The Tudors are famous for their rich food, over eating and for their three hour meals, although it was only the rich nobility that could afford such luxury. Their food was often highly spiced and seasoned, both to show wealth, and to disguise the fact that the meat was often of very poor quality. Most people ate a great deal of meat, which was preserved by salting, smoking or drying. It was quite an unhealthy diet especially for the rich people as vegetables were not popular, the rich people thought that vegetables were suitable only for the poor people to eat. A lot of salt was used in preserving the huge amount of meat that they ate. A lack of vitamin A, found in green vegetables. milk, butter and eggs, often led to problems in later life. Rich people despised these foods because the lower classes ate them.
Preparing a meal could take several hours. The housewife used a variety of seasonings and spices to disguise the often low quality of the ingredients, particularly the meat, which was roasted on long spits over the fire, or put in an iron box placed in the ashes. There was no way to keep food fresh, it had to be eaten is season or pickled. Meat from animals slaughtered in the autumn was salted or pickled for eating in the winter.
Breakfast usually consisted of bread and beer, with beef for the better-off or porridge for the peasants, while dinner, the main meal of the day, was served between 11 o’clock and midday. Bread was a major part of the diet of all classes and was very different from the bread we eat now. Manchet was a very fine white bread made from wheat flour with a little bran and wheat germ added, it was creamy-yellow in colour and was the bread for the nobility. Raveled bread or yeoman’s bread was made from coarser whole-wheat flour with the bran left in; it was a darker colour and less expensive than manchet. Carter’s Bread was dark brown or black bread. This was the bread that the poorest people ate. It was made from maslin; a mixture of rye and wheat, or from drage, a mixture of barley and wheat, or from rye alone. Horse-corn was bread made from peas, beans, lentils and oats and was eaten by poor people when the wheat harvest failed. The bread would have been kept in an “Ark”, a wooden box, to protect it from mice and damp.
The menu for a nobleman’s dinner of around 1550 included: roast beef, powder (salted) beef, veal, leg of mutton with ‘gallandine sauce’, turkey, boiled capon, hen boiled with leeks, partridge pheasant, larks, quails, snipe, woodcock, salmon, sole, turbot and whiting, lobster, crayfish, shrimps, ell, pike, young rabbit, leverets, marrow on toast, artichokes, turnips, green peas, cucumbers and olives, quince pie, tat of almonds, fruit tarts and cheese. A merchant’s dinner of the same time would be slightly less adventurous, featuring sausage, cabbage, porridge, pike with a ‘high Dutch sauce’ stewed cvarp, roasted blackbirds, larks, woodcock and partridge.
Poorer people still had meat, but not the wide variety of the rich. They would eat chickens which they could rear themselves, beef from the local market when they had the money, and rabbits which they could catch for themselves. They were encouraged to shoot rooks and crows because these birds destroyed crops and damaged the roof thatch on cottages and barns. Farm labourers were sometimes fed on “coloppes” – which were slices of bacon. They might also have meat they poached from the local landowners although this was dangerous as the penalties were severe if they were caught.
However, a Tudor dinner was not necessarily the gluttonous affair that it appears. Although it was common to serve a very wide variety of dishes, the guests were not expected to sample everything – it was intended that each diner should be able to choose their own favourite, and that there would be sufficient left over for the servants at the second sitting.
Rich people did not eat a lot of vegetables as they preferred a high protein diet. Yeoman farmers’ wives grew vegetables, herbs and flowers for eating in their gardens. The variety of vegetables grown included leeks, garlic, peas, parsnips, skirrets (like parsnips), collards and kale (types of cabbage), lentils, turnips, broad beans, onions, spinach, carrots, beets, artichokes, radishes and asparagus. Vegetables were not eaten to accompany meat as nowadays, but would be used by the farmer’s wife to make pottage which consisted of peas, milk, egg yolks, breadcrumbs and parsley which would be flavoured with saffron and ginger.
Supper was served at around 5 pm, and was usually a simple affair, unless you were a member of the royal household, in which case it could well become a riot of feasting and merrymaking.
The main drinks were ale, cider, perry, mead and wine, everyone avoided drinking water because it was very polluted, hypocras was a sweet liqueur imported from the Eastern Mediterranean; it was the most expensive drink of all and was served at Royal banquets and special occasions. Wine was also popular at Court but was too expensive for most people because it had to be imported from countries where it was warm enough for the grapes to grow. Wine was sometimes diluted with water, even though there was a risk of pollution, and was often served warm and spiced.
Ale was the word used for any fermented drink made from grain and water and even at Court more ale was drunk than wine. Beer was brewed from hops and was not so popular although it was cheaper than ale. Cider was made from apples and was drunk by the poorer people. Perry was a fermented drink made from pears and mead was a mixture of honey and spices.
People would drink milk, but because it could not be pasteurised and there was no way of keeping it cool it would not stay fresh for very long. There was no tea, coffee or chocolate available except in very rare instances for medicinal purposes, it would be very expensive ad only rich people would be able to afford it. The only hot drink available to the Tudor’s was soup.