As a self-professed ‘foodie’ with a thirst for historical knowledge, the evolution of our dining table has always fascinated me.
Throughout this series of blogs, I will be delving into the best and worst of our culinary past, seeking out historical recipes, and the eating habits of time gone by; from the gorging banquet halls of Henry VIII to the famine of the French Revolution.
Come with me as I take you on an edible journey through time, exploring the customs and traditions of the day.
The Tudor Period
We are starting our Time Series with the Tudor period; or specifically the reign of Henry VIII.
We are all familiar with perhaps the most famous monarch in history. His reign saw England break away from Rome, the formation of Parliament, the foundations for our modern-day Royal Mail and of course, his six wives.
But what happened to the English palette in the 36 years Henry VIII ruled?
When Henry succeeded his brother to the throne in 1509, he inherited a country united behind the monarchy, stable finances, and his brother’s wife.
Fruit was a constant feature on a Tudor table, with choices ranging from those that could be grown in England such as apples, pears, cherries, plums, and strawberries to those that were imported from Spain after the arrival of Queen Katherine of Aragon.
The pomegranate became the symbol of her house, and she was instrumental in the popularity of oranges at court. Records show that Henry in particular loved oranges; having them readily available to eat fresh and preserved as marmalade.
Orchards were grown at Hampton Court by Cardinal Wolsey for the consumption of the King.
English food may not have appealed to the new Spanish queen, who would have been used to Mediterranean tastes and cuisine, heavily influenced by the Moorish community and their use of exotic spices and fresh vegetables.
On my search for recipes from this time, I have come across this one from 15th Century Andalusia; the autonomous community of southern Spain close to Katherine’s native Granada.
Recipe for Thumlyya, A Garlicky Dish
A 15th Century Andalusian Recipe
Taken from ‘How to Milk An Almond, Stuff An Egg And Armour A Turnip: A Thousand Years Of Recipes’
by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook
5 oz garlic 1 t ginger
1 hen ¼ t cloves
6 T oil 15 thread saffron
½ t salt ½ c whole almonds
½ t pepper ? c crushed almond
1 t cinnamon ¼ c murri
2 t lavender -1 c flour – water
‘Take a plump hen and take out what is inside it, clean that and leave aside. Then take four uquias (ounces) of peeled garlic and pound them until they are like brains, and mix with what comes out of the interior of the chicken. Fry it in enough oil to cover, until the smell of garlic comes out. Mix this with the chicken in a clean pot with salt, pepper, cinnamon, lavender, ginger, cloves, saffron, peeled whole almonds, both pounded and whole, and a little murri (there exists no modern recipe for murri, which is similar to the Chinese soy sauce). Seal the pot with dough, place it in the oven and leave until it is done. Then take it out and open the pot, pour its contents in a clean dish and an aromatic scent will come forth from it and perfume the area.’
As Henry’s reign progressed, his well-documented affair with Anne Boleyn began. Anne spent a lot of her youth in the French Court, first accompanying Henry’s 18-year-old sister Margaret on her journey to France to marry King Louis XII.
Henry and Anne’s affair lasted seven years before his infamous break away from the Catholic Church of Rome and their eventual marriage. Her French influences would have played a huge part in the changing tastes and customs of Court.
In the 15th century, bread and cheese were a staple in French cuisine, with meats and fruits considered fit for royalty, and vegetables seen as a peasant food.
Pears stewed in wine were often eaten as an ‘ending’ to a meal, which may have been adopted by the English after Anne Boleyn became Queen.
A Day In The Life Of Henry VIII’s Stomach
Henry would often start his day with Pike, Plaice, Roach, Butter and Eggs choosing to eat with 30 of his courtiers around 10am
Henry would then have had the choice of at least 13 freshly cooked dishes at every lunch and supper, choosing from a vast range of pies, meats, pottages, jellies and fritters all cooked by his personal chef Pero Doux.
One essential to the Tudor kitchen was the spit roast meats. Pork, Mutton, Venison – they would be on the spit day in and day out, ready to serve the King and his Court.
More unusual meats were reserved for banquets and occasions such as swan, peacock, heron and deer.
Despite his ever-increasing stomach, Henry and England adhered to the strict rule of fasting on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes Wednesdays which prohibited the eating of meat and were only allowed to eat fish. During the period of Lent (2nd March – 14th April) butter, eggs and dairy food were also forbidden.
To disobey the rule of fasting was to risk an accusation of heresy, however, fasting did not mean that Henry ate any less than usual.
