The Tudor court was a place of lavish feasts. In a single year, the royal cooks prepared 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 53 wild boar and thousands of birds and fish. King Henry VIII’s waistline expanded from thirty-two inches at age 30 to fifty-four inches at age 55. In The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank, Terry Breverton, author of numerous works of Tudor and Welsh history including Jasper Tudor: Dynasty Maker, Owain Glyndwr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales and The Welsh: The Biography, explains Tudor farming and feasting then provides hundreds of annotated and modernized recipes for anyone interested in cooking Tudor dishes in their own kitchens.
Breverton takes a wide approach to the Tudor period, discussing dishes from England’s first cookbook, The Forme of Cury, a Roll of Ancient English Cookery: Compiled, about AD 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II to the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. This period saw an expansion in the range of available dishes as England expanded its trade relationships throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. The popular image of Tudor cooking is enormous roast meats turning on spits but Breverton includes recipes that demonstrate that the Tudor elite enjoyed a wider range of foods than English people of the mid twentieth century, including macaroni and cheese and chickpeas with garlic. Breverton also challenges the myth that people in Tudor times ate few vegetables. Surviving account books emphasize meat purchases because vegetables were grown at home. New vegetables from the Americas were incorporated into Tudor cooking over the course of the sixteenth century with beans and sweet potatoes favored over potatoes and tomatoes.
The recipe section provides a sense of how dishes evolved over time and new foods were incorporated into the Tudor diet. For example, The Forme of Cury included an early recipe for macaroni and cheese including instructions on rolling the dough for fresh pasta then “cast hym on boiling water and seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it, and butter imelte.” A book from 1595 reminded the reader that both Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins enjoyed “A cheap, fresh and lasting victual, called by the name of Macaroni amongst the Italians, and not unlike (save only in form) to the Cus-cus (couscous) in Barbary.” By 1769, there were a variety of pasta recipes in cookbooks including “To Dress Macaroni with Permasent [Parmesan] Cheese.”
Breverton also includes the favourite recipes of key figures at the Tudor court: Henry VIII enjoyed globe artichokes while his third wife Jane Seymour had a weakness for Cornish pasties. The workings of the Hampton Court Palace kitchens, which are open to the public today, receive less attention in Breverton’s book as there is already a detailed study of the preparation of food and drink at Hampton Court, All the King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears.
Of course, not everyone in Tudor times was feasting like Henry VIII and his courtiers at Hampton Court Palace. The sixteenth century was time of growing income inequality as the landed gentry grew wealthier by enclosing land to graze sheep, evicting farm labourers from their cottages. The dissolution of the monasteries removed a source of food and shelter for the poor. In the opening chapters on Tudor farming, Breverton explains how agricultural practices changed over the sixteenth century and farm labourers often struggled to find steady work and put food on the table. The recipe section includes instructions on how to make the vegetable pottages and coarse breads that were the daily diet of most people in Tudor times.
The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank is an entertaining and educational introduction to sixteenth century English cuisine. The book will appeal to anyone interested in daily life in the sixteenth century England, especially those interested in recreating the meals and beverages of King Henry VIII’s court.
Next Week: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America by F. H. Buckley