"A Tudor Christmas was starting to resemble something we in the 21C might recognize, even if there were some parts to a Christmas we would not!
"The first record of a turkey being brought to Europe was in 1519. It was to be many years before this bird had reason to fear the Festive season. For the rich, the traditional meat on Christmas Day remained swan, goose etc as in a Medieval Christmas feast.
Woodcut by Michael Wolgemut Nuremburg, 1491.
"In fact, in 1588, Elizabeth I ordered that everybody should have goose for their Christmas dinner as it was the first meal she had after the victory of the Spanish Armada and she believed that this gesture would be a fitting tribute to the English sailors who fought off the Spanish. However, it is not known how many of the poor of the land could carry out this order as goose remained an expensive luxury - though Christmas was seen as a special celebration.
"Peacocks were also on the menu for the rich. However, it became a Christmas tradition to skin the bird first, then cook it and then place the roast bird back into its skin as a main table presentation.
Peacock with magnificent plumage. Aberdeen Bestiary. University of Aberdeen, MS 24, fol. 59r, 12C-13C
Therefore, on the table would be what would appear to be a stuffed and feathered peacock, when, in fact, it had been thoroughly cooked. Sometimes, if they were feeling really extravagant, they gilded the combs. This practice had also taken place in some Medieval households.
The feast of the Peacock, from The Book of the Conquests and Deeds of Alexander (Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456, fol. 86v), 15C
"The homes of the wealthy also used to cook a wild boar on Christmas Day and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. However, cooking made the head's fur go pale and so it was covered in soot and pig's grease to make the cooked head looked more natural.
"Christmas puddings were made of meat, oatmeal and spices. However, cooking this combination meant that if would fall to bits once it was ready to serve. The Tudors got over this by wrapping the mixture in the gut of a pig and cooking it in a sausage shape. It was then served by slices being carved from it and being served.......with the boar's head !!
"It was also the fashion in Tudor times for mince pies to be shaped like a crib. This creche curiosity was a mince pie baked in the shape of the manger to hold a figure of the Child. The pie was then eaten on Christmas. The rule of Oliver Cromwell in the mid 17C ended this practice (at least temporarily) as it was seen as bordering on blasphemy."
However, the tradition persisted. One later diarist wrote, "Grandmother always excelled herself at the Christmas dinner. First, there was a hot mutton pie, with oyster patties, then a huge goose, one which had gobbled up many a tit-bit to hasten its own demise, with attendant vegetables. Ending up with a lemon pudding, plum porridge, junket, apple fritters. And should there be any room, a mince pie, baked in the old-fashioned coffin-shaped crust (learnt of her mother) to represent the cratch or manger in which the Holy Child was laid."
"1587 is the first recorded date we have of brussel sprouts being used in cooking."
In Saxon times the original form of the word Wassail was was hail, (be whole) & as a greeting meaning: "be in good health.". In 12C, it became a toast, you replied: drink hail, or "drink good health". The toast originated with the Danes, & by the 12C the Normans thought it to be one of the most popular sayings of Britain. The word Wassail later was used for the punch drink related to the toast. The punch which was usually spiced ale or a form of mulled wine made throughout the Christmas season & especially for Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night. In the west of Britain the good health of the apple trees was toasted on Twelfth Night. The luck of next year's crop of cider apples was wished. Bread soaked in cider was put into the branches of trees to keep evil spirits away. Ritual songs were sung. Some report that at the bottom of some Wassail bowls was a crust of bread, that particular drink was offered to the most important person in the room & then passed around. This was the origin of a ‘toast’ which survives to this day as part of the drinking ritual.
Another punch-like brew was known as Lambswool which was made from roasted apples, beer, nutmeg, ginger & sugar. The name came from the froth on the top. It was offered to the most important person in the household first, who would drink from the bowl and pass it on. This would not seem odd to the Tudors as drinking from a communal bowl was normal practice.
Reportedly, some Tudors also had their Family Coat of Arms made from salads which accompanied the meal. Twelfth cake was a fruitcake eaten on twelfth night. It had a dried bean or coin hidden inside – you became the ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ for the evening and host/hostess for the nights entertainments if you were fortunate enough to find this object. The Tudor banquets were very lavish affairs – as many as 24 courses were included.
Food at Tudor Banquets
The Taste of Medieval Food
By Analida Braeger
When speaking of medieval foods, most people think of one or two things: drab, tasteless foods, or the historically inaccurate meals served at medieval reenactments where patrons eat sans utensils while watching some sort of entertaining reenactment. Both conceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. For starters, medieval foods were anything but drab and tasteless. The tables of the well-to-do were a constant display of numerous dishes, heavily spiced and often presented in visually exciting ways.Although utensils were not all that common, knives were widely used. Hosts were not required to provide knives for their guests, so guests brought their own. These knives were quite different from the dinner table knives of today. Medieval knives served two purposes: eating & fighting. Yes they had a pointed tip! Spoons were used to a certain extent & forks seldom, but they did make the occasional appearance at the dinner table. The notion that utensils were completely absent from the medieval dinner table is erroneous because among the aristocracy manners and cleanliness were de riguer.
