Pike with almond stuffing, venison, wine and bread were some of the favourite dishes of King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. This year, the Czech Republic commemorates his legacy even more intensively than usual. Charles IV cultivated the Czech lands; he made Prague the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire, and contributed to the development of education, spas and vineyards. Because of this Czechs call him “the father of the country”, and 2016 is therefore very important – in May, 700 years will have passed since the birth of King Charles IV. For this reason there will be numerous exhibitions dedicated to Charles throughout the Czech Republic, which will focus on the well thought-out strategy of his reign, as well as the more everyday aspects of his life... for example, do you know what was most often to be found on the on the royal dining table in the Middle Ages?
Game was a favouriteCharles IV was very fond of game – whether on his plate or in the woods. He often enjoyed quail, deer, hare or well-smoked wild boar, which he also liked to hunt himself mostly in the Beroun forests, where his beloved Karlštejn Castle is situated.
According to legend, Charles IV also discovered hot springs in the forest near Loket Castle whilst out hunting. He and his entourage, were chasing a deer, which escaped by leaping off a cliff. Charles IV noticed that at the foot of the cliff there was hot water. He personally checked out its healing effects and founded the now world-famous spa town of Karlovy Vary. It thus owes its existence to Charles’s passion for hunting and game in general.
Venison was also an important part of a meal in symbolic terms – tables of the nobility could not be without it because it represented a mark of wealth. From the perspective of statesmanship, a poor table was unacceptable.
SpicesCharles IV enjoyed spicy food. Aromatic dishes and distinctive flavours were signs of aristocratic cuisine and a typical characteristic of medieval gastronomy. Even nuts and fruit were considered to be spices. At castles and chateaux, people were seasoning with white ginger and cinnamon; serfs livened up their food with mustard seeds and saffron.
Spices in medieval cuisine had several functions; in addition to flavouring food, spices added some colour to the dish, helped meals become more harmonised with human bodily fluids, and the healthy appetite displayed by guests was a mark of how well the household was doing.
BreadBread in the Middle Ages was an important part of the everyday life of serfs, noblemen and the Emperor alike. Charles IV, as a devout Christian, ate white bread. Moreover the King had loaves of bread of a specific size, which fitted perfectly into his hand. Serfs however cut their slices from larger loaves.
King Charles was particularly fond of butter. During his reign, there was a lack of butter as well as most other dairy products because milk producing animals often died of various diseases. When Charles was staying at Karlštejn Castle or in Prague, he supposedly enjoyed eating a slice of bread with a layer of butter as thick as his finger.
Fasting and fishButter and meat were dishes associated with gluttony and corporeality and thus also with sin. Charles IV, as a devout Christian frequently fasted, which even once saved his life. In 1331 in Paris, a hired assassin poisoned the breakfast of the then young royal prince, fortunately Charles IV fasted before mass and thus escaped the assassination attempt. However, many of his courtiers died and the young nobleman concluded that he was being protected by higher powers.
During fasting, people in the Middle Ages were still allowed to eat fish. Charles IV was also fond of fish. He built a large vat near Karlstejn Castle, where fish were bred. On his plate, Charles mostly preferred a pike with almond stuffing.
International cuisineLove passes through the stomach – this was true for Charles IV in a slightly different way. The monarch had four wives, each from a different part of Europe. Therefore, he was able to find delicacies on his table from Luxembourg, France and Germany.
Moreover, he himself had international experience from his youth - he used to live in France and Italy. From France he brought vines to the Czech lands and established the basis for Czech viniculture, from Italy he imported his beloved confectionary.