Monks in Germany's "Middle Ages" not only had more of a privileged life than an austere one, they were also very clever at bending the Food Not Allowed Rules during their Lenten Fast, or in fact any fast, and this chicken recipe is an example.
There were special Fastenspeisen for Lent in Medieval times. Food that along with dry bread included extra strong Lenten Beer, beer is still considered a "food" in some parts of Germany, which was brewed in monasteries where Medieval monks meals were already not all frugal, making their whole experience of fasting much easier.
Using recipes limited to vegetables from their vast monastery gardens during the forty days of fasting might have been the idea, but forbidden meat fillings were hidden in pasta pockets so God could not see fasting "laws" were being broken, while as an alternative to the meat usually added to their recipes Biberschwanz, Beaver Tails, were used.
This, the monks reasoned, was possible because as a beaver spent much of its time in water it could be grouped with Fish, so although meat from land animals such as pigs, cattle and birds, which included chicken of course, was banned during a fast it was permitted to eat something from "the sea". Or at least from water.
Tastes have changed so it is doubtful that these days many people would knowingly eat beaver, which despite a recent mini-boom in their population in areas of eastern Germany have been an endangered species in the country for some time.
This 13th century recipe from a monastery in Mainz, the south-west of the country, has been adapted to be made with chicken breasts and traditionally they are cut to resemble a beaverís tail.
Eggs should not have been included in any meal taken during the fast from Ash Wednesday, but of course they were. Although covered by melted cheese once again sins being committed could not be detected, by those eyes looking down from the heavens to check fasting laws were being followed.
13th Century Monks Lenten Chicken
Ingredients for two portions:
8 oz chicken breast fillets without skin
4 oz soft or semi-soft cheese (such as Cream Cheese, Ricotta, Brick, Havarti or Monterey Jack) 8 tablespoons clear chicken broth
4 tablespoons cream
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
Salt and ground white or black pepper to taste
Cut the chicken fillets into long flattened strips
Fry gently in the butter, season with salt and pepper
Boil the eggs until they are medium hard, with a 'soft' yolk
Allow to cool, peel and halve
Bring the chicken broth to the boil, mix the cream and flour until smooth, add the hot broth gradually to the mixture, stirring constantly
Return to pan and stir while heating through for about 2 to 3 minutes, season with salt and pepper
Add half of the cheese to the mix, continue stirring and if necessary add more salt and pepper
Pour the sauce into an oven proof dish
Layer chicken pieces over sauce
Place egg halves on chicken
Cover the eggs with the remaining cheese and cook until the cheese has melted
Serve with a green salad, Warm or Cold potato salad, green beans or spinach.
Guten Appetit!.....And enjoy your Lenten Chicken, with an almost clear conscience. Except of course if it isn't Lent - then you can just ENJOY it.
Image: Monks and nobles enjoying the monastery's wine, from a 19th century sketch by Eduard Theodor Ritter (Knight) von Gruetzner, courtesy deutschland-im-mittelalter.de, a great site that covers all aspects of life in Germany during the Middle Ages. In German.
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Fr. Albert Holtz's Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent is an entertaining, well written, and perceptive travel guide on two levels. A fresh take on an inner and outward journey through Lent, it could turn into a life changing read.
While From a Monastery Kitchen: The Classic Natural Foods Cookbook, is a wonderful basically vegetarian cookbook, arranged in seasons and with no meat recipes included, although there are a few with fish. It is an updated version of an original 1970's Monastery cookbook, which reflects Brother Victor-Antoine's French heritage with easy, no-nonsense recipes, simple, healthy and tasty.