The theme for this week’s #MedievalMondays with Historic Houses is banquets.
For most people, the word banquets conjure up images of grand halls and long wooden tables filled with swan and wild boar (not to mention the popular but often forgotten dishes of porpoise, conga eel and beaver tail).
But behind the scenes of these lavish banquets, was a literal army of 200 cooks, pages, sergeants and grooms, whose job it was to prepare the 800 plus meals that the Royal Court consumed every day.
In fact, according to the 16th century tutor Thomas Starkey, nobles expected to be presented with at least 20 different meat dishes at each meal, followed by a selection of fruit tarts, jellies, gingerbread and sugared almonds (the latter of these being a particular favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, which may help to explain why she is sometimes described as having ‘blackened’ teeth. Although the Tudor habit of cleaning teeth with sugar paste or honey hardly helped either!)
In order to make sure that the food was of the highest standard, large Tudor kitchens were divided into separate departments or specialities, which included the pastry, where pies were made and baked, the buttery (from ‘butt’ meaning barrel) where wine and ale were stored, the dressing station, the saucery, the serving station, and the scullery, where the veritable mountain of pots, plates and cups would be washed up.
For poorer Tudors however, cooking was a much more scaled down affair (there were no lavish banquets for them).The great many could not afford to buy fresh meat, and had to make do with either dried meat, or none at all.
Instead of the 800 hot meals of the court banquets, poorer families would typically only have one hot meal a day. For the rest of the time they relied on bread made of rye or barley, which would have been coarser than the white bread favoured by the wealthy.
For those who were fortunate enough to own a cow or a goat, cheese, butter and milk would have been staples, and the animals themselves would have been kept for their produce, over and above being killed for their meat. In fact, these animals were so important to the families that owned them, that they were often brought into the home during the winter to make sure that they did not succumb to the cold. Given the fact that many poor Tudor homes comprised of one room however, I imagine there would also have been a few cons to this approach!
Foods considered suitable only for the poor included dairy (the rich only used butter and milk for cooking) brown bread, ‘underground’ vegetables such as parsnips and carrots, and pottage, which was a commonly eaten vegetable stew that could also contain herbs, grains or any garden birds, rabbits or fish that families may have been lucky enough to trap.
Most of the cooking in poorer families was undertaken by the women of the household, for whom ‘housewifery’ was seen as vital to their chances of marriage. In fact, a woman who could not or did not cook, was seen as having broken her marriage vows, which may seem a little extreme at first, but when you contrast the lavish eating of the wealthy, with the desperate hunger of many of the poor, who may only have had their thin vegetable pottage and coarse rye bread to get them from one day to the next, cooking wasn’t about taste or status. Instead, it was simply about staying alive.