Today, we take the availability of unlimited supplies of food and drink for granted. We think nothing of eating strawberries in January, or consuming fresh fish despite living many miles from the sea. For the men and women of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, matters were very different. Everyone, even the King, was subject to the cycle of the seasons. Prior to the Reformation, there was also strict enforcement of the rules on fasting. These were relaxed, but by no means completely abolished, by the end of the period.
For the vast majority of the population, almost permanent malnutrition was the reality: even starvation was a frightening possibility in times of bad harvest, such as the 1590s. This problem was compounded by the ability of the wealthier landowners to hold stocks of grain until the smaller producers had consumed their stores, and thus artificially inflate prices.
Our imagination of life in the sixteenth century conjures up gargantuan feasts, and, for the very wealthy, this was a possibility when food was in season, or if one could afford to keep livestock over the winter. In the glut periods of harvest, the food had to be eaten or it would spoil – only a small proportion could be preserved.
However, in line with the obsession with status, what you could eat depended not only on your pocket, but also on your rank, with complex rules about how many dishes or courses could be served. These rules were only one element of the arcane etiquette that guided the aspiring merchant or courtier. The vision of King Henry gobbling greasily on a chicken bone before flinging it over his shoulder and roaring for a tankard of ale are very far from the truth.
The richer you were, the more meat, game and fish you ate. The very poorest people were lucky ever to see meat, although a couple of rungs up the social ladder you might keep a pig, whose meat would be salted and preserved, eked out from the slaughter at Martinmas (11th November) until Lent.
During the century, agricultural practices improved, and new foods were introduced from the Americas which, at least for the better off, made for a more varied diet than their grandfathers had known. The most desirable import was sugar (although still wildly expensive - a pound cost about a labourer’s daily wage). Its cost made it a status symbol and those who could afford it, added it to almost every dish.
With a burgeoning middle class, cookery became something more than mere survival, as evidenced by the appearance of cookery books aimed at housewives, rather than noblemen’s cooks. For the poor, however, it was bread and pottage, as it had always been.