A subtlety (also sotelty or soteltie) was an elaborate form of dish common during the late Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in England and France.Its function was to demarcate main courses from one another while also entertaining diners. A subtlety could be anything from a pie with exotic spices to an elaborate model of a castle made of pastry. Subtlety dishes were reserved for the upper classes who could afford the huge costs of exclusive ingredients, talented chefs and huge staffs to create lavish meals. Subtleties were often used during fast days or Lent to alleviate the restrictions in diet imposed by Catholic fasting laws.

Elaborate illusions

Among the popular ingredients for subtleties were various kinds of fowl, especially peafowl and swans. These birds would often be plucked and skinned and their meat seasoned, and then baked, grilled, or boiled; stuffed with fillings of all kinds; and finally redressed with their own skins. Supported by concealed wooden struts and decorated with their original plumage, the birds would be served in lifelike poses.

Culinary renditions of popular fables and religious allegories were common. 14th century cookbooks describe how to prepare a cockatrice, a fantasy animal, by roasting a suckling pig and some form of fowl separately, then sewing their skins together so that the final creation would look like the fabled creature. Tableaux depicting various human activities familiar to the medieval dinner guests were popular, such as "pilgrims" made from grilled or fried capons, pikes decorated to look like pilgrims holding roast lampreys as staffs, miniature knights made from grilled, stuffed fowl riding roast piglets, or hunting scenes.

Allegorical scenes with titles like "Castle of Love" and mythical and religious scenes and figures like "Lady of the Unicorn," "Knight of the Swan," and even "Lamb of God" (Agnus Dei) were also mentioned. Other popular arrangements were models of castles made from sugar, pastry or marzipan, a specialty of English chefs during the late Middle Ages. Over time, subtleties became ever more decorative and less suitable for eating, and eventually evolved into pure decorations produced by painters, carpenters, and metalsmiths rather than by chefs.

Examples of subtleties

Though not enjoying international prestige and fame for culinary sophistication today, English cuisine during at least the High and Late Middle Ages was considerably more refined by continental standards. A specialty of English cooks was to disguise meatballs as oranges.

See also



  • Adamson, Melitta Weiss (2004) Food in Medieval Times ISBN 0-313-32147-7
  • Dawson, Thomas. Good Huswife's Jewell, 1596, (Falconwood Press, edition 1988).
  • Form of Cury, 1780 edition as printed in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, compiled by Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, Fourth Edition, Volume I, 1987
  • Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976). ISBN 0-271-01230-7
  • Petits Propos Culinaires, Issues 17, 20 (Prospect Books Ltd., London)
  • Scully, Terence (1995) The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages ISBN 0-85115-611-8
  • The Viandier of Taillevent, ed. Terence Scully,(University of Ottawa Press, 1988).
  • Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).
  • Wilson, C. Anne. Banquetting Stuffe, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

External links

  • How to Cook Medieval - A modern guide on how to make Western European medieval cuisine and subtleties
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