Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Tudor Etiquette at Table

Tastes of History recently ran a workshop for the volunteers at Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan townhouse in Conwy, North Wales to teach something of food and dining in the Tudor period.  From the many questions we fielded, it became evident that a précis of the etiquette expected at a wealthy Tudor table would be a valuable tool enabling volunteers to interact confidently with visitors.  We hope, dear reader, that the following paragraphs prove as interesting to a wider audience.

Dressing the Table  No feast could begin without the table being set. In a great hall, the tables and seating would have been arranged in a three-sided "U" shape, with the base of the "U" reserved for the lord, his family and his personal guests.  The tables might have been covered with fine carpet or velvet cloths in the richest households but would be covered with linen.  Very often three layers of linen were used: one cloth would be placed to hang on the diners' side of the table, one might be pleated and hung to cover the outside, and one cloth, often the most decorative, was laid along the top to conceal the table ends.

With the table cloths laid, the "great salt" was placed prominently on the top-table.  Being such a valuable seasoning, the lord, his family and honoured guests were seated "above the salt" while all other, less fêted guests sat below.  Depending on the wealth of the host, other salts and pepper boxes might be set down the tables as required.  The table setting for each diner consisted of a trencher, bread, a napkin and, possibly, a knife and spoon.  For most of the Tudor period, guests would have been expected to bring their own knife and spoon.  If provided, the knife was laid to the right of the trencher, any bread to the left, and the napkin usually folded on top.

Originally a trencher was a flat round of bread used as a plate, upon which the food could be placed to eat.  At the end of the meal, the trencher could be eaten, but was more frequently given as alms to the poor.  By 1585 the trencher had been largely replaced by thick wooden boards or plates, with a central hollow to contain meat and gravy and a smaller hollow in one corner for the diner's own serving of salt.   While middle class homes might have used wood or the more expensive pewter, the very wealthy used pewter for daily use and silverware during feasts.  One of the signs of the economic prosperity of the century was the increased use of pewter across society.  Unlike today, pottery was reserved for serving rather than for eating off.  Any pottery shards found in a Tudor dining context are most likely to be from serving dishes.

Guests Arrive  The strict social order of the Tudor world was reflected in the rigid, formal etiquette of feasting.  Guests were led into the dining chamber in order of precedence to their assigned place.  In a great hall, the most honoured position was to be seated at the right hand of the lord, while the lowliest was at the end of the table or tables to the lord's left.  Remarkably, this arrangement echoes that of the wealthiest Roman dinner parties of more than a 1,000 years before.

Tudor etiquette demanded that hands were washed before a meal.  This might have been done on the way into the hall, at the "ewery board" where a ewer of water, a basin and towel would have been attended by a servant.  Alternatively, servants might bring a ewer and basin to the seated guests for them to wash their hands.  Even the servants, particularly the carver, were expected to be seen to wash their hands.  Nevertheless, the ritual hand-washing in the dining chamber was largely symbolic as guests were expected to have washed thoroughly beforehand.

All men at the table ate with their hats on (unless they went hatless out of deference to a high-ranking member of their dinner party), and every well bred guest had a clean, white napkin on the left shoulder or wrist, upon which soiled fingers or knives could be wiped.  The servants who attended the table were hatless, since they could not remove their hats (their hands being full) and they would not dream of attending upon their betters with their hats on.  Conversation at the table was considered commendable, but riot and clamour was frowned upon.

A highly unusual narrative portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c. 1558-1596), commissioned by his widow, Dorothy née Wroughton (d. 1634) to posthumously commemorate her husband's life, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  Unton is portrayed at the heart of the composition, but surrounding him are scenes from his life and death.  One frame in particular show him presiding over a banquet in which all the men except him are clearly wearing hats.  Moreover, several male diners have a napkin draped over their left shoulder, but at least two of the women seated at table appear to have their napkin in their lap.

