A CATHEDRAL has opened a new exhibition placing the spotlight on different foods served through the centuries.

Feasting and Fasting: The Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral celebrates the rich history of the medieval kitchen, shining a light on the eating habits of Benedictine Monks from 1093 to 1539.

Focus also falls on history of lavish entertaining, how the breath-taking spaces have evolved over time and the plethora of staff that worked within them.

The cathedral’s Great Kitchen, built in the 14th century and one of only two intact surviving medieval monastic kitchens in England, provided the monks with facilities to prepare everything from their everyday meals to the extravagant banquets which the Cathedral later became known for.

Shaun McAlister, exhibitions assistant at Durham Cathedral, said: “The Great Kitchen has been feeding the stomachs and souls of people at Durham Cathedral for over 650 years.

“This exhibition explores the rules that governed feasting and fasting, what food and drink was available, how it was prepared and how the Great Kitchen continues to be used today.

“It been fascinating seeing how interesting and how varied the recipes were and the things they were eating, including early examples of lasagne and pork pies.”

Cathedral resident archaeologist Norman Emery said: “It’s mainly the kitchen food waste that we can anaylse. There are a lot of fish bones . We know they were getting in fresh cod from the North Sea and, from the accounts we have, as far as Iceland and the Arctic.

"We know they had cattle ranches in Muggleswick and sheep ranches on the Tees.”

On display is a 14th century manuscript copy of the Rule of St Benedict which provided guidance on how to live a spiritual life in a monastic setting .

Written in the 6th century, the rule focused on various elements of food, diet and drink and advised that the monks’ main meal was to include ‘two kinds of cooked food . . . and if fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third dish may also be added’, with the regular consumption of meat reserved for the sick.

This feasting was balanced by the intermittent fasting that was required, with each monk being asked to deny himself ‘some food, drink or sleep, needless talking and idle jesting’ every day.

Monks were also allowed ‘half a bottle of wine a day’, with wine considered a staple not a luxury, being ordered by the tun. Those who abstained completely, however, were promised ‘their own reward’.

John Thacker’s book, the Art of Cookery, takes centre stage in the exhibition.

Thacker, who was cook to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral from 1739-1758, supplemented his annual income of £10 by opening a cookery school in Durham and penning his 650 recipes, complete with intricate annotated diagrams, bringing recipes like his rabbit pie to life.

Joining Thacker on display is a manuscript bound in the late 12th-13th century (on loan from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge).

It dates from 1150-1175 and contains some of the oldest known medieval recipes in existence. Featuring 244 recipes, 173 of which were targeted towards treating specific ailments such as ‘purging the head’ and a ‘pain in the bowel’; the manuscript provides a fascinating insight into true monastic life at Durham Cathedral.

Visitors to the new Open Treasure exhibition will still be able to enjoy the breath-taking Anglo-Saxon Treasures of St Cuthbert, which remain on permanent display in the Great Kitchen.

Tickets are priced from £2.50-£7.50 from the Visitor Desk or on 0191-338 7178.