Ciara Meehan, one of the Collections Volunteers at the Charterhouse, delves into the history of Carthusian meals.
Mealtimes have always been an integral part of life at the Charterhouse, dating back to its early days as a Carthusian priory, founded in 1371. The order had dissolved by 1537 but with the introduction of the Almshouse in 1611 it wasn’t long until the kitchens were bustling once again. Today dining together is an integral part of the community at the Charterhouse as the Brothers come together in the Great Hall for up to four meals a day. For the Carthusian order, mealtimes would be taken in solitude in their rooms (cells) with the exception of Sunday’s, holy feast days and when monks were buried. A manuscript form the museum’s collection gives us a greater insight into what the diet of a Carthusian would resemble. Carthusian monks did not consume meat or poultry, a rule that was enforced on their guests as well as themselves. Their diet was largely vegetarian with the exception of fish, and in England, meals could be accompanied with water or wine.
Carthusian monks lived a quiet life of solitude, spending most of their day in their cells when not sharing in communal activities such as prayer. In their cells, the monks were self-sufficient for eating and drinking as their food would be delivered to them. Their possessions included cooking utensils such as spoons, pots, a jug, a bread knife and a salt cellar among other items such as prayer books and habits.
I have attempted to create some recipes with our knowledge of ingredients available to a Carthusian kitchen to create a ‘meal plan’ for a day in the life as a Carthusian monk. Perhaps (as lockdown unfortunately continues) you might want to attempt your own Carthusian diet for a day! You can download my recipe card here.
For a Carthusian, their main meal would be consumed mid-morning. ‘Sallats’ (a word used in the middle ages for salad) were typical and made use of variety of vegetables including lettuce, carrots and turnips as well as herbs, nuts and olives for texture. For something more substantial I have made a fish pie topped with pastry. Butter and cheese could be brought in from outside the monastery and the miller would send in sacks of flour along with other seasonal goods.
After Vespers (evening prayers) a second light meal might be consumed. A typical meal could be a vegetable soup served over a slice of thick bread. With abundant gardens surrounding the priory the Carthusians at the charterhouse should have been able to grow their own vegetables as well as their own herbs. To make a warm hearty soup I selected some root vegetables including butternut squash, carrots and parsnips to roast for a delicious veggie soup. Without the mod-cons of an electric blender, after roasting the vegetables they would continue to cook them over a stove with water until they reached the desired consistency. Not all of the vegetables available to us today were available in Medieval England. Potatoes were not brought to England until 1580 and tomatoes were only grown in England from the 1590s onwards. For a more authentic soup swap the butternut squash for extra carrots and parsnips and serve over a slice of thick bread with your choice of herbs.
For a Carthusian monk a simple life would rarely call for the sweet treat of a dessert but the ingredients to make a fruit loaf were available to them – should they chose to indulge! After the trend of banana bread at the start of lockdown in 2020 why not put that impulse bought loaf tin to good use with a fresh citrusy loaf that you can customise to your liking. Fruit could be purchased by the Carthusian kitchens from local merchants bringing goods like lemons and other seasonal fruit into the city. Create swirls of lemon curd or add berries when the tin is half full before spooning the remaining batter into the tin for a surprise when you slice the loaf.