Service  With the saying of Grace, the company would begin to eat.  The dishes were brought in and laid in a very precise order on the table; presentation was imperative.  The high table was clearly served first, followed by the rest of the diners.  Dishes requiring carving might be carried to a sideboard arrayed for that purpose.  A feast in a large household might consist of two or three courses, some of which might involve several different dishes.  Unlike today where all diners can expect to get a portion of everything, not every dish would be within reach of every Tudor diner.  Instead guests were expect to pick the things they liked best from the "messe" that was within reach of them.  A messe is a set of dishes usually containing several bite-sized portions to be shared between 2 to 4 people.  The strict social order of Tudor dining meant that the further one was sat from the high table, the fewer dishes would have been in each messe.

In the wealthiest of households, servants would pass from guest to guest allowing each to help themselves from each dish to as much as they liked.  In middle-ranking houses, where if no male servants were available, then women and children of the house would serve the dishes, only sitting down to eat after all the men and guests had taken what they wanted.

For the most part, guests were expected to arrive with their own knife and spoon as the host was not expected to provide them.  The rich would have a beautifully made and adorned knife and spoon (and occasionally a fork) carried in an ornamental case.  The poor man often went about with his spoon in his hat or his pocket, and a knife on his belt.

Forks did exist, but these were generally two-tined and used for carving meat, not for individual dining.  Delicate little forks did become fashionable, however, amongst the highest classes for eating the sweetmeats and candied fruits, or suckets, served at banquet.  Even so, forks were not used at table and did not become popular until much later in the 17th century.

Instead the point of one's knife was used to spear and transfer food from the messe onto the diner's trencher or plate.  Even in wealthy households, fingers were generally used for taking the tasty morsels from trencher to mouth.  A sign of good manners was that one did not return to a dish anything that had been touched.  Fingers, or the knife, would be wiped clean on the diner's napkin as required.

First Course  Slow cooked soups and pottages, usually made from beef, oatmeal and peas, were served first.  It was believed that as they were also wet it prevented them from catching on the bottom of the stomach were the heat of the body was the greatest.  Bread would accompany soups and pottage.  This should be in smaller pieces, not hunks of bread, that could be put into the soup or pottage to soak up the liquid.  Although seen as a strong food, bread was also thought to permit the  “agglutination” of the pottage, that is to help break it down and convert it into juice.  Once consumed the Tudor diner could be confident they had lined their stomach ready for the next course.

Starting at the lowest end of the table and working toward the high table, after each course the serving plates and dishes were removed, together with any broken bread and crumbs.  There might be entertainments, entremets, before the next course began.

Ale or Wine?  Now might be a good time to take a refreshing drink.  Unless under a doctor's orders to do otherwise, diners would drink only alcoholic beverages.  Beer and ale were the most common, but wine in its many forms was very popular among those who could afford it.  Contrary to popular belief, most people had access to clean, fresh water - after all, that is what wells were for.  Yet, water was not something diners imbibed at table if more fitting drink were to hand.  Water was better suited to sustaining thirsty Tudors on a hot day.

Flagons of wine or ale and drinking cups were kept on a cupboard, a table or sideboard on which cups, plates and so on were displayed.  Such vessels were often kept cool in a tub of water.  When the diner wished a drink they would call for a servant to attend with a cup.  After drinking heartily, the diner handed the cup back to the servant, who rinsed it and returned it to the cupboard.

In the later Tudor period individual beakers became evermore popular.  The general population drank from wooden, earthenware or leather cups, while the nobility used pewter for daily use and silver on special occasions.  The extremely rich would have shown their wealth by using expensive glassware.

Second Course  The next course would be meat.  If there were several dishes of meat upon the table, then boiled meat would be eaten first again due to cooking times and the heats of the meats within the stomach.  Subject to more intense heat in its first cooking, roast meats were believed more ready for digestion and so were always the main course and never a starter.

After the meal, or between courses, the rich would often be entertained by musicians, singers, masquers or players.  All social classes would often enliven an evening by dancing and providing their own entertainment.  The Tudors were a musical lot and it would be a dull company indeed that did not contain a sufficient supply of capable (or at least enthusiastic) musicians and singers.

