Is it a romantic obsession with the gauzy past, or a masochistic fascination with pain and misery? Whatever the reason, pop culture seems preoccupied lately with the Middle Ages, that nasty, brutish--and long--period dating roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries. Movie theaters and best-seller lists are filled with things medieval, from Lord of the Rings to Umberto Eco's new novel, Baudolino, a sensation in Europe that's headed our way this fall. Now the fad has found its latest expression, as a food trend. Maybe this was inevitable. Having scoured the world in pursuit of obscure cuisines, the restless food elite is seizing on the past--even if that past has a somewhat dubious pedigree.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's New York City restaurant JoJo recently offered something called "roasted duck with medieval spices," flavored with a period-inspired blend of caraway and coriander. The American Institute of Wine & Food threw a Medieval Culinary Extravaganza in Pasadena, California, last month, with a menu by such notable Los Angeles chefs as Suzanne Goin of Lucques and Nancy Silverton of Campanile (both past F&W Best New Chefs). Guests ate quail with "dragon's tails" (sausages) and lamb pie. At her Hearth Studios cooking school in New York, food historian Alice Ross recently taught medieval cuisine. On the syllabus? Barley-and-dried-fruit soup and a spiced wine called hypocras.
Fittingly, for a period so shrouded in myth, the culinary experimentation owes more to fantasy than fact. One reason, Ross points out, is that the surviving recipes are mostly those of the wealthy, who favored "contrived," elaborately sculptured, ostentatious dishes. The poor ate bread, cheese and beans. Ironically, Medieval Times--the precocious 19-year-old chain of theme restaurants--is the least enlightening on the subject, serving a cheerfully generic menu of roast chicken and spareribs. But patrons at least get to eat with their hands. Jim Dodge, cochair of the Pasadena medieval event, says, "We couldn't have charged the money we needed to and have people eat with their hands." The gala's menu got a fancy name--"nouvelle medieval"--bypassing the question of historical accuracy.
But perhaps it pays to forgo authenticity just a bit. After all, even the most adventurous eaters would pale at the sight of a dish at a true medieval banquet: a swan's neck grafted onto the body of a goose, served with a side of haggis.