alive for as long as they could work. If the necessary fodder for the winter was not to be found, a horse would normally be sold rather than slaughtered, as it would fetch a much higher price alive than its meat would be worth. That eating horse-meat had also been prohibited in Catholic countries since the early Middle Ages was apparently of less importance than the monetary value the horse represented, as meat from an old or wounded horse was occasionally sold and eaten.
Sheep were very important and valuable animals, not only for their skin and wool, but also for milk for cheese making and fat for candle making. As with cattle, most of the males would be slaughtered come their first autumn, but since sheep could find their own food almost all winter, some extra males would also be left alive until the next spring or summer. How available—and at what price—mutton would be depended entirely on the location. In the coastal areas, where large herds of sheep could grass on the big marshes, the meat would be as common and cheap as pork was elsewhere, but aside from smoking the legs, mutton wasn't easy to preserve, and thus rarely left the local area.
Chickens, ducks, and geese were not kept just to supply eggs and meat, but also for feathers and down for pens, pillows, comforters, etc. Naturally the meat would be eaten once the birds had been killed, and even a poor household could often afford to keep a few birds around to slaughter for fresh meat on special occasions.
Of these three domestic birds, it was the chicken that was valued the most. It was considered the healthiest meat, and the need to supplement the feed with grain during the winter also made it the most expensive. Young chickens were a spring delicacy only available in May-June, when most of the cockerels would be killed as soon as they could be identified, but a few might instead be castrated and allowed to fatten during the summer. Such capons were priced much higher than the small cockerels, and some farms near the major towns would buy up cockerels from their neighbours, and have an actual capon production to sell at the markets.
Ducks, on the other hand, found all their own feed in the muck of the ponds, and were believed to pass the baseness of their fodder on to those who ate them. But as ducks were also a fine source of feathers and fat, as well as being cheap and easy to raise, they were the most common poultry at central European tables.
In marshy areas large flocks of geese would be kept for the purpose of selling their down and feathers. The plucked birds from these flocks would be salted in strong brine and smoked before being sold, and were the only poultry that was not always eaten fresh. These geese were especially popular in Jewish households, where preserved goose took the place of the forbidden pork. Elsewhere a small flock might be kept at a pond along with some ducks for local consumption, pens and pillows. Geese tend to start laying their eggs as early as February, and in the Protestant areas where Lent wasn't kept, these early eggs were highly prized. Some of these early egg-layers could also be allowed into the farmhouse and provided with nesting boxes so the eggs could hatch as early as possible—and the resulting offspring be ready for slaughter as early as possible.
Eggs were a very popular food item, but as soon as the number of daylight hours dropped the number of eggs available would drop as well. Taking geese or hens indoors for the winter, and keeping them in a bench-like construction with holes for their heads, would expand the egg season considerably. It did, however, mean than they had to be fed with the expensive grain, rather than letting them find their own fodder, so most households simply accepted that eggs were available only in spring and summer. If, during the egg-laying season, more eggs were available than the household needed at the time, it was possible to preserve the excess production. This could be done in various ways, but the most common would be boiling and then either salting the whole egg in a strong brine, or removing the shell and pickling the egg in vinegar.
The American turkey had been imported to Europe in the previous century and had immediately become very popular. In 1632 turkey was still largely reserved for the upper-class tables, where it was slowly replacing the peacock and swan as the most elegant party dish.
Pigeons and doves were kept in coops and dovecotes on farms and estates as well as in the attics of town houses. As with the turkey they were raised for their meat and the young squabs were considered a delicacy in spring. Mature birds were also eaten, and had the virtue of being available everywhere and all year round.
5. Game and game birds
Big game meat such as boar and venison was generally reserved for the nobility, who held the right to hunt on their estates closely. The ability to serve venison at a feast—or send it as a gift—was a sign of high status.
Smaller game such as rabbit and hare could be caught in snares, and—whether or not this was legal—would be found on a much wider range of tables. Other small animals such as hedgehog, squirrel and dormice would regularly find their way into the cookpots in the country, but would be fairly uncommon in the towns.
Among the game birds, pheasant and partridge were considered the most refined and fashionable, while quail was believed to eat poisonous plants and thus could be dangerous. Wood pigeons, grouse, and many other wild birds of various sizes would be caught and were especially popular baked into pies.
