Cooking & Dining in Tudor & Early Stuart England
|‘Other food historians may give us strawberries; but only Peter Brears adds the cream.’ Bee Wilson, Times Literary Supplement, 22 July 2015
The first volume of Peter Brears’ history of English cookery covered the Middle Ages. It was so good that it won outright the André Simon Award for the best food book of 2009. This book, over ten years in the writing, is even better. It treats of an heroic period in English history when new foods were reaching our shores from the New World, and new styles of cooking were being adopted from France and Italy. Even more important, it’s a period that has barely been touched upon by previous accounts. What is unique about Brears’ book is that he combines an account of the cookery with a close look at the practical arrangements, the kitchens and dining halls, where that food was cooked and consumed. His prose is enlivened by his drawings – as accurate as can be – which lay bare to the modern reader just what was going on in places like Hampton Court palace, as well as in humbler homes throughout the land. There are plenty of recipes for those who like to try things for themselves, all properly tested by the author, who is a historic food consultant to TV and country house owners.The era begins with the near medieval styles of Henry VII and VIII, with special attention to Henry VIII’s propagandizing banquets and feasts for foreign monarchs; progresses to the reign of Elizabeth, the effects of new foodstuffs from America, and treats some the great houses of the Tudor aristocracy; and finishes with the first two Stuart kings, James I and Charles I under whose rule we began to move towards a more modern style of cooking and when we also started to produce cookery books in large number. Peter Brears is former Director of the Leeds City Museums and one of England’s foremost authorities on domestic artifacts and historical kitchens and cooking technology. Last year he published Traditional Food in Yorkshire with Prospect Books. To read an extract please click here:
Shortcake summers – Times Literary Supplement – Review
22 July 2015
Another period of culinary innovation was Tudor and Stuart England. For Peter Brears, 1500–1650 was a time when, “freed from medieval conventions, provided with new foodstuffs, and not yet confined by the classical European cuisine of later centuries, [cooks] explored every aspect of technique, flavour, texture, shape, colour and scent”. In his new book, a sequel to his equally good Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (2009), Brears traces how sixteenth-century shortages of firewood forced a change from wood to coal as the main fuel used by English cooks, which in turn wrought many changes in the kitchen, including new grates and chimneys. At the same time, cooks were starting to experiment with ingredients. They took fresh cream, for example, and whisked it into airy syllabubs and foams. A “dishful of snow” was a new dish at this time: a cloud of cream, sugar, rosewater and eggwhites, piled on top of a branch of rosemary.
But it was pastry, in Brears’s view, that saw the greatest “transformation” in both use and form. Medieval piecrusts were crude mixtures of flour and hot water, whose only purpose was to insulate the filling as it cooked. “At table, only their fillings were consumed, the crusts, the disposable cookware of the day, being given either to the poor or to the dogs.” In the sixteenth century, however, pastry in the great houses started to be something rich, delicate and delicious, designed to be eaten in its own right and worthy of a special cold room in which to make it. Elizabethan pastry cooks had specialist rolling pins and jagging irons, patty pans, long peels to put the pastry into the hot oven and pie dishes. With these tools, cooks made pies from venison; chicken; salmon; warden pears and apples; sweet potatoes; rice; bacon; cheese. There were pies that looked like castles and pasties decorated with pastry arrows. “Lid tarts” were shaped like diamonds, hearts, or fleurs-de-lis, and decorated with fillings of different colours: black prune purée, green spinach, ruby-red pippins.
Brears convincingly makes the case that this was perhaps the most creative phase in the history of British cooking, “a golden age” when exciting new ingredients such as apricots (first cultivated in Henry VIII’s garden in 1542) combined with unprecedented kitchen artistry. The sugar-plate alone was legion, with sugar and spice ingeniously crafted to look like cinnamon sticks or artificial walnuts. Such treats were the preserve of the rich – whose food is the focus of Brears’s research – but he offers glimpses of good food being eaten by poorer Elizabethans too, such as boiled puddings, fresh cheese flavoured with nettles, thick pottages of beans and peas, good wheaten bread. Fresh pasta – something that seemed a novelty to Marguerite Patten in the 1950s – was coming “back into fashion” by the early seventeenth century, fashioned into ravioli or tiny tortellini stuffed with chicken, herbs and currants.
What makes Brears’s book such an erudite joy to read is that he is able to juggle so many different forms of inquiry. Along with Ivan Day, Brears is one of the foremost practical demonstrators of historic food in Britain. Twenty-five years ago, he explains, the Historic Royal Palaces Agency asked him to “put Henry VIII’s magnificent kitchens at Hampton Court Palace back into practical use, just as in the 1530s”. Brears knows what was entailed in roasting beef before the fire or baking an Elizabethan cheesecake, because he has actually done it, many times, using the authentic equipment. Yet he is also well versed in the written sources of cookery books and inventories, in literature and archaeology. He is equally at home with the etymology of Sayers and the kitchenalia of Kay; the book’s meticulous illustrations, of such things as wine goblets and salt containers, are drawn by Brears himself. He may be the closest we will ever get to the complete food historian, whose only flaw is an occasionally dry prose style.
On the subject of strawberries, Brears tells us that the “small, brilliantly scarlet wild variety” were “enjoyed at all levels of society”. He gives us recipes for strawberry conserve and strawberry tart and tells us that James I was so ravenous for this fruit that whenever one of his servants tried to mark the new season’s crop with a speech, the King would reach straight for the strawberries in the basket without listening to a word. Brears also quotes the Robert Herrick poem in which Herrick’s mistress’s nipple becomes “A Strawberry half drown’d in Cream”; and he cites the writer Andrew Borde on the “rural” delights of strawberries with “rawe crayme”. By exploring all these different paths, he builds up a far more three-dimensional picture of strawberry-eating in Tudor England than we get from most histories. Other food historians may give us strawberries; but only Peter Brears adds the cream.