Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Great Stuart Bake Off: What They Ate

by Margaret Porter

Typically a person of the Stuart era ate three meals per day. Early risers and those who had the leisure for it--aristocrats, gentry, the merchant and professional classes--ate breakfast. Laborers and farm workers broke their fast, at a very early hour, before beginning their daily work. Heavy with protein, it consisted mainly of cold meat, fish, cheese, washed down with ale or small beer. Dinner, the principal meal, occurred midday or early afternoon, gradually shifting to mid-afternoon, and included any number of dishes. In general, few vegetables were consumed but the table was spread with a vast array of meats, fish, cheeses, pies, and puddings. Many dishes were flavored with common herbs--sage, thyme, rosemary--or costly spices such as saffron, mace, and nutmeg. Supper was a light meal taken before bedtime.

At certain times of the year--and particularly during the Interregnum--fast days were designated. Each year Lent brought restrictions on meat-eating. During one week in Lent, 1661, Lord Bedford's household record indicates the purchase of salted fish, fresh cod, a quartern of smelts, twenty flounders, a chine of salmon, two pairs of soles, and four quarts of oysters. In summertime, fruit was purchased in quantity, for eating but also for preserving in some fashion for later use.
The seasons ordained the substance of meals. Fresh foods were eaten when fresh, and stored as feasible for later consumption. Chief methods of food preservation were pickling, potting, drying, and salting. Fruits were used as sweeting agents, as was honey. Sugar came in loaves, dark in colour, that were cut with snippers and then ground into granules or powder. A drop in price during the century resulted in an expansion of sweet puddings in addition to savoury ones.
The foreign visitor is always a valuable source of information that the resident takes for granted. Monsieur Henri Misson of France was highly enthusiastic about puddings:
The pudding is a Dish very difficult to be describ'd because of the several Sorts there are of it; Flower [flour], Milk, Eggs, Butter, Sugar, Suet, Marrow, Raisins, &c &c are the most common Ingredients of a Pudding. They bake them in an Oven, they boil them with Meat, they make them fifty several Ways. Blessed be he that invented Pudding, for it is a Manna that hits the Palates of all Sorts of People . . . the People are never weary of it. Ah, what an excellent Thing is an English Pudding!
During his stay Misson encountered people who never or seldom ate any bread. He further describes the eating habits of various classes:

They chew the Meat by whole Mouthfuls. Generally speaking the English Tables are not delicately serv'd. There are some Noblemen that have both French and English Cooks and these eat much after the French Manner: But among the middling Sort of People (which are those I spoke of before) they have ten or twelve Sorts of common Meats which infallibly take their Turns at their Tables and two Dishes are their Dinners, a Pudding for instance, and a Piece of roast Beef. Another time they will have a Piece of boil'd Beef, and then they salt it some Days beforehand and besiege it with five or six Heaps of Cabbage, Carrots, Turnips, or some other Herbs or Roots, well pepper'd and salted and swimming in Butter. A Leg of roast or boil'd Mutton dish'd up with the same Dainties, Fowls, Pigs, Ox tripes, and Tongues, Rabbits, Pidgeons, all well moisten'd with Butter without larding. Two of these Dishes always serv'd up one after the other make the usual Dinner of a substantial Gentleman, or wealthy Citizen.

Samuel Pepys by Godfrey Kneller
Anyone interested in a London gentleman's food habits should seek out Samuel Pepys's Diary, in which he recounts various feasts, fasts, 'frolicks'. Every year he threw a party to celebrate the successful removal of the 'stone' from his bladder. (He preserved said object in a leather case, and displayed it to visitors!) It has been observed that his record of dinners and such is sketchy at best, considering the vast amounts of food that the average Stuart gentleman consumed in the course of his day--he remarks only on what is, to him, noteworthy or particularly delectable.

Then, as ever, children were especially fond of sweets and treats. In May and June of 1655, Lord Bedford's account books contain these line items: For six sweet oranges and cherries for my Lady Anne, 1s. 6d. To one that brought a cake for my Lady Anne, 1s.

Those possessed of great estates, like his lordship, could rely upon the produce of his own lands, and tenant farmers fed their families from their grounds and gardens. Residents of county towns obtained their food from weekly markets, and in cities from butchers, fishmongers, poulterers, cookshops, etc.

Kitchen Scene

During the 17th century, the surge in printing presses in England led to increased production of books on food and cookery--the nation was far behind Italy, Germany, and France in that respect. Gervase Markham produced The English Hus-wife in 1615, but it is much more a guide for housekeeping and other skills though it includes recipes.

The 1st English Cookery Book

In 1660, shortly after the Restoration, The Accomplish't Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery by Robert May appeared, regarded as the very first English cookery book. The author, son of a cook ('one of the ablest cooks in his time' asserts May in his preface), learned much from his parent, who worked for Lady Dormer. Her ladyship sent the youth to France to train, and during his five years there he had access to the wealth of French cookery books. Following his London apprenticeship, he returned to Lady Dormer's household. During the course of his career he was employed by a number of lords and ladies: The Countess of Kent, Lord Lovelace, Sir Kenelm Digby, Lord Montagu, and more. In addition to the recipes, May helpfully provides menu suggestions for holiday feasts and fasting-days, as well as recommended bills of fare for each month in the year.

