Eating with the Tudors

One of the things that I find hard to resist is ancient recipe cookbooks. Most of mine are still stranded in Nevada, but recently I heard a podcast interview with the author of a new one that I had to get. The podcast in question was an episode of Not Just the Tudors with Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb. You can find the episode here. The interviewee is Brigitte Webster, author of Eating with the Tudors.

Webster is one of those lucky people who is both obsessed with ancient recipes, and wealthy enough to spend her time recreating them. She and her husband own a small Tudor manor, and they have turned the cookery passion into a business, hosting Tudor-themed events at which authentic dishes are served. That’s serious historical re-enactment.

Because of the need to recreate the recipes for customers, Webster’s book is not just a list of recipes cribbed from musty tomes in the British Library, it is both a practical manual for creating Tudor dishes with present-day supplies, and a piece of historical research in its own right.

The key thing about the Tudors is that they lived in a time before refrigeration. It is well known that they went absolutely bananas for sugar when it became easily available (to the detriment of their teeth). But they were not just addicts. Sugar meant that the wealthy could enjoy fruits (in the form of jam) in the middle of winter. Technology! It was the latest thing, and no wonder everyone who could went for it.

Nevertheless, the Tudor housewife (of whatever gender) still needed to be acutely aware of the seasons, and well-versed in various methods of food preservation. One of my reasons for snapping up the book is because I have friends who own a small-holding that has just come through the glut of autumn vegetables and is looking down the barrel of the long, fallow winter months.

I should note, however, that the book is not great for vegetarians. Not that the Tudors didn’t eat veggies, but meat was a prestige food, and most cookbooks were written by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Consequently, most of the recipes involve meat of some sort.

That said, the Tudors did eat a lot of fruit, and not just the common varieties. There are recipes in the book for things like quinces and medlars which, as it happens, I can get hold of. (Thanks, Roz & Jo!). They also ate a fair amount of fish. You might think that the old Catholic idea of eating fish on Fridays would have died a death after the Reformation. And it did, for a time. But Elizabeth I had a Navy to pay for, and one way of financing them was to have them turn to fishery when they were not out sinking Spaniards. Eating fish became a patriotic duty (and a legal requirement).

Recipes involving the likes of tomatoes, potatoes, sweetcorn and chilies are thin on the ground, because such exotic new foods were only just beginning to be imported from the New World at the end of the Tudor period. I was fascinated to discover that the oldest recipe in the book featuring one of these ‘modern’ foods was for the sweet potato. It features in a “tarte” that, so the recipe says, “will provoke courage either in man or woman”. Other ingredients include quinces, dates, lots of eggs, and “the braines of three or foure cocke Sparrowes”. Fortunately the sparrow brains are optional, though Webster does not say whether she has tested her version of the recipe for its courage-giving properties.

Which reminds me, the Tudors were still working with Galen’s theory of the Four Humors, so their ideas about what constituted healthy eating were quite bizarre at times.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to working my way through some of the recipes. It is good Hallowe’en cooking, because the Tudors loved making pies and tarts that are basically pastry filled with stuff. The empty pastry cases were known, at the time, as ‘coffins’, so the recipes frequently tell you to “fill youre coffins with…”


book cover
Title: Eating with the Tudors
By: Brigitte Webster
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura