Queen Elizabeth the First made a habit of dropping in for dinner. After she and her many courtiers finished eating, they would stay around for days or weeks. If you had a nice manor house or estate, you would be both honored and burdened to host your monarch at banquet after banquet. During her 45 year reign -- from 1558, when she was 25 years old, until 1603, when she died at the then-remarkable age of 70 -- Elizabeth did this all the time.
An Elizabethan manor house was a busy and heavily populated place. Workers of many social levels were attached to the noble family. The manor’s fields and gardens produced much of the food that would be used in case Elizabeth’s Royal Progress came their way. Gardeners, field hands, kitchen servants, and other workers raised pigs, fattened goslings, cultivated vegetables, grew and preserved fruit and grain, brewed ale and beer, and stored food from season to season. Stills in the kitchen produced flavored waters like lavender water or rose water and sometimes distilled spirits. The manor kitchens fed large numbers of people, but the Queen’s arrival definitely swamped them!
When the manor ran low on a particular food -- or to obtain something exotic or hard to produce -- they sent purchasers to fairs such as the great fair at Stourbridge near Cambridge, or to London, or to a port, where imports were available on the docks. They bought claret, white wine, and sack by the keg. They bought many sorts of fresh water fish and salt water fish, sometimes still alive in barrels. For celebrations, fatted calves were available from dairy farmers, for whom the calves were a by-product. Oranges, prunes, figs, almonds, and other warmer-weather fruits appeared in records of household purchasing. Menus list venison pasties, roast swans and larks, and elaborate meat and vegetable stews.
English gardeners were beginning to cultivate many new vegetables such as the potato, brought from the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh. Another New-World import was the turkey. Nobles – and eventually more ordinary folks -- were beginning to eat many types of lettuce, olive oil for their salads, several types of cucumbers, and many other new foods from all over Europe as well. Manor houses hired foreign gardeners to cultivate new trendy plants such as globe artichokes, eggplant, and pumpkins. They arranged to plant finicky trees, such as apricots and peaches, in the hopes of impressing Elizabeth when she arrived. They made special arrangements such as heated walls that helped the sensitive fruit to ripen.
In planting their gardens and choosing their produce, the nobles were very aware of what was in and what was out. At first introduction, Jerusalem artichokes were “dainties for a queen.” But they turned out to grow like weeds, and the attitude toward them changed from enthusiasm to indifference when just anyone could eat them. All kinds of distinctions were made. Which was better – Dutch or French cheese? Which was better – an English or a French turnip? Which of the numerous varieties of local or imported apples were best?
Queen Elizabeth was renowned for her love of sweets. Her closed smile in some portraits creates speculation that her teeth were all rotten from eating sugar. Throughout her reign, sugar imports grew continually. Recipe books describe fruit preserves made with a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit – the same as a modern jam recipe. Sweet! Her hosts would surely have provided fruit pies, cakes, cheese tarts, and other treats. The Queen deserved the whitest bread, the sweetest and rarest fruit, and the most lavish selection of meat, poultry, fish, and elaborate pastry.
Here’s how one recipe from Elizabethan times says to bake a cake. First, you bake the flour in the oven (evidently to get rid of weevils). Sift it. Mix butter, sugar, cream, and egg yolks with the flour. Flavor with cloves, mace, and saffron. Bake it.
Elizabethans worried about both health and taste. They thought of herbs as health-giving. For instance, sage eaten with butter for breakfast gave people strength, good health, and wisdom. (It’s called sage, isn’t it?) Imported spices – mace, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and so on – made the food taste good. Despite the modern myth that people used to employ spices to cover rotting flavors, the Elizabethans were fastidious about their food’s tastes. Whatever they served their Queen was surely very high quality.
In the Queen’s own household, spices and exotic fruits were an important purchase – showing how valued they were. Her Office of the Spicery in 1582 wrote a document expressing alarm at the varying prices for currants, raisins, prunes, mace, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmegs. Her accountant mentioned increases in prices for sugar, cloves, and nutmegs, but decreases in other prices. No wonder she liked to go and eat at someone else’s table.
Famines occurred in several years of Elizabeth’s reign: 1585, 1586, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1597. Starvation among the poor was an issue in these years. City people planted root crops in dung heaps, and writers advised the poor to eat beans, vetch, bran and other famine foods. The rich, however, could continue in their lavish food ways, feeding the Queen when she arrived at their manor homes.
Note: This exercise is based on a new book – just published 2007: Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 by Joan Thirsk. All information is from that book.
For my other exercises in food history see blog posts: Mona Lisa: By Request: What did Mona Lisa Eat?; What did Columbus Discover?; and What if global warming makes our crops fail?