By Katherine Ashe
Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, is entertaining Robert Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln and Peter de Montfort, her husband’s cousin from Gloucestershire at her castle of Kenilworth. As is often the case her husband is away from home. Trubody, her major d’omo, presides over the servants and will carve the principal roast meats as the sons at home, Guy, Amaury and Richard, are still children.
From the thatch-roofed bake-shed beyond the garden’s wattle wall the scents of baking savory pies and sweets perfume the breeze. Onto the crust of a chicken puree and custard pie the cook is grinding a sprinkle of white sugar from a hard, conical sugar loaf imported from Palestine. To give the custard a golden glaze she puts the big pie back under the inverted kettle that serves as oven in the hearth.
Herbs from the vegetable garden hang in bunches from the roof beams of the cook shed, beside strings of onions and medicinal garlic. Crocks of spring peas packed in lard are stacked along the walls, waiting to be winter treats. Barrels of cherries, quinces and medlars soaked in honey and wine wait winter’s feasts as well.
Finishing with the sugar, Cook hands the cone back to Trubody the major d’omo, who puts it into Slingaway’s basket with several boxes of spices, almonds, figs and dates, to go back to the hall where they’re kept locked in the aumbry, the serving cupboard near the main door and the cellar door. Before he leaves the cook shed the major d’omo lights a candle lantern; it’s full daylight and early afternoon, but he’ll need it.
The dais’s permanent furniture, the heavy, carved oak chairs for the Countess (and the Earl when he’s at home), are adjusted at the center of the table where the Countess and the Bishop will sit. Cushioned stools are brought for the cousin and the tutor, and for young Amaury and Guy. The seating, facing out into the hall, is arranged with space enough from the rear wall for the diners and servants to pass, but most serving will be from the open side of the table.
Trubody nods now to Slingaway for the long trestle tables to be set up on the main floor of the hall for the castle’s upper staff: Lady Mary, the Countess’ principal lady in waiting, the almoner, the manor steward, the Countess’s treasurer, the verger of the castle’s chapel, the armorer and captain of the castle’s guards, the chief huntsman and equerry, Lady Mary’s own maids. The kitchen, household and serving staff will take their places at the long tables when the first seating, of those who outrank them, is done and the diners at the high table have left for vespers in the chapel.
Taking up his lantern from the aumbry, and selecting the cellar key from the great bunch of keys that hang from his belt, Trubody opens the door to the cellar. By the light of his lantern he climbs down the ladder into the dark, moist pit. Gobehasty, the footman, hurrying from the kitchen with two large pewter pitchers, climbs down behind him.
In the kitchen, Cook sends Garbag to tell Trubody that all is ready.
Clambering up the cellar ladder, with Gobehasty close behind, the major d’omo hurriedly unlocks the aumbry’s doors again and gives Garbag three silver goblets to set on the high table at the center places for Peter de Montfort, the Countess and the Bishop. Treen goblets from the kitchen shed will be sufficient for everyone else. But also for the high table, the major d’omo takes from the aumbry a fine pewter ewer shaped like a knight on horseback, the spout emerging from the horse’s mouth. Gobehasty carefully pours wine from a pitcher to the ewer as Trubody hastens to the rose garden to inform the Countess that dinner is ready.
Peter stops his play with little Guy. With the Countess and the Bishop leading, Amaury tucking his book into the blousing of his robe, follows his tutor, and the six go up the foyer steps to the hall.
As the Countess takes her place at the center of the table, with the Bishop to her right and Peter to her left, Boscelis and Amaury to the Bishop’s right, Guy, coached by Trubody, brings a towel and bowl of rose water for the diners to dip and dry their fingers.
The Countess’s staff seat themselves on the benches at the long tables along the walls and Slingaway, at the high table, sets a large, square-trimmed, thick slice of four-day old bread, a “trencher,” on the tablecloth at each diner’s place.
The Countess asks the Bishop to say the blessing. Never perfunctory, Grosseteste prays at length for the well-being of the Countess and for the Earl, absent in France and from whom there is no news, for the king and for the outcome of the harvest -- which can never be taken for granted even in a mild and moist year.