Neither game nor game birds were usually preserved, but were simply hung in a cold place until the meat had matured.
6. Fish and shellfish
Fresh fish was usually available only in coastal areas and on the major estates, where the right to fish in the lakes and streams was often rigidly guarded.. It was possible to order fresh sole, flounder, shrimp, lobster or oysters from the coastal harbors, but—unless the weather was cold and the roads good—it was probably wiser to stick to the local salmon, pike, perch, trout, bream, and crayfish. Fish ponds for carp were also dug, especially in Catholic areas where meat was forbidden during Lent and on fasting days and more than half a person’s yearly meals thus might have to be meatless.
Fresh fish such as salmon and trout would be more readily available along the major rivers, like the Rhine. These were not considered as refined as the fish with white flesh, but was considered more so than the dark and oily eels and herring.
Another fresh source of protein, which at the time was considered a shellfish, was the big snails found—or sometimes deliberately kept—in the gardens. As these were not considered meat, they were widely popular in Catholic areas, and also eaten in the rest of Germany.
Fish and shellfish spoil very easily, and with no way of keeping them frozen—or even cooled—it was necessary to conserve them in some way immediately after taking them from the water. Salting was the most common method, and salted herring from the Baltic or Holland was by far the most common source of animal protein all over Europe.
The method for salting herring was quite simple: the head, gills and innards were removed in a single movement by cutting the backbone and ripping everything out and off. The fish were then layered with salt, and could now keep for more than a year. Even ordinary households would buy salted herring by the barrel (120 litre), and—for those who could afford it—there were types where the salt between the herring layers had been mixed with herbs and spices for variation.
Herring was not the only fish commercially preserved by salting—merely the most common. Salted—or salted and dried—cod from Norway was a major export item, but so expensive that the average household would buy them only for feasts, and then probably by the pound rather than by the barrel. Salted salmon, trout and eel were also for sale but on a far smaller scale, and again only big households bought these by the barrel.
Drying fish was also done commercially. For this the fish had to be cut open and the innards carefully removed, then they would usually be layered with salt for a day or two before being hung over racks—big fish spread open and small fish tied together in pairs—to dry in the wind. Such dried fish could be packed in barrels or crates with a bit of pulverised chalk between the layers to soak up any moisture seeping into the container and sent all over Europe.
Herring and other oily fish tend to get a rancid taste fairly quickly when preserved by drying, but dried fish is much lighter and thus cheaper to transport than the heavy barrels of salted herring, and dried herring was thus a possible source of proteins for those not able to afford the salted version. Dried flatfish were produced locally along the coasts, but were not generally exported. Dried white fish such as cod, on the other hand, made delicious dishes once properly soaked and cooked, and are still highly prized in Catholic countries today. In 1632 three kinds of dried cod were for sale all over Europe: one type was just air-dried after having its backbone removed, one was first salted and then air-dried, and one was air-dried and soaked in a specific kind of lye, making it tender and easier to cook.
Preserving fish by smoking was not normally done on a commercial scale, but people fishing along the major German rivers would sometimes smoke a big catch and sell it in the local area. As with meat, smoking fish for preservation had to be done in such a way that the smoke was cold when it reached the fish, and a professional fisherman on, for example, the River Rhine, might have his own smokehouse.
Shellfish could not be safely preserved at the time, and except for what could be caught locally, were not eaten by the general population.
7. Dairy products
During the summer cattle were usually kept in the meadows, fallow fields or on the common land outside the village or town. In some areas a cow boy or herd man was employed to keep them from straying into the fields and to gather them when the milkmaids arrived, while in other areas each cow and calf were fitted with a long rope tied to a stake. After the harvest the cattle—along with all the other animals—were moved to the fields to eat any leftover straw and grain not already gathered by the poor. During the winter those animals wanted for next years breeding and milk would be fed on hay and straw supplemented by dried leafy branches gathered in the autumn. The nutrient value of this winter fodder was low—and the quantity usually sparse for the number of cows wanted—so milk was almost entirely a summer product.
Sheep and goats were easier to feed and, especially in mountain areas, were the main source of dairy products. However they still had to be fed during the winter, and while they did better on the meagre winter fodder, they too would most likely dry up around Christmas. So, by February, only those households rich enough to feed their cows on grain to keep them in milk all winter would have any dairy products left to eat on Fat Tuesday before Lent.
Large efforts were made during the summer to preserve some of the milk for the winter months, but the available conservation methods of salting, smoking, and storing in vinegar are not directly suitable for milk. Instead, the cream was churned to butter and the rest of the milk made into cheese. Butter and firm cheese could keep for several months in a cool cellar if salted—especially if the cream and milk had been allowed to get slightly sour before churning. In many areas some of the cheeses would also be smoked to further preserve them.
In northern Europe the fat from the autumn slaughter and the butter from the summer milk were likely to be the only available fat for the entire year. Without the butter there might be nothing in which to fry, nothing to spread on the bread, and nothing to add a little richness to the eternal porridge. So while the summer cream freshly skimmed off the top of the milk would sometimes be poured over fresh berries as a special treat, this was very much the exception. As a rule the cream was preserved by churning it to butter. Churning was done in a tall, narrow wooden tub, closed with a lid with a hole in the middle, and with a stick with a perforated plate at the end fitted into the hole. The cream was poured into the churn and the stick plunged up and down until the cream split into butter and buttermilk; the same thing that happens if heavy cream is whipped too much today. The lumps of butter floating on top of the buttermilk would be skimmed off with a sieve, and—once the last buttermilk had dripped off—would be rinsed in water and worked with salt. How it was stored differed a bit from place to place, but a thick-walled, glazed, clay jar with a wax seal, wrapped in a cloth and placed on a shelf—to keep the vermin out—in a cool cellar was as close to ideal as most households could manage.
The buttermilk would sometimes be drunk by the children in the household, but it was also possible to mix it with the rest of the milk for the cheese making. Three kinds of cheeses could be made from the milk: the soft white, the firm yellow, and the sweet brown.
The soft, white, curd cheese was the easiest to make, and simply involved letting the milk stand at the fireplace at very low heat until it curdled. The whey would then be drained off by letting the curds hang in a finely woven cheese cloth; the curds would then be salted and pressed into perforated molds to get the last whey out. This kind of cheese would often be flavoured with herbs such as caraway seed, and could also be smoked both for flavor and preservation. If heavily salted and kept in a brine—in the manner of modern feta cheese—this soft cheese could keep for a while. Probably not long enough for winter storage, but at least long enough to take it to the market and sell, something that could not be done with milk and was difficult to do with butter, except in the coolest weather.
The hard, yellow cheese was considered the finest, and used rennet to make the curds set firmly once the milk had curdled. Otherwise the process was much the same until the curds had been pressed into the molds. Here the elastic curds could be put under pressure to make a cheese so firm it would not spoil easily, and with a hard surface it could be sealed with a layer of wax. Such a sealed cheese could be wrapped in a cloth and could keep for a year in a cellar as long as the outer rind wasn't broken by cutting or by mice—and it could be transported with no problems.
The remaining product of the cheese making, the whey, would often be drunk or used in bread dough, but it could also be stirred for hours over a very low heat to concentrate even further. This would, in time, turn the whey into the slightly sweet, brown cheese still made in Norway, the sugar in the milk caramelising in the process and producing both the color and the sweetness. The brown cheese stored somewhat better then the soft white curd cheese, but it didn't form a rind and didn't keep as well as the hard, yellow type.
8. Fruits, sweets and sours
Improving the fruits through hybridizing and grafting was not yet a common practice in 1632, but most farms would have at least a few apple trees for cider and winter storage, some red currant or gooseberry bushes for summer treats, and a quince, plum or damson tree for fruit to store fresh or dried for the winter. Fresh grapes would be available only in wine-growing areas, and would be dried to raisins as well as fermented to wine, while raspberries, blackberries and strawberries grew wild in the forests and could be gathered for fresh summer treats by everybody. Almonds and chestnuts usually had to be imported, but walnuts and hazelnuts were grown for their nuts as well as for their wood, and had often spread to the forests, where the poor would gather the nuts for winter or for selling at the market. On the larger estates a row of cherry trees, some pear trees and perhaps some melon plants would most likely be grown. If one of the new orangeries had been built, the gardener might be trying to grow oranges and lemons in containers outdoors in the summer and move them inside for the winter.
