The Mess Group Leader’s Guide
La Compagnia della Rosa nel Sole (updated 2018)
By Abby Heidebrecht and Christian Cameron (and Elisabeth McAnulty)
Mess group leaders are responsible for the care and feeding of their troops. It is the most important responsibility in the hobby. Being a mess group leader is a hard job. To help you, you should appoint a firekeeper, a cook, and an assistant (your Lance Corporal), and someone to lead the washing up, all to help you get the job done. You should have at least six people. That’s enough to stand guard, cook, get firewood, and clean equipment all at the same time. Don’t forget that your men and women are here for fun, and need time off. Don’t forget that everyone needs to drink water. Consider how to use jobs as rewards and punishments, but in general, remember that these people are modern volunteers, and see that they stay that way. Keep the balance of work even. If there is a really nasty job... Do it yourself. And despite all that, enjoy yourself.
Every mess group should have the following:
At least one painted tarp (linen canvas painted red, with iron or brass rings at the corners or hand sewn gromets)
An axe, a shovel, a pick, and a fascine knife.
Fifty feet of rope that they don’t mind cutting up. More rope is better!
A fry pan and at least one large kettle and one small, and one chain suspend each pot.
When the new tents become available, every mess group should have two.
Every person in your mess group should have the following:
An S hook
An iron pin or spike.
A Fire kit
Care and use of camp kettles
Do not use without liquid (that means no frying or baking, only boiling)—coating will melt
Do not let blazing fire come up side of kettle above line of liquid
Whenever kettle is beside fire to cook things, remember that the side closer to the fire is hotter—turn kettle about every 15-20 minutes.
Use only wooden utensils in kettles
Clean after use
Dry with cloth after cleaning
Changing cooking temperature
To raise heat:
Hang kettle lower over fire
Move what you’re cooking closer to the fire
Build up the fire so flames are higher
To lower heat:
Raise kettle so it is higher
Move kettle further away from fire
Let fire die down
Move some of the fire or coals out to one side and place kettle over it propped up on rocks or two logs
There are dozens of good recipe books, some easier to read than others. If in doubt check with Abby.
Keep in mind that recipes need to be simple enough to mass produce. Start simple and work towards complexity. But good food is essential to fun!
A Thyme and Place: Medieval Feasts and Recipes for the Modern Table; By Lisa Graves, Tricia Cohen
Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony; By Madeline Pelner Cosman
How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes; By David Friedman
Medieval Cooking in Today's Kitchen; By Greg Jenkins
Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World; By Lilia Zaouali
Plyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks; By Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington, Sharon Butler
The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled (Forgotten Books); By Samuel de La Vallee Pegge
The Medieval Cookbook; By Maggie Black
The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy; By Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi
To The King's Taste: Richard II's book of feasts and recipes adapted for modern cooking; By Lorna J. Sass
Shopping List and Basic Recipes are per mess group of 8
Amounts are given in pounds/ounces so that you can determine amounts when shopping at a grocery store. (Measurement in cups is in parentheses— It will be useful to know how much your bowl and or cup holds, so you can use it as a measure. Every man and woman should consider marking the base of their cup and or bowl with its volume in Imperial and metric. This will save time in the field!)
The simple answer is 5 liters per person per day. This is the most important thing to know. Without water nothing works.
Every member of a mess group shares responsibility for water. The mess group leader will ask/order people to bring water from time to time. This is for cooking, drinking, and for washing up. On the trek, this can mean a rolling boil for 20 minutes or pumping with a filter. It is not fast and people will dehydrate faster than they realize. In the ‘field’ where you can carry in bottled water or when water is provided, this is little more than a quick detail to fetch a bucket of water.
There should always be potable water in camp for drinking.
There should always be a bucket of water next to the fire in case of emergencies. If it is not potable make sure everyone knows it.
WATER IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER
3-4 pounds of meat (beef or lamb)
Need a high, blazing fire
Plan for about 20-30 minutes per pound of meat (hint: if meat cut into smaller portions, cooking time for whole roast is reduced)—original recipes suggest 15 minutes a pound for beef—they liked it pretty rare
Put roast(s) on a sturdy, peeled green stick and prop between forked sticks or on stones or whatever—if roast is cut into smaller pieces, leave an inch or two between pieces of meat on the stick
Meat should be beside the fire (not over it)—about 1 foot away
Turn about a quarter turn every 15 minutes
OR, just give everyone a hunk of meat and let them roast their own on a stick
2 - 3 pounds of any of the following
corned beef, ham, fresh pork, fresh beef
Bag of carrots--about 2 pounds
1-3 Large bunches of greens (depending on size)
kale, chard, spinach, beet greens, cabbage, etc.
