Intoduction to Food & Society
Peasant Cookery
Restaurant History

Peasant Cookery


Peasant cookery depended upon ingredients which were easily obtained or grown locally. Their agriculture was a livelihood and a way of life, not a business for profit.

This was the stuff of life in Europe.

Peasant cooking was always dominated by practical factors. As a result, there are few peasant recipes for offal, which are the inedible parts of an animal that most people discarded, and available in quantity to the poor of the towns.

Sugar was an expensive commodity in all but Ottoman-dominated Europe until recently, so there are few high-sugar dishes of peasant origin. (began in 13 th. century – greatest hour in 16 th. century – collapsed after World War 1)

Peasant communities had no organized trade. There were no regular tradesmen to supply goods or services. Barter was the form of exchange most often used.

Fuel in particular was precious. It needed energy to collect and was often in short supply. As a result, cooking was usually done on a single heat source.

Upon entering the peasant home, he would find:

Embers on the hearth

A savory broth simmering in the cooking pot on its tripod

A flitch of bacon from last autumn’s pig that was smoked in the chimney.

Possessions were scarce: A medieval peasant kitchen would have been euipped with a boiling pot, a frying pan, and a kettle. As late as the 17 th. and 18 th the peasant house was only one room, plus barns and a storehouse. The fireplace was the focal point, whether there was a chimney to extract the smoke or not, and there would have been one large table with benches set around it, the benches also being used for sleeping. Early mattresses were of heaped straw and were replaced later by home-made featherbedding. The entire household gathered together at mealtimes and ate from 1 communal bowl with wooden spoons – children often took their meals standing up. There were wooden boards for portions of bread, and a knife, often shared , for the meat. It was only after 1800 that sugar, coffee, and tea became widely available and affordable.

The limitations imposed by a single pot, a single heat source, local produce, and little or no access to imports are all characteristic of peasant cooking, and give it its particular identity. But, in no sense does this mean that the ingredients were necessarily poor or inferior: salmon, oysters, crayfish, snails, excellent cheeses, superb truffles and fungi, and an abundance of poultry and game were all available to local communities. Even the most sophisticated delicacies such as foie gras from the favorite table-bird of the peasantry—the goose--- were as likely to be found in the peasant’s kitchen as that of the nobility.

Each generation might produce one particularly inspired cook, whose innovations would be added to the repertoire of the immediate area. This led to variations of local dishes which were peculiar to an individual neighborhood and whose merits are fiercely contested. An example of this is the Spanish Paella, which was dependant on the local ingredients. Those who lived close to the sea incorporated a greater amount of fish, while those who lived inland relied upon chicken. But, Paella, like so many ethnic dishes, is not only regional, but familial, and each family swears theirs is the true recipe because of loving childhood memories.

The ideal of peasant life is most nearly represented by the philosophy of the rural Spanish revolutionaries of the 1920’; communal, supportive, and hardworking, yet allowing the individual enough dignity, freedom and leisure to develop intellectually and physically – a most difficult ideal to achieve. All those who have had first-hand experience of peasant existence know that it is dependant upon one fundamental issue: survival. In the peasant world, the work is perpetual and the living is hard. The old peasant kitchen habits of frugality are part of that husbandry – making stock out of bones, pickling and salting in times of glut, stocking the pantry, using diet to care for the sick and the elderly, making good food out of few and simple ingredients.

In England, during feudal times, those who survived the dangerous childhood years were likely to live longer and in better health than their overlord, who dined daily on large quantities of meat and fine white bread. The ordinary of the diet of the famously long-lived Georgians, listed by F.P. Armitage in 1922, is quintessential peasant food: black bread, rice, wheat cakes, beans, raw green vegetables, cheese, milk both fresh and soured, and fish – salted, smoked, and dried. In poor communities which could not afford doctors, good health was clearly essential to survival, and country dwellers became extremely knowledgeable about the adjustments in diet necessary for those who were ill, or to combat seasonal maladies. (Read The Struggle to Survive, Diedrich Saarfeld, about pre-1585 Europe)

Premodern (pre 1585) Mediterranean Europe came under the influence of two major Eastern invaders; the Moorish Muslims, who occupied southern Spain from 711 until Ferdinand and Isabella’s campagne of 1492; and the Turks of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, who dominated central and eastern Europe from the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire in the thirteenth century until after World War 1. Both civilizations took a lively interest in the pleasures of the table, and both left their culinary mark on the populations they conquered. Among the skills and refinements learned from the Moors by the Iberian peoples were the art of making sweets and the use of almonds. It was the Moors who planted Jordan almond trees in Andalusia. The Turkish skill in pastry making and the technique of layering fine sheets of filo pastry spread as far as Austria, where the strudel dumpling became the strudel pastries which today keep such delightful company with that other Turkish introduction: coffee. Turkish dolmades-vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat- traveled from the Bosporous, via Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary (the Turks planted rice in the Danube basin) as far north as Scandinavia, where the Swedish national dish of stuffed cabbage rolls, kåldomar, still keeps its Turkish semantic origin.

After 1492, a wealth of new ingredients began to arrive from the New World via Spain and Italy. It’s difficult to imagine how Mediterranean and Balkan cooks managed without tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and beans for their sauces, or how Eastern Europe fared without the corn, pumpkin, and squashes which now fill their fields – or how the Hungarians survived until the arrival, via the Ottoman Turks, of their beloved paprika. The potato, the most important New World contribution of all, the ingredient which fueled Europe’s population explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, took longest to achieve acceptance. (Story of France)

By the 16 th century the appetites of the increasingly prosperous townfolk had pushed the price of meat beyond the purchasing power of the peasant, leaving him with the products of his pig and his barnyard. By the end of the 18 th century the pepulation was increasing so rapidly that even the price of bread climbed steeply. The peasantry had to find a substitute for the daily grain meal: The potato, undemanding of space and labor and thus the ideal poor man’s food, came into its own at last. The Scots made scones. The Spanish fried theirs in olive oil. The Hungarians made paprika potato stew. The Germans made potato dumplings. The Italians made gnocchi. The English plain-roasted or boiled. The French made gratins. The Swiss added melted cheese.

Irish/potato/famine in 1846. Ireland: 1 million out of a total population of 8 million died of starvation. The lucky ones came to America, where they groomed their sons for the presidency – Chicago, etc.

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