Dried fruits were very popular in Germany, and raisins, plums, pears and apples would be dried in many households. The usual procedure was simply to cut the fruit to the wanted size, and place it on trays in the baking oven once the bread, cakes, etc. were removed. The fruit would then stand in the oven overnight and be ready for storage the next morning. Other popular dried fruits such as apricots, figs and dates, didn't grow well enough in Germany to create the need for storage, but would be imported for the tables of the rich.
Cider was made by crushing the fruit in a big tub, sieving it through a sack placed under pressure, and pouring the sieved juice into a barrel. Here the juice would ferment, and once moved to a clean barrel, it could normally keep until spring with no further treatment.
Wine was made in much the same way as cider, and—due to the absence of cork plugs—could rarely be bottled and stored for more than a year without turning to vinegar. Unfermented grape juice—either from unripe sour grapes or from mature sweet ones—would be boiled to a thick syrup-like consistency and used either as a very delicate and flavorful vinegar or instead of honey and sugar.
Something with a sour flavor was as welcome as a sweet among the bland and salty dishes, and vinegar was added to far more dishes than today. It was also used for preservation, but—where most modern recipes add at least some sugar—in 1632 pickling items like beetroot, eggs and mushroom in vinegar meant just that: boiled, cooled vinegar with a few herbs or spices poured over the prepared items. More delicate sour preserves such as plums in sour grape juice or imported lemon and capers in salt and vinegar were made for the wealthier tables, but these were rare to the main part of the population.
The sweet preserves such as the jam, marmalade and chutney we today take for granted were also rare. Sugar was still considered mainly a spice and a medicine, and was usually bought as a conical loaf from the apothecary. It was becoming more affordable, but a pound cost around a daily middle-class income, so using it for preservation was not even considered. Honey and sweet grape syrup were more common sweeteners, but for the average person something sweet would not be candy or a dessert. Rather, a sweet treat was likely to be a few raisins in the black pudding or perhaps a spoonful of honey in the warm morning beer.
For special occasions such as Christmas and weddings, many households would make quince bread, apple honey and other fruit pastes, plus perhaps a jar of cherries pickled in alcohol. Pastes and pralines made of dried fruit, crushed nuts and honey could also be made of local products, but once anything imported was involved the expense grew. Luxury items such as marzipan and honeyed figs were reserved for the very rich.
9. Herbs and spices
By 1632 the medicinal herbs brought to the cloisters by the medieval monks were growing side by side with the old German culinary herbs in the kitchen gardens. As a result the harmless angelica, borage, caraway, chives, cress, dill, garlic, horseradish, melissa, mint, parsley, sage, savoury, and thyme flavored the food, alongside the far more dangerous rue, southernwood, tansy, and wormwood.
Herbs were not a symbol of status like the imported spices, but were highly appreciated by everyone as a means to vary the bland taste of the most common dishes. Since nearly all the culinary herbs had also seeded themselves in the wild, they were a means available to everybody. Herbs were generally preserved by drying, and a few such as cress and thyme could be found fresh nearly all year round.
Mustard was by far the most common condiment. This herb wasn't grown in gardens like the other herbs, but in fields. Only the seeds were used, so the plants were harvested, threshed, and the seeds sold to people or apothecaries to grind and mix with honey, vinegar, and what ever else the many recipes called for.
By 1632 the imported spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc. had become a lot cheaper than they had been during medieval times, and their use had spread to the middle-class. They were still used a lot more than they are in western cooking today, but those who could afford them no longer flavored each and every dish with as many spices as possible. Spices were, however, still expensive enough that they were kept in a locked chest or cupboard and carefully measured out to the cook by the housewife.
10. Alcohol and other beverages
In 1632 water was generally not fit for drinking, but with the large amount of salted food being consumed, liquid was very badly needed. The very poorest might not be able to afford anything but water, but infectious diseases spread through the wells, and further weakened already malnourished people. So, if any money at all was available, beer would usually be the very first item bought.
Beer and ale were not considered alcohol, but were simply what all classes and ages drank all day for thirst. Many households—especially in the country—brewed their own, but even the smallest village would also have an alehouse where you could by it by the jug or barrel, and all towns would have several professional breweries, as well as merchants, alehouses and taverns selling their own production.
