Medieval fast food

Cook's Row in Bristol was the medieval version of McDonalds, selling hot food to take away.

A medieval cook

A cook chops up meat in this illumination from the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter (British Library.)

Bristol today can boast an astonishing array of restaurants and cafés. All kinds of exotic food is on offer. We expect to eat it in comfort on the premises too. It seems odd to think that our ancestors could not always do the same. In the Middle Ages inns could provide a sit-down meal. Otherwise most people cooked their own food at home.

Only cities, bustling with trade and travellers, could support permanent cookshops. William Fitzstephen praised a cookshop in late 12th-century London. There eatables are to be found every day, according to the season. He explains how useful this was, not only for the multitude of people passing through the capital, but for any Londoner suddenly beset with hungry visitors. He could dash out to the cookshop and bring back whatever was needed. So picture something like a take-away. The restaurant was centuries in the future.

To capture the most passing trade, cookshops needed to be close to the markets and shops. Medieval Bristol had a row of cookshops in the High Street. It began at the east end of the Church of All Saints and was known as Cook's Row. The cooks had their own guildhall there, beside the little lane now called All Saints Court. In the medieval period it was not unusual for traders of the same type to cluster together. There might be a street of shoemakers or row of butchers.

The first cook we hear of there was Thomas London in 1388. Since people at this time could be known from the place they came from, perhaps he was a Londoner, or the son or grandson of one. Did the family bring the idea of cookshops to Bristol? We may never know. In 1470 the Council ordered a survey of Cook's Row, which named five cooks. But cooks seem to have deserted it in the following century and the name Cook's Row fell out of use.

Like other medieval shops, the cookshops had a narrow frontage to the street and a long plot behind. They would need a kitchen, but where was it placed? Kitchens of medieval houses were often to the rear, separated from the dwelling by a courtyard, to reduce the risk of fire. But that  layout would make it difficult for one cook to simultaneously prepare and sell food.

The Council's survey in 1470 found that two of the cookshops had hearths at the front of the shop. In fact they were so far to the front that they encroached on the street. Three of them had dressing boards encroaching on the street too. Those would be the tables on which food was prepared. Meat could be stewed in a cauldron or roasted on a spit over an open fire. The enticing smell of cooking would waft down the street. Nowadays the cooking equipment may be different, but a fish-and-chip shop cooks in front of the customer just the same.

In those days chips were not on the menu. Potatoes had yet to arrive from the New World. Yet in other ways the medieval diet was more adventurous than ours. People were happy to eat swans, cranes and smaller birds that nowadays we prefer to feed and photograph.

So what was on offer? Fitzstephen described the cookshop in Norman London selling dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls, and small birds. Bristol's regulations for cooks mention fish, chicken, wildfowl, geese and rabbits. That sounds like a staggeringly high-protein diet, but bread was readily available from bakers, while vegetables could be added to stews and pies. In the later Middle Ages fast foods mentioned in London included pies, hot cakes, pancakes and wafers. There were specialist piebakers, but some cookshops may have had ovens to add pies to their menu.

Medieval dishes were often heavily spiced. The conventional explanation is that this disguised the taste of rotten meat in the days before refrigeration. But people then were no keener to eat spoiled food than we are. They had methods of keeping meat by salting and curing. Spoiled food was thrown away by careful cooks. Great households which spent a fortune on exotic spices were the places least likely to serve up rotten meat. Nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon added savour to bland food for those who could afford them, just as onions and garlic did for rich and poor alike.

Bristol Council banned cooks from selling re-heated meat and tossing stinking water into the High Street, but otherwise the Council's main concern was preventing the cooks from buying up all the best of the fresh produce before the city's housewives had a chance to get at it. So it sounds as though Bristol's cooks knew what their customers wanted.