Chapter 2 : What was on the Menu?
Seasonality was a major factor in sixteenth century diets. For small-scale farmers, there was insufficient feed to keep livestock over winter, so the majority were slaughtered – traditionally on Martinmas (11th November), and as much of the meat preserved as possible. But, no matter how thrifty the housewife, eking out the meat of a single pig through the whole winter with a few onions and leeks must have been a hard task. The wealthier landowners could keep more meat, slaughtering as needed. Game continued to be hunted throughout the winter by the wealthy, but poaching by the poor could mean hanging.
Estimates suggest the Tudor nobility’s diet was 80% protein - one wonders how the digestive tract coped! Salads were eaten, often comprising a mixture of cooked and raw, and included green vegetables such as leeks, onions, radishes and cabbage as well as lettuce, chives, boiled carrots, flowers and herbs. They were dressed with oil, vinegar, and sometimes sugar. Turnips, consumed during the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, later fell out of favour, becoming considered fit only for cattle.
Fruit was enjoyed, but with no refrigeration, it could only be consumed in season, or preserved. Mary I was particularly fond of pears, and Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour were great lovers of cherries. Henry VIII’s new palaces were designed with plentiful orchards and fruit trees, including the new apricot trees, introduced in the 1540s. One of Henry’s last acts as King was to order new fruit trees for his Privy Gardens.
Most households served three meals a day, although breakfast, if eaten at all, was not substantial, consisting of bread, perhaps with butter and sage, washed down by small ale. The main meal of the day was dinner. In the first half of the century, 10 or 11am was the dining hour, but by the 1580s and 1590s it was becoming more usual to eat at around 12pm. In the houses of the rich, the meal could easily last a couple of hours.
On ordinary days in any home of the middle class or above, dinner was divided into two courses of several different dishes in each. The Sumptuary Law of 31st May 1517 dictated the number of dishes per meal. A Cardinal could serve nine dishes, dukes, marquesses, bishops and earls could serve seven, and lower ranking lords only six. The gentry class, with an income of £40-100 per annum, could serve three. A “dish” contained a set amount of a particular item, for example one swan, bustard or peacock (all reserved for the higher ranks of nobility), but four smaller fowl, or twelve very small birds, such as larks. To prevent the higher ranks feeling deprived if they went out to dinner, the host could serve the number of dishes and food appropriate to the highest-ranking guest. Additionally, weddings were exempt from the rules.
Both courses would offer a pottage plus a selection of meats, custards, tarts, fritters and fruit. The first course tended to offer boiled meats, and the second, roasted or baked meats.
For formal feasts, each course was heralded by the entrance of the “subtlety”. This was an extraordinary decorative art form, the creation of wonderful representations of castles, cathedrals, hunting scenes or similar made of marzipan and spun sugar for the most important feasts, and of wax for lesser occasions. In 1527, Cardinal Wolsey served a superlative feast for the French Embassy, including subtleties of castles, of the Church and Spire of St Paul’s, of ‘beasts, birds, fowls of diverse kinds, personages… some fighting…some leaping…some dancing’ and a whole chess set of sugar paste, which the French delighted in so much it was boxed up and sent home with them.
At Court, following the two main courses, there was a third, consisting of spiced wine, known as hippocras, sweetmeats, comfits of all kinds and wafers. Wafers, forbidden to all but the highest ranks, sound delicious – thin, crisp biscuits made by pressing flavoured batter between hot irons. This course, eaten standing, was known as the “void”, variously taken as meaning that the table had been cleared, or “voided” or that the course was eaten in a smaller room, thus “voiding” the hall.
Supper, eaten around 4 or 5 o’clock, outside Court circles, was a much simpler affair. At Court there were again two courses, each made up of numerous dishes.
If all this sounds like a huge amount of food, it is worth remembering that the lives even of the elite required far greater calorie intakes than are needed now. Houses were extremely cold, with no carpets or curtains and the only source of heat, the fire. Travel was on foot or horseback for most of the time, both of which require substantial amounts of energy. Hunting, hawking, dancing and archery are also energetic pastimes. Elizabeth I was famous for standing for hours, and walking long distances at a brisk pace with her ladies trailing behind her, complaining bitterly.