Saturday, 26 April 2014

Celebrating Shakespeare's birth and Tudor food!
On 23 April we celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, except that we don’t precisely know when he was born! But all is well. We do have a date, 26 April 1564, for his baptism at Stratford on Avon. April 23 is also St. George's Day, the patron saint of England (and many other countries besides but herein lies another Medieval story….) This, together with the fact that Shakespeare also died in Stratford on 23 April, makes his assumed birth date even more magical.  

First Folio edition, published 1623, seven years after his death
Elizabethan (Tudor dynasty) times in England coincided with the Renaissance raging in Europe - great advances were made in the arts and humanities, philosophy (which included science). Arguably Britain lagged behind countries such as Italy- the cradle of the High Renaissance - in some of these areas of learning. But Queen Elizabeth I’s love of drama and her patronage of Shakespeare turned out to epoch-making in terms of the world’s treasury of literature.

Shakespeare’s association with food likely started with his father, an official ale taster in Stratford whose job was to monitor the ingredients used by brewers and ensure they sold their ale at Crown regulated prices. Tudor society, and Medieval society before it, was highly regulated - the poor and the aspiring merchant class had to be kept in their place! Shakespeare used food in many of his plays: from memorable banquet scenes, to the use of food and feasting as metaphor.

Interestingly food in Tudor and Elizabethan times had not changed that much from the preceding five centuries following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, generally acknowledged to be the start of the Medieval era. Wooden trenchers had generally replaced bread trenchers by the 1550s. Pottage, pies and “blancmange” dishes were still popular. 
Medieval Morsels' range of Tudor doll's house miniature foods

There were some changes in Tudor fare though, the spoils from European exploration and inevitable conquests in the New World. But these found a footing only very slowly - imported foods were beyond the reach of most people. Sugar from cane remained a scarce commodity even for the rich, although we know that Queen Elizabeth I was extremely fond of it! Also introduced was the sweet potato, originally presented to Queen Isabella of Spain by Columbus, which was immediately popular in Elizabethan England.This probably illustrates a craving for sweetness in an otherwise monotonous Tudor diet. Too much meat was eaten the rich, and a monotonous cereal and pulse diet had to suffice for the poor. 

John Gerard, 1597, illustration Virginia potato
 It took another 200 years for the unloved white "bastard" or "Virginia" potato to become established as the nation's favourite. 
The sweet potato, not in fact a potato at all, was referred to by the Elizabethan herbalist and botanist John Gerard as the "common" potato. A topsy turvy world because today in England at least the reverse preference now applies! New World beans - haricot (navy), "french", kidney and green beans - arrived  from the West Indies in England via Italy, thanks to the influence of Pope Charles VII who received them in 1528 as a gift. The capsicum (bell, sweet) pepper and squashes also arrived from Mexico. In terms of cooking, brick lined ovens were more commonly found in the manor houses across the country, affording new possibilities of baking, dry roasting and braising.

Medieval Morsels models Tudor dollshouse food, 12th scale miniature food for your Tudor kitchen, Tudor dining scene, Tudor dollhouse, Tudor roombox or Tudor castle. Most of these foods would suit Dark Ages and Medieval settings too!

Shakespeare’s company performed on several occasions at court. On 23 December 1599  it is reported from the Council Chamber, Richmond Palace - in State papers no less - that "there is no other news than of dancing, plays, and Christmas pies….”  Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed dancing, so together with her love of drama and the sweet taste of sugar, I think we can see from the above remark that she had the holidays (holy days) of Christmas and their celebration well planned. Her break from State business was no doubt a well deserved one despite this apparently scathing remark by a court official.

Below - some food and drink mentioned by the Bard in his plays.

  • Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3  Do you think because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale
  •  Othello: Act 2, Scene 3         Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.
  • Henry V: Act 1, Scene 3         I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.
  • As You Like It: Act 3, Scene 2    Truly, thou art damned like an ill roasted egg,
  • Antony and Cleopatra: Act 2, Scene 1   Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, but twelve persons there.
  • Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 3    I am a great eater of beefd and I believe that does harm to my wit
  •  Henry IV Part I: Act 3, Scene 1  O, he is as tedious as a tired horse, a railing wife; worse than a smokey house: I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmil, far, than than feed on cates (choice foods)...
  • Richard III: Act 3, Scene 4      My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn I saw good strawberries in your garden there; I do beseech you send for some of them.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 4, Scene 2    And, most dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy
  • Henry IV Part II: Act 5, Scene 1   A’ shall answer it. Some pigeons, Davy, a couple of short-legged hens, a joint of mutton….
  •  Romeo and Juliet: Act 4, Scene 4           They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.
  • King Lear Act 4 Scene 6   …... one that gathers samphire—dreadful trade!
  • Macbeth: Act 5, Scene 3           What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug would scour these English hence
  • Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3    What, all my pretty chickens and their dam?

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Bringing home the bacon: commoners, tillage, tannage or pannage in England's  New Forest

The Sunday before Easter I joined my younger sister and brother-in-law, two of three brains behind  Abasketof...  at their stall at the ever popular Lyndhurst Doll's House Miniatures Fair, in the New Forest. My alarm failed to go off that morning (a mix up with am and pm would you believe!) so I did not arrive in time to help set up.  But, laden with the picnic lunch and supper provisions plus copious amounts of flasked tea, I walked in to find the public engrossed in browsing the many stalls of handmade dollhouse miniature crafts. Very kindly,  Abasketof...  found room to display some of my  MedievalMorsels range, alongside their beautiful 12th scale glass bowls of luscious fruits...
Lyndhurst is in the middle of Hampshire's New Forest. It is home not only to hardy ponies which take their name from it, but also to donkeys, cattle and pigs. All roaming freely under the ancient broad-leaved canopy. My sister told me that at the previous dollhouse fair a pig was spotted in the car park next door. But as we parked, I only saw a donkey in a long winter coat (!) taking a keen interest in a litter bin.

In 1067 William I (Normandy's William the Conqueror) created this royal hunting forest to protect the "beasts of the chase" - deer and wild boar - for his sport. Local peasants were no longer allowed  to enclose their land but instead were granted the right to graze their domestic animals "free range". By eating the gorse (furze) and brambles, the horses, cattle and sheep managed the undergrowth. The pigs - and the wild boar- also effectively "rotovated" the ground with their muscular snouts - good for soil fertility! Such grazing allowed forest saplings to emerge, so that just 20 years after the French invasion this former scrubby land was recorded as forest in the Doomsday Book inventory of 1086, describing Norman (French) land conquests across England.
Pottery mould of recumbent pig,
 provenance China. Collection: Liz Thornton 
New Forest Pigs. Copyright Jim Champion. Creative Commons Licence

In the 13th century Henry III (King of  England but unpopular because he was absent a lot defending his vast continental empire across France and beyond ) gained some popularity amongst his English subjects by granting London citizens one free days hunting at Easter each year within a 20 mile radius of the city. Your common (no pun intended) or garden peasant was equipped with neither deer-hound, horse, nor even bowmanship skills to take down a deer but with stealth, patience and ingenuity he might have been able to bag one, or to bait and trap an unwary boar.

After the dollshouse miniature show we escaped to the forest edge to have our picnic supper. Medieval things always intrude into  my thoughts nowadays and we wondered about those foraging forest pigs. Was it tillage or tannage rights that were enjoyed in the New Forest by our porcine friends and their peasant owners? I had been doing some research on the domestication of pigs, including medieval pig husbandry, and a friend had been giving my sister the low down on New Forest commoners' rights knowing that she would be visiting the area. But still we could not remember the correct term. So I checked it out when I got home. It was neither tillage nor tannage - it was "pannage". Below is the first 12th scale porcine product I have modelled by way of a Medieval dollshouse miniature or dollhouse Tudor food.

