CAMBRIDGE - MIT doesn’t seem like a place where you can dine on food from the Middle Ages. But this month, you could prepare, cook, and eat like a 14th-century nobleman.
For over a decade, during the Independent Activities Period between semesters, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has offered a noncredit class on “old food’’ from the region around the Mediterranean Sea. The idea came from conversations History Department chair Anne McCants, who teaches the class, had with a colleague about how little students know about daily life in the past, she says. “Both of us liked to cook and I was especially interested in nutrition and health of past populations, as well as the productive capacity of agricultural societies. So all of that came together to suggest a fun but informative IAP class using ancient and medieval recipes.’’
This year’s participants were a diverse dozen from the university’s various academic departments, including budding engineers, staff, and at least one bona fide student of history. The hands-on, half-day class took place in the modern kitchen of Next House, a student dormitory. Electric ovens stood in for wood fires.
While McCants is not a purist when it comes to tools, she is a stickler for period-appropriate ingredients. Nuts were more readily available than dairy in medieval Europe, she explains, and asks for a volunteer to make almond milk. Kim Cowperthwaite, program assistant at the Sloan School of Management, gamely pounds the nuts in a marble mortar till someone spots a blender.
The cooking medium was olive oil. Tomatoes, which we now consider a quintessential part of Mediterranean food, were absent. “Tomatoes are from the New World,’’ says McCants. “They were not around till the 1500s and, even then, took a while to gain acceptance.’’ Parsnips, turnips, radishes, leeks, and chard were plentiful.
Handing out recipes from “Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks,’’ and “The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes From France and Italy,’’ McCants warns that the recipes could result in dishes that are too spice-rich for modern palates. Not spicy-hot, she says, just heavily spiced. Only black pepper was available in the Middle Ages, chilis not having arrived yet from the New World.
“Perhaps, you’ve heard that the meat was crummy and spices were added to disguise that,’’ McCants says to the group. This couldn’t be true, she reasons. Those who could not afford to buy fresh meat could hardly buy imported spices, she explains, because they were astronomically expensive. To preserve food, it was salted, as evidenced by smoked pork, hard cheeses, and sauerkraut. So, by adding so many spices to their cooking, aristocrats were showing off.
The African side of the Mediterranean is represented by a dish of lamb stewed in apricot and almond puree, from the book “Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes.’’ It tastes like a North African tagine and uses ginger, saffron, pepper, and cinnamon, notes Regina Raz, a fellow in the Career Reengineering Program. The Catalonian native says a variation is found in a Spanish Mediterranean dish of roasted lamb leg stuffed with apricots. Elements from old recipes live on in traditional dishes of the region, she says.
In the afternoon, the class sits down to share an elaborate meal of pea soup, garlic torte, sauteed chard, Brussels sprouts, a vegetable-fruit chutney, chicken with prunes and nuts, almond-apricot-lamb stew, and parsnip fritters. McCants, who has baked loaves of bread made with whole wheat flour and farro, says the medieval poor, lacking access to ovens, would have made gruel with their grains. Peasants mostly ate a plant-based diet. “Few would have been vegetarians by choice,’’ she says. “That was an option for the religiously motivated.’’
Dessert - pears poached in wine - is pronounced overly sweet. As with spices, McCants says a liberal use of sweetener also marked status in medieval Europe.
Victor Wang, the mechanical engineering student who made the dessert, says this is his first IAP class. “This sure beats eating ramen,’’ he says.
Vijaysree Venkatraman can be reached at email@example.com.