Like everything else, food is a matter of social class as well as region and season. With the price rise that has been a general phenomenon in this century, a peasant or urban laborer rarely sees meat except on feast days. Bread is much more than figuratively the staff of life -- it is the fundamental food of Europe. The bread of the lower classes is made with cheaper grains than wheat: barley and rye, for example. More rye is being used in bread now than formerly in this century, again a sign of the high cost of living now. Lower class bread had grit in it. The bread of the upper classes was made with a higher proportion of wheat, which was more finely ground and sifted. Stale bread was cut into squares and used for trenchers -- a surface on which to serve the other food and sauces. When the rich were done with their meals, the sauce-soaked bread was usually given to the poor.
Most meat is usually served either extremely fresh (birds kept in cages until killed for dinner), or salted and preserved. The spicing of many medieval recipes is intended to mask the fact that the meat is extremely salty and has to be soaked and boiled forever. Meat is commonly served in ragouts and pottages, which is a good way to deal with preserved meat. It can also be baked into pies. The purpose of a piecrust is to serve as a storage container and serving vessel, and these are often made too hard to really eat. Roasted meats naturally have to be fresh and of good quality, and are more likely to be found on a noble table. It is the cauldron, not the spit, that is the mainstay of the common household.
Only the noble classes had the right to hunt game, and only a seigneur could keep a rabbit warren or dovecote (the latter being especially resented by peasants, as the birds would eat their seed when they sowed the fields). In the north of France, we have pretty good pasturage for cattle, sheep, goats. Pigs aren't difficult to keep, and everyone has chickens. As city dwellers, the animals are usually kept outside the walls (except for the chickens). Fowl are viewed as especially desirable foods for noble tables. Peacocks, swans, herons, and other birds that we no longer eat in the twentieth century (they don't taste that good to us) were much sought after for banquets, but were inaccessible to the average person.
There are over a hundred fast days a year in which meat cannot be eaten and fish is an important staple. This fish is rarely fresh unless one lives in a port -- fresh fish was quite a luxury food. Most people ate salted fish, which has rather the consistency of plywood. Here in Calais, the herring fishing industry is very big and herrings are salted, smoked, and exported in good quantity. The herring business has been key to the prosperity of many northern port towns. Herring "à la Calaisienne" means fresh herring -- we are lucky to live on the sea. Oysters, crayfish, mussels, and similar shellfish are generally considered "poor people's food". Oysters will gain cachet in the 17th century as a food fit for the upper middle classes, but right now they are the food of dockworkers.
Fruit is another luxury food. The natural season of most fruits is quite short. Fruit is usually preserved, either "wet" (e.g. marmalade) or "dry" (e.g. orange peels). Preserved fruits are proably the closest thing to "sweets" that there are. Vegetables also are frequently preserved in brine or vinegar. Common ones in this region are leeks, cauliflower, artichokes, chicory. Salad is often a food of the poor and the religious. "Potherbs" -- many kinds of savory greens -- usually go into the soup. Onions are an important vegetable for the pot. In the south, garlic is of course very popular -- the king loves it and his garlic breath is a byword.
What people eat is very much a function of region. Although some luxury foods are imported from far away (oranges from Seville, for example) and there is an wide-ranging import-export business in certain staples like grain (the recent string of disastrous harvests have stimulated a strong trade with Eastern Europe through the Baltic) and salted fish (the source of wealth for many Atlantic coastal towns), most food rarely goes more than a few miles from where it was grown. Without the extensive network of market gardens that surround the average town, city dwellers would starve. Even today, food in France is still quite regional and seasonal, with the ancient network that brings the produce of the countryside to the market towns being very much alive.
Season also plays a big part in what shows up on the table. One does not get lamb in August or fresh artichokes in March. Strawberries are an intense, but very brief, pleasure in June. We are used to the idea that fruits and vegetables are seasonal, but meat is, too. The pigs are slaughtered in December, and their remains are preserved as sausage, bacon, etc. and eaten until spring. Early spring is often the most difficult season for food. Food which was harvested and preserved in late summer and fall is often gone, and it is too early yet for new crops. The lambing season comes just in the nick of time! There is a reason why the two big "food festivals" we still preserve in Western culture (Christmas and Easter) come at the beginning of winter (slaughtering time) and the middle of spring (lambing time). And there's a reason why Lent is conveniently located at a time of year when there is little food anyway.
Spices are critical and of great value. Not so much to cover the taste of spoiled meat as the popular wisdom has it, but more to counteract all the salt and the bland taste of shoe-leather quality meat boiled in the pot all day. Medieval people did not value "taste" in quite the same way that we do -- food was appreciated more for its appearance, its symbolic value, or its rarity. When the great noble feasts are described, a great deal of narrative is spent on the clever inventions of "sotleties" constructed to look like castles or unicorns, boars covered in gold leaf, and peacocks dressed in their own feathers, but nothing at all on how the food tasted. The sign of a great cook was the ability to make something look like something else: fish that looks like venison or vice versa. Those silly little fruit-shaped marzipans that we consume at Christmas are a vestige of this tradition.
However, this is an age of transition, as it is for so many arts. We are beginning to see the development of what we consider a modern sensibility about cuisine -- food valued for itself and its taste, where spices and cooking methods are used to bring out its intrinsic qualities. These new tendencies have already appeared in Italy, where so many of the fine arts of the Renaissance were born. Catherine de' Medici is credited with bringing Italian cooks to France, who helped to shape what would become their classic cuisine. How much impact this had on the everyday cook is hard to say -- cookbooks more than a century old are still being published and used. Here in the Poulet Gauche, we benefit from a mixture of traditional and modern cooking because Jeanne-Marie can read cook-books and came from a wealthy household where some of the new approaches were used. Although we don't have any luxuries or as well-stocked a larder as she was used to before, her background shows in the food.