What is for dinner landlord?
I ran into my neighbour today and he asked how the book was coming along. Well, actually he didn't, I had to tell him I was writing a book and then encourage him to ask me how it was going on. Sometimes life and neighbours are like that. Very quickly the subject wandered onto taverns and I happened to comment that I find the taverns in my book very attractive in a way that I find the modern bar or pub very unattractive.
It is all to do with scale, you see.
Back in my fantasy world, most villages are tiny, simple and poor places where self-sufficiency is mandatory and the trundle down to the local town market to sell your produce is essential. The populations are small and the local tavern only survives at all because come the early evening, it is the only place to go that is not either a field or your own, meagre dwelling.
I am not an expert on real taverns back in medieval Europe, but it has occurred to me that small concerns serving few customers are not going to survive if they offer too much variety; if they have several beers and wines, as one would expect today, and a full menu, then they will never make their money back. It needs to be incredibly simple and straightforward and yet keep up to a reasonable standard.
One Dish, One Beer
In my most basic taverns, this is all they serve. They brew one beer which they have honed to perfection over the years, and they serve one dish each day, the style of dish dictated by the available ingredients that day or that time of year. This means it may be a beef pie one day and a vegetable stew the next.
The tavern probably always sells bread, which they make themselves of course, and most dishes can be eaten with a spoon.
Now, to our modern tastes where we expect and demand a huge variety of dishes and all of our silly likes and dislikes catered for, this seems to be a desperately poor showing. But think about it for a second. In this world, the landlord or landlady puts their all into their one brew and their dish of that day. If it is a pie, it is a proper, hot, steaming pie with a big thick crust that you share between you. If it is a vegetable soup, then it is thick and hearty and spicy and comes with a big chunk of herby bread. If it is just cheese and a smoked meat, then it is a wonderful cheese made in the village by the local goat-girl and the meat is smoked by the old father of a local farmer. Suddenly, this does not sound so limited any longer.
Likewise with the beer. It might only be a single brew, but it would be a wheaty, cloudy, wonder of a brew with a big fluffy head and served in a flagon and mugs to share. It probably would not be very strong, but you could drink it all evening, loving every drop without it wiping you out; well, not completely. If the local custom was different, then the beer might be a warming, dark, bitter, with a wonderful hoppy aroma, good body and a gentle soporific effect.
The atmosphere in the tavern would reflect the simplicity of the food. This is no longer about locking yourself away from the family and children and getting pissed with a pile of old farts with nothing better to do, this is about sharing in the good fare and humour that both the tavern and the local community offers. When you and your travelling companions enter, you discover a world of people, kids and adults, male and female, all temperaments. It is like taking a slice through the local area, its people and its visitors, and putting it under a microscope. As you are enveloped in the warmth of this world, you walk up to the simple counter in the one common room and the smiling landlord or lady says:
"Beer and a plate? Or just a beer?"
"Beer and a plate for four, please."
"Sit yourself down, lads and lasses, it is a fine goat stew tonight!"
You and your friends sit down by the fire and basic bowls and a pile of spoons are put on the rough table, followed by a stack of terracotta mugs, a huge flagon of frothy ale, and a big lidded pot of stew with a ladle and a full round loaf of crusty bread sat on top.
"Eat as much as you want dears!"
And later, when you all snuggle up in the hayloft above the livery (because you didn't have the coin to pay for a room), you are full, warm, happy and satisfied. You may not have had a large choice and the place was basic and primitive, but for one evening, the landlady loved you with all her heart and gave you the best plate of food and pot of beer she could for your coin.
Now tell me, if a tavern such as that existed, would you go?
I for one would have trouble staying out of it!"
Now, how about a chain of them....
PS: The image is one of my own dishes - Beef and dumpling stew.