In the Middle Ages, cooking was considered "a mystery". Great cooking, like great painting or great writing, is an art, but it cannot stand alone, it must be based upon a foundation of skill. Like architecture, it must be aesthetic, but it must combine the aesthetic with the functional. And that has happened wherever there was a leisured class with time and money enough to appreciate it.
Maggie Black's book does not attempt to cover the whole medieval period, or indeed the whole medieval world, but restricts itself to England and France and opens with the Norman invasion (which had already begun before 1066: the court of Edward the Confessor, who had himself grown up in Normandy and had Norman tastes, was packed with Normans, many of whom already considered themselves as much at home in England and Scotland! as in France).
It would be simple to say that (so far as England at any rate was concerned) the Saxons (the English) produced the good food on their farms and to this the Norman chefs added their culinary art. Just look at the word "chef" or consider the fact that the word for the animal in modern English is always Anglo-saxon in origin (e.g. sheep, pig, cow, calf, deer) whereas the name for the meat is always derived from Norman French (mutton, pork, beef, veal, venison). But then only the rich ate well, throughout our period; what the poor survived on (and they did not always survive) we would not wish to emulate) and the rich during this period were largely French speaking.
In the first chapter, After Domesday, the very first recipe is appropriately for Frumenty, a porridge made of "kibbled" wheat which, with either milk or meat stock, formed the basic food of all classes at this time that is to say, the poor ate it when all was well, the rich when there was nothing tastier on hand like Sweet-Sour Spiced Rabbit: yes, it was the Normans not the Chinese who introduced 'aigre-doux' to England! And at the same time they introduced the rabbit, hitherto unknown on our side of the Channel. (Not all writers of historical novels set prior to the Norman invasion seem aware of that.) Then there is a chapter entitled Chaucer's Company, which includes authentic recipes for dishes mentioned in The Canterbury Tales, such as Civey of Hare (yes, hares there have always been) which begins: Smyte a hare in small pecys ...
One of my favourite chapters is The Goodman of Paris, in which but look at the picture, and let me quote:
The upright French landowner of sixty whose recipes fill this section is revealed to us in Eileen Power's translation of his book as one of the most prepossessing characters of his time. This is partly because he is not a public figure whose words and actions are displayed for praise or blame by a biographer, nor is he writing for money; as far as we can tell, he is genuinely composing, from various sources and his own experience, a housewife's manual just for the use of his fifteen-year-old bride.
This age gap between husband and wife was not unusual in the fourteenth century ...
Then there is a chapter on The Court of Richard II, my own (that is to say Mariana's) period exactly. I have been trying out some of the recipes and my favourite - you must try it - is Rose Pudding, which is made with "flours of white rosis", or, as Maggie Black has it in her modern version of the recipe, "petals of one full-blown but unshrivelled white rose". Delicious.
The final chapter is on feasting and contains the Christmas recipes, of which the best are probably Pork Roast with Spiced Wine, and A Grete Pie. "No Christmas Feast in medieval times was complete without a 'grete pie'. Should it be in modern times?