Manners at Table  Throughout the Tudor period 15th century manners were applied.  At court, good manners could, at times, lead to promotion and thus it was important to know how to behave.  Surviving works, like the "Babees Boke" and various "Bokes of Nurture", tell a consistent story of what was expected:
  • Keep your hands and nails clean.
  • Keep your knife clean and sharp.
  • Cut your meat into small pieces and do not hack it into great gobbets.
  • Cut your bread with your knife, and do not tear it in great hunks.
  • Do not overfill a spoon with soup or pottage, and definitely do not spill it on the tablecloth.
  • Do not slurp your soup or pottage.
  • Do not leave your spoon in the communal dish when you are done.
  • Never put meat into the salt cellar. Keeping the salt cellar clean was especially important. Diners were instructed to take a little salt on the tip of clean knife and put it on their food. Spilled, dirty salt would never be put back in the cellar.
  • Do not return chewed bones to the shared central plate.
  • Do not throw your bones on the floor, but put them in a "voiding" bowl.  The popular image of Henry VIII throwing bones over his shoulder, or feeding them to his dogs, would mortify Tudor sensibilities.  Bones were not wasted; they were kept for later use, given to servants or the poor to make stock.
  • Keep the tablecloth as clean as possible.
  • If food is dropped on the floor, pick it up but do not eat it.
  • Empty and wipe your mouth before drinking. (French sources recommend that when you are given a drink, either drink it all or dispose of any that is left. The English sources seem to indicate that it is rude to drink the whole thing.)
  • Do not stuff your mouth, pick your teeth, make rude noises, scratch yourself, blow on your food, spit in the washing basin or across the table, spit up food into your dish, talk with your mouth full, or fall asleep at the table.
  • Do not put your elbows on the table, which was a sensible precaution against an accident when one considers the table was typically a board laid on top of trestles.
  • Do not stroke cats and dogs at the table. Indeed, an order was made that dogs were not allowed in the dining hall in case they stole from the alms tubs or annoyed the guests with their barking and fighting.
Your Health  During the meal, numerous "healths" would be pledged (the term "toast" was not used).  The pledging of healths quite often reached ridiculous extremes, and might continue long after the food had been carried away; ending only after the entire company was too "cup-shot" to continue.  Any meal interspersed with such healths could last for several hours.  The feast would end with everyone washing their hands again and a final saying of Grace.  The servants removed the dishes, the linens, and the boards from the trestles to put the tables away.

Tudor Banqueting  After the meal, diners in the early Tudor periods would have stood and drunk sweet wine and spices while the table was cleared, or "voided".  Interestingly, the "voide" would not be replaced with the more familiar dessert until much later in the 17th century.  In the interim, to avoid the noise and disturbance of clearing away, it became increasingly popular for the top table to withdraw to another room where special luxuries, or banquettes, could be enjoyed.  Today we think of banquets as a full meal, but when banqueting became fashionable in Elizabeth I's reign, the word applied only to a final course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves, all of which featured sugar in varying degrees.  The centrepiece of any sugar banquet would be of decorative marchpane, itself made from sugar, rosewater and almonds.  As mentioned earlier, over time the double-ended fork and spoon combination, known as sucket forks, which were ideal for spearing sticky, sugary delights, gained widespread use.  Nowadays few Britons sit down to a feast (or banquet) without a fork being present.

The Tudor feast was first and foremost a social occasion.  No celebration would be complete without one, and it was the opportunity for Tudors to enjoy that which seems most dear to them: passing time in good company.  Your health!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Who is Apicius?

Connoisseurs of Roman cuisine may be familiar with the recipes of "Apicius".  Indeed, "Apicius" was the inspiration for the Roman recipes in Tastes Of History's recent post "Fast Food or Dinner Party", but just who was he?  Did he really write the first cookbook?  And was he really a skilled Roman cook, the equivalent of today’s celebrity chef?  Probably not, and here’s why.

The collaborative work of Dr Christopher Crocock and Sally Grainger (two good friends of ours) provides probably the strongest argument for placing Apicius in context.  From each's experience, they have employed two mutually supportive approaches.  Firstly, to reveal the true Apicius it would be most helpful to fully understand the Latin text, not just to decipher the author's words but to grasp the underlying objective.  This was where Chris’ precise translation of the original manuscript proved invaluable.  Secondly, armed with the translated text in a more user-friendly form, Sally’s skill as a chef brought the ancient recipes to life.  Experimental archaeology of this sort reveals much about the original purpose of the surviving cookbook.  Working together in this way has led both Chris and Sally to argue that the recipes in "Apicius" were read and used by slave cooks rather than written for, or by, some Roman gourmet.

