In the Middle Ages in Europe, what people ate depended a lot on how rich they were. Poor people (which was almost everybody) ate mainly barley. Sometimes they made their barley into bread, and sometimes into pancakes or pizza, and sometimes into barley porridge (like oatmeal) and sometimes into barley soup. But every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, most of every meal was barley. It must have been very boring!
As much as they could, the poor people found other things to eat with their barley to make it less boring. They grew onions and cabbage and garlic – they didn’t even have carrots yet! – to put in their soup, and they made cheese to eat with their bread and melt on their pizza, and they gathered apples and pears and mushrooms as well, so they could make apple pies or baked apples. And they tried to get honey or sugar to sweeten their treats. They grew herbs like parsley, chives, basil and rosemary to flavor their food. Mostly poor people drank ale (kind of like beer) or beer in England and Germany, wine in France and Italy and Spain. Even the beer was made from barley!
Rich people also ate a lot of bread, but they made their bread out of wheat so it tasted better. And they had more choices of other things to eat with their bread. Rich people ate meat – pork and roast beefand stew and lamb chops and deer and rabbit. And they had spices to put on their food, expensive spices that had to come all the way from India like pepper and cinnamon.
Even salt was often too expensive for poor people, and only rich people had it. In fact, when you were eating in a medieval castle, the salt would be on the table in a huge fancy salt cellar, and the rich people would sit near the salt so they could use it, while the poor people sat further down the long table and couldn’t use the salt. We still use the expression, “above the salt” to mean a rich person.
In medieval Europe (unlike in ancient Greece or Rome), most people didn’t eat breakfast. Breakfast was only for old or sick people, or travellers, or for men who were going to working hard in the fields all day. Most people just ate dinner (their main meal) at about 11 am, and supper around 4 pm.
By the later Middle Ages, Europeans were beginning to get some new foods. In northern Europe, people started to eat rye bread instead of barley, because rye was easier to grow in cold, wet conditions. Rye made a darker, heavier bread, and people called it “black bread” as opposed to the “white bread” made from barley and wheat that they liked better. But they ate rye bread anyway, because it was cheaper. In drier places, by the 1100s people started to grow sorghum, which needed less water – they got it from Islamic Spain.
Other new foods were treats. Food scientists in India had developed sweet oranges and worked out how to dry sugar cane juice into sugar crystals, and sugar technology spread first to Central Asia, then to West Asia, and finally reached Europe in the 1200s AD. Food scientists in Central Asia developed lemons and carrots, and all of these, too, crossed West Asia to be grown in Europe for the first time in the 1200s AD. In addition, warmer weather at this time allowed farmers in northern Europe to grow more food, and people there started to be better fed. They grew bigger and smarter, and they became strong soldiers and smart inventors. By the end of the Middle Ages, instead of importing other people’s food inventions, the Europeans were beginning to experiment and explore for themselves.
Learn by doing: make barley soup
More about European food after 1500
Suggestions for having a Medieval Day
More about Sugar