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I know this question does not concern cooking, however I wondered how people transported their food before aluminium foil was invented (circa 1900, which is not too long ago).

Did people in the middle ages only carry preserved food with them on long journeys? Did they transport it in cloth or ceramic?

This question is really naive, but I want a definite answer.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Hi B. Schnebbler, this question looks interesting. I am a bit concerned that it can invite fanciful speculation from people who don't know how it was done in practice but imagine how it might have been done, and post it as an answer. So I placed that notice preemptively, even without having gotten bad answers. I hope somebody will have the correct answer for you! – rumtscho Apr 18 '17 at 16:03
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    Aluminum foil did not revolutionize food transportation. Pots with lids were around for some time. Aluminum foil does not preserve food. – paparazzo Apr 18 '17 at 18:21
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    Well I would have thought that it was obvious, they used cling film or went to a Tupperware party ;) – dougal 5.0.0 Apr 19 '17 at 5:53
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    I never use aluminum foil. I use cloth, or containers (stable and leak-proof) made of glass, metal, or plastic. My food doesn't spoil, nor is it difficult to transport, and I produce less waste. – henning Apr 19 '17 at 7:40
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    @henning Aluminium foil? Useful stuff to constrain something to shape while it is being baked, to make temporary lids, catch runoff and drippings under baking pans, and to sort types of heat from another (radiant vs convection vs conduction). Terribly unstable stuff, easily torn and reactive with acids, so why would anyone package food with it? – rackandboneman Apr 20 '17 at 22:40
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A complete answer to this question would require writing a primer on the history of food preservation and transport. I'm not going to write one. Instead, I'll focus on the most common methods of personal food transportation -- (that is, snacks, meals, and travel food) in the middle ages.

Transporting foods across the village would have been a daily or weekly event in most medieval European villages, because frequently villages had a common shared oven. This oven belonged to the baker or to the village council, and after the bread was done, the residual oven heat was used to bake beans, casseroles, pot roasts and other slow-cook dishes. Generally, the ceramic vessels for such dishes had lids (which were sometimes sealed with flour paste to retain moisture), and transported unopened in a basket.

For road food, one of the most common methods was as pies. Contrary to modern hand-pies with flaky delicious crust, for many medieval pies the crust was thick, dense, and inedible. The crust wasn't part of the food, it was a sealed wrapper to protect it (with indifferent success); you broke open the crust with a knife and ate the insides with a spoon, tossing the crust to the pigs or dogs (or the very poor).

Another method of sealing food was "potting", which involved putting meat, seafood, or other foods in a small pot and covering the top with a thick layer of fat or (for expensive dishes) wax. The potted food would be cooked with the sealing layer on top, and thus survive for a couple of days until bacteria penetrated the protective grease layer.

References:

Book References (where I got most of this):

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    Nice answer. Inserting an image from you pie reference (with attribution of course) would make it a bell ringer. – Paulb Apr 18 '17 at 17:58
  • We support images now? Huh. – FuzzyChef Apr 18 '17 at 18:32
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    @FuzzyChef Yes, as of 2010 :) stackoverflow.blog/2010/08/18/new-image-upload-support – Cascabel Apr 18 '17 at 18:39
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    A site I use to learn more about the history of food, food preservation, and what things were like surrounding food, in general, is to look into historic societies and re-enactments. Jas. Townsend and Son on YouTube has a lot of great information to show on this front. Including some methods you suggested, such as pies and meat potting. @FuzzyChef is right, this would be a very drawn-out answer, and far greater than any one person could easily answer. I would highly suggest looking into what they have provided. – Paul Beverage Apr 19 '17 at 0:13
  • @PaulBeverage that youtube channel is amazing. what a fascinating find! – user17950 Apr 19 '17 at 9:41
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In addition of FuzzyChef's answer: Some cheaper (?) but less durable (in terms of re-using) food packaging mostly without cheating by curing:

Wrapping

In south-east Asia and central America even today's people use big leaves instead of aluminium foil to wrap their food1: For example, bánh chưng, a (actually very perishable) Vietnamese new year's rice cake, is wrapped in banana leaves and can be stored up to 2 weeks unrefrigerated. Apparently, leaves of Terminalia catappa and some particular Phrynium can be used as well.

Lotus leaves are also used.

Some Mesoamerican dishes (like (naca)tamale) are wrapped in corn husks.

enter image description here enter image description here

Source 1 Source 2

Sasazushi ("Sushi wrapped in a bamboo leaf"), a type of oshizushi, is a pressed sushi from the Kansai region:

enter image description here Source

Does rice straw count (granted, natto is fermented while being wrapped...)?