There are, however, ancient sources identifying a bon viveur called Marcus Gavius Apicius (AD 14-37), who lived in the reign of Emperor Tiberius.  This Apicius was seemingly notorious for being "born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived" - at least according to Pliny (Natural History, 9. 30).  Moreover, the satirist, Seneca, tells us that: "Having spent a fortune of 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, spent all the gifts he had received from the Imperial court, and thus swallowed up his income in lavish hospitality, Apicius found that he had only 10 million sestertii left.  Afraid of dying in relative poverty, he poisoned himself."

Evidently Marcus Gavius Apicius was no cook - and nor should he have been. Cooks in the Roman world were slaves skilled in the art of producing the fine dishes consumed by the wealthy elite - their masters/owners. To the Roman mind it would be completely inappropriate for the producer and consumer to be one and the same. Thus there are good reasons to suspect that Marcus Gavius Apicius was not the author of the eponymous cookbook.

Moreover, the translation and analysis of the original text by Chris Grocock makes it abundantly clear that the Latin used is vulgar in the literal sense: of the street and the work-place. As a member of the educated Roman elite, Marcus Gavius Apicius should have been ashamed of the style and grammar used. Furthermore, literary works on food focused very much on the origins and qualities of the ingredients rather than preparation of the dish. The “Apicius” texts appear unconcerned with the source, characteristics or indeed any general information on the ingredients used, something an educated Roman, especially a gourmet, would find wholly unsatisfactory.

The absence of an author’s voice is also telling. Had the work been by a single hand, one would expect to “hear” a consistent style, but this is absent. Similarly, had the work been a collection of the writings of different cooks, then one might expect to hear their individual voices. Yet the cooks’ voices are missing, as is that of an obvious compiler. It is most likely, therefore, that the series of books grew from an original collection into its final form having been assembled by an indifferent scribe, with all the inconsistencies and copying errors, rather than a particular compiler. It seems most likely that Apicius was not a Roman author, but rather a convenient name by which we can refer to a surviving practical cookbook for use by kitchen slaves.

Endnote:  The personal pronoun "he" is used throughout simply because "Apicius" is the masculine form of a Roman name.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Home Front Rations

Although World War II began in September 1939, it was not until January 8th, 1940 that rationing in Britain began.  It was not new idea but one that had its origins in the First World War.  This time around, however, rationing would affect everyone.  Bacon, butter and sugar were the first foods rationed, with successive schemes for meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned and dried fruit quickly following.  By August 1942, almost all foods apart from vegetables and bread were rationed.

With the variety of food restricted, people became quite inventive by necessity.  Many, for example, grew their own vegetables, greatly encouraged by the highly successful digging for victory motivational campaign instigated by the Ministry of Food.  

There are so many recipes from wartime Britain available on-line or in books that we have had to be highly selective of those we have reproduced.  And in keeping with "Dig for Victory" theme, potato based dishes feature quite prominently.  After all, as one Ministry of Food leaflet stated: "There is no vegetable more useful than the homely potato.  Potatoes are a cheap source of energy, and they are one of the foods that help to protect us from illness."   So, we hope you will be inspired to cook some of these amazing Tastes Of History...

For more information on wartime Britain's Home Front, on rationing or for alternative recipes, please get in touch.

One-pot Cooking

For the large majority of people living in the Bronze Age (about 2,500 - 800 BC) to the mid-Iron Age (ca. 300-100 BC) meals were commonly stews, porridge and soups cooked in open pots, probably accompanied by bread.  Eating might have been communal, with the food served in a single bowl from which many people ate.

Described, perhaps a bit dismissively, as "one-pot cooking" the recipes that follow owe much to the long traditions of Britons hunting, gathering and farming the land.

To make your own sourdough is quite simple:

As time allows more Iron Age recipes will be added, but for now please enjoy recreating some great Tastes Of History...