1-2 hours cooking time depending on fire, attendance to fire, and whether or not food is actually simmering (at least) for the whole time
This recipe can boil actively, and requires a little less attention, but make sure liquid level doesn’t get too low
May add dumplings, rice or barley for last ½ hour of cooking
½ pound flour (about 2 cups)
¾ stick butter
Mash/stir butter until soft and cohesive (not chunks), or else cut up into little pieces, and mix with flour so that texture of whole is kind of uniformly crumbly
Add egg if you have it
Add a little bit of cold water and see if you can shape dumpling into a ball that stays pretty much a ball
Drop balls of dumpling dough or spoonfuls of dough (if it’s a little softer) into boiling broth with vegetables or boiled meat
Dumplings are usually done when they have risen back to the top of boiling broth and cooked for 10-20 minutes (depending on size)
1 pound steel cut oats—not rolled oats (1½-2 cups)
8-10 cups of water (mess kettle 1/3 full)
2 ounces butter (about ½ stick)—optional
Bring water to boil first, add a bit of salt
When water is boiling, slowly shake in oats or barley, stirring constantly
As cereal thickens, you may add, beaten eggs, nuts, or fruit
Monitor fire and cooking as cereal thickens, so that cereal does not burn and stick over hot fire—may need to add water or lower temperature
This will cook for 20-45 min depending on the grain you are using.
Remove from heat and drop in butter if desired
Vegetables (usually boiled but not always—see below)
Late spring/early summer—peas, green beans, small carrots or turnips, greens (like turnip, beet, chard, kale, spinach, etc.), spring onions
Summer—green beans, summer squashes (like yellow, patty-pan, crookneck), greens, carrots, turnips, beets
Fall—cabbage, root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets), winter squashes (Pumpkins, Butternut, Hubbard, Buttercup), greens
Late Fall/winter, early spring—root vegetables, winter squashes, cabbage
During spring, summer, and fall—salad of greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, etc.)
In summer—salad of sliced cucumbers (look for pickling cucumbers—they are smaller and do not have waxed skin, so the skin is milder and more edible)
Spring—berries (strawberries and raspberries), cherries, dried fruit
Summer—melons, berries (blueberries and blackberries), grapes, peaches, plums
Winter—dried fruit, possibly apples
About 2 loaves for a weekend (unless very small—then 3) should be enough for 2 lunches and 1 dinner—choose round or oval loaves of yeast bread, unsliced, white or brown, with no additions (e.g., seeds, herbs, etc.). If you want to bake bread (this is NOT necessary, as acceptable bread is almost always readily available at most grocery stores), make very plain yeast bread shaped into a round or oval loaf (do not bake in bread pan). You can use fresh pizza dough to make plain bread.
Lunches/Field Rations (choose from options listed below—listed from most likely thing to have had to least likely, so shop accordingly)
Bread—part of the 2-3 loaves listed above
Ham—not pre-sliced sandwich ham—about 2-3 pounds
Hard cheese—preferably a white cheese—white cheddar or fresh parmesan are good options—no add-ins (e.g., peppercorns, spices)
Fruit—dried or what’s in season
Cookies—can be bought at store, choose round sugar or spice cookies without any add-ins (e.g., chocolate chips, raisins)
Possibly, dry sausage
Nuts—walnuts or almonds most likely
General Fire Building and Maintenance Instructions
Dig either a trench firepit or a keyhole, with the keyhole preferred. (See Fig. 1). A trench should be at least two feet wide and four long. In either case, the typical shallow pit of the reenactor is not correct and is a last resort, as is cooking on an iron plate. If you must use a plate, use 2 so that you can have a fire that is big and useful.
Either keyhole or trench pits must have 2 levels – that’s the whole point. In a keyhole, the large round part is shallow – that’s where the big, happy fire is. The fire for warmth and roasting bacon and drying socks. Then the rectangular extension slopes down to being 10-12 inches deep. That’s where you sweep the coals for cooking and maintaining heat – and for roasting corn.
