The Lenten Fast

‘And thus they bid farewell to carnal dishes
And solid meats and highly spiced ragouts
To live for forty days on ill-dressed fishes
Because they have no sauces to their stews.’

George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824) ‘Beppo’

I can do no better than give you an extract from a 2003 article by one Agnes deLanavallei* published in ‘Tournaments Illuminated’ (which sounds like one of those magazines they feature at the end of ‘Have I got News for You’). She says:

‘The earliest Church fasts severely restricted all foods, but this gradually eased. Pope Gregory the Great wrote that "We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs." This version of the fast …was the standard of the Roman Catholic Church throughout most of the Middle Ages. By the fifteenth century, however, milk, butter and cheese were generally allowed. Religious orders and devout individuals of course observed more stringent fasts.

Not all the definitions of flesh meat would please a modern biologist. Fish were a fast day food from before the Middle Ages. Since in Genesis the fish and birds were created to populate the waters and the heavens on the fifth day, and creatures of the earth created on the sixth day, a variety of interpretations pushed to include sea birds as fast day foods. The barnacle goose was obviously a fish, since it was believed to hatch from barnacles but puffins were also eaten. The beaver's scaly tail was described as 'the tail of a fish" in learned writings, that was taken as licence to eat beaver tails during Lent.

Since for much of the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was indeed the universal church, Lenten fasts dominated the spring for centuries. The details of course varied with region. But whether you were devout or casual in your beliefs, at Lent, the manors and palaces, taverns and monasteries, served only Lenten fast fare. Many, maybe most, people observed the Lenten fasts conscientiously, but the rest, whatever their preferences, found few alternatives. Spring meant Lent.’

Lent or not, the early spring was a very sparse time of year indeed. Winter stocks of food would be low or finished and not many spring vegetables were yet ready to eat. Any beasts kept over winter would be thin and not worth killing for food. Lent would have to be a time of frugality in any case. It was also a time for abstinence from love making or fighting, and you couldn’t marry or be baptised. There would be very little entertainment and people had to undertake weekly confession and be shriven – so lots of penances would have been handed out.

Even the rich had to abstain, although they did have the chance to use more expensive substitutes for meat. Almonds were often used in mediaeval cookery as a fasting alternative to chicken. Here’s an example of something that might have been served at the rich man’s table. The poor man at the gate was of course still eating pottage. It’s an adaptation of a wonderful ‘Moro’ recipe, so its origins are in Spain, where traditional food and festivals still abound.

Mushroom and Almond Soup
1 large onion finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
250g mushrooms - I used large flat ones chopped into small pieces
2 oz ground almonds (if you can, toast, blanch and grind them yourself)
3 or 4 pieces of dried porcini chopped and soaked
2 pints vegetable stock
4-5 tablespoons fino sherry
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 oz slivers of toasted almond
A big handful of parsley – finely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté lightly for 15 minutes or until softened and light gold. Add the chopped mushrooms and continue to sauté until the mushrooms have stopped leaking moisture. Add the stock and porcini and ground almonds. Put in the porcini soaking water too, but strain it – it’s often gritty. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and add 4 tablespoons of sherry, then a little more if you wish. At this point I blitz the soup with my stick blender. (Moro doesn’t, but I think it looks more appetising that way). Add the parsley, then taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with the flaked almonds on top of each bowl.

O how you'll for th’Aegyptian flesh-pots wish,
When you'r half-famished with your Lenten dish,
Your almonds, currans, biskits hard and dry,
Food that will Soul and Body mortifie

Aphra Behn (c1640-1689) ‘A Letter to a Brother of the Pen in Tribulation’

*Agnes deLanavallei (an actual 12c Angevin Lady) is the persona of Professor Kathleen Keeler, Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska. Grateful thanks to her. You can read her whole fascinating article on recreating Mediaeval Lent at

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