Peacocks and Pasties
In May 2003 I had the opportunity to cook a medieval meal in the only medieval castle of the Netherlands, the Muiderslot (origins date from the 13th century). This castle is now a museum well worth visiting!
The kitchen was not medieval, but filled with modern appliances. In this kitchen, with the assistance of five experienced participants, I prepared amongst several other dishes a peacock, a rather impressive carp, and the 'teste the turt', known from several English medieval cookbooks.
It was not easy to find a peacock. In the spring of 2003 there was an outbreak of fowl disease which caused thousands of chickens and other fowl to be slaughtered. The peacock I could finally lay my hands on was in its second year, the tailfeathers were not yet developed (that happens in the third year). I was slightly dissapointed, but when I saw the beautiful peacocks at Corsham Court in Southern England I realised that a fully grown peacock would have been rather difficult to handle.
The custom of serving a peacock in its feathers was popular throughout medieval Europe. It was a spectacular dish, often served as a sublety or entremet during festive meals. All present at the meal would admire the beautiful bird when it was brought ceremoniously to the table of the host. The admiration was probably somewhat less when it came to eating the peacock: its meat is very dry. No wonder the peacock dissapeared from the tables when the turkey (which is in my opinion also rather dry) made its entrance in Europe during the sixteenth century!
In contemporary recipes the skin of the peacock is sprinkled at the inside with spices, then it is draped uncooked over the cooked peacock which may or may not be decorated with gold leaf. Nowadays we realise the health hazards of contact between raw and cooked meat. That is why I decided to bring the peacock to a taxidermist, Ad Visser, who removed the skin very carefully. He then prepared the skin and strechted it over a hollow form. The peacock can now be placed as a dome over the meat.
When not in use, the peacock decorates the mantelshelf.
I can imagine some people will feel slightly shocked at the thought of consuming such a bird as the peacock. Please read this first: The eating of peacock is not forbidden. However, it is a beautiful animal, which does not deserve to end up as the latest novelty in the refrigerated displays of supermarket and poulterer. I have prepared a peacock once, because I wondered what the result would be of all those medieval recipes. I admit it, I was curious.
However, I absolutely do not propagate the general consumption of peacocks (look what happened to the ostriches). Luckily for the peacocks the medieval recipes themselves mention geese and pheasants as excellent replacements. When experimenting with the recipes I even used an ordinary chicken. The result was delicious (and the meat more tender).
Peacocks were not the only birds to appear as subtleties. Swans were served in the same way. Nowadays swans are protected birds. The stuffed swan on the photograph on the left I found accidentally when I lifted out of curiosity the cover of a large chest in the Tower of London. It must be a decoration for historical tableaux.
Herons and cranes were also eaten during the Middle Ages. For all these 'big birds' there were recipes. Joop Witteveen has written a series of essays on this subject in the English periodical Petit Propos Culinaires (bibliography).
Why was serving these birds so popular at the high tables in the Middle Ages? Assuredly such a large bird, redressed in its feathers, was an impressive sight. According to Platina "peacocks and other edible birds ... are ... more suitable to the tables of kings and princes than the lowly and men of little property." (De honeste voluptate, Liber V, h.1, pp.242/3). But, he continues, peacocks and pheasants are most popular with the nouveau riche. The keeping of these birds, or hunting them, was a privilige of the nobility. Birds like that were not on sale on the marketplace.
In the booklet Pauwen en pasteien (Peacocks and Pasties) I have collected some medieval Dutch recipes on the preparation of peacock. All the other dishes that were prepared appear also in this book, from the water to wash your hands before eating to the spiced wine to be drunk afterwards. One of the recipes is also published on this site, the strawberye pudding. It was published in 2003.
You can find more recipes for 'big birds' in Middle Dutch manuscripts, in Wel ende edelike spijse 1.12 and 1.20, and in ms KANTL Gent 15 1.28 and 1.35.
The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)
- The series of articles by Joop Witteveen on 'the culinary history of big birds' has been published in Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC) 24 (1986) pp 22/31, 'On swans, cranes and herons: Part 1, Swans'; PPC 25 (1987) pp 50/59, 'On swans, cranes and herons. Part 2: Cranes'; PPC26 (1987) pp.65/73, 'On swans, cranes and herons: Part 3, Herons'; PPC 32 (1989) pp.23/34, 'The great birds: Part 4, Peacocks in history'; PPC 36 (1990), pp.10/20, 'The great birds: Part 5, Preparation of the peacock for the table'
- M.E. Milham, Platina: On Right Pleasure and Good Health (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, V. 168) . Critical edition and translation of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine . Med.&Ren. Texts & Studies vol.168, Tempe/Arizona, 1998