The medieval rights of a commoner still  prevail in the New Forest. Explained on England's Forestry Commission website, they include: pasture (for ponies, cattle and donkeys); sheep grazing; fuel wood (fallen wood is now no longer foraged, but harvested wood is set aside on forest tracks for commoners to collect); and pannage for pigs in autumn. By this last concession excess beech nuts and acorns are removed,  which in excessive quantities are poisonous to ponies and cattle. Apparently over 300 commoners  exercise their medieval rights with more than 6000 animals grazing all year round, but not currently sheep! The reason we didn't see "spot a hog" was because it wasn't autumn (fall), whereas the last Lyndhurst dollhouse show was in October's autumnal pig pannage season. It all makes sense now!

We watched the grazing progress of about six young cattle downslope of us. They did not trouble us, but a rather lovely short-haired dog of some exotic pedigree did make a feeble attempt to ingratiate herself and share our picnic. Returning to the cars some fancy diversionary footwork was needed to outwit three curious ponies and get into cars unscathed - it was time to go!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Eggs

Most of us love to eat a chocolate Easter egg. Especially if we have managed to give up chocolate for Lent. For the record, I only once succeeded in doing this. There can be great pleasure in giving Easter eggs too. And, confession time, when the parent of once very young children with lots of Easter eggs I sometimes used to "help" eat them after bedtime. But just the white chocolate eggs mind! Because we all know that too much chocolate of any colour can make small children hyper active ...

Eggs were classified as meat by the Church in Medieval Europe. They could not be eaten during Lent, so what could be done with surplus eggs? Well, they were coated in liquid fat or wax and set aside to keep (hopefully) until Easter Sunday. Some were coloured using extracts from a range of roots, wild berries or herbs. Coloured or not, these were truly Easter eggs!

Here are some lovely Burford Brown hen's eggs that I bought recently. Aptly named, some were a stunning chestnut colour. A similar brown to the French Maran's eggs I was lucky enough to spot some weeks earlier in the supermarket. But I cooked and ate these before I thought of taking a picture of them.

Around Easter time when I was young my mother, who was very artistic and always ahead of trend, would encourage my younger sister and I to "blow" and decorate eggs. We painted them, or applied a mosaic of coloured paper, small dried flowers, or both.  We used home-made flour paste, not shop-bought glue! Once dry, we varnished the eggs.

I remember the coloured paper was cut or torn from eye-catching full page advertisements in the colour supplements of the Sunday Times or The Observer. Thanks to my father, our house was full of "heavyweight" newspapers, and mathematics books. But not "ordinary" magazines unless you count Radio Luxembourg's Fab 208 teenage magazine, on standing order at the newsagent for my sister and me.

I don't recall my egg results at all - but my mother's were exceptional. Time consuming artistry, because she did have four daughters and several neighbours to make Easter gifts for! To the left is an egg she created for me more than 40 years ago.  Unbroken still, the colours are almost as vivid as when it was made. Thanks, I suppose, to that coat of varnish.

Inspired by today's feathery friends, the Burford Browns and the French Marans, I like to include dark brown speckled eggs for the Medieval or Tudor dollhouse kitchen in my  MedievalMorsels range.  But, convincing as this one inch scale dollhouse miniature food looks, in fact we cannot precisely tell what colours or how speckled eggs were back then. Today's breeds, all ultimately derived from the south-east Asian jungle fowl (species Gallus), bear little resemblance to the occupants of the medieval poultry yard. Chickens may need to be the subject of a future blog...

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Cirencester, Romans and Medieval geese

I visited Cirencester last week - its one of my favourite small towns, a very tranquil place to be.  It has mellow, yellow Cotswold stone and varied, understated architecture. But this was the first time I had visited Cirencester with my Medieval googles on.

Its Corinium Museum bears modern witness to the fact that Cirencester, known then as Corinium, was an extremely important early Roman settlement in Britain. Located at the intersection of several significant long distance Roman roads, the invaders built a fort where the Fosse Way crossed the River Churn (a tributary of the Thames). Other Roman roads passing nearby include the Icknield Way and Ermine Street. The latter also happens to pass a hundred yards or so from where I live. Here, as an unfeasibly narrow road for the modern day, cottages and houses constructed of Swindon stone line each side, front doors opening directly onto the pavement.

