On finishing my PhD in medieval literature last year, I wanted a new challenge. Not ready to hang up my library card, I wanted to take my love for medieval studies in a different direction, to meet new people, and to acquire a fresh set of skills along the way. And so eat medieval was born.
My interest in medieval food – its context, its manuscripts, its ingredients, its technicalities, and its ability to surprise and challenge modern misconceptions – really began a few years ago, when I visited Blackfriars Restaurant, Newcastle. Until then, medieval culture was something I’d always bracketed off from everyday life: it was something to be studied quietly in libraries, contested in seminars, and pondered over in the shadows of castles and cathedrals. But seeing a modern restaurant in a 13th century Dominican Friary setting, serving medieval sharing platters alongside modern British dishes, made me think again. I was fascinated by the notion that the culture of the Middle Ages could be revisited with a modern twist, and, as I finished the doctorate, I found myself swotting up on the work of medieval culinary heavyweights such as Constance Hieatt and Terence Scully as a bit of ‘light relief’ when not sweating out the thesis chapters.
Drawn to tales of caravans travelling the Silk Road and aromatic spices from the Moluccas, I was also struck by how familiar so many of the medieval dishes were. In English culinary recipes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for example, are dishes that wouldn’t look out of place on a modern menu, including ravioli, stir-fried greens, custard tarts and candy. Yet this is a world in which those staples of modern cuisine – potatoes, chilli peppers, tomatoes, and corn – remained undiscovered, somewhere across the Atlantic, in the distant reaches of the New World.
Discovering and re-creating medieval food is not without its challenges. eat medieval’s ambition is to take it one step further: to re-vivify the recipes and their flavours for today’s kitchens and twenty-first-century taste buds. Sourcing the ingredients; balancing them in a way that is sensitive to the past and palatable to the present, and producing them seasonably and sustainably are just a few of the new skills I’m honing in this new post-PhD life.
There have been courses on food microbiology, food labelling, and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points to take, as well as feeling my way around cash flow spread sheets, branding and packaging, and the finer points of intellectual property law. Finding suppliers, working with Environmental Health, and fine-tuning the recipes are just some of hurdles I’ll face as eat medieval morphs from budding idea to fully-fledged business. Working high on a ridge in rural County Durham, I’ve been amazed and inspired by how much business mentoring there is out there, from marketing masterclasses to accessible accountancy acumen, and just how passionate the North East is about supporting entrepreneurial activity. It’s both thrilling and a privilege to bring 800 year old recipes to life: thanks for joining me in it!
Rachael Matthews, 2015