Beer would always be brewed in three batches from each measure of barley: the strong beer, the middle beer and the small beer. The cheap and weak small beer soured quickly and didn't contain as many nutrients as the first and second batches, but it was more sanitary than water.
Local wine was available in the wine-growing areas, and barrels of wine were also transported around the country to sell to those who could afford it. It was possible to buy the wine either as whole barrels or decanted into bottles, but in either case most wines would spoil within a year or two, so the wine wasn't stored. The reason for this was that only the strong and sweet dessert wines—such as Madeira —would keep well in the barrel, and corked glass bottles had not yet been invented. Instead bottles would be sealed with various combinations of wax, lacquer and lead, none of which did the wine any good.
Cider from apples and pears, as well as honey-based mead, would be made for local consummation when the ingredients were available, but only a few areas made enough for export.
Distilling wasn't a process reserved for the professionals. Be the purpose medical or recreational—the still-room used to make all a major household's medical potions, lotions and cordials during medieval times, would most likely still be used for that purpose in 1632. The still room would contain a small copper pot still, a fireplace, pestle and mortar, sieves, and all the other utensils needed. Aqua vitae, brandy, whisky, and gin all started as bases for medical elixirs and, as they transported and stored more easily than wine, these liquids were sold over quite wide areas—by merchants as well as apothecaries.
Coffee and tea were virtually unknown—and chocolate, as well, except in Spain and the Netherlands.
11. Famine food
Gathering wild greens in spring was done by all households, and wild mushrooms, nuts, fruits and berries were also collected by people who were not actually starving. But when famine struck an entire area due to weather or war, a whole different range of items was brought into the kitchens.
Oats and beans would, of course, be promoted from food fit only for animals and peasants, but acorns, lupine beans, vetches, and many other wild plants would also join the menu. Flat breads would be made from dried and ground acorns mixed with boiled birch bark, rodents and snakes would be trapped and cooked, and snails, slugs and frogs gathered in the fields. These gratis items would be eaten any day in the year by those unable to afford better, but when the harvest failed or a marauding army killed off all the animals, it wasn't always possible to import food from other areas, and famine would be a serious threat to the entire population.
12. Seasonal variations
Before the invention of freezers and international transportation, food was very strongly tied to the rhythm of the seasons. The main event would be the harvest and the slaughtering of pigs and surplus animals in autumn and early winter. After Christmas the household would settle into its winter routine until Lent was followed by Easter and spring with the first new produce. Then summer would follow with its fresh greens and getting the storage rooms filled, ending with the harvest and another bout of slaughter and preservation in autumn.
By far the largest feat of cooking took place in connection with the slaughter—once that was done, the daily cooking in the average household was much simpler. The slaughter would usually take place in November, but the exact timing depended on the weather; the colder the weather, the better the meat would keep, and the less of the bought salt would be needed to preserve it. On the other hand, there would be little or no fodder to feed more than the animals needed for breeding come spring, so once the fallow fields and forest could no longer feed the surplus animals, they had to be slaughtered.
During the weeks following the autumn slaughter the meals included a large number of dishes not seen for the rest of the year. The black pudding, the fat-preserved organ meat mix called faggot, and the jellied brawn would all be eaten within weeks after the slaughter, and the spine and other bones would be boiled to a soup most rare in having been made with unsalted meat.
Some of the fresh dishes from the slaughter might still be around come Christmas, but usually the housewife wanted the hard and heavy work of preserving the food done well in advance of the holy season. The Christmas meat would be smoked ham or lamb's leg, boiled salted tongue and pork, plus perhaps a boiled cured goose and some sausages. In the upper-class households autumn would be marked with game dishes—especially roast boar—and the Christmas table would be filled with the most exotic and elaborate dishes the kitchen could provide such as swans, peacock, or the new turkeys from America. In the households where Christmas was kept meatless, the special treats would be the fresh fish served in addition to the ordinary salted herring and dried cod. Carp kept in local ponds were popular, and the salmon and trout content of the German rivers was high, but live eels could also be transported, and the cold weather in December made it safer to try importing shrimp from the coast.