But I was on the look out for hints of a Cirencester's more recent, medieval past. Sheep rearing, wool, weaving and woollen cloth-making were the mainstays of England's trade in the Middle Ages. Situated in the rolling Cotswold Hills which offered perfect grazing for sheep, Cirencester's abbey and its merchants and clothiers became rich from such national and international trade. Their wealth funded successive rebuilding, culminating in a magnificent Parish church - a "wool church" - dominating the irregularly shaped market place.

Not at all understated is the architecture of the 500 year old business centre of Cirencester's former abbey.This several storied building is now the Town Hall, and at ground level also serves as the south porch of the Parish church now occupying the same site. Stone masons and conservators have spent several years encased in scaffolding conserving, restoring and cleaning the ornate stonework.   This cleaned up grotesque - a Medieval peasant up to no good I think - has a stoat or polecat in cahoots with him by the look of it!
Walking towards the River Churn I came across Gooseacre Lane, and knowing how popular geese were in Medieval times I took this to indicate that geese were grazed on the watermeadow. I had been preoccupied with geese the previous week having successfully (I think!) produced a new addition to the MedievalMorsels range - a dollshouse food miniature roast goose.

 However my deduction was very wide of the mark. The goose of Gooseacre was probably ultimately derived from the word goginstool which suggested that the ducking stool, a form of medieval punishment for thieves, nags and supposed witches, was kept down by the river at that place. A much less palatable medieval scenario than my fancied geese!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Feast or Banquet?

When I first started learning about food and social history in Medieval times I had thought that the terms "feast" and "banquet" were interchangeable.  I could not have been more wrong!

Below we have Chaucer with 29 comrades feasting at the Tabard Inn in Southwark in Southwark, London before the start of their 60-mile, four day pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury.  They are feasting, but they are certainly not banqueting. They appear to be enjoying a boar's head and a large fowl and several oval loaves of bread.

At this instant of time the "dramatis personae" have yet to exchange their stories - the Canterbury Tales - to help pass the time on the journey. In his book "Great Tales from English History" Robert Lacey notes that Chaucer, who includes himself as one of the pilgrims, offers to entertain the company with a rhyming tale of his own. But scarcely has he started when he is cut short by their host, the innkeeper of the Tabard: 

"By God", quod he, "for pleynly, at a word,
Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a toord!"

Below we have another scene - but is it a feast or a banquet? The King is eating at a high table far removed from lesser princes, and is individually served by two servants. He has a particularly regal looking salt cellar! But this too is a feast and not a banquet.

The term feast was used in medieval times whenever people gathered together to eat several courses of food together. But a banquet was the last course of the feast taken in a separate room by only the host and his most important guests. Here, away from the noise and possible squalor associated with the later stages of a  feast, the favoured few would retire to drink wines infused with digestive herbs or spices. And perhaps enjoy entertainment provided by musicians. Gradually, with time, the last banquet course came to include sweet dishes too. Such as  imported fresh or dried fruits, or coloured marzipans or "marchpanes".  And the single banquetting room became a banqueting suite, preferably with a pleasant, elevated view to impress one's special guests.

MedievalMorsels has produced a dollshouse
miniature entertainment piece - a fancy pastry crust pie. This was designed by the Medieval pastrycook to be presented at a feast not a banquet, thereby impressing all of the gathered guests of his Lord and the mistress of the household.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Duck Eggs - not by the dozen!
 We were lucky enough to be given six duck eggs and six hen eggs recently. I was amazed at how large the largest duck egg was. It measured two and a half inches long and two inches wide!

My daughter immediately fried one with some dry cured bacon for her breakfast (it was the weekend) so this left me only five to photograph. Here they are, posed in an artificial "nest" on my windowsill.  I guess my "nest" bears no relation to duck reality -  a scrape in the mud, perhaps lined with down from its chest.

Top marks for down lining of nests probably go to the common eider duck. We  borrow its name to arrive at the word eiderdown - the heavy predecessor of the now ubiquitous duvet, whether feather-and-down or synthetic filled. I have been lucky enough to see the eider duck in its natural habitat on Svalbard, an archipelago just inside the Arctic Circle.

