House of the Dragon: What They Really Ate in Medieval Times
The real food eaten in medieval times compared to HBO’s most successful original series
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HBO’s House of the Dragon premiere drew 10 million viewers, the largest audience for any new original series in the history of the network. The show, a prequel of the hit Game of Thrones series, is set in an imaginary medieval time period, filled with dragons, kings and queens, bloodshed, and lots of feasting. While the show isn’t necessarily set in a real time period, creators of the show allude that it’s meant to mirror the late era of the Middle Ages.
George R.R. Martin, author of the books both shows are based on, writes food as a symbol of power. Royals feast on expensive meats and exotic fruit; pigeon pie, turnips and butter, horse meat and sweet pumpkin soup. Commoners, on the other hand, eat strange stews and bread.
Every episode features some sort of colorful pudding, shiny roasted meat on a stick or platter of fruity pastries. While the characters on-screen bicker over politics, bloody wars and dragons, we wonder, “What kinds of things did people really eat in medieval times?”
Belle Tuten, an expert who earned her PhD in medieval history from Emory University, says House of the Dragon isn’t particularly accurate in terms of monsters, wars and drama. .
“But the great thing about fantasy fiction is that it’s a collage of stuff that’s both historical and not,” Tuten says. “George R.R. Martin is quite good at that.”
No shocker there, as the show boasts of dragons and man-eating crabs. However, it’s not all based on imagination. Tuten says that there is some truth to the cuisine displayed. For example, the lower class in the Middle Ages did rely on bread, as shown in the show, from very heavy barley or an oat variety. The more wheat-based, the more expensive the bread.
“Richer folks could afford to have large meat courses,” Tuten says. “Depending on where and when, it was generally cattle, pigs and sheep.”
As far as delicacies, sugar wasn’t widely available, so sweets with honey or fruit were popular. In the show, royals enjoy plums sprinkled with crushed nuts and lemon cake. So it’s safe to say desserts like these were either naturally sweet or, if made with real sugar, eaten only on special occasions.
One ingredient considered a delicacy was, if you can believe it, pepper.
“Black pepper was a luxury item and was very expensive,” Tuten says. “They’d be shocked by our habit of always having black pepper on the dinner table.”
Just as House of the Dragon’s King Viserys Targaryen throws a feast in honor of his first-born son, true lavish suppers in the Middle Ages were put on to display wealth, influence and power.
“Think of political fundraising dinners,” Tuten says. “Just about every culture has instances in which food is used as a way to make a statement about your money or social position.”
While the reason we host fanciful dinners may still be alike to this day, that’s where the similarities end. In truth, Tuten says our tastes have widely changed over time.
“Fancy medieval food recipes that survive are not to modern tastes,” she says. “Sauces could be thickened with bread, for example, which makes a kind of grainy, lumpy consistency.”
Additionally, food then had a lot less salt than what we’re used to today. People in the Middle Ages used salt as a condiment, not as an ingredient. They didn’t even use the same utensils as us. The fork was tentatively introduced in the late Middle Ages, as central and western European populations generally didn’t use them. They used, instead, individual sharp dinner knives to spear food.
Recorded Royal Recipes
The oldest known medieval Western recipe collection is said to be written by royal physician Henrik Harpestraeng. Written in Latin, it depicts approximately 31 recipes. Loosely translated, Harpestraeng describes how to combine sour milk and almonds into a paste, how to season chicken with salt, and how to grind cherries into a pulp.
Another collection, De flore dietarum, attributed to Constantinus Africanus, describes how to prepare bread, beans, millet, onions and more.
“Wheat is the most praiseworthy and temperate of all grains,” Africanus writes. “For it is hot in the first degree, between moist and so temperate, yet it seems to have a divided nature.”
Most text written during this time is aimed for medicinal value, rather than for curating delicious recipes. Food, it appears from the context of the work found from that era, was established as a means to achieve good health. This is a contrast to how glutinously characters eat in medieval shows like House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones.
Eating Like Kings
To celebrate another episode of House of the Dragon, which airs new episodes every Sunday evening, prepare a meal that the kings might’ve feasted on. We have a few recipe book recommendations for you to browse before the next episode airs:
The British Museum published The Medieval Cookbook, 80 authentic recipes translated and adapted into a modern cookbook. It contains meals like rose pudding, cabbage chowder, creamed fish, mutton stew, and more.
Greg Jenkins Medieval Cooking in Today’s Kitchen explores 78 recipes fit for a king. While the dishes can appear difficult, Jenkins pares recipes down to an easily digestible format. Try your hand at chawetty tarts, pompys medieval meatballs, and welsh rarebit.
Lastly, A Thyme and Place: Medieval Feasts and Recipes for the Modern Table, by Tricia Cohen and Lisa Graves, features ingredients like oven, peafowl, elderflowers and verjuice. Each recipe is tied to a specific feast so you can cook for every medieval holiday; Pig Face Day, St. John’s Day or Michaelmas.
Medieval Ingredients and Where to Find Them
For your House of the Dragon watching enjoyment, find these medieval ingredients and whip up a meal fit for a king.
Plums – Rustic Plum Tart
Lemons – Lemon Meringue Cupcakes
Pork – Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Loin with Cherry Cranberry Pan Sauce
Bread – Rye ‘n’ Oat Soda Energy Bread