Historically, nattō was made by storing the steamed soybeans in rice straw, which naturally contains B. subtilis natto. The soybeans were packed in straw and left to ferment.

enter image description here Source

Century eggs and some kind of salted duck eggs are wrapped into a clay-mixture. Beside curing, the eggs are less prone to break.

enter image description here

(Bees)Wax is/was used to control moisture.

Apart from usual wrapping...

gourds, calabashes in particular, are used as beverage and food containers. Animal skins (stomach, bladder). treated with saps and resins, were used as a beverage container, like bota bags, colambres, and waterskins.

enter image description here enter image description here

Even ostrich eggshells dated to 60000 years ago are found to be functional.

Sounds stupid: Food stays fresh if kept alive. At least in today's Vietnam, in rural areas it's common that you buy chickens, fish, frogs etc. alive if you don't intend to cook immediately. When needed, you'll slaughter the (rather small) livestock at home. That's a way to circumvent the famous 2-hour-rule.

Wrapping food with more food (that is meant to be eaten)

As Paulb pointed out in a comment, potentially melting foodstuffs like chocolate can be dipped into a sugary syrup which then harden into a candy shell.

This reminds me of jelly beans or freeze dried fruits in chocolate (a very modern class of confectionery) coated in a thin layer of edible wax (e.g. carnauba wax, beeswax). Chocolate truffles also hold their booze or ganache in chocolate shells.

Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella and cream, giving it an unusual, soft texture. It is also defined by some sources as an outer shell of mozzarella filled with butter or a mixture of butter and sugar. [...] The finished burrata is traditionally wrapped in the leaves of asphodel. [...] When the burrata is sliced open, a spurt of thickened cream flows out. (Source, emphasis mine)

enter image description here

Do edible moldy cheese rinds with a very soft cheese center count as wrapping? Imagine the mess if this was a cream cheese without the rind! Drawback: Curing is involved.

enter image description here

Obvious one: sausage casings.

"Wrapping" food with more food (that is not meant to be eaten)

Besides the pie crust mentioned by Fuzzy Chef: I don't think dry aging / hanging meat is a modern invention. When meat is dry aged, the hard outer shell covered in mold is discarded. Same with some cheese rind.2


1 Wrapping with leaves is not exclusively done for packaging purposes but for taste as well.
2 Contrary to the putrid meat layer, clean non-waxed cheese rind have a second use as a umami bomb in stocks.

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    Nice. Side note: the inspiration for M&M candy was soldiers chocolate rations that were wrapped by dipping in sugary syrup which then hardened into a candy shell. – Paulb Apr 19 '17 at 10:40
  • sasazushi url returns 403 forbidden – user1306322 Apr 19 '17 at 17:53
  • @user1306322 Hmm, the url works for me even in incognito mode. Basically, it's just a link to a more-or-less literal translation of "sasazushi" – Ching Chong Apr 19 '17 at 18:09
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    Nice "wrap-up" of techniques. ;-) – FuzzyChef Apr 19 '17 at 19:03
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    @user1306322 I already included the content in my answer ("('Sushi wrapped in a bamboo leaf'),") - the link is just for reference. – Ching Chong Apr 20 '17 at 13:58
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Non-preserved food in aluminium foil is gonna spoil almost the same as if you didn't put it in foil ...

If you just want to keep the food clean, you can just use any kind of food safe container that fits - a corked glass or bottle, a tiffin, a leather hose, a sealed amphora, whatever.

If a wrapping material is desired, paper and cloth have been there for literal ages - and if you want them reasonably moisture proof, simply treat them with wax and/or oil.

If keeping the food warm is a priority, using a container and wrapping it with a lot of cloth/wool will provide great heat insulation.

...

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wax_paper

The practice of oiling parchment or paper in order to make it semi-translucent or moisture-proof goes back at least to the middle ages. Paper impregnated or coated with purified beeswax was widely used throughout the 19th century to retain or exclude moisture, or to wrap odorous products.

A stinky fish certainly qualifies as an odorous product...

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    In the middle ages, though, it would have been fairly uncommon to cover food with cloth, which was relatively expensive. – FuzzyChef Apr 18 '17 at 17:34
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    And paper wasn't really a thing, either. – David Richerby Apr 18 '17 at 22:08
  • The explanation here is good, but citations would be really helpful (see the post notice at the top). – Cascabel Apr 20 '17 at 23:05
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    That Gutenberg bro, he did his printing act hundreds of years before aluminum foil was invented, so there must have been paper... and if some of these materials weren't available commonly in the middle ages, they certainly were before "circa 1900". – rackandboneman Apr 20 '17 at 23:27
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If you're thinking more in terms of storing sandwiches and other small items for short periods, aluminium foil directly replaced waxed paper and oiled parchment.

For longer-term storage, barrels were used where we might buy tinned food today. A well-constructed barrel is completely air- and water-tight (otherwise they wouldn't be used for brewing). On a long journey where buying food locally was not an option, the party would buy food stored in barrels, and open each barrel as needed. Typically this would be for sea journeys, or for travel in wilderness where there simply wasn't anyone to buy food from.

