As many readers have remarked, George R.R. Martin has a knack (and a habit!) of describing the sumptuous meals his characters dine on, throwing out terms like “pease”, “hippocras”, and “leche” with aplomb. It’s enough to make a fan’s stomach rumble, imagining the roasted venison, the stewed rabbit, the omlettes mixed with fiery dragon peppers. The feast in the novels is one of the chief ways in which lords and kings show their wealth and sophistication, conspicuous consumption (quite literally) for the sake of making a statement. When a character complains that she’s been left in charge of feast and frolics, her concern about her father’s trust and respect is a genuine one, and yet … these aren’t unimportant tasks, not in the Seven Kingdoms.
Martin uses feasts not simply as displays of a gourmand’s love of good food and displays of noble luxury, but they also are settings for important insights… and important events, as well. Orders of precedence, taking into account feuds and enmities, making sure not to place the wrong people below the salt so tha they feel slighted, are concerns that revolve around and generate social tension, even angst. There’s a sense that feasts can be quite stressful, and it’s under stress that important observations of characters have been made in the books — Catelyn will be able to accurately sum up a gathering of nobles at one such feast (which we may or may not glimpse in season 2 of the HBO TV series), and some truly momentuous events take place in feasts that follow.
Imagining such feasts, especially for those of us without a culinary bone in our bodies, hasn’t always been easy. What does wild boar taste like? I’ve no idea, though I know that I could buy the meat at a specialty market. What in the world is a “leche of brawn”? No idea there, either. But fortunately, the culinary minds behind the Inn at the Crossroads — Chelsea and Sariann — have recently leapt into the fray with an absolutely gorgeous, photo- and recipe-laden site that’s won praise from many, including George R.R. Martin. Poring exhaustively through the books (with, we’re proud to say, a little help from our Concordance), they’ve recreated many dishes (with more to come) and provided detailed explanations of how to create them. They’ve taken some time out of their busy schedule to discuss Westerosi and medieval cuisine, and provide some tips for the best approach for creating your own Seven Kingdoms-style feasts and meals.
First, I have to ask … are you ringers? Please tell me you’re professional cooks, because otherwise I’m just going to feel incredibly inadequate. When I first saw the photos on your site, I just thought, “Come on — these are pros!”
C: Haha! No, we’re not professionals, just incredibly enthusiastic. We both come from families that love food and cooking, so it sort of comes naturally. I know that I have also learned an incredible amount about cooking while undertaking this project, which is neat. I have had an absolute blast zooming around the internet, doing research, and looking at what other people have created for ideas.
S: Not professional cooks, sorry. Neither of us has any culinary training aside from what we’ve learned from our moms, our cookbooks, and YouTube.
Well, any background in historical reenactment?
C: We’ve dabbled some with medieval reenactment, but so far it’s mostly an excuse to go camping in style. I mean, who doesn’t love meat cooked on a spit over an open fire, and good mead to drink? We are kind of history nerds, though, which makes us insufferable company while watching the show. We’ve been heard to mutter things like, “Are those marquis tents? Look at the aventail on his helmet!” And that’s not even including our hawk-like, mildly obsessive observations on the food… Making food while roughing it, i.e. camping, is a really interesting and informative experience. It’s a little closer to how medieval cooking was done, without the aid of refrigerator or stovetops. Eating a game hen hot off the grill with your bare hands also helps forge a connection with your distant ancestors.
Have you had prior experience with food blogging like this, actually?
C: Nope. Not a bit. I even had to learn how to use Twitter! I can now twit. Ah, twert. Tweet! I will admit, though, that I now have what is probably bordering on a slight obsession with looking at other food blogs online, and trying to improve ours. Some of what’s out there is really inspiring!
S: I ran a short-lived book review blog, and wrote for a Manchester United blog for a time, but no culinary blogs.
What is it about the novels that attracts you to them, and to their food?
C: Like so many of the other detailed descriptions in Martin’s books, his account of foods and feasts draws readers into his world. The foods are mouthwatering, and I think that is in part because they are somewhat familiar, but just exotic enough to be tempting. They are also appropriate to the cultures where the dishes are eaten. For example, you wouldn’t find Black Brothers eating skewers of honeyed dormice on the Wall, or Prince Doran sipping hot mulled wine. The foods make sense in their own contexts.