The next important tome is Will Rabisha's The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (1662), a title that bestows a medical and scientific imprimatur upon the subject. Sir Kenelm Digby (one of May's employers) published the first edition of his book of cookery and 'receipts' (recipes) in 1669. Here we have Digby's version of Puffs:
Take new milk Curds, strained well from the whey; then rub them very well; season them with Nutmeg, Mace, Rose water and Sugar; then take an Egg or two, a good piece of Butter, and a handful of flower; work all together, and make them into Balls; bake them in an overn, upon sheets of Paper; when they are baked, serve them up with butter melted and beaten with Rose-water and Sugar.

About 1679 John Evelyn, the diarist, began composing a treatise titled Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699), in which he primarily discusses garden plans, plants, and gardens. His description of produce to be used in salads includes many which are familiar to the modern diner:

--Lettuce, Lactuca...ever was, and still continues the principal Foundation of the universal Tribe of Sallets; which is to Cool and Refresh, besides its other Properties
--Cucumber, Cucumis; tho' very cold and moist, the most approved Sallet alone, or in Composition, of all the Vinaigrets, to sharpen the Appetite, and cool the Liver,
--Endive, Endivium, Intubum Sativum; the largest, whitest, and tenderest Leaves best boil'd, and less crude.
--Cabbage, Brassica (and its several kinds)
--Beet, Beta; of which there is both Red, Black, and White
--Artichaux, Cinara, (Carduus Sativus) hot and dry. The Heads being slit in quarters first eaten raw, with Oyl, a little Vinegar, Salt, and Pepper.
--Basil, Ocimum (as Baulm) imparts a grateful Flavour, if not too strong, somewhat offensive to the Eyes; and therefore the tender Tops to be very sparingly us'd in our Sallet.
--Borrage, Borrago hot and kindly moist, purifying the Blood, is an exhilarating Cordial, of a pleasant Flavour.
--Cresses, Nasturtium, Garden Cresses; But above all the Indian, moderately hot, and aromatick, quicken the torpent Spirits, and purge the Brain.
--Garlick, Allium; dry towards Excess; and tho' both by Spaniards and Italians, and the more Southern People, familiarly eaten, with almost every thing, and esteem'd of such singular Vertue to help Conception, and thought a Charm against all Infection and Poyson.

Title page of Evelyn's book on Sallets

Edward Kidder (born 1665) was not only a skillful pastry cook, he's acknowledged as the proprietor of ones of the first cookery schools in England. Apparently he had several London schools, at Holborn and near Furnival's Inn and at St. Martin's Le Grand, which might have operated simultaneously. Late in his career, after the dawn of the Georgian era, he had his recipes printed and bound as a handbook for his pupils--several copies of which are extant. His students were male--females were privately instructed, as indicated by a note in some editions that 'Ladies may be taught at their own Houses.' Lady Mary Pierrepont (after her marriage Wortley Montagu), who kept house for her widower father, received thrice weekly carving lessons from a master of the art.

Kidder's book is valuable for its detailed account of table arrangement and specific dishes that could be included in each course.

Arrangement of the Table
First Dishes: Pottages of all sorts, a dish of fish, beans & bacon, ham & chickens, pullets & oysters, boiled tongues & udders, a leg of veal, a calves head, a goose or turkey, haunch of venison, leg of mutton & tunips, piece of salt beef, boiled fowls & marrow bones, a turbot & small fish

Bottom Dishes: A chine of veal or mutton, a neck of veal, pigeons in saffron, puddings, roast beef minced pies, cold ham, sliced tongue, venison pasty, potted meats or fowls, cold lobster or salmon or sturgeon, haunch of venison roast, let of mutton roast, hens with eggs, chicken & asparagus, a roast pike, calve's head roasted

Side Dishes: Bombarded veal, Scotch collops, leg of lamb, fricasees white or brown, ragout of any sort, a tart or tansy, scalloped oysters, carp in a ragout, pigeons and asparagus, lamb stones & sweet breads, stewed carp, chickens

For the middle of the table: a grand salad of pickles, a salad & butter, hot or cold pie, tarts, cheesecakes, puffs & custards, jellies, creams, blanc manges, a dish of fruit, sweetmeat tart, patty of lobsters, cold lobsters

Second Course: A dish of wild fowl, green geese or ducklings, roast chicken or pigeons, lamb joint, fried fish, turkey, leverets, partridges or cocks or snipes, pheasants or quails or larks, buttered lobsters or crabs, scalloped oysters, tart or tansy, tarts, cheesecakes, puffs, custards, dish of peas, ragout of mushrooms, lobsters ragout or roast

Plates: Oyster loaves, artichokes in cream, Portugal eggs, cutlets of veal, patties of oysters, crawfish, prawns, shrimp, apricot fritters, Polonia sausages, salmagundy, pickles of any sort, marrow or spinach toast, veal puffs, sweetbreads.

The most elaborate meals, as one would expect, were enjoyed by royalty--who regularly dined in public, so lesser persons could enter the palace to witness this spectacle. Immediately after a monarch's coronation, a massive feast took place in London's Westminster Hall, with all the nobility seated at tables heaped with delicacies. For a description of the foods served at King James II's coronation feast, see my earlier post for EHFA here.

Tables at the Coronation Feast


Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. James II's coronation feast is depicted in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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