|Next were borne round dishes of carp, pilchards, and lobsters, and there after store enew of meats: a fat kid roasted whole and garnished peas on a spacious silver charger, kid pasties, plates of meat’s tongues and sweetbreads, sucking rabbits in jellies, hedgehogs baked in their skins, hogs’ haslets, carbonadoes, chitterlings, and dormouse pies.
— E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros
Reading E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, with its archaic descriptions of food, got me thinking about how sumptuous meals, feasts, and festivals contribute to a well-made fantasy world. If your society is based on a European Medieval one, as is common (and no harm in that) it would be very, very different from what people in power eat now. True, the Medieval feast was also about impressing guests with the host’s power and prestige, but there were differences. Rare, esoteric (and often none too tasty) foods were singled out for distinction. Heady spices were used liberally — ginger, pepper, cloves, cumin, cinnamon — this was a time when cities literally rose and fell on the spice trade. The spices were used not just in baking but in almost every dish, including meat, fish, and vegetables, not to disguise rot as is often thought, but to demonstrate wealth.
For presentation, dishes were ornamented with non-food items, colored with dye, or fashioned into looking like something else than what they were — such as bread-ball eggs in a vegetable nest, each bread containing a roast squab. Medieval folk loved puns. Often dishes were named for popular, religious, or mythic characters, relating to them in some way. All in all it was a culinary thrill ride for the lucky guest.
The feasts did not break out into salad, main, and dessert courses like we have today. Instead, each course contained a varied amount of dishes and were often grouped around a theme.
Using the power of random generation, I’ve created a feast menu here to give inspiration. There are some non-European ingredients in this hypothetical world.
Lamb pate served with dates and crackers
Salty Pike marinated in a white wine dressing
Sweet duck egg pancakes with cherry sauce
Fresh salad of cold, sweet greens, spinach, and minced pumpkin
Roasted dormice stuffed with crumbled bacon and raisins
Whole grain bread and creamy cheese, served with fig preserves
Soups and pottages
Duck pottage sprinkled with bacon
Lamb and carrot soup
Main dishes and meats
Herb-crusted partridge served over sliced, boiled pigeon eggs
Baked loaf made of deboned squab, served in a trencher* of boiled buckwheat
A whole pheasant rubbed with paprika, roasted in a fire pit, presented in its feathers
Whole bull’s penis poached in ale
Lamb in aspic
Ribs rubbed with molasses, baked in buttermilk
Whole eel poached in cream
Roast turkey stuffed with scallops, diced artichokes, and oysters
Lobster flavored with red wine and turmeric, simmered with parsnips
Minced partridge spooned over poached duck eggs
Pickled salmon served with roasted barley
Vegetables and sides
Whole eggplant stuffed with preserved wild buffalo
Fiddleheads and barley, toasted and served in cream
Honey-glazed sheep’s lungs
Roasted pomegranate husks filled with minced trout
Fresh toasted peas cooked in a sweet simmering sauce
Summer squash stuffed with almonds and other chopped nuts
Hominy simmered in duck stock
Solteties were large, elaborate dishes made from sugar, marizpan or dough, crafted to appear as something else — ships in full sail, mythological characters, animals, architecture, etc. They were often presented in a course of their own. The nursery rhyme “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” refers to one sort, the birds escaping as the crust was opened. Another kind were combinations of two or more types of roast meat. Solteties were often served at royal banquets.
Woodsman’s Sins: a huge pie filled with live squirrels.
Dwarve’s Surprise: a confection of dough baked in the shape of a dragon filled with crumbled bacon-stuffed ducklings, smoked mutton, calves’ brains, and pickled zucchini.
Virgin’s Belly: A whole goose roasted inside a whole lamb.
Poached Pear with yogurt
Raspberries with a creamy honey-fennel dressing
Apple sorbet to cleanse the palate
Scaddyberry: a scarlet, filling liquor made from fermented tomato
Smackgreen orange: a local beer
Blackberry nectar: a sweet ale from the south
* Trenchers were slaves of hard bread that were sometimes used in place of plates, depending on the era and locale. After the meal, they were eaten or given to the poor, in Christian fashion.