Did you ever wonder why Henry VIII was forever pictured with a turkey leg in his hand? Or maybe why he was so grumpy, especially with his wives? All you need do is look at the menu of a medieval feast, to find out not only why he was so dyspeptic but why he was so distanced from his courtiers…because he became so broad of girth from food and dropsy, that he couldn’t belly up to the table.
Let’s sit down and open up ye olde medieval menu. Nope, don’t bother looking at the dinner setting. There aren’t any. Well into the 16th century folks ate off trenchers: the precursors of plates, being a slab of wood, metal, or earthenware, but more often plain bread. You just whacked a slice off the loaf on the table, and piled your food on it. Not only did the bread have food value, it soaked up gravy, could be eaten, and was often tossed to a favorite dog or passed out to beggars at the gate. The chief guests or lords had theirs cut for them, and according to their status, a diner might have anywhere from one to four trenchers provided during the meal.
There’s no worries about how far off the edge of the table your fork is, either. There are none. You eat off the point of a small dagger. I hope you brought yours.
Now, for an entree we’ll have the Cottage Cheese Fritters. Strained cottage cheese, eggs, and cream, fried in butter and served sprinkled with brown sugar. Yum yum. A little something to chomp on before the first of the solteties, or parading of sculpted and spun sugar creations, between courses. These may depict everything from historic figures, to mythical creatures, and could include such clever little creations as a cake decorated to appear like a real fish with scales, tail and…eye.
Main course offerings…let’s see, how about a Cockentrice? One suckling pig, one large capon, both roasted then cut in half around the middle, the front half of one being sewed to the back half of the other, basted, and re-roasted so the gold leaf on the nails and snout are polished and molded to beaste. Would you prefer head of chicken and butt of pig or vice versa?
This is living high off the hog. No wine in cartons for these people. Mead was the beverage of choice, and honey the main ingredient. If you’re feeling adventurous, they have a nice little clarrey, aged a year, and made from white wine, honey, cinnamon and galingale. Anyone still standing after a goblet or two of this, can try the mulled cider, offered to warm the guest on his way out into the cold. Apple cider, spices and the equivalent of Calvados, simmered and sipped, often leaving the guests under the table after too much.
Now, topping off your sweet tooth, shall we try the Rosy Almond Cream? Cooked rice flour, cream, ground almonds, and spices, blended with fresh berries, and decorated with crystallized petals of violets or roses.
Not to forget the entertainment! Forsooth! The lord of the castle in a one upmanship duel with his rivals at court, has likely started off the evening by having a false lake created, where now sail miniature ships, re-enacting the defence of England. Dinner has been accompanied by the soothing lute music of John Dowland, author of such moving selections as “Flow My Teares”, and now we are down to the dancing displays, where merry maids cut trim figures in the pavan, Earl of Essex and Queen’s Alman.
If we could stand after that meal, we’d join them. But since the feast generally consisted of three or more entrees, main courses, desserts, breads, and wines, the merriment goes on for several hours, and the only ones not stuffed to the gills, are the servants.
Do you find this fascinating food fun? Well fine! Try it at home. Recipes are available on the net, with authentic ingredients and preparation instructions. Your evening of splendour might go like this:
The Main Hall (dining room) shall be swept clean and strewn with fresh rushes. Expect scratches on the new hardwood flooring. A roaring fire will be burning in ye olde fireplace, unless of course you don’t have one, in which case, a video tape on the television will have to suffice.
Embroidered hangings shall drape the walls, depicting triumphal scenes of your ancestors, except perhaps Uncle Richard, the Rotten. The hangings will keep out drafts which should not be there since installing that new R20 insulation and double glazed windows.
Guests will be greeted by you the hostess, at the door, and conducted to the long, oak table at which they have been seated according to Emily Post’s great-great-great-great grandmother, and their order above or below the salt substitute. Mode of dress, ceremonial or modern, shall be optional, but clothes MUST be worn. Do not bother with Henry VIII regalia, as no turkey legs will be served
While many medieval feasts were preceded by spectacles such as a ship in full sail gliding into the harbour for a mock battle, the best you can hope for is to have to nab a naked toddler as they streak through the Main Hall.
Dinner will proceed with a carefully selected menu, Parsley and Plain Breads being served throughout the meal, as will Small Mead, Honey Mead and Clarrey. Mulled Cider will be prepared prior to departure, if any guests are capable of locomotion at that point.
While authenticity is desirable, and all courses will be served on bread trenchers, the custom of eating from the point of a small dagger has been abandoned in favour of a fork and less dangerous tool for cutting. However, to keep up appearances, there WILL be a white tablecloth, and candles in Stick-It wall sconces, as well as oil and wick lamps in a dish, suspended from the various plant hooks around the Hall. Subtleties created from spun sugar paste shall be displayed between courses, to much ooh-ing and ahh-ing by guests assuming they are modern art sculptures, and not the ruins of the Wonders of the World, hastily glued together after your cats chased each other through the display table in the pantry.
During the meal, guests will be entertained by minstrels with medieval instruments and music, who will then accompany dancers during the dessert course. Guests will observe the traditional medieval manners of restrained belches, and not spitting so as to inconvenience any but their nearest neighbour. Civilised conversation shall follow, which shall not upset the digestion. However if politics rears its ugly head, indigestion aids may be had by discreet inquiry of the maids serving the meal. Upon departure, assistance to your mode of transportation can be had from the footmen.
Ahh … that would be the life. No wonder, Henry had to be winched onto his horse with block and tackle. Urp. Pardoneth me. Which way to the gentleman’s closet?