A Tudor Feast

One of the programmes we watched this week was something originally from 2007, but repeated this summer – A Tudor Feast. It was a one hour standalone programme, and the main presenters have gone on since to do several serieses about farming in various historic programmes (including Wartime Farm which we watched last year (post) and Tudor Monastery Farm which we’re watching at the moment but I haven’t yet written about). In fact it was slightly odd watching this, because we’re watching something 6 years newer so both Ruth Goodman & Peter Ginn looked jarringly younger than in the other programmes!

The premise of the show was to cook a Tudor feast using only authentic recipes and ingredients, and only the techniques the Tudor cooks would’ve had available to them. So it was (like the $TIME Farm serieses) a mixture of pseudo-re-enactment and documentary. For instance all the people involved were dressed up in Tudor clothes, as well as explaining how to do things Tudor style. The programme was filmed in Haddon Hall, which still has Tudor era kitchens (I think they said those hadn’t been used in 400 years, presumably new kitchens have been built at various points over the years). And they picked a specific period where they have some records of the occupants of the house at the time – the 1590s. So as well as the modern recreation we got shown a list of the food used for a feast during that time.

One of the things this programme made clear was why this food was luxury food and only for the nobility. Some things were conventionally expensive – like cinnamon, because it came from far away, or gold because it’s rare. But much of it was expensive because it required a lot of labour to make. For instance one of the centrepiece items they put together was a marchpane dessert. This was basically marzipan, that was then gilded and decorated. Which sounds quite simple, but the recipe started with sugar (already conventionally expensive) that had to be ground into powder by hand. Then grind your almonds. Then finally make the marchpane with these two and rosewater. That’s hours of work, probably carried out by the mistress of the house or trusted servants under close supervision. And you haven’t carefully iced or gilded it yet, let alone constructed the decoration.

Another of their centrepiece items was a peacock pie – not a bird one eats nowadays. The programme was concentrating on the food prep – the “downstairs” side of the feast – but they did discuss the taste of things a bit. In particular Goodman mentioned that peacock is often said not to be a good eating bird, but she’s liked it when she’s tried it. This pie looked like a conventional pie until the very end stage – and then (having taken great care to select a good looking peacock and to take his skin off in one go) they put the peacock skin over the pie, with a support structure (not sure quite what, twigs? wire?), to look like a peacock once more. When that was served up they put something burning in its mouth, following a period suggestion, so it looked very spectacular when carried to the table.

They also showed us how the table was set and discussed proper manners (“courtesy”, the word etiquette wasn’t in use yet). Where you sat was determined by social status, and top table got the most impressive dishes – the centrepieces I talked about above (and others like a boar head with an apple in its mouth), the better meat, the better cutlery and tableware etc. People were given napkins, which I didn’t realise were a thing that went back that far. But instead of putting it on one’s lap or tucking it into one’s neck it was to go on the left shoulder. There it was conveniently placed to wipe your hands (most food was cut up with the knife then eaten with the fingers) and to clean your lips. Food was served not in courses like we would today, but in what were called “removes”. Instead of everyone getting their own portion of the current dish, a variety of dishes would be set out on the table and you’d help yourself to what you fancied that was near you. There’d probably be 2 or 3 removes – this feast they did two, one of primarily savoury things and one of sweeter things. Choice was part of the conspicuous display of wealth that was the point of a feast – poorer people didn’t tend to get a choice in what they ate.

I enjoyed this programme (like I do everything I’ve watched from this team). Lots of little bits & pieces I didn’t know before, and sometimes you don’t really realise what things were like till you see them done even if you’ve read about them. I’m now curious what peacock tastes like … and I rather like the idea of a centrepiece at the dinner table of a fire breathing bird containing a pie! Not quite enough to buy a turkey with its skin on for Christmas dinner, however 😉

Other TV watched this week:

Episodes 1 and 2 of Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities – history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The Bridges that Built London with Dan Cruickshank – one off programme telling the history of London’s bridges across the Thames. Interesting, but got a bit woo-woo at times towards the end.

4,000-Year-Old Cold Case: The Body in the Bog. One off programme about the discovery and investigation of a body in an Irish bog. This particular one was dated to 4,000 years ago, most across north-west Europe are from about 1,500 years later. They tried to present a theory for how & why these people were killed & buried – got a bit Discovery Channel (they Solved The Mystery and Proved The Theory), and a bit unclear how general their idea was but nonetheless interesting.

Episode 1 of Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History – Sam Willis talking about shipwrecks around Britain or involving British ships, their impact on history and our culture.

Episode 3 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.