January 2020: a Taste of “Before ‘Farm to Table'” Part III

Dear Recipes Project community,

Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.

What can you expect to learn? Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?” And next up, below: Jack Bouchard discusses beer-drinking, beer-making and celebrations around beer in early modern Europe.

-The RP Editors
*****

By

Willem Delff. “Cask of Heidelberg.” 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Willem Delff. “Cask of Heidelberg.” 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

From Prince Hal and Falstaff’s hearty embrace of tavern fare and drinks, to the Duke of Clarence’s death in a butt of malmsey, alcoholic beverages are woven throughout Shakespeare’s plays. But what do we know about food, drink, and culture in the German-speaking heart of central Europe?

The tradition of Oktoberfest, celebrated among other places at its birthplace in Munich, Germany, and across the US, seems to invoke something universal and timeless about German society writ large (surely, one might think, Martin Luther and the Habsburg emperors must have enjoyed beer and pretzels each autumn). But in truth, Oktoberfest only began in 1810, and it is essentially regional, reflecting the distinct culture of Bavaria in southern Germany. The Folger collection’s wide variety of material from German-speaking lands in the 15th and 16th centuries offers a more complex story.

There was no early modern Germany, as we would understand it today, and no unified German culture. For early modern German speakers, the ways that they drank and celebrated were quite diverse. Sausage and bread varieties might differ from town to town and season to season, and wine often replaced beer in the south and west. This divided world is epitomized by an illustration in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by doctor and scholar Hartmann Schedel. Schedel chose to portray his native land not with a map, but with a stylized image of 12 imperial city-states embedded in an imaginary countryside. Here was “Germany” as Schedel and others lived it in the early modern age: distinct and squabbling communities, stretching from Metz in modern France to Salzburg in Austria.

The modern notion of Oktoberfest, however, does capture some important aspects of older German foodways. In the early modern world, autumn was the season of plenty. A 1587 print by the Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert shows Bacchus reveling in a cornucopia of fall produce, as farmers reap the harvest in the background. In this age of communal farm labor, harvest festivals were common, and across the German-speaking lands there were festivals, prominently featuring beer and wine, in September and October. If there was no Oktoberfest, there were a variety of October-fêtes.

Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Drink was as seasonal as the food, and one of the most popular homemade beers was Märzen, a lager prepared in March and stored in a cold cellar to slowly ferment all summer long. (Summer heat could make brewing risky, so early spring was the latest that most households made beer.) The casks were taken out and enjoyed as an accompaniment to the harvest work and communal celebrations, producing what is today marketed as Oktoberfest-style lager. The drink had a wide appeal: The Folger collection includes a later English recipe for “March Beer,” brewed on the same principles.

Want to learn more about beer in the early modern world — and get a glimpse of that recipe for “March Beer”? Read the rest of Jack’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2018/10/30/in-the-spirit-of-oktoberfest-food-drink-and-changing-times-in-early-modern-europe/

…still thirsty for more? Listen to this Spotify playlist of drinking songs from early Germany curated by the Folger Consort!