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Medieval French food for Jewish New Year
Jews in France had mixed life-experiences - some times France was a great place to live, sometimes it was less so. Many aspects of Jewish lives were celebrated alongside their Christian neighbours - ghettos were not a feature of the northern French cultural landscape. This is not a history of French persecution of Jews, but a celebration of one of the good aspects of Jewish life in France: the food.
Although they obviously ate, and cooked, and celebrated holidays, French Jews did not write a cookbook, at least, not one that has survived. We have poetic evidence for a menu for Chanukah (the Feast of Lights) in the form of a table song1, which suggests that the Jewish table would have compared reasonably with a standard medieval French menu. The foods listed in the song include white bread, pigeons, red wine, roast capon, other roasts and cakes. Food eaten for Purim (the Feast of Esther) and described by Kalonymous in 14th century Naples2 describes pies, chestnuts, turtle-doves, pancakes, small tarts, gingerbread, a wide variety of other roasts, macaroons, salad and so on.
This essay is a reconstruction based on probabilities. We know something about medieval Jewish festive food through descriptions by French Jews given in the work of scholars such as those in the bibliography, and we know the Jewish food laws (kashruth). We also have, in tested modern versions, a lot of recipes for the French prosperous classes in the Middle Ages. Good sources for these can be found in the bibliography, but French medieval culinary history now has a large and growing literature.
I have combined these sources to produce a feast menu - all the foods were those which wealthier Jews would have had a chance to sample, and as many dishes as possible reflect actual medieval Jewish traditions for Jewish New Year. You can find recipes for the dishes in the books in the bibliography and on the webpages listed below.
I have combined Northern and Southern French elements for the specific foods (e.g. apples) eaten on Jewish New Year, but in fact the actual food eaten would have been climate-related and very regional in nature. If the climate was warm enough to grown something and it was seasonal in autumn (e.g. figs), then that would have been on the menu. In cooler climates, such as Normandy, apples were more likely. I have also found recipes that contain the key ingredients, as well as including them raw where appropriate. Most of the cooked dishes are from the north.
Everything I have read suggests that medieval French Jews were concerned as we are that their food reflect a good and a sweet New Year. Medieval menus seem to include sweet food along with savoury on the table at the same time. This is something we are unaccustomed to given that we normally allocate them quite different courses and separate them quite thoroughly. The standard medieval menu, however, seems highly appropriate for the New Year, since it combines the good with the sweet and a traditional modern wish for that season is to wish people a good and sweet year.
Jews in most French towns were probably more demanding about clean water supplies than a lot of their non-Jewish counterparts, due to the religious rules3 thus each community had its own well or fountain, so that it could always obtain fresh water. Good water supplies were essential to make unleavened bread for Passover, might have lead to cleaner water for drinking.
Jewish communities were likely to have communal ovens as well as communal water supplies. In France, these were mostly the same bakeries used by their fellow town dwellers. It was this oven that might have been used on the Eve of Sabbath, to bake a cholent (slow cooking Sabbath stew) for collection after synagogue on Saturday. Community kitchens were used for roasts and soups, and for cooking for bigger occasions (e.g. marriage). The oven and kitchen were most probably in the same building as a community hall, used for celebrations, and, especially in France, for dances4. No detailed records of those dances are extant, as far as I have been able to discover.
A northern French manuscript5 shows a small spits supported at both ends. That spit roasting was not uncommon is demonstrated in other manuscripts, outside France, and by the appearance of many sauces for roast meats in medieval cookbooks. Soups and stews would have been cooked in pots e.g. on a tripod. To prepare food, a wide range of equipment was used, from various spoons and knives, through to mortar and pestle.
Tables were set with wooden or earthenware dishes6 in a poorer household, and metal in richer households. Glass was used for drinking in parts of Europe in the later Middle Ages, replacing metals, for instance, but we have little evidence for how far this affected French Jews. Standard equipment included different types of bowls, cups with or without stems, pitchers, ewers, bottles and knives.7 Forks, of course, were absent, as they were from Christian tables - fingers and knives were used to pick things up at table. Silverware was, interestingly enough, considered "un Jewish" in 13th century France.8
Wine was transported in casks small enough to be hoisted on the shoulder, and may have been stored this way, also.
Meat was served on big cuts of bread9, but Metzger and Metzger are not clear about whether this bread served the same purpose as the trenchers used in the general community. They do point out, however, that, as time passed, more and more people used individual metal plates. The evidence for this rests largely in illuminated manuscripts, so it is more likely to refer to festive celebrations than everyday use. If a family had metal plates, then, they would have brought them out for New Year.
One characteristic of tables which included new fruits (a part of many French New Year dinners) is the saying of the blessing "Shechecheyanu" on the second day, to celebrate the seasonal abundance. This is said after the prayers for the holiday itself, and by the master of the house.10
Gluttony was something to be aware of and avoided11 - so why have such a big feast in the first place? Firstly, New Year was a celebration. Secondly, the strictures against gluttony cited by Abrahams (who calls gluttony "the worst of reproaches") could equally be applied to the Christian French - to call someone a glutton was a deep insult. In other words, there was a difference between the rhetoric and reality in France and general in the Middle Ages. When food was available and there was an excuse, people ate heartily.
Some modern arguments about Jewish issues were already raging in the Middle Ages. This is hardly surprising, when you consider that famous medieval scholars such as Maimonides and Rashi were part of those arguments. Rabbi Solomon ben Adret locked his stove on Sabbath, for instance, and refused to give anyone the key, to prevent a maid lighting a fire.12 A 13th century German argument about non Jews working for Jews on Sabbath can be found (translated) at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/shabbasgoy.html, and a statement by Rashi on the status of forced converts (which is not really a raging modern argument - but it is by Rashi and worth including just because of that - since he is the most famous medieval French Jew!) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1105rashi.html. These excepts will help give you a taste of real words and people. A good place to start for even more Web sources on Jewish history in the Middle Ages is: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/jewishsbook.html.
Food specific to Rosh Hashanah
Tsimmes (a sweet baked carrot and fruit dish) and fish were both popular for New Year amongst Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages.13 Although fish was traditional feast food, it was hard to get for Jews in many parts of France, so their feast would have had less fish and more meat. Carrot was supposed to be cut round, emphasising financial success in the coming year. While fish was hard to obtain, meaning that it did not feature heavily on the table (in the marketplace, Jews were at a disadvantage buying fish, especially on a Friday or a day when the Church forbade meat), but when it was obtainable, fish like the herring, salmon and carp were popular. Fish was often grilled, fried or put in jelly.
A recommendation by French rabbis meant that chicken was considered appropriate14 for any festival, but, as I mentioned before, other poultry was also very popular.
In France in general, red apples were eaten, while Jews in Provence also ate white grapes and a calf's head. The calf's head symbolised the sacrifice of Isaac.15 Any new seasonal fruit was considered highly appropriate, especially white figs, white grapes and dates. Apple was dipped in honey and honeycake was eaten, for the same reason as now - for a good and sweet year.
Of the vegetables, cucumber was considered particularly appropriate for New Year.
The menu below is not for a modern dinner. It is based on a standard medieval French feast menu style, with the same number of courses and the same type of food. It is a meat meal which means that, following Jewish dietary law, no dairy products are permitted, although I have provided vegetarian food as an alternative. The medieval equivalent feast may have had fewer vegetables (scholars are arguing this one - were vegetable recipes left out of cookbooks because everyone knew how to cook vegetables, or because no-one ate them?) and would almost certainly have had more meat. This means that some spice mixes which may have been enjoyed by medieval French Jews are not represented here because the menu was originally compiled for an Australian Jewish group (the Kosher Consumer's Association) and not all spices were demonstrably kosher. Obviously, also, recipe which rely on dairy or non-kosher ingredients (such as pork) are not included here.
Fennel in broth
Salt herring or smoked salmon
Roast beef with garlic/pepper sauce
Roast lamb with cameline sauce
Blaunche porre (leek soup)
Lettuce and sliced cucumber
Chicken with orange sauce
2 types of fritters
Fruits and nuts
End of meal:
Apple dipped in honey
Have bread on the table - normally there would be butter, but this is a meat meal, so eat it dry, or use it to sop up liquids.
If the festival falls on Sabbath you might want to add to your menu:
Beef pastry16: A suitable pastry uses 250 g flour, 150 ml water, ½ tbs olive oil, salt to taste. Mix ingredients well and let them sit in the refrigerator for one hour before using. Suitable filling could include spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.
A cholent-like dish: Sources talk about a cholent-style Sabbath stew, with grains and beans, but recipes are hard to find. I suggest you adapt your favourite cholent recipe to exclude ingredients like potatoes and tomatoes and legumes which originate in the Americas, which were unavailable during the Middle Ages. Most standard cholent recipes are suitable.
What you should absolutely exclude if you want to be even vaguely authentic:
First of all, if in doubt, stick to what I have given here. Secondly, while there are many good books on medieval food, there are some which seem to specialise in egregious errors. Look out for foods which could not possibly have reached Europe before say, the discovery of the new World. Tomato was not used in medieval cooking, and potato and sweet corn are two of a number of common ingredients which were introduced to Western cooking by the discovery of the Americas i.e. from 1492. Pineapple was first presented in England to Charles II, so it is highly unlikely to feature on a medieval menu.
Avoid margarine and other synthetics (e.g. additives). Modern Jews use margarine in a meat meal as a pareve substitute for butter. The most usual substitute for butter in the Middle Ages would have been cold-pressed olive oil (virgin or extra-virgin by our classifications). Stock cubes may improve a soup for us, but concentrated fresh stock, salt, pepper and spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon or galingale were much more likely in the Middle Ages.
Modern beer can be a problem, if you want to drink beer with your meal. I have come across many people who insist on beer because it is "medieval". Unfortunately beer recipes have changed rather drastically in the last few hundred years - if you insist on beer, make it the beer with the fewest bitters you can get hold of. If you can't avoid hops entirely (since most modern beers are hopped) then try for a beer that uses aromatic rather than bitter hops. If you make your beer at home, there are a lot of medieval recipes around, but not all of them are safe, so be careful. Ale was an everyday drink in England and the very north of France, cider a common drink for the north-west of France. Wine was drunk everywhere on festivals, which is why I recommend wine.
Mead is another issue entirely. Rather than going into authenticity vs inauthenticity, I will advise you to trust your tastebuds. If you find a mead that is good to drink with savoury food (tasting more like a white wine than like liquid honey) then enjoy it with the first three courses. Otherwise keep your mead drinking to the final course, or, better still, make hypocras.
Spices loom larger than reality in most people's mind. How much to use? They were used, but not, as far as I can see, to excess. A lot of people tell me, in all innocence, that people used spices in the Middle Ages to hide the taste of rotting meat. Given the dangers of eating rotting meat, this seems to me like medieval women using chastity belts i.e. it was a later invention about the Middle Ages. So always adjust your spices to your own preferences, not to some mythical quantity. Fixed measurements are not a feature of most medieval recipes, the way they are of modern recipes, so most cooks would have used their common sense for all ingredients, not just spices.
Abrahams I Jewish Life in the Middle Ages Temple Book 1981
Cooper J Eat and be satisfied Jason Aaronson Inc 1993
Heiatt C B, Hosington B, Butler S Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks 2nd edition, Uni. of Toronto Press, 1996
Hieatt C B An Ordinance of Pottage Prospect Books 1988
Lambert C (ed) Du manuscrit à la table. Champion-Slatkine/Les Presses de l'Uni de Montréal 1992
Metzger T and M La Vie Juive au Moyen Age Office du livre 1982
Redon O, Sabban F, Serventi S La Gastronomie au Moyen Age Stock, 1993
Scully D E, Scully T Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations, The University of Michigan Press, 1995
Medieval food course (online) The course can be taken by auditing at any time, - an interactive course begins March 1 2004.
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