Friday, 27 November 2015

Shakespeare's kitchen and food/play associations

Today’s news that a kitchen complex, a single storey cookhouse separate from the main building in order to reduce the risk of fire, has been excavated within the ruins of Shakespeare’s grand country house in Stratford-upon-Avon is truly exciting! The fire hearth, the supporting walls for an oven range, a stone-lined pit or cold store, an area for brewing ale and another for pickling and salting meats all give the impression of a homely but wealthy set-up for a country gentleman renowned and revered in his day.
The records (and every detail of life was meticulously recorded in Medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan times) show that Shakespeare did not ever buy a property in London, where he must have spent a fair bit of his time, but preferred to lodge.  So Stratford did remain his home, and his family’s too. His last house purchase was this very New Place and he did take steps to improve it.
Shakespeare’s association with food may have 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. Ale and alehouses are mentioned in several plays. Shakespeare used food in many of his plays: from memorable banquet scenes, to the use of food and feasting as metaphor.
Raw and roasted pigeons for a 12th scale dollshouse Elizabethan
Hens at 1:12 scale for an Elizabethan, Tudor or Medieval dolls house
  He would have been able to afford meat, and choice cuts too, especially if he was entertaining important patrons. So was it with relish  that in Henry IV Part II: Act 5, Scene 1 he mentions “Some pigeons, Davy, a couple of short-legged hens, a joint of mutton..”? All easily cooked in his well appointed kitchen, by a cook whom he could no doubt afford to employ. Then there is the sad reference in Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3 where MacDuff asks after his slaughtered family “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam?

Shakespeare could have afforded the best cheeses too, they get a mention too in his plays. In his preceding work Henry IV Part I: Act 3, Scene 1  come these lines: “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)...”

But garlic gets a less than enthusiastic press by the acting fraternity in 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…”
Dollhouse 12th scale strawberries by MedievalMorsels 
One inch scale Tudor Elizabethan dollshouse food, quinces

And as for fruits, in Romeo and Juliet, Act 4, Scene 4 “They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.” and in Richard III “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.”

Ale or beer? A potted history

2015 marks the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt. As the year comes to a close, what Agincourt-relatfood and drink related Medieval morsels can I find to post about? How about ale and beer for starters....

“Henry V: Act 3, Scene 2  “Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”  
Spoken not by Henry V, but by a boy at what became a lengthy siege of the French channel port town of Harfleur.  Henry had promised all his troops fame to follow their anticipated successful re-conquest of ancestral lands in France. The preliminary siege tied the English/Welsh army for much longer than expected and undermined Henry V’s original plans to march south and regain former English possessions in Aquitaine (English Gascony). Delayed in eventually taking Harfleur, the Battle of Agincourt was in fact a showdown as the English army instead made for its garrison at the Channel port of Calais and home!
Boar's head inn keeping with that pictured Ringwood (New Forest) ale!
12th scale dollshouse cheese by MedievalMorsels with your ale anyone?
Henry V of course would never have been seen in an alehouse, but he would have drunk ale however as all classes of society did. He and the nobility would also have enjoyed imported Gascon wine from ancestral English possessions in France!
12th scale ale and lampreys by MedievalMorsels anyone?
But returning to ale and beer, there is a lot of confusion about them. Are they the same thing? And if they are different, what is that difference and which came first? To make ale or beer you need water, grain - in Britain this was barley - and yeast. Additionally, to make beer you need hops. "Beer" was the name for fermented malt liquors bittered with hops.

Barley was an extremely important cereal across northern Europe in Dark and Middle Ages. It was a staple food of man and beast alike. It was fermented barley, known as malt, that was the essential basis of brewing ale. Home brewed ale was drunk by all classes of medieval society, including their children who would probably have been given a weaker version! Because water is boiled as part of the process, ale was a safer drink than water itself. Its alcoholic content would also discourage micro-organisms to some extent, although ale did rapidly go sour. The cloudy drink was nutritious too!

Ale made with a top fermenting yeast continued to be the drink of choice, even in Shakespeare's day. Everyone from the poorest farmer to the Queen herself drank the brew, and a mini brewery was an essential part of every aspiring merchant class, and noble household. Shakespeare's own father was an official ale taster in Stratford – an important and respected job which involved monitoring the ingredients used by professional brewers and ensuring they sold their ale at Crown-regulated prices. Tudor society, and Medieval society before it, was highly regulated you see!

