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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Frankish Cuisine

 Straddling the trade routes from several cultures, residents of crusader states were exposed to and cultivated a range of culinary traditions. The crusader kingdoms inherited the cuisine of earlier Mediterranean civilizations, including invaders from the Arabian Peninsula and the Near Eastern steppes, but they also enjoyed the cooking traditions brought to Outremer by Latin settlers of Northern and Western Europe. These traditions coexisted and probably influenced one another, yet we can no longer recreate the cuisine itself. Nevertheless, much can be surmised based on the ingredients available to the cooks of Outremer.


Before looking more closely at the content of crusader cooking, however, it is worth noting that the crusader states were arguably the inventors of fast food. The large number of pilgrims flooding the Holy City produced a plethora of cheap inns and hostels, places where pilgrims could bed down for the night. But affordable places to sleep, then as now, did not offer meals, so pilgrims had to eat elsewhere. A general shortage of firewood meant that not only was bread baked centrally in large ovens, usually co-located with flour mills, but that ‘cook shops’ producing large quantities of food over a single large oven were more practical than everyone cooking for themselves. The result was the medieval equivalent of modern ‘food courts’ ― streets or markets where various shops offered pre-prepared food. The results were probably not all that different from today; the area in Jerusalem where cook shops were concentrated was known as the ’Market of Bad Cooking’ ― the ‘Malquisinat’.


Turning to the ingredients available, the medieval diet’s staple was bread derived from grain, and this was true in the Holy Land no less than in England. Milling was a prerogative of the feudal elite, and bakeries were generally co-located with mills in rural areas near the manor and in urban areas well-distributed around the city for convenience. The primary grains popular in the Holy Land were wheat and barley, but millet and rice were also known. Rice would have been consumed directly rather than converted into bread by the native population that retained Arab and Turkish eating habits. 


Animal products were the second pillar of the medieval diet, highly valued, and fully exploited from the meat to the innards. Of the large, domesticated animals, sheep and goats were the most common type of livestock in the region, and the Hospitallers recommended lamb and kid for patients in their hospitals. Jerusalem, however, also had cattle and pig markets. While camel meat is considered a delicacy in much of the Middle East, the camels of Outremer were used primarily as beasts of burden.

Of the smaller animals, poultry and fish belonged to the Frankish diet, the latter being particularly important during ‘fasting days’, when meat was prohibited, e.g., throughout Advent and Lent and on certain days of the week. In the Second Kingdom, when the population of Outremer was clustered along the coastline, fish from the Mediterranean represented an important component of the diet. This enriched Frankish cuisine with elements virtually unknown in most of continental Europe, such as squid and octopus.


Game was available in the First Kingdom and Cyprus, including gazelles, boars, roe deer, hares, partridge and quail. However, in the Second Kingdom, territorial losses resulted in much greater population density, which restricted habitat for game, and it all but disappeared from the tables of the elite in the mainland states. Cyprus, on the other hand, was still home to much wildlife (including lions), and the Cypriot feudal aristocracy was (in)famous for its large kennels and addiction to the hunt. 


Animal products, such as milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese, were consumed in large quantities in the Holy Land in the era of the crusades. Cheese was particularly important because of its comparatively long shelf life and was produced from cattle, sheep, goat and camel milk. Yogurt, a product used heavily in the Middle Eastern diet, would have been known to the Franks, but we cannot measure how readily it was embraced in Frankish cuisine.


Vegetable varieties were limited by modern standards. Legumes were the primary vegetables of the Middle Ages. In the crusader states, the most important vegetables were beans, including broad beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas, as well as cabbage and onions. Fresh cucumbers and melons were native to the Levant and also formed part of the Frankish diet.


Fruits were a key component of Frankish cuisine, and here again, the residents of Outremer had ready access to fruits, such as oranges and lemons, that were considered luxuries in the West. Along with typical and familiar fruits from the West such as apples, pears, plums and cherries, the residents of the crusader states cultivated pomegranates (particularly around Ibelin and Jaffa), figs, dates, carobs and bananas. Arguably the most indispensable of all fruits were grapes, which were eaten fresh and dried (raisins and currants) and (of course, were) fermented as wine. 


Other trees that yielded significant dietary supplements were almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and, the most essential of all, olives. Olive oil was and is fundamental to Middle Eastern cuisine. It is the primary source of cooking oil, used both as a means of cooking and a supplement for consistency and taste.


Finally, some of the most valuable dietary ‘additives’ that make such a difference to the taste of food — honey, sugar, herbs and spices ― were readily available at affordable prices in the crusader states. A variety of herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano grew in abundance. Likewise, many spices only available at exorbinantly high prices in Europe passed through the ports of Outremer. The coastal cities and Jerusalem had spice markets in which these exotic, high-value products were available in quantities and at prices unimaginable in the West. Frankish cuisine was likely greatly enriched by the widespread use of cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, saffron and black pepper, among others.

Given the ingredients the cooks of Outremer had to work with and the inspiration they could draw from their Greek, Arab and Turkish neighbours, Frankish cuisine as a whole ― despite the presence of some mediocre fast-food joints on the Street of Bad Cooking ― was most likely unique and delectable.

This description and other aspects of life in the Crusader states can be found in:

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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