In His own time William Marshal was known as ‘Gaste Viande’ which basically means ‘Greedy Guts’. This nickname, however, was acquired during his teenage years, and I expect many a parent knows the depredations teenage boys can make on a store cupboard!
We do know from a work documenting William’s life story in rhyming prose (The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written soon after his death, commissioned by his son and completed in 1226) that he enjoyed pears, apples and hazel nuts. Mushrooms were a favourite. The story indicates that that he enjoyed fresh water fish such as pike and he was also fond of fresh herrings (I think the bones would be a bit too fiddly for me!) and wines of all varieties, including sparkling wine which would have been his version of champagne or Prosecco, and mulled wine with cloves and spices
William spent a couple of years in the Middle East on pilgrimage and that would have broadened his palate from the typical northern European foodstuffs of the time. He would have had access to sugar cane and refined sugar and would have enjoyed chewing on the former and eating dishes where the latter was a typical ingredient. The ancestors of baklava for example and Turkish Delight. He would have eaten fresh dates and tasted lemons in their appropriate season as well as bananas. Oranges at this time was still the bitter, sharp type that we use for making marmalade but nevertheless would have been used in dishes. Sweet oranges had yet to find their way from China to become a basic staple of the rest of the world. although spices were known in Northern Europe and extensively used in the cuisine (despite what you may sometimes read in older history books, they were enjoyed to enhance food rather than to cover the taste of rotten meat), but they had to travel a long way and would not be as fresh as those in the Holy Land which was nearer to their centres of distribution.
Bearing all the above in mind, what would I give William Marshal for Christmas dinner? He had obviously had the opportunity to develop a taste for more foods than many of his contemporaries would have experienced, but even so the flavours of the New World would be something totally unknown to him. If he was here to stay for several days, I would definitely invite him to a sit down traditional Christmas dinner – I wonder whether he would be in the like or loathe camp when it came to Brussels sprouts!
However if this was just a day visit, I think I would have to invite him to an all-day buffet table taster where I would set out different dishes for the sampling of. I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to like them all either, but I would want him to find the experience interesting and entertaining nonetheless – something he could add to his vast store of lifetime tales. Perhaps we could sit at our buffet, and exchange cultural Christmas tales. I wonder what he would make of our modern commercial take on the festival when his own society would have been religiously orientated toward the Christ Child. I digress, that’s for another time. Today is all about the food.
We would definitely have to have some tasters of prawn cocktail on the table. He may well have tasted prawns before, but never with that famous, iconic pink sauce that goes so well with them. And sausage rolls of course because I am sure he would appreciate puff and flaky pastry. Turkey would not have been around in his day. It would have to carefully cooked to be moist and succulent, but served with sausage meat stuffing and cranberry sauce there is absolutely nothing better on a sandwich. I would have to serve a hot dish of mini, roast potato chunks – crispy on the outside, meltingly tender within and sprinkled with sea-salt. He’d never have experienced such in his life and I am almost certain I could get him addicted! Duke of York Red would be the potato of choice for this cunning plan. Pizza would have to appear, with plenty of tomato sauce and cheese topping (it’s a good buffet staple for children and I’m sure William Marshal would take to it too, as well as discovering the flavour of tomatoes). I think he’d find potato crisps and their various flavours and permutations an interesting experience. And mixed salad in winter would be a total novelty as would sweet oranges such as clementines.
On the dessert front – and I am positive he would be a man who liked his puddings, I would offer tasters of sherry trifle, tiramisu, chocolate roulade, and vanilla ice cream. And sticky toffee pudding (his own manor once at Cartmel is now famed for Sticky Toffee Pudding!). He would be used to wine, but not shorts. So there would be whisky, gin and brandy to try out. After Eight mints and Cadbury’s Roses chocolates as a taster. I would get him to try out tea and coffee too, explaining that it’s a basic staple drink of the masses these days. Perhaps I would also get his opinion on Coca Cola (I hate the stuff, but I’d love to see his face!).
I have left out items such as mince pies, Christmas pudding and pork pies since although they are very different now, they still have resonances with William’s own time.
While he was here, I would set up more tasting dates. One for fast food – let’s see what he’d make of a burger or hot dog or a doughnut – an afternoon tea with cake and scones (no commercial raising agents then, so English cakes and scones were unknown) a pie date, a sweets and chocolate date, a gourmet date, a beans on toast date… It would become a regular meet up!
Of course I would expect to be invited back to his time to sample the foods that he ate both at celebrations and on a daily basis – and discover what medieval gingerbread really tasted like – although the recipe below is basically the 14th century medieval version.
Medieval Gingerbread: A 14th century recipe made by a modern cook
8 fluid ounces of clear honey.
One pound of bread beginning to go stale so that it’s a bit dry and will make fine breadcrumbs
1 teaspooon of ginger, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves, a pinch of white pepper.
Bring the honey to the boil and then, lower the temperature and keeping the pan on a very low heat stir in the other ingredients. Once you have a thick mixture that’s all incorporated, press firmly into a small square cake tin lined with something nonstick. Cover and stand in a cool place for several hours to set or overnight or even a couple of days. Then turn out onto a cake plate and serve cut into small slices. Sugar may be sprinkled on the top.
This is the full batch. Since then my spice loving youngest son has scoffed most of it…