Dishes for a Pirate Banquet

There are many recipes from Georgian Britain that could be adapted to recreate your very own pirate banquet. We have selected just a few to whet your appetite. So, eat up m'hearties and try some Tastes Of History from the Golden Age of Piracy...Yo Ho!
No meal aboard ship would be complete without “hard-tack” or “biscuits”, or as they were more often called, “ship’s bread”.  As the name suggests, these were baked iron-hard to survive long voyages.  Seamen would not try to bite these biscuits - you risk breaking a tooth - but would soak them in their water, ale or broth until they were soft enough to break off a corner.  Ship's Bread was often flavoured by being dipped in bacon or pork fat and lightly fried.

A great way to serve Ship's Bread is with something like "Lobscouse", a traditional mariner's stew:

Properly cooked turtle-meat is mentioned in many pirate memoirs as being the finest food available; many liken it to the finest beef.  The calipash and calipee, the greenish and yellowish gelatinous substances from the upper and lower lining, respectively, of the turtle shell is still highly sought-after to make delicious soup.  Bearing in mind that stocks of sea-turtle may be running low on the shelves in your local supermarket, here instead is a "mock" turtle soup recipe:

If the above seems a little too much, then comfort yourself with either "Eggs au Miroir" or a salad dish that originated in 17th century England - a favourite aboard ship or ashore - known as "salmagundi".  The latter is not, however, a single recipe but describes the grand presentation of a large plated salad comprising many disparate ingredients.  These can be arranged in layers or geometrical designs on a plate or mixed.  The ingredients are then drizzled with a dressing.  Salmagundi aims to produce wide range of flavours, colours and textures on a single plate:

For desert, why not take a leaf from Hannah Glasse's "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" and finish with "Shrewsbury Cakes" and/or a Lemon Cheesecake:

It is suggested that plentiful servings of cold beer, ale or rum punch should accompany the meal.  Drink up, m'hearties, Yo Ho!

More Georgian recipes will be published in due course, but if you would like more information on period cuisine, cooking methods and techniques, or life at sea, then please get in touch.

A Mediaeval Banquet

Hosting your own medieval feast may require some effort but can be great fun.  Creating the right atmosphere and dressing the table need not be too difficult.  Switch off the electric lights, illuminate with candles, let the wine, beer or mead flow freely, and why not add a little background mediaeval music.  Minstrels are an option, of course, but beware of overcrowding the modern dining room!

Despite being known to the Romans, it appears that forks were not popular or used greatly in the early medieval period.  Dining instead relied on knives and spoons, with the meal eaten off a “trencher”, a plate made from bread.  To achieve this, each guest will need a large slice of thick slice of four day old bread trimmed to a square.  Together with the trencher, each guest should have a finger bowl half filled with water and a little lemon juice, and the table should be set with a basket of bread for all to share.

The sample menu below may seem overwhelming, but your guests will only need a small portion of each dish.  So, settle down for a three hour feast of great food in good company...

First Course

Second Course

Third Course

If your guests have any room left at all, the banquet should finish with a selection of cheeses, apples and nuts.

Do get in touch should you have any questions, or if you are looking for alternative recipes.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Fast Food or Dinner Party?

Roman Cuisine

Many of the Roman recipes we have reproduced below are taken from “De re coquinaria” (“On the Subject of Cooking”). This is a collection of menus, dishes and ingredients attributed to a Roman author (or authors) known to us as “Apicius”. If attribution seems a little vague, it is that we simply do not know, with any certainty, the author. The book may have been dedicated to someone named “Apicius”, which was a popular practice amongst Greek and Roman authors. It may include the works of more than one author, the resulting collection given the eponymous title.

The resulting “cook book” is not, however, what we today would recognise as a recipe book. Food and ingredient measurements were basic at best. Quantities, for example, were not often given in Roman recipes. Temperature control was difficult and had to be learnt through experience. Thus, cooking temperatures were not specified, and cooking times were equally vague. Much was left to the individual cook to determine from their own knowledge, experience and practice.

