Today's post is by Richard, who researched Shakespearean food for a 'show and tell' type session we had a couple of months ago. I get hungry just reading about it!
In the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, culinary customs were quite remarkably divided between rich and poor, as are those of today. In the houses of the well-to-do, servants prepared the food in separate areas (sometimes at great distance from the dining halls). The kitchens had great brick ovens and fireplaces where meat, fish and poultry were cooked over coals by spit-roasting, boiling, smoking, frying or baking.
Fresh food was purchased from dedicated livestock, poultry, fish and vegetable markets on a more-or-less daily basis. Fire shovels, barrels and tubs were kept in a pantry, there was a buttery (storage area for wines and provisions), wet and dry larders, a spicery, a mealhouse for grain, a sieving or boiling house, and coals were stored in a squillerie with brass pots and pans, pewter vessels, herbs, covered dishes and a court cupboard.)
Meat was usually beef, coney (rabbit), kid, lamb, mutton, pork, veal, and venison. Common dishes were meat pie, sausage, and sheep’s feet.
Methods of preserving fresh meat were by salting, vinegar soaking (with verjuice), saucing, spicing, or by burying for one or two days after wrapping in cloth. Spices, known as “good powders” included aniseed, bay leaf, cinnamon, clove, cubeb (a Java berry tasting like allspice), fennel, ground ginger, mace, nutmeg and pepper. Some of these were introduced as a result of the voyages of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Fish was consumed widely by poorer folk living near waterways and coastal areas, especially during the long winters when meat was scarce. It included conger eel, gurner, haddock, herring, lamprey (a type of eel), pilchard, mackerel, pike, salmon, sturgeon, tench and whiting; crustaceans such as cockle, crab, lobster, mussel and shrimp were also widely enjoyed.
Poultry included bittern, blackbird, brant (wild goose), crane, dove, duck, dunbird (wild duck), fowl (chicken), goose, knot(sandpiper), lark, mallard, olicet, partridge, peewit, pelican, plover, quail, sheldrake, sparrow, swan , teal, turkey and widgeon (duck.)
Vegetables were most widely consumed by the less well-off in country areas. Much of what was used either grew wild or was home-produced. Artichoke, asparagus, bean, beetroot, cabbage, carrot, cucumber, gourd, horseradish, lettuce, melon, olive, pea, pumpkin, rape (canola) and skirret (water parsnip) were commonplace. There was much use of herbs such as borage, chervil, clary(sage), cowslip, and sowthistle, plus greens, which included the leaves of avens, borage, dandelion, dittany and hyssop (both mints), laver (purple seaweed) orach (red and green), pellitory (climbing nettle), purslane (pinkish fleshy stems), rocket, rose hip (fruit of the rose) and St John’s wort (brown stalks, narrow leaves). Root plants like ginger and galingale (a kind of sedge with aromatic rhizomes) were also popular.
Fruit was mainly consumed fresh by the common people, again in country areas - apricot, blaunderelle (apple), bullace (wild damson plum), cherry, cornel, currant, gooseberry, grape, lemon, medlar apple, mulberry, peach, pear, raspberry and strawberry.
It must be stressed that the common folk in towns and cities, more so than those in the country, had a constant battle in getting enough of any sort of food to survive, hence the high mortality rate at an early age.
Mainly used by the well-to-do were garlic, leek, onion and tomato (the last-named introduced with corn, potato and yam following New World voyages by Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, along with corn and the addiction of smoking. It took some time for these to gain popularity.)
There was also extensive use of eggs and of bread – made from wheat for the gentry; made from acorns, barley, lentils, oats and rye for the common folk. Sugar and honey were less used by the poor, who generally had a healthier diet if they got enough to eat, because they ate more vegetables and herbs and the less starchy breads.
Dietary deficiency, combined with almost all desserts and fruit being cooked in pies, led to the upper classes lacking in vitamin C and consequently, they suffered from myriad skin diseases, scurvy, rickets and bad teeth. It even became acceptable to have black teeth in society, with the very fashionable even exaggerating (don’t laugh!) their blackened appearance cosmetically!
Desserts were mainly the indulgences of the upper classes –cakes (banbury, lemon, shrewsbury and violet), comfit (sugar coated seeds), custard, eringo (thistle), flan, fruit mince pie, gingerbread, marchpane (marzipan), puddings (almond, green, quaking and rice ), sillibub, sucket (candied peel), and sugar bread. (Fruit pudding usually accompanied roast beef, long before Yorkshire pudding was devised.) All these sweetenings contributed to rapidly deteriorating teeth.
Food colouring was effected with alkanet (bright red dye from roots), pulverised sandalwood (it coloured the food dark red) soaked spinach (green), and turnsale, which produced a purple dye. A thickening agent was almond milk, obtained by steeping almonds in milk, broth or wine. Another was ambergris, the grey substance produced by whales and centuries later, used in the production of perfumes.
Beverages – mainly ale, beer, buttermilk, milk and water for the hoi polloi; spirits, stepony (raisin wine), whey and wine made from dandelion and berry such as blackberry and elderberry for the gentry.
Tea and coffee became known in England only in the seventeenth century.
Culinary offerings included:
Calf’s head with oysters
Capon boiled with oysters
Eggs, fricassee of
Goose blood pudding
Hen with oysters
Pike with oysters
Red Deer Pie
When entertaining, the tables of the well-to-do groaned under the many dishes, often decorated with crane, peacock and swan feathers, (the cooked birds arranged on platters with their heads still attached) candles and flowers. There were drinking vessels of pewter, gold, silver, horn, leather, glass and earthenware. The only table utensil was a personal knife – diners then used their fingers to convey food to their mouths. It would be many years before the table manners of today became de rigueur. Such doyennes of early twentieth-century etiquette as Emily Post would have been absolutely horrified at the goings-on at table in Shakespearean times. The proliferation of cutlery and crockery to the point of confusion at modern banquets is probably the result!