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What is Pottage?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pottage is a name for a type of stew. A peasant food, it was a common meal throughout Europe in medieval times. Most peasants ate what foods were available to them at the time, so pottage became something of a catch-all term that has since come to mean something with little or no value. Modern soups and stews can trace their roots back to pottage.

Pottage was, as its name suggests, often cooked in a pot over an open fire. When prepared by and eaten by the lower class, the main ingredient was usually water. While boiling the water, they would add whatever other ingredients were available at the time. This often included vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and onions, along with whatever game meat had been hunted that day. Fresh -picked herbs were also frequently used to season the meal.

Originally, herbs such as parsley and thyme were used along with the vegetables usually grown in the home garden. As more herbs and spices became available, cooks began adding new ingredients, from saffron and pomegranates to pistachios and almonds. Higher-end ingredients made what was originally a peasant's meal a more popular dish among the middle and upper classes; eventually, this led to the development of the different types of modern soups. The most popular soup recipes were recorded and replicated when they became more sophisticated foods. The Queen's Pottage is a recipe favored in a number of European countries, and was made with mushrooms, lemons, almonds, and partridge.

Most pottage made by the peasantry was thin, as it was mostly water. Wealthier individuals also commonly ate pottage, but their version of it was made thicker by more meat and vegetables. Depending on the quality of the pottage, it could either be hardly nutritious or very filling; most times, the healthier meals were eaten by the wealthy. This thick stew more commonly eaten by those who could afford better ingredients was often called frumenty.

The main source of heat for most homes in the medieval era was a hearth or central firepit. This often doubled for the cooking stove. Homes belonging to wealthier families could often have a cauldron over the fire, suspended by an iron bar. Pottage would be boiled in this and left to simmer through the day. More impoverished families had to find another way to cook. This usually involved a simple pit fire in the middle of the room, with the ashes burned down and hollowed to make a place to set an earthenware pot.

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