Picture it – you’re a road-weary traveller on your way to the capital where you can petition the local lord. You’ve been on the king’s road all day, riding your trusty horse through rain and shine and as night is falling, you find yourself at the way-stop, an inn just off the path. You stable your horse and trudge through the front doors, to be met with the smell of smoke, beer, and sawdust. You hang your cloak on a peg and collapse into an open booth. The barmaid comes around and offers you the main fare of stew and bread.
How often does this happen? How many times have we seen this trope in films, television series, and books? Is it because their authors are just lazy? They can’t think of any other meal to be served at a medieval crossroads inn? Where are all of the old taverns and inns that served hamburgers or fillet mignon or macaroni and cheese?
The reason that this trope exists is because this was just kind of how it was back in the middle ages – inns, common lodging houses, and public houses would have something delightful called a perpetual stew.
When I first came across this idea (also called ‘hunter’s stew’ or ‘hunter’s pot’), I was absolutely charmed – the idea being both novel yet extremely simplistic: take what you’ve got in your kitchen or larder and throw it into a pot and simmer, replenishing the liquid when necessary.
This worked mainly because inns and pubs in medieval times had to have some kind of warm and filling meal that could accommodate crowds at any time of day – having a cauldron constantly bubbling with whatever was in season was the best way to do so. We modern folk have become used to the idea of restaurants having a set menu and choices, but a thousand years ago food on offer at the inn was mainly based on what the innkeeper had. Bought a sack of beans from the farmer who came through town yesterday? Toss it in the stew. Did your husband come back with a brace of conies from traps he laid in the forest? Skin ‘em and in the pot they go! Oh, and don’t forget to pour in a flagon of beer to give it some flavour and make it wetter. Most modern-day recipes favour game meats, ground vegetables, and stock, but there are no rules – perpetual stew is what you want it to be.
Find this Steak and Potato Stew recipe here!
These kinds of stews are described as incredibly flavourful – as it simmers perpetually, each new addition mixes with older flavours, mingling and creating something incredibly hearty, rich, and delicious.
However, all of the above aside, I think the most interesting thing about the perpetual stew is just how long it can go for. Think about modern cooking: if you’re making a soup, you make it, you eat it, and then it’s done. With a perpetual stew, you’ve always got it simmering, meaning it can last for literal years. While in the medieval tradition, the cauldron would be drained and cleaned every year around Lent (to observe 40 days without meat), there are some places where a single pot of stew can be constantly replenished for years. In Wattana Panich, a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, there has been a huge pot of beef noodle soup simmering since 1974. A pot of stew in New York City made headlines a few years ago as it had been simmering for a few years without fail.
As a contributing writer to a website that champions soup, I would absolutely love for my soup to never end. However, I don’t know that I can afford the electricity bill that keeping a soup on simmer for decades would require.
So go ahead and throw those leftovers in the pot! What’s in your perpetual stew, based on what’s in the pantry?