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?