The sources of food during this time period were limited to what could be grown locally and what they could forage for in the wild. The only imported food that is documented consisted of figs and grapes. Wheat was grown by the wealthy using manure as fertilizer. Peasants grew only rye and barley since they didn't have access to fertilizer needed to grow wheat. Oats were planted to be used for ale and to feed their animals.
One problem with harvesting was that often poisonous weeds were mixed in with the crop as they gathered it. The peasants had no knowledge of the poison causing illness and therefore did not realize it was making them ill. Carrots were grown but they were small and a reddish purple color as compared to the orange carrots we have today. Parsnips were grown but were called Welsh carrots. Cabbages were smaller and not as tender as what we find today. The farmers of the Middle Ages also cultivated beans and peas. It may have been one of the few sources of protein for the peasant class.
The large financial gap that existed between the noble class and other landowners and the poor was enormous and the diet of the peasants was extremely limited. Wild roots and plants were collected such as burdock, onions and leeks. Garlic may have been used as well. The home grown herbs used to flavor the food would have included dill, thyme, and coriander. Opium poppy and summer savoury are also mentioned.
There is evidence in the form of seeds discovered during excavations that many fruits were eaten. Crab apples, cherries, plums and sloes which are small plums also called blackthorn. They made cider and added honey for sweetening. Sugar was not considered a food in those days, but was used as a medicine.
Mead was an alcoholic beverage made from honey. The historians are not sure if it was similar to what we call honey beer. They drank imported wine and also made fruit wines locally. This included one called apple wine which was probably apple cider. This is only a guess though. There were herbal teas, pear juice and plum juice for beverages.
Some who sold wheat were dishonestly adding grasses to make it cheaper to produce. Fish and shellfish were a part of the diet. Evidence of herring, salmon and eel were discovered as well as oysters, cockles and mussels. Fish could be preserved for the winter by salting, pickling or smoking it.
Methods of catching fish in those times included use of nets, spears or wicker traps. They used hooks and lines for catching ocean fish. Porpoises were considered fish in that time period. They were caught and whales were hunted in the ocean.
The animals raised as food sources were also valuable for other purposes. For example cows gave milk as well as meat, sheep gave wool as well as mutton, goats gave milk and hens provided eggs until they were killed to be eaten. Pigs were useful only as food. At one time horses were killed for their meat but it became illegal at some point in history. In addition to domestic animals there was wild meat to be hunted.
Wild boar were hunted although they were extremely dangerous animals. The tusks were considered an important trophy. Deer were hunted along with hares, ducks and geese. There were no rabbits until after the Norman Conquest. Meat was consumed freely by the nobles but not easily afforded by the peasants.
Meals were served in wooden bowls. The eating utensils were spoons and knives. Cooking methods were baking in a clay oven or boiling in a pot over a fire. The bread was a daily food and prepared by baking or on a griddle. When an animal was slaughtered the blood was collected to make into what they called blood pudding. Flour and herbs were added to the cooked blood. Animal fat was used for cooking and if there was extra, for making tallow. The amount of meat you consumed was an indication of the amount of wealth you had. The peasants used meat sparingly and sometimes not at all.
Honey was used in large quantities mainly as a sweetener. The meals were prepared using the clay ovens and a hanging griddle (hung over a fire). It was fried, barbecued, spit roasted and baked in the dying embers of the fire wrapped in leaves. Meals were well cooked and nutritious. Food was often boiled in a cauldron or baked in the embers of a fire usually wrapped in leaves and clay. This was an economical way of providing well cooked nutritious meals.
Menu for the ruling class (some examples) Capon, goose, lark, chicken, beef, bacon, lamb, salmon, herring, eel, milled flour, cheese, butter and eggs
Menu for the peasant class (some examples) Barley, rye bread, honey, peas and beans for protein, a dish called pottage (a thick soup of onions, cabbage, garlic, nuts, berries, leeks, spinach, parsley or any combination of them. Sometimes a little bacon or salt pork was added for flavor.
Meals were more than sustenance in castle life. They were also a form of entertainment. A banquet might contain as much food as the typical peasant family ate in a month. The copious amount served at a banquet was of such a large amount that it was never all consumed. Sometimes the servants would be allowed to have the leftovers but it was often thrown out rather than indulge them.
The custom was to take a small breakfast at sunrise, a large meal between ten am and noon and a lighter supper at sunset. The entertainment provided after supper might be storytellers, acrobats or minstrels. There were traveling players going from castle to castle providing no war or siege was taking place.
The farmers and servants may have eaten at approximately the same time, however their menu was not the same. In the great hall of the castle breakfast might consist of white bread and cheese with a beverage. The farmer's breakfast might be rye bread or pottage with ale or water. Dinner was the main meal of the day. Dinner in the castle would have two or three courses consisting of meats and pastries, bread made with wheat flour, fowl or fish, fruit, cheese, nuts and other tasty treats. The beverages might be wine and sometimes ale. Vegetables were considered common and therefore did not often make an appearance on the king's table.
The royal supper would usually be bread, cheese and some type of stew. Meanwhile in the peasant dwelling they consumed a dinner of vegetables or salad, dark bread, porridge, cheese curds, ale or mead. Fish or meat was rare and greatly enjoyed when they could afford them. Ironically, their diet was much healthier than that of the upper classes. The peasants often had very small amounts of food. Since the farmers and the castle staff worked hard, long hours it's surprising they survived on such scanty amounts of nourishment...