According to Robert Fitch, baker and culinary historian at Hampton Court Palace, a leavened loaf of evenly textured white bread or any bread was not the staff of life for the average working class European in the 16th century – or any bread. He demonstrated the time consuming process of running flour through successive sieves to produce the white flour used for bread. Only in wealthy houses such as Hampton Court Palace could bread be a common menu item.
The kitchen was reached from the first courtyard through a couple of twisting walkways, reminding you the palace complex was more than a family home. Mark Miltonville, historic distiller, brewer and chocolatier, observed the modest bustle in Henry VIII’s vast kitchen during a Tudor cooking demonstration weekend at Hampton Court Palace and remarked to a group of children that this same kitchen once cooked two meals for approximately 600 people daily. Hampton Court Palace, easily accessible from London by train or the river, opens the kitchen for daylong live cooking the first weekend of each month from April through December and a couple special events. Each cook in the kitchen is a combination culinary archaeologist, historian and chef.
Robert Fitch answered my question, “porridge was the staff of life” for the common person until the 18th century. This cereal included any combination of grains such as barley, wheat, oats as well as seeds and nuts. Rustic breads certainly existed, but it was porridge that sustained the average person, especially during the winter months. Vegetables and small quantities of meats were frequently added making it a one-dish meal that could be started in the morning and added to as the day progressed. No wonder working the palace was a coveted job – even for a spit turner.
All members of the household, Mark Miltonville commented, received two meals per day with variations on the menu by quantity, variety and cuts of meat according to social rank, from lowest staff member to highest lord. Even basic scullery servants received two meats, vegetables and beer at each meal, which was considerably better than porridge.
An aspiring 16th century baker or cook worked a seven-year apprenticeship through journeyman under the supervision of a guild before attempting the tests for master baker and master cook status. The 16th century Tudor era saw a population shift from rural to town and the growth of cities bolstering the rise of the merchant middle class. The growing distribution of wealth allowed more households to employ professional cooks and bakers. Master cooks were often employed in noble houses.
Most of the 500 to 600 daily palace household ate in shifts in the sumptuous Great Hall. Its soaring height and windows allowed light to flood the top of the hall illuminating the massive silk and gold thread tapestries that line the walls. Despite the size of the kitchen complex, it only took 30 seconds to carry dishes up to the Great Hall. The king usually ate in a private dining room with meals prepared in its own kitchen. Records show that the personal food bill for Henry VIII was £1,500 per month in the 16th century (tens of thousands of dollars today.)
For historical accuracy most of the kitchen equipment including pots, pans and molds was made in the palace craft shops. Robin Mitchener, a blacksmith as well as a roaster, explained that fresh meat in the Tudor era was a luxury item available Spring through Autumn – sheep, deer, beef, wild boar, game and fowl. Except a wealthy household such as Hampton Court could afford whatever the cost to assure a vast and steady supply year round into the royal kitchen. Meat was preserved using various methods – smoked, salted and brined – for winter use, but at the palace, most meat was cooked fresh.
Each meat roast averaged eight pounds to serve eight to ten, but anything could be roasted including fowl, birds and fish. Since vast quantities of wood fuel were required, the substantial height of the hearth supported a sloping iron framework of hand turned spits. This allowed for many hunks of meat to roast at various stages by moving the spit to a different location vertically. Hand turning the spit required a person to sit within the hearth. It was a grueling job sitting next to a roaring open fire for hours. Turnover was frequent.
Dave Cadle, pastry cook, made a marzipan crown and jewels were made from melted colored sugar poured in molds. In the Tudor era wooden molds were used to form all the shapes. The molds are still hand crafted at the palace today. Dave has made a tabletop working cannon, a fountain that pumped wine and an Elizabethan chess set. He said many of the creations were eaten, perhaps nibbled at, as part of elaborate dinners. The bakery was a separate building by the river. The need for large quantities of wood for the bake ovens and many heavy sacks of flour made the location practical for boat deliveries.
On Tudor kitchen days the daily activities – preparing meats and vegetables, open-hearth roasting, braising, sifting flour for bread and prepping ingredients – go on all day as in any kitchen except the cooks will readily provide explanations and answer any questions. A visitor can linger and return since entry is included in the daily ticket for Hampton Court Palace. New for 2014 has been the addition of the restored 18th century chocolate kitchen. The complexity of chocolate made it a luxury trend by the end of the 17th century and merited its own kitchen and trained staff. The historic cooks of Hampton Court will be doing 18th century chocolate preparation during most Tudor cookery weekends.
Although the perception of many has been that the food of Great Briton was boring and tasteless, in reality many herbs, nuts and fruits were gathered within reach of a kitchen and most did not arrive via the fabled spice route. Affluent households were always able to get what they wanted and even simple dishes were full of flavors that were obviously not disguising tainted meat. Recipes (receipts) before the 19th century were a list of ingredients for instructing apprentice cooks and helping with inventory. The first version of this savory meat dish from Tudor Kitchens: The Taste of the Fire, published by Historic Royal Palaces, is in 16th century English.
A receipt for a Buknade
Take veel, keed, or hen, and boyle hem in faire water or elles in good fress brot, and smyte hem in peces, and pike hem clene; And drawe the same brot thorg a streynour, And cast there-to parcelly, Isoppe, Sauge, Maces and clowes, And lete boyle til the fless be ynog; and then set hit fro the fire, and aley hit vp with rawe yolkes of eyren, and caste thereto pouder ginger, and vergeous, & a litel saffron and salte, and ceson hit vppe and serue it fort.
And in 21st. century English:
Take veal, kid or chicken and boil in water or stock until half cooked. Remove and drain from the liquid then cut up into bite-sized pieces. Place in a clean pan with chopped sage, hyssop, mace and cloves and strain the liquid from the first cooking into the new pan. Cook slowly until the meat is completely cooked, then add ground ginger, saffron, salt and verjuice. Finally thicken with egg yolks and when these are cooked through and the dish is as thick as you want, serve.
Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU, UK, tel: +44 844 482 7777. Check the on line schedule for Tudor and chocolate kitchen days.