MedievalMorsels models one inch (12th) scale dollhouse miniature food, handmade miniature eggs for your Gothic, Medieval or Tudor dollhouse, diorama or roombox kitchen or dining setting. Here are the duck eggs. And in descending order of size I make geese, hen and pheasant eggs too.  I have yet to try my hand at quail eggs, which will be a bit more fiddly!


Saturday, 5 April 2014

Fruity Tagines and Salty Bread

On a visit to my sister and brother-in-law last week we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal of lamb tagine and crunchy bread. The 30 spices mixture had been bought just a week earlier in Morocco so you can imagine how fresh and delicious it tasted! And an interesting supper from no less than three medieval angles!

Our richer Medieval forebears, having encountered the Arab influenced cooking of the Middle East from their excursions in the 11th century onwards, brought home the ingredients and the practice of mixing fresh or dried fruits (as well as spices) into savoury dishes. The typical Moroccan tagine dish today, incorporating apricots, raisins or dates, wonderfully illustrates the continuity of this culinary tradition.

Unusually, my brother-in-law forgot to put in the salt when setting up his  breadmaker. The resulting non-salty bread was a very acceptable, if crunchy accompaniment to dip in the tagine sauce -  the bread had not risen!

How, back in Medieval times, it  was discovered that yeast makes bread rise is debated by food historians. Most likely ale, a fermented grain product containing natural yeasts, was used accidentally instead of water in making the bread paste or dough. Left for a while, such a dough would rise spectacularly.

However,  raised bread remained relatively uncommon in medieval times. Instead, unleavened breads were baked from a variety of cereal "pastes" (including wheat paste capable of rising) and not from "leavened" or risen doughs. The results were soft flat breads ranging in colour from black to off-white, eaten well into Tudor and later times. MedievalMorsels has modelled some one inch scale model dolls house miniature food - rye and mixed grain flat breads. The shapes of these are informed by medieval woodcuts, or later Dutch Golden Age still-life paintings.


During the  Middle Ages, European monarchs imposed excessive taxes upon their peoples. The French were most adept at this! French Kings levied ever increasing general taxes on peasants, with specific taxes on salt and bread that affected all classes of society. When English nobles visited France they were surprised at the lack of saltiness in French bread. Excessive tax no doubt had something to do with this. Even today continental butter is less salty than English butter, but I can't hazard a guess as to whether this is a culinary tradition that had its origin in medieval taxation!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Currants from Corinth

I happened to have a little spare time in town today so I decided to consult some favourite food history volumes in my local library. Since last autumn, when I began modelling food for the Medieval dolls house, popping in to consult heavy reference books has become a  familiar pastime.

Knowing that it was common practice to use spices and fruits with meat and fish in Medieval cooking, borrowing practices and ingredients that the European Crusaders encountered in the Middle East, I decided to do a little research on fruits. What I had not appreciated was that fruits were essentially used as vegetables, which makes sense now one comes to think about the mixtures that recipes called for in typical Medieval sauces and  pies.

 Imported dry fruits were especially popular in England, providing concentrated sweetness when sugar remained a scarce, luxury item even during and after the Elizabethan era when cane sugar had reached these shores. Presumably there was never enough honey to go around!

References in period cookbooks to the highly popular "raisins of Coraunce" actually refer to imported dried small, round, black Corinth grapes. And from Coraunce we get our word currants, used in baking today (when we don't use sultanas or raisins of course). 

I also discovered that the terms for fresh and dried fruits could be used interchangeably. When Little Jack Horner sat in that corner and stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum this was most likely actually a raisin! And so, a plum pudding was probably akin to a "Spotted Dick" and did not contain plums. 

Below, MedievalMorsels has reproduced some 12th scale dolls house miniature dried fruits, currants in stained (aged!) wooden bowls. Ideal for a Medieval or Tudor kitchen setting, or as a luxury snack item at the dining table or trestle as part of the meal.