The staff members at the long tables sit, politely silent in the presence of their lady and a priest who’s said to have second sight -- some no doubt wondering if this mean the harvest, so near ripening, will fail? The kitchen servants wait restively in line down the steps of the foyer, beyond the hall door. At last the Bishop makes the sign of the cross and says “Amen,” and the meal may begin.
Servant after servant comes briskly in and offers the dish he’s bearing first to the Countess, then to the Bishop, then to Peter, last to tutor Boscellis and the boys. At the low tables Lady Mary presides and carves the trenchers loaves, holding each round loaf cradled under her arm with the long knife sawing perilously toward her bosom.
Kitchen boys bring in a roast of beef and another of ham, and a round of cheese. The leftovers of the dainty dishes of the high table may be offered here in the second course and sometimes the Countess sends special samples down to Lady Mary. The cups that the staff carry tied to their belts are brought forth and filled by Garbag from the second pitcher of wine.
Non-meat dishes first are served at the high table since the Bishop will not eat red meat. A footman offers eels, caught in the abbey pond next door and baked in a crust with diced onion, ginger, currants, raisins and vinegar. Next comes a charger of carp from Kenilworth’s Mere, served in a pond of sauce galantine (*recipe1). Then come fritters of parsnips cooked with almond milk; baked eggs with mint, parsley, fennel, rue and tansy; bowls of pease pottage with saffron and pepper (*recipe #2).
Frowning at such extravagance, Grosseteste helps himself only to the pottage, eggs, and the parsnip fritters, while Boscellis happily accepts large servings of the rich eel and carp. Countess Eleanor smiles; she’s fond of Boscellis and has told the cook to always have some fine dish for the tutor monk whose one indulgence is good food. Peter de Montfort and the Countess herself have a taste of everything, and Peter summons back the carp for a larger serving, his trencher well soaked in sauce galantine. The boys poke at small servings of the carp, waiting for the roasts in the next course.
At the lower tables, Trubody carves the roasted meats. The staff members pass the wooden chargers laden with sliced ham or beef, pricking their choices with their dining knives. Like the diners at the high table, each has a knife case, hung with whatever other implements they need – keys, stylus, needle case or hoof pick -- from their belts.
Now at the high table the second course begins. Gobehasty brings a magnificent pastry-covered roast. On the platter, surrounding the golden dome that encases the meat, are spiced apples and pears. Into the honey-laden juices, the poured batter that covers the meat has flowed and crisped into crinkled bits, special treats for the children. As Trubody carves and a servant takes the slices round the table, more dishes are run (coursed) from the kitchen: a pie of the spiced innards of the deer that was the main course yesterday; a capon stuffed with almonds and figs; a mawmenye of lamb with lentils, turnips and currants (*recipe 3).
Since the Earl is away and there are few guests today the meal is not extensive. The diners at the high table spear the cut meat with the points of their dining knives, as Peter does, or delicately carry them from trencher to mouth with thumb and forefinger -- or thumb and index finger as the Countess does, with fingers not in use daintily splayed to keep them free of sauce. The wash basin and towel is brought round again.
When the second course is finished, the course of sweets is served. Dishes of home-grown sugared violets and rose petals, imported almonds and dried cherries from the orchard are set upon the cloth as the sauce-soaked trenchers are removed. Being thick and very dry, the undersides of the bread trenchers have left little on the table but crumbs. The poor of the manor’s village, gathering at the castle gate, will receive the sauce-laden bread from the almoner this evening.
Cook has prepared a special sweet in honor of the Bishop. A faun tempere -- carnation flower pudding (*recipe 4). Small bowls, each garnished with carnations and roses, are set at each place at the high table.
The Countess, her guests and family, Lady Mary and the Bishop leave the hall for evening prayers in the chapel. The diners at the low tables vacate the benches, and the kitchen, serving staff and lesser servants of the castle take their places. Garbag and Slingaway bring wooden buckets of beer from the brewing shed and the copious remains of the roast meats and cheese are heaped on the trencher slices as quickly as Cook can slice the loaves.