S: There is always something happening in the books, you can never get bored with so many simultaneous story lines. The food is just mouth-wateringly described in the books. It makes you hungry reading it. I also enjoy seeing the difference in fare between the geographical locations. It gives another layer of reality and familiarity with Westeros.
There’s already a wide variety of recipes on your site — do you have a particular favorite, something that just knocked your socks off when you tried it the first time?
C: Of actual recipes from the books, the Ribs in a Crust of Garlic, Cream Swans, and several of the Breakfasts were my favorites. Pretty much all of the desserts are winners. And I love anything with honey.
S: The stuffed grape leaves in the Dornish dinner are something that I can’t shake, as I was never a fan of stuffed grape leaves before I tried these. But the entire experience of spitting the goat haunch over the fire like a proper wildling was incredible. Not just the final result, which was of course delectable, but this was the first item we cooked that I actually felt like I was personally experiencing a part of the books while making it.
Feasts are major event in Westeros, and can be quite extravagant — up to and including 77-course wedding feasts, which is pretty much impossible to try and duplicate for most people. How many courses would you suggest someone attempt, if they tried to get a Seven Kingdoms-style feast going? Is there a “sweet spot” for courses, something that gets a sense of extravagance without breaking the bank?
C: There is definitely a breaking point for preparing a large feast for many people. The arbitrary number I would throw out is 7 courses for the very ambitious, but that would also include a couple of simpler sides, like buttered carrots. There are definitely ways of making this task easier on yourself. Getting friends to help is lots of fun, either with preparation, cleanup, or both. A great way to put together a multiple course feast is to make it potluck style, and have each guest bring a dish. Also, some elements of these recipes can be prepared a day ahead, which saves a lot of time on the day of the big dinner. If at any point you aren’t having as much fun preparing the food as you will eating it, then something’s wrong!
S: I think a four course meal is a good balance. A salad, a soup, entrée with assorted sides, and a dessert (or a few). Of course, you would also have to include a selection of drink to round out the experience! ?
You draw on medieval recipes — much, we suppose, as GRRM did — to help figure out some of these meals. Are there any particular books you’d recommend for someone interested in picking up a few good recipes and some general principles of medieval cookery?
C: Absolutely! We’ve used extensively The Medieval Kitchen, Pleyn Delit, Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, and Cooking Apicius. The Gode Cookery website is also a terrific resource for medieval recipes. When it comes to modern equivalents, we sometimes use family recipes, or scan the web for something that looks good. Spending hours a day on food blog websites can actually be much more painful that you might realize, especially before lunch!
Broadly speaking, what do you think might be biggest differences between a Westerosi lord’s palette and a modern person’s?
C: If we’re basing this on medieval fare, then one big difference is that many medieval meat dishes were sweet, rather than savory. This difference between the old version and the modern one is part of the reason we love doing a side by side comparison. Tasting a medieval pork pie next to a modern one is really neat, and we are often surprised how often we prefer the older recipe
S: Modern recipes tend to incorporate more ingredients than medieval recipes, and people, in the US especially, have come to expect specialty ingredients included in a number of traditional dishes. Medieval recipes tend to be more basic, have fewer ingredients.
Do you have any simple tips for how to turn a common meal into a “medieval” one, techniques to use instead of modern ones, perhaps the use of certain kinds of spices as opposed to ones more commonly used today?
C: A lot of it comes down to atmosphere. Even if your dish is medieval, if you are eating it off one of your normal plates in front of the tv, you lose something of the experience. Instead, try eating with just a knife, off a wooden bowl or out of a bread trencher. Drink out of a goblet or tankard, and eat your dinner by firelight. Such is the effect of an authentic atmosphere that it can give the illusion of eating medieval food. Whenever we make a new dish, we like to try it with some atmosphere…if it even makes it out of the kitchen before we devour it, that is!