Two highly recommended books from which you can learn more of the history behind ancient Greek and Roman food and dining (and of course Apician recipes) are:

"Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today" (ISBN 978-1903018446)

In one convenient volume, Sally Grainger gathers together her interpretations of 64 of Apicius' recipes. The book accompanies, and compliments, the more scholarly work "Apicius" for which Christopher Grocock diligently translated the original Latin text. The result is a serious attempt to convert ambiguous Roman instructions into something that can be reproduced in the modern kitchen. Forget lark's tongues and dormice, the book contains more appropriate and affordable dishes such as roast lamb with coriander, carrots or parsnips in a cumin-honey glaze, almond and semolina pudding, to name but a few. This is an excellent guide to recreating Roman food, with a good selection of dishes and plenty of advice about how to find and make the famous fish sauce.

"The Classical Cookbook" (ISBN 978-0714122755)

This best-selling cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger features a delicious collection of recipes from every strata of classical civilization, all accessible to the contemporary cook. Using a subtle mix of sweet and sour flavours, fragrant herbs, creamy cheesecakes and hearty red wines, ancient Mediterranean cuisine is brought to life. The Classical Cookbook features adaptations of 49 sumptuous dishes. Featuring step-by-step instructions, the modern cook again will be able to tackle everything from simple meals and street food through to lavish banquets and wedding feasts with an authentic Ancient Greek and Roman flair.

The Recipes

You will undoubtedly find different versions of "Apician" recipes reproduced on many other websites and in books. The selection of recipes that follow, however, are Jill’s adaptations based her own experiments at home and at cookery demonstrations. The dishes, which could form elements of a banquet, have proved very popular with audiences and the members of The Roman Military Research Society.

Nota Bene:

o  The best modern replacement for garum is Vietnamese fish sauce available from most supermarkets. Don’t use anchovy essence as it leaves a fishy taste that was simply not present in the original recipes.

o  A good alternative to lovage (which can be bought as lovage seeds from supermarkets, especially those specialising in Asian cuisine) is finely chopped celery leaf.

o  None of the ingredients and quantities are set in stone. You will not evoke the wrath of the Gods if you change them. Add more or less to suit your own taste. Have fun experimenting – it’s what we do!

You may even have been lucky enough to sample some of the dishes having met us at re-enactments or historical events. And if you cannot quite remember how to recreate those wonderful Tastes Of History, then read on...

Given the wealth of options available, further Roman recipes will be added at a later date.  Or you if you would like more information, then please get in touch.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ancient Greek Dining

Tastes Of History started as experts in recreating Roman era cuisine.  The history of food, however, is one of continuity and so our repertoire has expanded to encompass other periods.  Unsurprisingly, given their Mediterranean roots, Roman cuisine was influenced by, and influenced, the ancient Greeks.

Best described as frugal, reflecting the difficulties that were faced in producing enough food on Greece's rocky and mountainous terrain, ancient Greek food is characterised by the "Mediterranean Triad" of wheat, olive oil and wine. Indeed, wine and olive oil have always been a central part of the Greek diet and the spread of grapes and olive trees in the Mediterranean and further afield is directly related to Greek emigration and colonisation.

Goat, sheep and pig meat was eaten, but rarely. Since most of Greece is close to the sea, fish and seafood were far more likely to be on the menu. Tuna, mullet, mackerel, snapper, octopus, squid, sea urchins and all varieties of shell fish, could all be grilled or baked. Such food could be supplemented with root vegetables, olives, goat's milk and goat's cheese. For the poor, however, barley gruels or porridge (kykeon) undoubtedly provided the staple diet.

The Greeks generally had three to four meals a day. A typical breakfast consisted of barley bread dipped in wine or olive oil, sometimes complemented by figs or olives. Pancakes made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey and curdled milk were also enjoyed. One kind of pancake made from a spelt flour dough is mentioned being topped with honey, sesame and cheese.

A quick, light lunch was taken around noon or early afternoon. Dinner, however, was the most important meal of the day being taken at nightfall. An additional light meal was sometimes taken in the late afternoon. Literally a "lunch-dinner", it effectively replaced the dinner meal.

Should you wish to recreate the cuisine of the ancient Greeks, then we hope the following recipes may serve as inspiration: