New World vs. Old World Foodstuffs

By The Honorable Lady Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

Researchers and cooks new to Medieval cooking often think that ethnic or traditional recipes are accurate for reenactment, that they "must be hundreds of years old." Almost always, their assumption that Grandma’s cookie recipe is a period one is quite wrong - "traditional" European cuisine changed considerably in the past 400 years.

For centuries, the nobility in Medieval Europe enjoyed a sumptuous diet of venison, pork, rabbit, birds of all kinds, fish, apples, pears, onions, carrots, and numerous other foodstuffs, flavored according to the Humoral Theory with a combination of sweet, spicy, salty, and sour seasonings.

A lot of food common to European cooking today – bell peppers, corn, vanilla, allspice, chemical leavenings such as baking soda and powder, coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, molasses, string beans, kidney beans, peanuts, pumpkins, pineapple, blueberries, cranberries, turkey, maple syrup – were unheard of in a kitchen in the Middle Ages. It’s hard to imagine German cooking without its trademark potatoes, or more so, Italian cuisine without tomatoes, but those ingredients so far haven’t appeared in any European cookbooks before 1600. On the other hand, some of the ingredients did find their way to Europe before 1600 - but not into the kitchen; many modern desserts contain vanilla, but it was used in the 1500s as a scent in perfume, not as a flavoring extract in custards and cookies. Tomatoes were popular as an ornamental plant in medieval gardens rather than as additions to salads and sauces.

The cuisine changed dramatically during the Age of Exploration, with an influx of new foods from both the East and West and a departure from the humoral view of entwined food and medicine. From the 15th Century onward, Europe slowly but steadily discovered new meats, fruits, flavorings, and especially, vegetables. At first, "new foodstuffs were accepted most readily by the wealthy, for the sake of their novelty and interest, and by those who had traveled and encountered them already." (C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain).

On the other hand, "people were also traveling further afield than hitherto; more of them traveled in Europe, some went to the Far East, and others ventured across the Atlantic. They encountered new foodstuffs that at first seemed strange and then became acceptable. Their accounts stimulated more interest in the discussion of food, and botanists and university scholars added their voices to those of the travelers and the medical men. Thus we get glimpses of many conflicting opinions on what should and should not be eaten, of what was in fashion, and of the many different tastes introduced by foreigners living in England." (Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare’s England, Mary Anne Caton, editor)

Remember that, apocryphally at least, Columbus was spurred on his famous voyage by the desire to find a faster route to the West Indies and thus a cheaper way of procuring pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and other spices so central to Medieval cooking.

"The New World produced none of the traditional spices that had helped to stimulate the voyages of discovery. But it was to contribute to the diet of the Old World several new foodstuffs which were to be of the greatest importance in the centuries to come. To Europe came maize or Indian corn, to become a staple food in northern Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and later, in the Balkans. Potatoes, which, though an agent of disaster in Ireland, were to be a useful source of Vitamin C to many other peoples." (Reay Tannahill, Food In History)

Answers to the Old World vs. New World Foods Game:

Old World

New World


The use of these in Europe dates back to Ancient Rome. Chickpeas were often used in the Middle Ages in potages, according to C. Anne Wilson’s Food and Drink in Britain.

Torta from Red Chickpeas: Grind up red chickpeas that have been well cooked with their own juice and with a little rosewater. When they have been ground, pass them through a strainer into a bowl. Add a pound of almonds so ground up that it is not a chore to pass them through the strainer, two ounces of raisins, three or four figs ground up at the same time. And besides this, add an ounce of pine kernels coarsely ground, and as much sugar and rosewater as you need, and just so much cinnamon and ginger; and blend. Put the mixture into a well-greased pan with the pastry crust on the bottom. There are those who add starch or pike eggs, so that this torta is more firm; when it is cooked, put it almost above the fire to make it more colored. It should be thin and sprinkled with sugar and rosewater. Platina, On Honest Indulgence

Capsicum Peppers:

"The term ‘pepper’ refers to two entirely different groups of plant. The spice pepper, both black and white, is the fruit of any of a group of related Old World trees, and is routinely mentioned in period cookbooks. The capsicum peppers, which include both hot peppers (chili, cayenne, paprika, etc.) and sweet or bell peppers, are New World. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first English use of the word ‘chili’ is in 1662… .there is a Spanish reference to hot peppers from the New World in 1493. Cariadoc, A Miscelleny.

According to Reay Tannahill’s Food In History: "India and Hungary, Italy and Spain had to await Columbus to develop what are now their most typical dishes. Even after the discovery of America it took time - the red dishes of Hungarian cookery, paprikas and gulyas, date from the 17th and 18th Centuries only."


The most commonly used sweet spice in the Middle Ages, next only to ginger and nutmeg, cinnamon was used in desserts and main dishes alike. It was a primary ingredient in poudre douce and poudre forte, the ubiquitous spice mixtures of the time.

"To make a very good Banbury Cake, take foure pounds of Currants, & wash and pick them very cleane, and drie them in a cloth: then take three egges and put away one yelke, and beate them, and strayne them with barme, putting thereto Cloves, Mace, Cinamon and Nutmegges, then take a pint of Creame, and as much mornings milke and set it on the fire till the cold be taken away: then take flower and put in a good store of cold butter and sugar, then put in your egges, barme, and meale and worke them all together an houre or more: then save a part of the paste, & the rest breake in peeces and worke in your Currants: which done, mold your Cake of what quantity you please: and then with what that paste which hath not any Currants cover it very thinne both underneath and a loft. And so bake it according to the bignesse." Gervase Markham, The English Hous-wife


"A drink made from cocoa was drunk by the Aztecs; according to the Larousse Gastronomique, it was unsweetened, flavored with vanilla, and drunk cold. Cocoa was brought back by the back by the Spaniards in the 16th Century; they flavored it ‘with chillies and other hot spices’ and made it ‘into a soup-like concoction.’ The first recorded use of chocolate in England was in 1650." A Miscelleny.

"In Spain by 1631, the preparation of a cup of chocolate had become a major operation. 'For every hundred cocoa beans, mix two pods of chili or Mexican pepper...or, failing those, two Indian peppercorns, a handful of aniseed, two of those flowers known as "little ears" or *vinacaxtlides,* and two of those known as *mesasuchil*...Instead of the latter one could include the powder of the six roses of Alexaundria [an apothecaries' formula]... a little pod of logwood [a dye], two drachmas of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and as many hazelnuts, half a pound of sugar, and enought arnotto [a dye] to give color to the whole.'" Food In History.

Green Peas:

Also commonly eaten in Europe as far back as Ancient Rome; shell peas were generally cooked into a porridge/potage with meat. Please note that string beans, however, are New World.

New Peas, Le Ménagier de Paris

As to new peas, sometimes they be cooked with sewe of meat and brayed parsley to make a green pottage and that is for a meat day; and on a fish day, they be cooked in milk with ginger and saffron therein.


" ‘Corn,’ in British usage, refers to grains in general – most commonly wheat. The earliest reference in the OED to maize, the British name for the grain that Americans call corn, is from 1555. All of the pre-1600 references are to maize as a plant grown in the New World. Knowledge of maize seems to have spread rapidly; a picture of the plant appears in a Chinese book on botany from 1562. Pictures appear in European herbals from 1539 on. How soon did maize become something more than a curiosity? Leonhard Fuchs, writing in Germany in 1542, described it as ‘now growing in all gardens.’" A Miscelleny.


THE condiment of the Middle Ages, mustard was served with roasted meats (generally brawn or pork) in England and France from the 13th through 15th Centuries.

Le Menagier de Paris

If you would make provision of mustard to keep for a long time, make it in the harvest season and of soft pods. And some say that the pods should be boiled. Item, if you would make mustard in the country in haste, bray mustardseed in a mortar and moisten it with vinegar and run it through the strainer and if you would prepare it at once, set it in a pot before the fire. Item, if you would make good mustard and at leisure, set the mustardseed to soak for a night in good vinegar, then grind it in a mill and then moisten it little by little with vinegar; and if you have any spices left over from jelly, clarry, hippocras or sauces, let them be ground with it and afterwards prepare it.


"Sweet potatoes are described in 1555 as growing in the West Indies. By 1587, they are said to be "brought out of" Spain and Portugal, and described as venerous (aphrodisiacal). In 1599, Ben Johnson describes something as "above all your potatoes or oyster pies." Ordinary potatoes, according to the OED, were described in 1553 and introduced into Spain shortly after 1580. They reached Italy about 1585 and were being grown in England by 1596. By 1678, the potato is described as "common in English gardens." A Miscelleny

"The Germans were probably the first Europeans to regularly eat potatoes. The earliest known recipes appear in Ein Neu Kochbuch, circa 1581. Potatoes are mentioned in two of William Shakespeare's plays; The Merry Wives of Windsor, circa 1600, and Trolius and Cressida, circa 1601." Food In History


A staple crop during the Middle Ages, rice was used equally as a grain and an ingredient in a pudding. In addition, the flour was used as a thickener.

Ryse of Fische Daye, Curye on Inglysch

Blaunche almaundes & grynde hem, & drawe hem vp wyt watur. Weshce Üi ryse clene, & do Üerto sugur roche and salt: let hyt be stondyng. Frye almaundes browne, & floriche hyt Üerwyt, or wyt sugur.


"The first European reference to the tomato is apparently one in a book published in Venice in 1544; it describes the tomato as having been brought to Italy ‘in our time,’ and eaten in Italy ‘fried in oil and with salt and pepper.’ It appears from later references that tomatoes were used as food in both Spain and Italy from the 1500s on. The first printed recipes using tomatoes appear in Italian at the end of the 17th Century. The first use of ‘tomato’ in English occurs in 1604, in a description of the West Indies, according to the OED. It appears that tomatoes are out of period for northern Europe and late period for southern Europe." A Miscelleny


For more information on period food and cooking:

The Monroe County Public Library System carries several useful books on food in the Middle Ages. On a quick online search at I found:

There are several credible resources on the Internet about Medieval food… and many really inaccurate or misleading ones! Some I suggest are:

Many books on the subject are available from bookstores and online booksellers. I suggest the following, in order of highest recommendation for new cooks first:

Jan. 13, 2001

©2001 Chris P. Adler