Preserving the leftovers from a feast such as Christmas, where abundance was important, posed its own set of problems before the invention of the freezer and refrigerator. In some households the leftovers would be donated to the poor, or sold either by the servants or by the housewife. If the feast had been meat-less—so most leftovers contained fish—there really wasn't anything else to do, as even if the weather was cold, the cooked fish was not going to last more than a few days. If large platters of various boiled meats had been the main attraction—as was the medieval fashion—these meats could be pickled after the feast by boiling vinegar with honey and spices, letting it cool, and then pouring it over the sliced meat after it was tightly packed in a jar. The experienced cooks of the time were aware of the importance of cleanliness when pickling meat like this, and contemporary cooking books warned against touching the meat with your hands when removing it.
The winter dishes of barley or pea stew with kale and salt pork offered little variation except for a few herbs, and replacing the pork with salted herring for Lent didn't make it any better. As a result, everybody looked forward to the first fresh sprouts in spring, the hens starting laying eggs again, and the cows giving birth and eating grass so milk, butter and fresh cheese again became available.
There were ways to make this happen a little earlier. Filling cold-frames with horse manure beneath a layer of soil and woven grass-mats to grow a few early herbs and keeping poultry in the warm kitchen and feeding it on grain to make egg laying start earlier were common means to either improve the menu in the household or earn some extra coins by selling the produce. However, having slices of pork fried crisp and served with milk-stewed greens or on a thick egg-based pancake for lunch was something everybody looked forward to—if not for Easter then during the summer months.
A summer dish very much reserved for the rich was roasted suckling pig. Not only was the meat expensive, but roasting a piglet filled with a paste of minced liver, meat and herbs in front of an open fire, so that the meat was cooked and tender when the crackling was golden and crisp took a cook with both skill and experience. Dishes made of fresh vegetables in the French style were becoming very fashionable, and something like Spanish fritters made of chopped spinach mixed with bread-crumbs, eggs, raisins and spices before being dipped in a batter of beer and wheat flour and fried was still an upper-class dish at the time.
Other more common summer treats were fresh berries and the original medieval English syllabub made by milking the milk directly into a mug of sweet wine or beer. Syllabub could either be drunk as a frothy mix immediately or let sit and separate to flavoured curds on top of a sweet whey.
The harvest was hard work, and often the evening meal had to be either cold food or something that could tend itself in the hot ashes of the fireplace, while the women worked the field along side the men. Such slow-cooking food would usually consist of chopped coarse vegetables either in a stew or mixed with eggs and baked to a kind of gratin.
Possible Changes after the Ring of Fire
The biggest change in the processes described above is likely to be the production of freezers and refrigerators. Presumably their spread is going to follow the pattern from this world, and see communal and industrial freezers supplemented by individual ice-boxes first.
Any kind of food keeps better if kept clean, and clean water in unlimited amounts would make this so much easier. More efficient ways of boiling water than a pot on an open fireplace and vermin-proof containers would also be major benefits.
Another major “invention” is likely to be the canning process. It'll be hampered by the absence of rubber and the bottle neck in metal production, but it's sure to be started eventually. In the mean time, the knowledge of bacteria and the importance of sterilization is likely to make the older methods of sealing with brandy-dipped wax paper more effective.
The American taste for pre-made condiments is going to fit right in with the general desire for something to add a bit of flavor to the gruel and stew. Of course, the people with the most monotonous diets won’t be able to afford very much, but as industrial production lines gets going the cost of producing such sauces should drop to an affordable level for most people.
Enough sugar production to make preserving food in sugar is not going to happen within a few years because imported sugar was so expensive. However, once it becomes known that sugar can be produced from sugar beet and sorghum, someone is sure to try breeding the beets and growing the sorghum.
Another agricultural idea that's certain to gain interest is to grow crops especially for livestock feed. That would not be possible with the farming methods used at the time, as “growing to meat” provides less yield of food for humans than growing crops for direct consummation from the same amount of land/fertilizer. Modern farming methods (especially artificial fertilizers) with higher yields should however make it possible, and thus enable the farmers to stable more animals over the winter, and even keep them in milk for actual dairy farming.
How readily the general population is going to accept the new knowledge about nutrition, and especially the importance of eating green vegetables, is impossible to guess, but it is in line with the new fashion in food, so presumably it'll follow that fashion down the social structure.
The benefit of storing wine in glass bottles closed with cork is however going to be obvious to all wine drinkers and producers, and—war and politics totally disregarded—should be implemented within a few years.