The belief that medieval diners were akin to savages ripping apart meat with their teeth or bare hands, could not be more inaccurate. Dining customs were carefully observed and followed during medieval times. At the banquet table your station in life dictated where you got to sit. Washing was required and mandated either at a washing station in or near the banquet hall.
Sometimes, aquamaniles, special containers with pour spouts were provided. Washing apart from being a sign of civility, and good upbringing was a health concern as well. The medieval palate craved flavor; it became accustomed to foods heavily accented with exotic spices. This culinary preference was the result of the lucrative spice trade that came to dominate Europe during the Middle Ages, and the status symbol associated with them. This elevated status was often attributed to the long voyage spices made from their place of provenance to Europe. Another factor was the often embellished tales surrounding the native habitat of the spices as well as what had to be done to procure them. Because of their status symbol, spices were often publicly displayed. Salt cellars (often called nefs) in the form of ships were present at the dinner table of the well-to-do, as well as ornate spice containers. Given the astronomical cost of most spices, this display was most certainly an outward and ostentatious show of wealth. The major spices during the Middle Ages were: black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and saffron. Another common spice, galangal which is akin to ginger was also widely used. Today galangal has all but disappeared from the European spice vocabulary. We do find galangal in Thai cooking however. Cloves were also highly valued, but due to their exorbitant cost were not as liberally used as the other aforementioned spices. Account books of manors detail the enormous amount of spices that were purchased during any given year. Herbs such as rosemary and parsley were also widely used in cooking, however, they were a local product, they were not given much importance, and considered “too local” to be given much prominence.
Cooks employed by the well-to-do had a tall order to follow: to create flavorful meals and present them in imaginative and awe inspiring ways. While today’s chefs strive to make the individual ingredients speak for themselves, the cooks of the Middle Ages aimed for artifice and fantasy in a Disneyesque kind of way. Guests as well as patrons expected it.
The typical medieval feast of a great manor or castle often consisted of 3-4 courses. Each course in turn was comprised of 4-5 dishes, where repetition of dishes was not uncommon. The sequence of courses was often served according to the contemporary medical belief that that the stomach was “like an oven” in which food was cooked. It was therefore important to “warm up the oven” with lighter dishes first and then progress to the heavier dishes. Hippocras, a spiced wine was served for at the conclusion of the meal as a digestive. To make the Hippocras spices were ground and passed through a sieve known as manicum Hippocraticum (sleeve of Hippocrates), a reference to Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine.
The medieval banquet was a culinary feast for the eyes as well. Between courses it was customary to regale guests with a “subtlety.” This could take the place of a historical reenactment, an edible food item aimed at entertaining and amazing guests, or a decorative item not meant for human consumption. Peter Freedman in Out of the East describes a favorite subtlety served at banquets: Pomys en Gele, basically apples in aspic. However, these were not really apples, but meatballs colored with parsley sauce and served with aspic. They were certainly edible, but were not what they appeared to be. Subtleties also made political statements. In A History of Taste, Paul Freedman discusses a dinner given in honor of the Duke of Savoy in 1416. The occasion? The Duke’s newly acquired territory. For the subtlety the pastry chef executed a relief map representing the new duchy. Edible? Maybe, but the dual purpose of the subtlety was served either way.
Madeleine Pelner Cosman explains in her book: Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony that to achieve the fantastic effects as well as to make food go a long way the cooks of the Middle Ages availed themselves of three major techniques: alaying, aforcing, and endorring. These combined with the artistry of the cook created the visual and gustatory excitement the medieval banquet was famous for. Aforcing meant increasing the amount to make the food go further, so it would feed more people. Allaying dealt with diluting. Some of the common ingredients used inaforcing and alaying were almond milk, verjuice (fermented grape juice) and bread. Vinegar was also sometimes used to “point” or add bite to the dishes. Endorring was perhaps the most exciting way to change the visual quality of a dish. Basically, endorring meant adding a gold hue to the food. Saffron was the most widely used spice to achieve this effect. Using saffron certainly made the food edible. Another, slightly more ostentatious, yet non edible item used to achieve the endorring effect was gold leaf.
Tastes during the Middle Ages varied greatly from today’s tastes. Typical of what was pleasing to the medieval palate were: lamprey, eel, peacock, swan, partridge and other assorted small songbirds. Apart from perhaps eel, none of the above items feature in today’s culinary offerings. Dairy products were often perceived as the province of the peasant class. Sausages were seldom found on the tables of the wealthy. The reason for this? Sausages were preserved. Since the wealthy had ample access to fresh meats, they saw no need in eating something that was preserved. Although household account books indicate that fruits were consumed, they do not feature prominently in the cookbooks of the time. Medieval foods were anything but dull and drab. They combined art and artifice to entice the palate as well as the eyes. The prolific use of spices and special effects contributed to foods that were rich in taste and presentation.