King Wenceslaus and a Czech Twist on my Medieval Feast

Bohemian napkin dumplings — a recipe from my Czech grandmother.

Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the show lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

Now I’m steering my time machine to Bohemia. Dec. 26 is the Feast of Stephen, and I have an added reason to take a closer look at King Wenceslaus today: We share a heritage. I’m half Czech. King Wenceslaus is not only the most revered Bohemian, he’s its patron saint. For that reason, I’m giving my medieval Christmas feast a Czech twist today.

King Wenceslaus

Good King Wenceslaus. Engraving by Brothers Dalziel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wenceslaus (ca. 907-935) is to the Czech culture what St. Martin is to the German culture – an official who went out of his way to care for the poor. He had a reputation for his generosity, like the carol Good King Wenceslaus relates.

My Czech grandparents must have liked him, because they gave one of my uncles the middle name Wenceslaus (I’m looking at you, Uncle Jerry). Prague has a Wenceslaus Square (Václavské Náměstí, a Wenceslaus monument, and a statue of Wenceslaus in the St. Vitus Cathedral. The Saint Wenceslaus chorale (Svatováclavský chorál) is one of the oldest Czech songs, dating back to the 12th century, and is still so popular today it was considered for the Czech national anthem. Wenceslaus’s feast day on September 28 is a national holiday in the Czech Republic. And then, of course, there is the St. Stephen’s Day carol, Good King Wenceslaus.

My favorite picture of my Czech grandmother, Růženka (Rose).

Some Czech Dishes to Round Out Our Medieval Feast

Today we ate the leftovers of our boar’s head from yesterday along with some Czech goodies my grandmother Růženka (Rose) used to make: knedlíky (the Bohemian dumplings) red cabbage, and apple strudel. The dumplings require an excellent gravy, and the Cumberland sauce and boar’s head gravy from yesterday do the trick.

The Czech dumplings, pared with gravy and stuffing left over from the boar’s head, which we ate yesterday.

We finished the meal with the Vánoční koleda (Czech Christmas carol) Půjdem spolu do Bethéma (Let’s Go to Bethlehem).

Have you ever tried Czech food?

If you’re interested in taking an online class on medieval cooking, check out Eatmedieval.

Hezky Vánoce, or Merry Christmas!

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Boar’s Head for Christmas

Our boar’s head, bedeck’d with a garland of laurel, rosemary, and sage. The rosemary and sage are fresh from our garden and the laurel came from a neighbor. Thank you, Frau Spies!

The boar’s head, as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all this land
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Thus goes the Boar’s Head Carol, and to explore this traditional Christmas dish, let’s set the dials on our time machine to 13th-century England. Boar’s head featured in the 1289 Christmas menu the Bishop of Hereford. Following the instruction in the online cooking class A Taste of Christmas Past, I took on challenge of filling and roasting one at home. Descriptions of the pig’s cheeks as the best bacon of the entire animal convinced me it could be worth it, despite the reservations of some family members. (“A pig’s head? On the table? Mom!)

The Boar’s Head in England

Serving up the Boar’s Head at The Queen’s College, Oxford, on Christmas Day. The Graphic, 1873, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only was the boar’s head a highlight of a medieval Christmas feast, it also has a connection to Queen’s College at the University of Oxford. According to myth, a student was once attacked by a wild boar. He could fight it off and kill it by hitting it with books of Aristotle. This led, apparently, to a traditional Yuletide feast featuring a boar’s head. That explains the carol’s next verse:

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio (In the hall of Queen’s).

The recipe for the boar’s head was loosely based on Chiquart’s Du fait de cuisine (1420) and the filling on the Forme of Cury.

My husband went hog wild over this dish. “Who knew the snout had sooo much meat?” he said as he dissected my servings. “It has truffles and saffron!” My sons, who had their initial reservations, dug into the stuffing with gusto.


Our wassail bowl.

My menu backfired, however, when I served my family wassail, or hot spiced cider. I thought it would be nice to talk to my German husband and sons about the wassailing tradition so they’d better understand the carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”  — the exchange of wassail for figgy pudding, and the servants singing Christmas blessings on their master before receiving their holiday treats. (I know January 6 is the traditional date for wassailing, but we are going Mexican that day.)

We looked at the lyrics to the Gloucestershire Wassail (one of my favorite Christmas songs), but when it came to singing it, one of my sons threw up his hands in protest. “I had no idea servants had to beg their masters for food for Christmas!”

“Wassailing was just for fun,” I said. “Of course the masters would have given their servants food for Christmas whether they wassailed or not.”

But he felt like the songs romantized the poverty of the servants. He used to like ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” he said, but decided he doesn’t anymore.

Dang it. Can anyone help me out on the history here to convince him wassailing doesn’t romanticize the downside of servanthood?

Figgy Pudding

Our figgy pudding.

Of course I had to finish up with figgy pudding – something the entire family relished.

Metzergei Stollsteimer

Martina Kurz, who works the counter, and Thomas Stollsteimer in Metzgerei Stollsteimer (Gemmrigheim, Germany)

Obtaining a pig’s head and having it deboned is not an easy thing, so I want to take a moment to thank my butcher, Thomas Stollsteimer, who not only sourced the pig’s head, but unusual items like venison, wild boar, pig’s blood, and duck for the upcoming recipes.

Tomorrow we’ll explore a little of the Bohemian Christmas culture.

If you’re interested in taking an online class on medieval cooking, check out Eatmedieval.

Merry Christmas!

Have you ever tried a boar’s head before?

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Medieval Food: My Christmas time machine

A time machine
Time machine by Frank Pfeiffer, Pixabay

Medieval food as a time machine? Why not, I thought, when the ad showed up on my newsfeed in November.

A Taste of Christmas Past

Eatmedieval, a collaboration between Durham University and Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, was offering an online course, A Taste of Christmas Past, on how to prepare a medieval Christmas feast. The recipes were inspired by the 1289 menu of the Bishop of Hereford.

If class on medieval food wasn’t the perfect antidote to the corona lockdown here in Germany, I couldn’t think of any better. If we can’t travel for Christmas, why not travel into the past? I signed up. The course launched an expedition into spices and dishes I’ve never experienced before. I’ll be recreating them for this holiday season. There were so many dishes I have to spread them out over the twelve days of Christmas (I don’t have the kitchen capacity to recreate an entire feast in one day!).

My approach is not to create authentic medieval food as much as it is to use the food as a springboard to explore different times and places. I’m using the recipes to dip into the cultures of Germany, England, Bohemia, and even Mexico. During this Christmas season, when Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, and visiting relatives are all prohibited, it’s still possible to create a holiday my family will long remember. Want to join me in this venture? Starting today, I’ll be blogging about each recipe until the Christmas season ends on January 6.

Medieval food from the Ménagier collection.
My take on medieval food: a version of the Ménagier recipe with hare instead of partridge. Sooooo good!

A Partridge in a Pear Tree — No Wait, Make That Rose Water

Set the dials on your time machine to 14th-century France. I’m launching this Christmas season today, on Christmas Eve, with a partridge recipe from the Le Ménagier de Paris, a 1393 French guidebook on how a woman should run her household. The bishop had eight partridges on his Christmas menu, and they were probably similar to this contemporary recipe. It calls for partridge marinated in rose water, orange juice, and wine.

I coupled the hare with a crusty sourdough rye bread fresh out of the oven.

Although have wild partridge in Germany, but they are becoming rare. I can’t source it here. So I opted for one of the alternative meats Eatmedieval suggested: hare. I coupled this dish with homemade, crusty sourdough rye bread and clary, a medieval version of mulled wine or Glühwein.

The whole family thought it tasted great — compliments came from all around the table.

A grey partridge.
The Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) is the bird that the bishop would have used. Unfortunately, it may have recently become exterpated in Bönnigheim. I participated in a state-sponsored partridge survey in March, and we couldn’t find any in Bönnigheim. TheOtherKev, Pixabay.

Only the Bare Bones of Recipes

One of the first things we learned in the course is that medieval recipes are nothing like modern ones. Often, they’re hardly more than a list of ingredients. The medieval cookbook author assumed the reader had the requisite knowledge and experience to fill in the gaps. Enter the cooks of Blackfriars restaurant – they took scraps from the archives and transformed the medieval ingredients lists into restaurant-worthy dishes. Blackfriars created instructional videos for the creation of each dish. I’m sorry I can’t share those recipes with you – they are proprietary inventions – but if you are interested, please visit Eatmedieval. It’s planning to offer more classes.

The clary turned out quite nice…
… and disappeared quickly.

When does Christmas start – on December 24 or 25?

Now let’s set the location dials to Germany.

When does Christmas start? Germans say December 24. In the evening, they set up the tree and exchange presents. Americans say December 25. A Facebook group for Americans living in Germany contains posts about the conflicts in intercultural marriages – one spouse fighting for the 24th and one for the 25th.

One of the online history lectures included in the course supports the German tradition. The liturgical day in the monasteries began with evensong, or vespers, of day before. That’s why, says Dr. Sigbjørn Sønnesyn of Durham University, some parts of Christianity, like Germany, start celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. “Liturgically, that was always the start of the feast of the Nativity.” The bishop, however, would have hosted his big feast after the day Mass of Christmas Day.

Here in Germany, I do as the Germans do. The partridge recipe makes for a small meal to kick off Christmas, but I’m saving a huge item for tomorrow. I’ll prepare a boar’s head and blog about that, too.

Weingut Dautel

Christian Dautel in his world-renowned winery, Weingut Dautel.
Christian Dautel with his “Wein”nachtsbaum.

You can’t prepare a good meal without good ingredients! I’ll also be highlighting some of my sources.

I’m lucky to live within walking distance of a world-class vintner – one that even exports to the USA and was featured in Fortune magazine. The Dautel family has been growing grapes since 1510 and that kind of experience dances on the taste buds. I used the Dautel’s Trollinger for the clary.

Now in its 21st generation, winery Weingut Dautel has Christian Dautel at the helm. Following a degree in viticulture in 2005, he completed a series of international internships that the German wine magazine Fine describes as “a string of pearls.” He interned in wineries in Australia, Africa, Oregon, Austria, and France before taking over the winery from his father.

To the pearls the family can add a chain of gold medallions for all its awards. In 2019, Weingut Dautel received five stars from Eichelmann, 3.5 from Vinum, and 4 points from Gault Millau (the highest rating for a winery). The VDP (Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), an organization of Germany’s top wineries, has designated a number of Dautel’s wines as Große Lage or grand cru (the highest quality wine).

Frohe Weihnachten!

Have you ever eaten medieval food? What was it?

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