Food history

Eating humble pie19 Jun

A treatise on Eating Humble Pie – Jeremy R Fowler

To start the explanation I need to portray a bit of history, as gleaned from my extensive antiquarian culinary library, so I must ask you to bear with me and allow yourself to be cast back into the realms of heraldic history, where you would see a Frenchman called Taillevent, he was the Medieval master chef, who held the highest culinary position in the French Royal household.

So as the ’Ecuyer’ or squire, he would have held responsibilities for many of the palaces, so in a position of wise and fine judgement in cultivating tastes. All this is all well and good in the days before refrigeration, and when ingredients were not merely ordered off a distributor’s shelf. In fact without labour saving equipment that we know today, there was a team of over two thousand in the kitchens, which would be led with military precision. It would be common to prepare a banquet comprising of 496 sheep, 70 cattle, 70 calves, 63 hogs, 17 salt hogs, 1511 goats 14,900 chickens, 12,390 pigeons, and 1,511 goslings.

The meal would begin with dinner, (corrupted from de’jeuner –to breakfast) it would be taken four hours after sunrise and ended at sundown with supper, generally consisting of a drink –porridge or soup.  Just imagine the Alka-Seltzer needed for that lot. 
Most food writers link medieval foods with ancient Rome, indeed it is the Romans who have been attributed with one of the oldest cookery books written by Apicius in 10AD.  I have a facsimile, which is enchanting. But for my money I think today’s real barbecuers are nearest to the roots of live fire, with a cave man maybe accidentally leaning his raw kill against the fire he has just discovered.. Nothing in written word I grant you, but there might be cave art somewhere depicting it.

Of feasts and banquets there are ample records of the activities, and rituals, from the King or Lord at the head of the table, with his own ‘Nef’ or silver sculptured ‘Piece Mont’ee’, which would hold his own personal spices and seasonings, (no meats then were seasoned, most people paid for their own concoctions and had them in a little bag around their neck) I have a recipe for hangovers in this fashion, but that is another story.
It was the Gentry and those in favour that were ensconced at the head of the table, and those less favoured -even leading down to servants were at the other end of the table.  Now, it was the prime cuts that were at the head of the table, which were served –then to be cut by the personal knife of the diner, then placed upon a trencher board which could be twice cooked bread or wooden. Food implements were almost unheard of, so it is no wonder that the smallest morsel was the size of a finger, and descriptions like gobbet, hew’d, smitten, or ‘grounde to douste’ were in many recipes. 
Forks were unknown and spoons were scarce. (I’d be wiping my hands on the nearest dog)

The poor souls at the end of the table had the cheaper cuts, and the most ill favoured would eat the beast’s offal, which originally would be cooked almost like road traffic accident of today.  Later they pounded these morsels and filled them into the bowels of cows, sheep and pigs, it was these that were called ‘ombles’ or ‘umbles’ (the founding of today’s sausages) and the originator of the phrase “to eat humble pie”.

Written by Jeremy R Fowler

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