In a trench fire, simply slope the trench, so that it has a flat shallow area (most of it) and a deep end, rather like a swimming pool.
Finally, you’ll want a tripod or set of supports to hold pots and mess kettles while cooking. The simplest is to find two forked sticks, at least 1 ½ inches in diameter, sharpen the unforked end and plant that end at least one foot in the ground. In hard ground, build a tripod for each end. Lay a 1 ½ inch to 2 inch crossbar to hold pots and S hooks. It should be made of GREEN wood so it won’t burn through. Trial and error will teach you the correct height, but I recommend at least three feet for the current mess kettles, and higher is usually better, at least if everyone has their S hook.
Many modern campers lay tepee fires – that is, they lean small sticks against each other over a central pile of kindling. This is a clumsy fire to add to, and is good for warmth but slow to cook. Lay a log cabin fire, instead, and use 1 inch to 2-inch pieces of dry wood, either round or splits, to lay the log cabin. This sort of fire will be easy to add to the top of, and has the additional benefit that it seems to make the best, fastest coals. Build the log cabin first, then lay fine kindling at the bottom and then get your tinder to light. It is too late to build the fire when the char is already afire! Especially in the rain.
In the rain, keep something over the fire until it is well alight. This will make the whole prospect possible. You don’t have to cover a good fire, even in a hard rain, but you must cover the makings of a fire. A mess kettle or copper full of water makes a good fire cover! Also, it is more important to keep your firewood covered than it is to keep yourself covered. If the group has a tarp, first shelter the wood.
Always appoint a member of your mess group as Firekeeper. This is a comfy but vital job. It should be viewed as a reward, and any failure to perform it punished ruthlessly. It is the firekeeper’s job to keep the fire lit and at the strength (and place!) that the cooks require. The firekeeper has to make sure that there is always abundant wood of all the types required (so small, one inch and two inch wood for boiling water, and small stuff for kindling, and big stuff for coals and conversational fire.) If the fire is dieing, the firekeeper should get it back to full strength. He or she should keep sweeping coals into the coal catcher (the pit in a keyhole fire, or the ‘deep end’ in a trench fire.)
Wood and wood chopping
Every member of a mess group shares responsibility for wood. The mess group leader will ask/order people to chop wood from time to time, and the firekeeper should keep him aware when wood is needed. On the trek, this can mean a major evolution where everyone has to search for firewood. In the ‘field’ where wood is often provided, this is little more than a quick detail to fetch firewood. Mess groups will also want some downed wood for kindling and for quick, hot fires (one inch or two in diameter) and should try to go into local woods and pick it up as soon as they are at an event, dresses, and have their camp up. A supply of dry wood is the most important requirement for a mess group after WATER.
Wood should be chopped with an axe or cut with a period saw if available. Wood should always be chopped onto another piece of wood, and a smart mess group leader will always make it an early goal to secure a decent chopping block. The largest and densest piece of cut firewood will often do the trick at an event, but on the trek some luck and imagination is required. No one should ever cut wood on the ground. Let me say that again. No one should ever cut wood on the ground.
This helps keep all your food, cooking equipment, and tools in one place. After each meal everything should be returned to the “tent”. Your mess group will rely on you to know exactly where everything is at all times, even in the dark.
Keep it simple. Vegetius says we should dig in whenever we stop. We should. So consider our simplest post – two short walls with a gabion at the corner. Form the wall by driving four to six stakes (at least 4 foot long and 1 ½ inch diameter, driven at least a foot deep!). Place the two stakes on the line of the wall, lay your largest bottom log against the stakes, and drive the other two (or more) on the other side of the log, so that it is firmly held. Now fill in other cut wood and brush between the stakes. No logs? Use cut brush to make fascines (see below).
Gabion – Drive 8-10 stakes deep into the ground in a circle, at least 3 feet in diameter. Now weave soft, pliable brush or weeds into the stakes until you have a basket. Historically, this would have been filled with dirt. Fill it with whatever you have – brush, straw, even dirt.
Fascines – A bundle of sticks or brush. Use hemp rope (because the public will see it) and tie three times –once in the middle, once at each end. Make the bundle tight (you are trying to stop a bullet, here) and at least 9 inches in diameter and six feet long.
There are many correct camp layouts. Just remember to put the tents on the driest high ground, and the fires at LEAST 30 feet away. The outside edge could then be fortified. Make sure late arrivals know where they are sleeping!