So we know ale drinking habits continued throughout England into Elizabethan times when, from 1524, the introduction of hops and beer making began to gain some ground in London. This was despite hopped beer first being imported from Holland much earlier, around 1400. And despite hops being condemned as late as 1519 as a "wicked and pernicious weed". 

Hops are useful in helping to preserve beer, and this likely became a reason for man first using them about 1400 years ago. Their first known use was in Germany in the 8th century. Hops used in England were imported from France, Holland and Germany with import duty to pay!  It was not until 1524 that hops were first grown in Kent in the southeast of England, introduced as an agricultural crop by Dutch farmers.

But what are hops? The hops used in brewing are actually the flowers of the hop plant, a vine-like climbing member of the hemp family. They contain an essential oil with a very bitter flavour which counters the sweetness from the malt, to create a more balanced beer. As we have learned, hops also act as a preservative.

According to Anne Wilson’s book “Food and Drink in Britain” by Elizabeth I's reign (1558 - 1603)  even ale came to be lightly hopped to help it keep better. Annette Hope in her book “Londoners’ Larder notes that both ale and beer could be made very strong “..and London ale houses, where the ‘ale-knights’ sat all day, drinking until they fell off their stools, were a byword.” A few dents to their armour then!  And a byword for excess by the sound of it!

Hopped beer, with its better keeping properties eventually became more popular than ale. In 1574, there were still 58 ale brewers to 33 beer brewers in the City (London), but beer gradually replaced ale as the national drink over the course of the century. Alehouses were rough and ready. Taverns by contrast served a better class of person with wine and simple food.

Let’s return to Shakespeare for a final word on this:
OLIVIA: What's a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.  Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 5

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Medieval Dairymaid

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?

Extract A.A.Milne, “The King’s Breakfast” from The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. Copyright © The Trustees of the Pooh Properties

Well MedievalMorsels has accepted the royal challenge! By producing 1:12 scale dairy goods for a fully equipped Medieval or Tudor dollshouse dairy. We have a tub of milk, a butter churner in mid-use, pats of butter for the store room and for the table, and plain and muslin wrapped cheeses in whatever quantity you desire!
12th scale dolls house food: cheese butter and milk for a mini dairy scene
Miniature food for a one inch scale Medieval dolls house dairy scene

Butter, milk and cheese for a 1:12 Tudor Dollhouse by MedievalMorsels
To return to the poem, A.A.Milne’s Dairymaid promised the Queen she would consult with the Alderney cow before it retired for the night. But said sleepy cow had the temerity to suggest that marmalade was a substitute for butter, favoured by many people! This development was dutifully reported back to the King via the dairymaid and the Queen, but it left the poor King in turn miffed, confused and saddened. He went back to bed!

The situation was related back to the recalcitrant cow.  She immediately offered butter for his bread AND milk for his porringer (porridge). The King, when he heard the news, was ecstatic! He promptly jumped out of bed and slid down the bannisters for his breakfast.

Now, banisters aside (poetic licence) I have always assumed that this was another of A.A.Milne’s poems about King John. A previous Christmastide poem was somewhat sad  because John had no presents in his stocking, afterall he was a “Bad King”. But not the only bad Medieval English king in all probability….

And as for marmalade, lets return there in a Christmastide blog-post by MedievalMorsels.

But just for good measure lets finish with some different 1:12 dollhouse scale Medieval and Tudor period cheeses....

Thursday, 12 November 2015

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the beginnings of Rentokil. To quote Rentokil “It all started with a small but very damaging insect that has been recorded in the UK since the Middle Ages, the Deathwatch Beetle.”  And a problem with the roof timbers of the Palace of Westminster,  one of Parliament’s finest heritage buildings. Now MedievalMorsels found this all very interesting!

So Rentokil’s life started, terminating many pests' lives, with a mission to save the late 14th century oak timbers of Parliament's 11th century Westminster Hall from the ravages of woodworm!  In reality the old  adversary, threatening the very fabric of  Britain’s life back in the Medieval times was not the French after all but the Xestobium rufovillosum - a woodboring beetle!