In the kitchen shed the hearth’s fire has been banked, the inverted kettles used for backing are cleared from the coals. The hanging kettle used for the pottage has been lifted from its trammel to the stone wash tub where, with fasces of twigs, it was scrubbed, along with the big forks and ladles, griddles and pots, in hot water from the great kettle that never leaves the hearth. In a bucket of clean water Trubody himself carefully washes the silver goblets and the pewter ewer shaped like a knight on horseback, then he dries them and returns them to safety in the aumbry in the hall.
1) sauce galantine, to serve with fowl, meats or fish: 1/3 cup very dry bread or bread crusts ground to a fine grain, 1 cup stock (vegetable, chicken, fish or meat depending upon the dish to be sauced), 1 tsp ground galingale, ¼ tsp each cinnamon, ginger and cloves, 2 tbsp vinegar for fish or vegetable dishes, 3 tbsp sherry for fowl or meats. Combine bread crumbs with the spices. Add remaining ingredients and simmer gently until sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve. About 1 ½ cups.
2) pease pottage: 3 cups vegetable broth, 3 lb. shelled green peas, 1 large onion, minced, 2 tbsp brown sugar, ¼ tsp salt, ¼ tsp saffron, ¼ tsp of pepper, ¼ tsp dry ginger powder. Bring broth to a boil; add all the other ingredients, cook covered over medium heat for 12 to 15 minutes, turn out and puree the pottage and return to the pot to reheat. Garnish with a slice of toasted, crusty bread for each bowl. Serves 6.
3) mawmenye of lamb and lentils: 1¼ lb of lamb cut into small bite-size chunks, 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, 4 cups beef broth, 1 cup dry lentils washed and cleansed of stones and blemished lentils, 1 cup diced turnips or parsnips, 1/3 cup chopped figs, 1 cup currants, 1/3 cup raisins, ¼ tsp cinnamon and ¼ tsp ginger (powdered), ¼ tsp pepper, ½ tsp salt, 2 tbsp butter, pale celery leaves or yellow nasturtiums. Mix the ¼ tsp of pepper and ½ tsp of salt with the chunks of lamb and then sauté the lamb in the butter. Add chicken broth and simmer gently until lamb is cooked and tender (45 min. to an hour). Meanwhile bring lentils to boil in the 4 cups of beef broth; when boil is reached reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Combine spices (additional salt may be added sparingly here, to taste) and add to turnips/parsnips, tossing to mix well. Add the turnips/parsnips, figs and currants to the lentils and continue to cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Stir the cooked lamb into the lentils and place in a large serving bowl. Distribute the celery leaves or flowers decoratively and serve. Serves 6 if offered with other main course dishes.
4) faun tempere: carnation flower pudding. ½ cup beef or chicken broth, 2½ cups milk, ¼ cup white flour, ½ cup white sugar, 5 egg yolks, 9 or 10 carnation flowers (violets or rose petals may be substituted if carnations aren’t available, but nasturtiums have too sharp a flavor), ½ cup skinned and grated almonds, 1/4 tsp each cinnamon, galingale, mace and ginger powder. In a pot set into a kettle of gently boiling water (you can use a double boiler) heat milk and broth gradually. Mix the flour, sugar and spices and gradually add to the milk and broth, stirring constantly for 12 to 15 minutes. Beat the eggs. Put ½ cup of the heated milk, flour, spices and stock into a separate bowl and gently stir in the beaten egg yolks. Add to the main pot, stirring continually as pudding thickens. Pour the pudding into separate bowls and allow to cool. Strew the top with the flowers and serve.
Aresty, Esther B., The Delectable Past, Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, Fabulous Feasts, George Braziller, 1976.
Sass, Lorna, S., To the King’s Taste,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.
Tannahill, Reay, The Fine Art of Food, A.S. Barnes, & Co., New York, 1968.
Wilson, C. Anne, Food and Drink in Britain, Penguin Books.
Pictures are thanks to Wikipedia.
Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort book series on the life of Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester.