In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t just pop down to your local grocery mart for the week’s food shop. It was much more of a case of eating whatever you could grow or catch yourself. And this meant that a wide variety of animals were on the menu – many of them creatures that we would certainly balk at eating. Read on, then, to find out some of the frankly ghastly things that folks were prepared to shove into their mouths during the Middle Ages.
20. Pudding of porpoise
In modern times, very few of us would choose to eat a porpoise. Most of us would be thoroughly repelled at the idea of chowing down on this intelligent marine mammal, in fact. But attitudes were decidedly different in the Middle Ages. One recipe suggested mixing porpoise blood and fat with oatmeal, stuffing the animal with this concoction and then boiling the beast. The final stage of the recipe was to broil the beast and then serve. Let’s just hope David Attenborough doesn’t hear about this.
19. Sheep’s penis
Unless you’re a committed vegetarian, you’re quite likely to have enjoyed a roast leg of lamb, lamb chops or lamb gyros from time to time. But sheep’s penis? Probably not so much. Yet folks in the Middle Ages were happy to tackle this piece of genitalia, even regarding it as a tasty delicacy. One recipe required a ram’s penis to be thoroughly cleaned, stuffed with a combo of milk, eggs and saffron and then blanched and roasted. Shake some pepper, cinnamon and ginger over it and serve. Delicious!
The dish called cockentrice has more than a little of the Dr. Frankenstein about it. There are two ways of making this dish, but both involve cutting two animals in half and sewing the mismatched parts together. So either you can attach the rear portion of a suckling pig to the front part of a chicken. Or take the back end of the chicken and stick that on the front end of the piglet. Whichever you prefer…
17. Beavers’ tails
Beavers’ tails were a useful dish for Catholics in the Middle Ages if they lived far from any supply of fresh fish. You see, to meet religious requirement to eat fish on Fridays and other holy days, you could snack on a tasty beaver’s tail. It seems that since the animal – clearly a mammal and in no way a fish – lived in the water, you could pretend that it was a fish. Just how many people were genuinely fooled remains an unknown, however.
There’s no polite way of putting this: ambergris is basically whale vomit. That did not put people in the Middle Ages off the idea of eating it, though. Ambergris is a substance made in the guts of the sperm whale. In fact, as well as vomiting up these lumps of grey matter, the whales may instead discharge it through defecation. Either way, it was regarded as a great luxury and was used as a flavoring agent for cakes and pies. Britain’s King Charles II was said to enjoy it with eggs, in fact.
15. Cock ale
We’ve already introduced you to the delights of stuffed sheep’s penis, but cock ale is not another genitalia-based dish. In fact, as the name suggests, it’s a drink. Basically, take some standard Middle Ages ale, and add a parboiled male chicken to it. Oh, and don’t forget to skin and gut the bird first. You can also add spices and fruit to taste. So, in essence, it’s chicken-flavored beer.
14. Unborn rabbits
We’ve already covered how devout Catholics were able to get away with pretending that beavers were fish during the Middle Ages to meet religious requirements. And it turns out that the fetuses of rabbits could also qualify – as could tiny baby rabbits. With beavers, the logic was that they live in water. But rabbits? Your guess is good as ours.
13. Singing chicken – with added mercury
This bizarre recipe claimed to make your chicken sing after it had been killed and roasted. You were instructed to stuff the chicken’s neck with sulfur and quicksilver – that’s mercury. The claim was that the heat of the cooking would force air from the chicken’s neck, making a singing noise. Apparently, you could perform a similar trick with a piglet or a goose. A word of caution, though: it is never a good idea to use mercury – which is highly poisonous – as a cooking ingredient.
12. Umble pie
You’ll be familiar with the expression “to eat humble pie” meaning to be shamed by an error or embarrassment. What you may not know, though, is where the phrase comes from. Well, it actually derives from the dish umble pie, whose recipe sounds like a bit of an embarrassment in itself. The instructions require you to take the guts of a deer, chop them up finely and bake the resulting gloop in a pie. At this point, then, even a committed meat-eater might consider vegetarianism.
11. Snake soup
To make snake soup, you first had to catch your viper. Actually, the recipe in question calls for multiple vipers, so that will probably take you a little longer. After capturing them, though, you then had to hack off their heads and then cut them into two-inch lengths. Then all this simple recipe required was that you now boil your viper pieces, using a gallon of water for every eight snakes.
10. Roast cat
If you’re the loving owner of a kitty, you’d probably best skip this section. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person that complains bitterly about cats killing all the wildlife in your garden, read on. This Middle Age’s recipe, called “Roast Cat as You Wish to Eat It,” advised that you should pick a nice plump cat. Then decapitate the feline and skin the remainder before subsequently burying the body. Next, after 24 hours, dig it up and start roasting it on a spit. And while it’s cooking, flog it with a green twig.
With its gruesomely extraterrestrial looks, the lamprey does not necessarily appear to be something that you would willingly put in your mouth. It is, in fact, a peculiar kind of fish characterized by its lack of a jaw. And in the Middle Ages, the powerful and wealthy just could not get enough of these sea creatures. Indeed, it’s said that England’s King Henry I died in 1135 after gorging himself too greedily on the creatures.
8. Blackbird pie
The blackbird is a common songbird in Europe, and there can only be a tiny handful of people today who think of it as anything but a welcome garden visitor. Yet when folks saw it back in the Middle Ages, many of them thought “dinner.” So these small birds were often caught and baked into pies – thence the famous nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence. And in a bizarre variation of the standard pie, live blackbirds would sometimes be trapped under a pie top and released for the amusement of diners.
Puffins represent yet another animal that Catholics in the Middle Ages would pretend were fish to satisfy the need to avoid meat on holy days. The fact that this “fish” has feathers, wings and a beak and is clearly a bird was apparently of no consequence. The unconvincing logic behind treating puffins as fish was simply that they are coastal birds.
6. Dish for an unwelcome guest
Many of us have experienced that sinking feeling when an unwanted visitor times their appearance to coincide with dinner. Folks in the Middle Ages had a colorful name for unwanted meal-time scroungers: a “smell-feast.” But they had an answer for the problem, too. Their method was to cut up harp strings into short lengths resembling maggots and then scatter those on the smell-feast’s meat. Also recommended was the application of dried hare’s blood to the warm meat.
5. Garbage soup
In modern English, the word garbage has come to mean trash. But in the Middle Ages it meant offal, and garbage soup was a broth made with the extraneous parts of a chicken. One recipe called for a pound each of chicken heads and feet and a half-pound of gizzards. Put like that, though, it does sound a bit like the modern meaning of garbage.
4. Sea otter
In our modern world, most people would regard the sea otter as a wonder of nature. But as with so many creatures, in the Middle Ages they were just another thing you could kill and eat. And yep, you’ve guessed it, this was yet another animal that Catholics in the Middle Ages claimed to believe were fish for the purposes of non-meat eating days. If you were partial to a bit of otter, one recipe recommended roasting the animal in your preferred sauce.
3. Mock egg
We’ve seen that Catholics in the Middle Ages used a fair amount of ingenuity to recategorize various animals as fish so that they could comply with holy days when meat was forbidden. But in this case, it was a chicken’s egg – and rather than recategorization, impersonation was involved. Your mock egg was made by taking empty eggshells and filling them with an almond jelly, dying the center yellow with saffron and ginger. How close this facsimile was to an actual egg is open to question, though.
2. Roast swan
Swans have a distinctly regal air as they glide apparently effortlessly across the water. And indeed they were a dish reserved for the nobility in the England in the Middle Ages. In fact, it’s said that King Henry III served 40 of the birds at Christmas dinner in 1247. One macabre fashion of the time was to roast a swan and then replace its full plumage, presenting it at the table as if it were a live bird.
The badger is today a controversial animal in the U.K. where government-backed culling of the creatures has been justified on the grounds that they may infect cattle with tuberculosis. The culls are bitterly opposed by animal-lovers and some scientists, though. When it came to badgers in the Middle Ages, however, folks just got on with eating them. Apparently, badgers taste like pork. And a recommended cooking method was to soak the animal for ten days in brine, boil it for four or five hours and then roast it on a spit. Sounds like a lot of trouble to us.