Foods and Drinks in 17th and 18th century Cities of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Malnutrition was a common problem for a substantial part of the society in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, peasants and different marginal groups in the first place, despite the fact that a small number of people, mostly noblemen and highest clergy, suffered from regular overeating. Daily rations of the wealthy and the poor were profoundly different. What and how much did a person eat and drink depended on his or her social and economic status.

What did the ruling elite feast upon?

The food that the ruling elite, rich merchants and artisans living in cities consumed was very much alike that on the tables of the wealthy nobility and the aristocracy of the GDL. Judging by scarce historical sources, parties of the elite dwellers of cities were no different from those arranged by the wealthiest representatives of the nobility. For example, a member of the Vilnius municipal court G. Stefanowicz Wargalowski and his wife organised a party in 1710 with plenty of music, dancing and drinking interrupted only by countless “Vivat” exclamations.

Do You Know?

Quite a few of rich city residents had special people to work in a kitchen where a cook was the bigwig. A member of the Vilnius municipal court, M. K. Stroczynski, employed a cook whom he accused in 1672 of stealing several spoons and valuable vessels worth a total of 640 złoty. A Vilnius-based assessor, J. K. Jachimowicz, hired the home staff of eleven people including four servants and a female cook. Vilnius burgomaster E. Szperkowicz filed a complaint in 1678 against his cook Elena for poisoning Katerzyna Golowicka, a widow who was her lady of the house. Elena allegedly added some arsenic into sauce the lady later ate.

Richest dwellers of cities mainly consumed the same products the nobility did.

The European cuisine experienced a profound revolt in the 17th century due to the considerable impact of the French cooking traditions reflected, among other things, in reduced use of dishes stuffed with meat that were very popular in the Middle Ages. They were replaced by all types of ragouts with stewed meat and vegetables that, in turn, were consumed in growing quantities. Even the elite opted for lower-calorie food and preferred fresh products. However, city residents throughout the GDL as well as the nobility were stuck to their traditional menus that remained virtually unchanged until mid-18th century. Meat cooked in various ways was one of the main products on the tables of the wealthy city dwellers. The dinner that followed the funeral of the former assessor in Vilnius, J. K. Jachimowicz, in the early 18th century offered abundant choice of foods and drinks, all for about 1,000 złoty. Guests indulged in cooked meat of cocks, hazel-grouses, partridges, swamp chicken, turkeys and rabbits in addition to roasted veal, bread, fish, beer, mead, vodka and wine. A very similar list may be used to describe the parties arranged by the top elite.

Kitchen’s routine and exotica

Fish followed meat in the ranking of most popular foods. The 1649 property inventory put together after the death of Ana Melerowa, a currier, includes as much as six barrels of herring. The choice of vegetables was quite meagre as people mostly ate cauliflowers, asparagus, cabbages, celery, beetroots and turnips. Lemons and oranges were the only two exotic and very expensive fruits known at the time. On the other hand, people used plenty of different spices cooking every dish. Expensive spices, such as saffron, cinnamon and ginger, were stored at home, in chests together with other valuable items. Some people would give saffron and other expensive spices as presents to influential people.

The wealthy would spend a lot of money for imported drinks, wine in particular. Drinking wine and vodka flavoured with anis, lemon or other aroma was a favourite way of spending time among the city elite who would usually gather at someone’s house or, on holidays, at the city hall.

Sometimes they would invite important guests. Alongside wine and vodka, they also drank substantial amounts of beer and mead, often self-made. The 1684 will by Anastasija Gilewiczowa, a resident of Vilnius, lists 36 empty barrels for beer and mead, four empty oak barrels for mead, one full barrel of mead and six full barrels of beer. The list includes drinks made for sale.

Wealthy city residents usually ate a lot of calorie-rich and unhealthy food. Many of them apparently were obese, just like Paul Boim, the Advocatus of Vilnius, in his portrait painted in the second half of the 17th century. Less moneyed city dwellers usually ate less and consumed healthier products. Middle class people in cities never starved but could not afford meat on their tables every day. Peasant ate meat only occasionally. Meat was more readily available in cities. A city resident could buy meat at butcher shops even for pennies.

The diet of a middling burgher

Cereals were the main ingredient in dishes that less affluent city dwellers usually enjoyed. Compared to peasants, they ate more bread and various porridges, e.g. buckwheat. Peas were also popular. City dwellers usually had some pickled cabbages and turnips in their larders. Dairy products, especially cheese, were also important in the daily menus of the urban middle class who also consumed quite a lot of eggs. In small towns people usually kept cows and hens.

Their way of life and eating habits were very similar to those of well-to-do peasants.

They also kept pigs that provided fat among other products. They also consumed butter and linseed or hempseed oil. Honey and fish was rare in middle-class homes. Late summer and autumn offered apples and, less often, pears or plums. Flour, cereals, cabbages, linseed, herrings, salted butter, oil, vinegar and salt were the products that people usually tended to accumulate as a food reserve.

The information on products sold in small shops (they were called krom or kletka) or markets is a one more reliable hint as to what the middle-class city dwellers ate and drank in the 17th and 18th century. Many people used shops to buy at least the most important products. There were 342 small shops in Vilnius in 1662 of which 23 traded salt, 154 specialised in bread, pies and bagels, 42 offered fish. In 1713, only 51 shops traded bread and pies. There were 40 egg shops, six offering pickled cabbages, 20 specialising in poultry and another 11 in cheese while 242 shops sold bread and pies in 1749.

Literature: A. Ragauskas, Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas XVII a. antrojoje pusėje (1662–1702 m.), Vilnius, 2002; S. Samalavičius, Amatininkų gaminių parduotuvės ir prekybininkų krautuvės in: S. Samalavičius, Vilniaus miesto kultūra ir kasdienybė XVIIXVIII amžiuose, sudarė Almantas Samalavičius, parengė Aivas Ragauskas, Vilnius, 2011, p. 150–160.

Aivas Ragauskas