S: When cooking a medieval meal, it’s important to remember how they sourced ingredients. Today we’re used to persimmons from Chile, and cinnamon from Vietnam, but back then, most of the ingredients were local. Try to use foods that are native to your area and climate, and keep the ingredient list to a minimum. Medieval foods had a knack for letting the ingredients shine without muddling the flavors. And remember, simple food does not equal tasteless food, do you proper seasoning.
True or false: when it comes to reproducing Westerosi cuisine, the gamier the meat, the better?
C: Not necessarily. We have found that in many cases, a medieval preparation of just about any commonly used meat makes a new and exciting dish. That said, there is something wonderful and authentic about knowing that the meal in front of you is rabbit, or quail, or boar.
S: Generally true, although the gaminess is often tempered by the cooking method. While cooking a goat haunch over an open fire showcases its gaminess, stewing chopped goat tenderizes it. While it is possible to change the gamey texture of a meat, I would caution people to not try and rid it of the gamey taste, and rather run with it as a taste in the dish.
Chef Tom Colicchio put together a number of interesting recipes inspired by different regions as part of a promotion for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and in your own cooking, you’ve noted some regional differences (Dornish cuisine, for example, is fairly different). What do you feel would most distinguish a feast at Winterfell from a feast in Highgarden?
C: First off, I was really impressed by the attention to detail that Tom Colicchio and his crew paid to the original descriptions in the books. They did a great job of using ingredients that matched descriptions in the books. As for the differences, they’re pretty straightforward. Winterfell is a colder, more forested region than Highgarden, thus producing food with a lot of game, and root vegetables. Each region has characteristics that produce different kinds of cuisine. The Iron Islands, of course, feature a great deal of seafood, while the trading ports of King’s Landing and Pentos offer a wide variety of exotic goods, presumably bought and traded for off the many ships coming and going from the harbors.
S: Heartier foods are found in Winterfell- wild game, larger livestock, root vegetables- things that can grow in a tough climate. Meals tend to be closer to what we consider “meant and potatoes” cooking. Highgarden offers a more temperate climate, allowing for greater variety in their food, often leaning toward decadence.
Trenchers — they’re everywhere in the novels. Have you experimented with them? Any suggestions as to the best sort of bread to use?
C: Loaves of stale bread. Or better yet, bread that’s stale on the outside, but still fresh on the inside. This makes for a great bowl shape, while still providing yummy bread to eat with whatever the dish is. The type of bread should ideally suit whatever food you are putting into it. Pumpernickel, Rye, and other dark brown breads are usually the best, although for a cream-based dish, you might go with a lighter loaf.
Any favorite medieval or Renaissance recipe that you think ought to make an appearance in the series?
C: Yes! We actually made a special category for those kinds of dishes after finding a medieval recipe for Spiced Plum Mousse in a medieval cookbook. We made the recipe, and absolutely loved it! Who knows, maybe it will appear in Winds of Winter!
Is there any meal from the novels that you suggest fans avoid trying to replicate? Is that advice just common sense, or one learned through an unfortunate culinary experience?
C: You know, we haven’t really come across that many. Generally, we try to make meals that people will want to eat, and if we aren’t successful, we’ll keep trying until we get it right. We do have a page of dishes that we can’t make, either legally or for practical reasons. For some of these, though, we hope to come up with a few creative solutions so readers can still have fun with them. Look for a post soon on Mock Dormice.
S: We also have a list of these! We generally don’t condone eating animals on any kind of protected list, like the heron and the swan (at least in the US), or eating real rodents!
Finally, any hints as to what you’re going to be working on next at the Inn at the Crossroads?
C: Well, finishing out this project will take us a while. We’ve been doing it for around three months, now, and have over 70 dishes posted. However, that leaves us with around 100 more, plus whatever turns up in A Dance with Dragons. In the short term, we’re working on some homemade cordials and brandies, mushroom and escargot soup, the near-legendary lamprey pie, and several more desserts. We plan to take full advantage of the upcoming farmer’s market season!
Long term? Who knows! We’d love to hear from readers what other fictional food they are craving! Personally, I’d love to come up with a way to make the alcoholic oranges from the Locke Lamora books!