Food in Tudor England
John Dauncey of Winchester
Tudor aristocracy ate an enourmous variety of beasts, fish, and fowl, and in copious quantities, although the huge quantities served at many feasts were to feed up to 300 guests and villagers.
The staple foods in Tudor England were bread and cheese. Bread came in a number of qualities, from 'Manchet' bread, or the finest white bread, reserved for the lord, his family and certain higher-ranking servants. Less high-ranking servants such as grooms were served ravel or Yeoman's bread (bread with the rye left in), and the coarsest bread was known as 'tems' bread, or Carter's bread, and served to the lowest ranking servants. Some estates also produced a heavy rye bread (maslin or meslin) (Emmison 1964: 37-38). Cheeses varied according to the region in which they were made. Cheeses were the primary use of milk products, as milk was perishable, and mostly used in the production of cheese and cream for feasts. Both cattle and sheep were milked. My household would probably consume two to three wheels of cheese per week. Eggs were consumed in great quantity.
Meat was the other major food of Tudor England, and a huge variety of animals were eaten. Contrary to popular belief, animals were slaughtered in winter as well as in summer. Domestic animals killed for food were: oxen, sheep and lambs, goats and kids. The rest of the meat consumed by a Tudor household was game - venison, and boar (Emmison 1964: 39-40). Although deer were prized because of their ability to forage in winter, and because of their taste, the advantages gained in not having to feed the animals was set off by the huge cost of maintaining a hunting preserve and the staff needed to maintain it, on land which could otherwise be used for farming. Meat was served braised or roasted, boiled, or baked into pies or pasties (Black 1992). In England butter was primarily used for frying, rather than the olive oil used on the continent (Dyer 1989: 63).
A bewildering variety of wildfowl were consumed by a Tudor household. Amongst those hunted or trapped and eaten were: mallards, widgeons, wild ducks, teals, cranes, shovelards, shellfowls, woodcocks, snipes, marles, small oxbirds, curlews, plovers, larks, blackbirds and sparrows (Emmison 1964: 40-42). The size of the birds did not prevent any type of fowl from being cooked and eaten. My family would have employed a 'birder' to catch birds for the table. He would employ techniques such as birdliming, trapping, and snaring, and shooting (Emmison 1964: 42-44). From April to late September pigeons were taken from the dovecote. Hens were also kept and eaten.
Fish was a large part of the Tudor diet, as meat and poultry were proscribed by the church throughout lent, and on Fridays and Saturdays. Fish was seen as fasting, although noble families ate just as well on fast days as they did on other days. Although living inland, my family would have bought in small quantities of sea fish such as sole, flounder, plaice and whiting, although maintaining freshness during transport would have been difficult due to the state of the roads in England at this time. Much fish was bought salted for use in stews and other dishes, and was far less expensive than fresh fish. Carp were kept in hall carp ponds, and supplied fish regularly. The estate of my family would have also contained a river, in which could be caught other freshwater fish such as carp, bream, roach, perch, tench and pike. Shellfish such as mussels were also eaten frequently (Emmison 1964: 44-45).
Although a belief exists that mediaeval and renaissance food was highly spiced to cover the taste of rancid meat, this has little basis in fact (Dyer 1989: 63). Spices were primarily used at feasts, and Tudor tastes tended towards the highly spiced. However few spices appeared to have been used in everyday meals, these expensive items being reserved for special occasions.
Included in the Tudor definition of 'spice' are imported dried fruit. Salt was also included as a spice, and huge amounts were bought for salting meat and fish. Spices used included: mace, cloves, saffron, currants, dates, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, box biscuits, caraways, almonds, raisins, rice (also counted as a spice), and prunes (Emmison 1964: 45-46).
Fruit and Vegetables:
Fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs came from the orchards and gardens of the estate. Parsnips, cucumbers, pompions (large melons), white beets, onions and garlic, and many other vegetables were used, principally in soups. Fruit included apples and pears as well as many other fruits. Grafting was a common practice.
Very little water was drunk in Tudor times, not being believed to be particularly healthy. Instead large quantities of Ale were drunk. Hopped beers, which lasted longer, were available by this time, but were more expensive. Wine was drunk by those of higher rank only, and was bought a few galloons at a time (Dyer 1989: 62).
A Wednesday Menu:
Dinner: 9 pieces of boiled beef, a leg of pork, 2 legs of veal, 6 pieces of roasting beef, 3 geese, a loin & breast of veal, pork, 10 beef pastries, 2 pasties of mutton, 6 coneys, 4 pasties of venison, 2 capons, 2 partridges, a woodcock roasted, & a dozen larks in a pie.
Supper: 2 joints of mutton & a leg of mutton, a shoulder of venison roasted, a breast of pork, 6 coneys, a roast duck, 2 capons, 2 partridges roasted, and a pasty of venison, & 2 roast teals.
Very few vegetables would have been served with this meal, although delicacies of dried fruits may have been. This meal would serve approximately 15-20 people- my family, 4 adult guests, and 'a great number of boys'. Different numbers of people were to attend for dinner and supper (Emmison 1964: 104).
A Midwinter's Feast Menu:
Soup (2 varieties, vegetable & meat)
Roast peacock (fake)
Pork & egg pies
Fried spiced onions
Roast root vegetables
Braised venison in pepper sauce
Pears in red wine
Cheese and fruits
Hart, R (1972) English Life in Tudor Times, Wayland Publishers, London
Emmison, F.G. (1964) Tudor Food and Pastimes - Life at Ingatestone Hall, Ernest Benn Ltd, London
Fraser, A (1996) The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
Dyer, C (1989) Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Black, M (1992) The Medieval Cookbook, British Museum Press, London
Renfrow, C (1998) Take a Thousand Eggs or More, Volume 2, Cindy Renfrow