Food, historical food

Joachim Beuckelaer, Fish Market, 1568, oil on canvas
Joachim Beuckelaer, Fish Market, 1568, oil on canvas, via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I wrote about museums which engage the senses by playing with our sense of smell and made particular mention of Jorvik Viking Centre in York. This week, I want to go further than smell and talk about taste. If smell can be such a useful way to communicate (and in my earlier post, I found that it was), I wonder if taste could be used to help museum visitors, youth groups and schools better understand the ‘experience’ of the past.

In my MA dissertation, recently given a Pass with Distinction at the University of Reading (yay!), I wrote about the ‘experience’ museum. I introduced this by noting that it’s a modern concept concerning the display of past cultures which can better engage the visitor than a traditional museum. ‘Experience’ museums display material culture as part of a process, and visualise the biography of the object by displaying it in a scene of life (See, for more on this: Planel and Stone 1999: 6).

The Jorvik Centre uses smell in conjunction with their recreation of a street scene to demonstrate the processes involved in daily life (for example, you can smell the beef stew being cooked). What I wonder is, could taste be brought into this as a way to highlight processes? A really interesting little article can be found here, which goes into more academic detail of the history of food/food in history topic of study.

So, if you’re in the mood for some good food, have an interest in the experience of the past, or are looking for something to make for Christmas, below are a selection of historical recipes.

Perys in confyte

As part of my MA in the Archaeology of Medieval Europe, I took a really wonderful module called ‘Material Lives: the artefacts of medieval daily life’. The week spent on food-related material culture inspired our small class so much that we decided to have a medieval feast to end the term. My contribution was to make the 15th century English dessert ‘perys in confyte’, from the historical recipe website Gode Cookery.

Perys in confyte
Perys in confyte

The pears are cooked in honey and wine, with the addition of fragrant spices, and can be eaten hot or cold. I didn’t have any wine at the time, so I did skip that part, but I did use lots of spices like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. I added in the blueberries even though I know they are anachronistic. It was a really quite delicious dessert, and was really nice the next day cold. According to the Gode Cookery website, the original recipe is from An Ordinance of Pottage, and is:

Perys in confyte. Take hony; boyle hit a lytill. Do theryn sigure, poudyr of galentyn & clovis, brucet anneyce, safron, & saundris, & cast theryn the peris, sodyn & paryd & cutt in pecys, & wyn & venyger. Sesyn hit up with poudyr of canell so that hit be broun ynow.

Just how tasty this is may surprise some young people, whose opinion of medieval food may be that it is bland, repetitive and savoury. There’s no sugar, but plenty of honey and spices.


These sweets are from the Classical past, and are mentioned in Athenaeus, Galen and Hesychius, and reinforce the reality that the Romans were real sweet-tooths. Itria is a good example of the way that the names used for foods can reveal much about a culture: itria is an Ancient Greek word, which then changed to the Arabic itriya, and the Sicilian and Calabrian trio (Dalby and Grainger 1996: 95).

They were thin biscuits made of sesame and honey and sometimes had chopped nuts added. The recipe is very basic: roast 3/4 cup of nuts and 1 cup of sesame seeds in the oven, boil 3/4 cup of honey, simmer, and then add in the nuts and seeds and spread thinly. You can leave them as biscuits or roll them into little balls. I put them into tiny cupcake patty pans. My advice is to make them tiny, they are incredibly sweet and a little will go a long way, and wet your fingers with warm water before moulding them because they will stick to your fingers like glue if you don’t.

How can we use food to communicate?

Surely one of the main difficulties in displaying a process is that it is dynamic. It changes. It finishes. I don’t think food should be displayed (I did see an artwork once that was just rotting cupcakes in a glass case and it was off-putting). What we could do is have a special day for tasting historical food, or perhaps a museum could distribute recipes. Schools could have their cooking classes link up with their history classes, and have the students make a recipe from a period they study. I think that making the food is a big part of the experience and helps young people (and adults who maybe don’t cook that much) understand how much effort went into simply feeding a small family, and how important that role was. When we teach our young girls that their predecessors spent much of their time in the kitchen, we could teach them that that was actually a really important part of life.

Other groups of people could make historical recipes – historical groups, Young Archaeologists clubs, kids’ birthday parties, or just families looking for something to do on the weekend.


Next week: the (re)constructed event – memories of parties that never were

Works cited:

DALBY, A. & GRAINGER, S. 1996. The Classical Cookbook, J. Paul Getty Museum.

PLANEL, P. & STONE, P. G. 1999. The Constructed Past: Experimental Archaeology, Education and the Public, London, Taylor & Francis.


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