The now safely preserved oak roof timber roof beams form the oldest hammerbeam roof in Europe, take a virtual tour here. (Such a roof design was developed to overcome the problem of spanning wide spaces by cantilevering the upper roof timbers from a beam projecting from the wall.) The Hall was built between 1097 and 1099 by William Rufus, third son of William the Conqueror and survives in almost original form. Its more than 600 year old roof timbers have borne witness to multiple coronation banquets, layings in state and executions nearby. The trials of Thomas More, King Charles I and Guy Fawkes happened here, the lavish coronation banquets of many of England’s monarchs including Queen Anne Boleyn, her daughter Queen Elizabeth I. Even jousting tournaments (horses and dogs were the only animals allowed by Medieval convention in any Great Hall).  More recently Winston Churchill and The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth lay in state there, and Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama were invited to address both Houses of Parliament.

12th scale meat latticework pie fit for a coronation
MedievalMorsels' dollshouse pies
What might be served at a coronation banquet? Well, the British were famous for their pies...(and their spit roasting as it happens).

 Getting back to the enemy. Why has this woodboring insect  come to be known as the Deathwatch beetle? I found a fascinating analysis by Tim Floyd  in a past issue of Country Life. He says “The name, almost certainly a contributory factor in this fear, probably derives from past outbreaks of plague, when an increase in audible insect noise would coincide with flea activity and consequent increased sickness levels. Both carers (with heightened senses) and afflicted (in initial stages tired but unable to sleep) would presumably have been subjected to watch-like ticking against a silent night while they contemplated heaven or hell.

He also reminds us that this pesky beetle is  joined by the common furniture beetle as a  “woodworm” species, able to cause structural damage to hardwoods. For good measure Rentokil also tells us that What might be served at athe indigenous, aptly named, Powder Post Beetle is the primary pest of British timber yards. It has the capacity to reduce the hardwoods it favours (yum yum)  to a simple wood veneer - hence the name “powder post”.

To commemorate this milestone a new book, The Pest Detectives has been published, available from all good bookshops and online with a £1 to Malaria No More UK for every book sold. According to Rentokil the malaria community only has half the resources needed to rid the world of this global killer, transmitted by infected mosquitoes.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Cauliflowers and parsnips can masquerade as cabbages and carrots, don’t you know!

Cauliflower and broccoli are rarely mentioned in Medieval and Renaissance historical sources, despite them being the two oldest cultivar cabbage varieties. Probably this is because in old writing they are simply not differentiated from plain old cabbages (or carbouches)! 

 1:12 dollshouse food cauliflower and its ancient ancester cabbage

The same may be said of parsnips too,they are hardly ever noted in written sources, whereas the  vari coloured purple, white or yellow carrot is. Once again it seems likely that the term carrot was used  interchangeably by our ancestors to mean parsnip too! Don’t get me on to salsify either….
One inch scale dollshouse food by MedievalMorsels, cauliflowers on a sideboard!

A single or more head(s) of cauliflower by MedievalMorsels will look well in your 12th scale Medieval dollshouse, your one inch Tudor dollhouse kitchen, your 1:12 Georgian or Victorian dolls house pantry, or your 1/12 American Colonial dollhouse food store. Because it is modelled with a trimable stalk you can also plant it in any period of dollhouse garden or vegetable patch!

Described by Arab botanists and known to the Romans, the cauliflower (Brassica oleracea) originated as a cultivar of cabbage in the Middle East. An ancient vegetable of the (European) Old World, cauliflower has been cultivated in parts of  Europe from the 13th century. It is known from Arab writings in Spain, and was well known in England by the 1500s. Its old English name “coleflore” means cabbage flower. According to Lorraine Harrison in her book “A Potted History of Vegetables” the English herbalist John Gerard in his “Herball” printed in 1597 advised that the “colieflore” (spelling was not a precise art in the Middle Ages or Renaissance times) should be sown on a pile of dung in early Spring. Cauliflowers were introduced to France by the Italians (Genoese) via Cyprus in the 16th century but they did not commonly appear on noble tables in France until they became all the rage at the court of Louis XIV.
So the cauliflower a very appropriate vegetable for MedievalMorsels to model, here with its green leaves trimmed back to reveal the white “curd” or flower. The flower head remains white because protective leaves growing around the head prevent chlorophyll being formed, keeping the head from turning green. It’s the same effect you get by earthing up leeks and asparagus to get white growth.
MedievalMorsels' 1/12th scale cabbages
MedievalMorsels' 12th scale parsnips

And, just for completeness, here are some 1/12 th scale cabbages and parsnips by MedievalMorsels for good measure seen alongside C18/19th  Flemish illustrations.