This was necessarily limited to food which could easily be packed in barrels, of course, and without refrigeration the food also needed to survive at room temperature without spoiling. Meat and fish would be cured, for example, and vegetables would be pickled. Older varieties of apples keep for months if properly stored, and butter does not require refrigeration. Some other food simply did not need to be prepared ahead of time - if you have sacks of flour then you can bake your own bread as you go, for example.

In general though, if you were travelling then you were most likely some kind of trader or drover, and you had money. In that case any locals would be more than happy to let you buy a meal from them!

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    "is completely air- and water-tight" - not always. Barrel-aged beverages often show signs of gentle oxidation, and angel share shows that barrels aren't perfectly water-right, either. – Mołot Apr 21 '17 at 18:23
  • @Mołot "Not always" is fair. But for the purposes of travelling, gentle oxidation can pretty much be ignored. And any container could be leaky if incorrectly assembled or handled roughly. – Graham Apr 24 '17 at 10:26
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There are a couple of methods that I am aware of as well. First, if you had to travel a great distance, you would carry foods that are less likey to spoil. It would depend on the part of the world were talking about but cured meats, cheeses, some breads all worked very well. As for medieval Tupperware, "waxed" or "oiled" cloths and such worked out ok. Ceramic dishes did well, and nothing beats a burlap sack of grain.

However, if I'm not mistaken it was more about keeping foods dry and free of moisture then anything else, and again only certain foods.

Then there was the "bread". Unlike what we think of today, a traveling bread would have been hard, crusty, dry, and maybe even salty. The most recent thing I can think of is Hard-Tac (not medieval but if you ever try to eat the stuff you'll get the idea).

In essence, you ate the food you could hunt. Small game mostly, and you had a store of foods that was less likely to spoil. Keep in mind that back then you wouldn't really "need" food the way we do now. The country side was full of food sources (it is today) and the people knew how to exploit that (looking for roots, tubers, small game, and the like).

If you set off on a 6 month trip, then you might take 1-2 weeks worth of "preserved" foods, and just hunt the rest along the way.

Now inside a village or a home, they just used a larder in much the same way we use a fridge. Depends on the area and size of the home/village, but some were "personal" and kinda the shape of a cabinet (usually in large homes), others would be very large, and meant to keep food for the entire village.

Also keep in mind that people had already leaned how to keep grains and what not. It's trivial to keep "flour" fresh when compared to bread, and while there were bakers, everyone could make "oat cakes".

In summary,

  • Long distances had a mix of hunting, preserved foods, and neat tricks to keep food fresh(ish)
  • In the house you used a cool dry spot as a place to keep things
  • In both cases it was much easier to keep the ingredients fresh then the product, so that is what was done (specially for breads).
  • The explanation here is good, but citations would be really helpful (see the post notice at the top). – Cascabel Apr 20 '17 at 23:05
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It depends on the culture. Chances are its leaves

The closest thing I can think to aluminium foil is banana leaves, which were commonly used to wrap food and cook things. There's naturally local variations - some cultures have used palm or bamboo leaves. Sometimes they're woven or "stitched" with toothpicks.

Later on, paper might be a thing - waxed, oiled or otherwise processed to ensure its stability.

In most cases though its likely they simply used reusable containers of clay or metal

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Since all these leaves which would be perfectly suited to act as the mideavel aluminum foil weren't available in i.e. Europe, waxed linen sheets were used. Either as a simple sheet or even as a bag to i.e. travel with a kilogram of flour on your back.

To make things last a little longer they often were put in a barrel full of salt (especially if uncooked meat had to be transported). I doubt that dry aging was an option as it wastes way to much of the meat and probably was quite dangerous to eat as the temperature control and hygiene wasn't as good as today.

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    " I doubt that dry aging was an option" - What? even when I was a kid (1950s in the UK) people living in rural areas used to fatten their own pig, get it killed on site, and preserve their own meat for at least 6 months with no refrigeration! People weren't dying like flies from food poisoning, either. Note, these were seriously large pigs, i.e. 500 pounds of meat per animal - this was food as part of the staple diet, not some arty-crafty hobby activity. And everything got preserved, not just the lean meat - brain, lungs, heart, even the spinal cord (which was a local delicacy) – alephzero Apr 20 '17 at 15:36
  • @alephzero I want to visit this rural area in the 1950s and try all of this. Makes me really hungry. – axsvl77 Apr 21 '17 at 4:12
  • @axsvl77 There are nowadays places where interest in this sort of backwoods, “off the grid” lifestyle is resurfacing or even never really lapsed. Chances are that they don't advertise, of course. – can-ned_food Apr 21 '17 at 4:18

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