Any other day was considered a ‘flesh day’. Below is an example of what Henry would have expected to see on offer.
A DECLARACION OF THE PARTICULAR ORDINANCES OF FARES FOR THE DIETTS
TO BE SERVED TO THE KING’S HIGHNESSE, THE QUEEN’S GRACE, AND THE SIDES,
WITH THE HOUSEHOLD, AND HEREAFTER FOLLOWETH.
THE DIETT FOR THE KING’S MAJESTY AND THE QUEEN’S GRACE, OF LIKE FARE,
IN ALL TWO MESSES, AS FOLLOWETH.
ON A FLESH DAY
Cheat Bread and Manchett, 16 Cheat Bread and Manchett, 16
Beate and Ale, 6 Gal Beate and Ale, 6 Gal
Fleth for Pottage 8 Fleth for Pottage 8
Chines of Beef 8 Chickens in Crimary, Larkes
Rammeners in Stew, or Cap 6 Sparrows or Lambe,
Venison in brewz or mult 4 stewed with chynes of 13
Pestels of Reed Deere 2 Mutton
Mutton 6 Giggots of Mutton or Veni-
Carpes or Yong Veale in – -son, stopped with Cloves 6
Arm’, forced 1 Capons 4
Swanne 1 Conyes 2
Capons 2 Phesant, Herne, Shove-
Conyes 1 -lard 4
Fryanders, baked Carpe 1 Cocks, Plovers or Gulles 2
Custard garnished 12 Swete Dowcetts or Orange 10
or frittars 8 Quinces or Pippns 2
Along with recognisable options, the Tudors enjoyed many delicacies that would raise an eyebrow or two nowadays.
Grilled Beavers tail would be served most Fridays as the Tudors classed Beaver as a fish. Whale and porpoise were boiled or roasted and were a favourite of Katherine of Aragon.
From Fast To Peasant
When the King and the people of Court were gouging on an immeasurable number of calories, the poorer people of England had a much simpler menu.
Meat was scarce for the everyday Tudor peasant and so fresh vegetables, bread, and ales were the staple. Pottage comes up throughout history in many varieties, with the meatier stew even being served to the King.
The basic vegetable and oat Pottage would have been a regular sight at the dinner table for those not at court. Similar to our modern-day stews, the recipe is simple and easy to follow.
Vegetables (whichever you prefer – carrot, parsnip, cabbage, leek etc)
300ml stock (or just warm water for the average peasant)
Herbs (such as parsley, mint, rosemary, thyme and sage which were readily available)
4tbsp porridge oats
Prepare vegetables (peel and chop to whatever thickness you like).
Soften onions in a pan before adding other vegetables.
Cover with stock or warm water until they begin to soften.
Add a good handful of herbs, salt and pepper.
Turn up the heat and leave to stew.
When the water begins to boil add the oats. Cook for 4-5 minutes till everything is combined.
Eat on its own or with bread.
Finishing our Tudor journey, I am going to be focusing on perhaps the most famous element of Henry VIII’s reign – his wives.
Each wife has their own backstory and tragic life whether they were divorced, beheaded, died or survived. But what were their favourite things to eat?
Katherine of Aragon. Dec 1485 – Jan 1536 Divorced
Besides the fruit native to her Spanish roots, Katherine enjoyed eating boiled whale.
Anne Boleyn July 1501 – May 1536 Beheaded
Anne was reported to have a fondness for certain fruits such as damsons, plums and strawberries. During one of her pregnancies, she had a ‘furious desire to eat apples’
Jane Seymour 1509 – Oct 1537 Died
Henry spared no expense to keep Jane happy. When she had a craving for quails eggs during pregnancy, Henry had an ornate box of the delicacies shipped from Calais.
Anne of Cleeves Sept 1515 – July 1557 Divorced
A popular German treat that may have been enjoyed by Anne was ‘Gefuellte Semmeln’. A bread roll, filled with jam/preserve, covered in sugar and spices and fried in egg yolks.
Katheryn Howard 1523-Feb 1542 Beheaded
The young Queen was perhaps ill-suited to the customs of Court. Described as childlike and naive Katheryn liked to snack on marchpane, small balls of an almond, sugar snack similar to marzipan.
Catherine Parr Aug 1512 – Sept 1548 Survived
A popular sweet treat at the time was ‘Maids of Honor’. A predecessor of the modern-day cheesecake, made from curd cheese, often found at Court, and possibly enjoyed by the Queen.