What to expect at a medieval meal
Have you ever worried about sitting at a formal place setting and possibly grabbing the wrong fork or spoon? That you’d commit a faux pas by trying to eat your salad with a dessert fork? You might have felt more at home then at a medieval European dinner party then, where such concerns were on nobodies’ mind, largely thanks to people usually omitting forks from the table entirely. There’s still be some protocol to observe, such as how to appreciate the host’s spice rack displayed on the table, but nothing too terribly daunting. At a minimum, the food would likely be pretty tasty and inventive, even the dishes nobody was supposed to actually eat.
To start with the fundamentals, it was important to bring your own knife to a banquet. As a handy utility item, a sharp, pointed blade was something many people would have been carrying already, so asking them to use it at the table wasn’t that odd at the time. Forks wouldn’t have been on the table, as Europeans were mocking their use as a utensil as late as 1897. Instead, anything your knife couldn’t handle could just be picked up, or of course spooned if you happened to be eating a soup.
This isn’t to imply that a medieval feast was a sloppy, crude affair. Upper class diners would have made a point to have washed hands before eating, and manners and social ranks would have been observed. A well-to-do host would also take the opportunity to showcase their taste and financial power, serving dishes notably seasoned with imported spices, as well as prominently displaying those spices on the table. Even salt, which was labor intensive to come by, was often displayed in grand cellars called nefs.
The biggest showmanship from the kitchen wasn’t always meant to be edible. Between courses, guests would be entertained (and hopefully impressed) by a “subtlety,” or entremets. These diversions sometimes resembled theater, but other times demonstrated the cleverness of the chef, who might share a novelty food item intended for display only. Examples include a map of a host’s recently acquired land made from pastry, or the “four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie” you may have heard of in a nursery rhyme. The spectacle would then entertain guests, advance conversation and hopefully put a shine on the host’s reputation as well.
Source: The Taste of Medieval Food by Analida Braeger, Medievalists.net