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Posts tagged ‘Foods of Christmas’

Christmas Foods and Traditions: The Trencher in Elizabethan Times

Marchpane or Marzipan

Marchpane or Marzipan

The 16th century was a fast-paced and fascinating time for the whole of Europe.

Improvements in design of ships meant they could travel further and faster, resulting in the circumnavigation of the world. Queen Elizabeth granted Sir Walter Raleigh a Royal Charter, which authorized him to explore and colonize any “remote, heathen and barbarous countries, not actually possessed by any Christian prince, or inhabited by Christian people, in exchange for a portion of the wealth found there.”  This shifted the balance of power from the East and allowed the English to grow and source foods for themselves in their colonies.

Perhaps the item that gained popularity most rapidly was sugar. Sugar had been used in Henry VIII’s  kitchens, but the expansion of the world allowed this precious ingredient to be more readily accessible.

Sugar was a high-status ingredient; it was more expensive than honey (which had long been used as a natural sweetener) because of the requirement for it to be imported. Sugar grows as a cane, but would be imported in a ‘loaf’ form. The highest grade of these sugars were the fine, white sugars which could easily be melted into a liquid and came from Madeira; next came Barbary or Canary sugar; and finally a coarser, brown sugar which required less rendering down but was, as a result, more difficult to work with. However, even this coarse sugar was expensive; this was not an ingredient which all in Elizabethan England would have had access to, but Elizabeth did and it became her favorite food.

Last time we learned about the Tudor trencher. How did that change in Elizabethan times?

The word trencher comes from the French ‘tranche’, meaning slice. In the late Middle Ages, a slice of bread acted as a plate, however by the 16th century this was replaced by painted wood or metal alternatives.

We also learned about the different levels of the seating plan, when one was allowed to eat at Court. The food was better, more plentiful and beautifully presented when you were chosen to sit and eat in a more prestigious hall. Queen Elizabeth added one more level of eating to the Court, The Banquet. This is not the banquet style of eating as we know today where the food is placed around the room on various tables and you move about picking what you choose to eat. This Banqueting consisted of a selection of some of the favored quests, who would take another meal in another room, or sometimes outdoors in a miniature pavilion. Only the guests of the highest status were invited.

During the banquet, a trencher would be placed in front of each guest. A delicacy would be presented on the unpainted side, which might include finely made sweet-meats, exotic spices, sugar confectionery, ornate marchpane sculptures or sweet gingerbread. These expensive ingredients and delicacies made a clear statement of wealth, status and power, and the trencher they were served on had to reflect this. Once the food was consumed the diner would turn the trencher over to find painted and gilded images and texts; biblical texts, moral texts or humorous sayings. These could be read aloud and discussed amongst the guests. They were intended to provoke discussion, and encourage story-telling, much like a Christmas cracker or fortune cookie today.

Sugared Lemons

Sugared Lemons

At court sugar was used in elaborate dishes. Sweets made from sugar paste (made from a mix of egg, sugar and gelatin) were made. A popular dish was ‘Leech,’ made of milk, sugar and rosewater and then cut into single bites. The popular treats were marchpane and gingerbread. Marchpane was made from almond and sugar paste and could be moulded into various shapes and elaborately decorated. Gingerbread required ginger, an exotic ingredient, along with a good dose of sugar. Fruit pies were made and sweetened with sugar and thickened with almond milk. Cheesecakes, custards and puddings were made. Sweets were flavored with nutmeg, mace, cloves, anise, coriander, rose water, almond or saffron. All this was available because England owned the sea!

Eating all this refined sugar, rather than sweetening with honey or fruit, had a big impact on the Queen and her court, who were eating lavish sugar desserts and cleaning their teeth with sugar, by rubbing their teeth with sugar paste, as sugar was also seen as having medicinal properties.

Queen Elizabeth had such rotted, black teeth that she had to have some of her teeth removed. She was so fearful of pain that the Bishop of London volunteered to have one of his teeth pulled, as an example!

We have no such thing as Christmas crackers in the US, so for a Christmas party and using the trencher idea, why not try this? When neighbors  or relatives come into the house, they could pick a slip of paper out of a hat with questions such as “What was your favorite Christmas food when you were a child?” “When did your family open gifts?” “Did you ever visit Santa at a department store?” “What is your favorite Christmas song or carol?” “Do you prefer to stay home or travel to visit friends/family at Christmas?” “What was the most memorable gift you received?” “Did your family make Christmas cookies? If so, what kind were your favorites?” And on and on! Ask that they not unfold the paper until dessert! Then, each person could take a turn to read the question and answer it. The conversations would go on and on! What fun for Christmas and a way to continue on with a very old tradition! Enjoy!

The Tudor Christmas and the Trencher

Tudor Trencher

Tudor Trencher

In 1526 the Eltham Ordinances were written at Eltham Palace. These were rules and regulations monitoring food purchases, storage and distribution of food across all the palaces.

The Eltham Ordinances also laid down instructions for court ceremony, for example how the food was presented and the manner in which it had to be taken to the table. The rules were put forward by the Lord Steward, who was chosen by the nobility and had great power and influence. He was also in charge of fuel supply, domestic services and the regulation of the entire estate.

At Christmas in 1526, about 600 courtiers were entitled to eat in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. This group was made up of guards, grooms and general court servants. Henry VIII ate in his private lodgings and only ate with the majority of the court on celebratory or state occasions. Where you ate; which was the Great Watching Chamber, the Great Hall, the kitchens or in private lodgings on the grounds depended on your rank. The Lord Chamberlain granted permission for dining arrangements, writing the plan called the Bouche de Court, which gave an allowance to each named person for two meals a day (at 10am and 4pm) and allowed the daily ration of bread, wine, beer, candles and firewood.

Two seatings were required to seat all of the people, who would have been served two courses. 

To see how the food was distributed from the courtyard to the table look here. (Courtyard to Table)

I am always interested in what the most common of men did.

At the Tutor Court the food was brought into the Great Hall in “messes.” (a dish shared between four people) The food was served up by the most senior man at the table. For the lowest ranking members at a table the food was served onto a chunk of course brown bread with a slight indentation, called a trencher. What is important to note is that the bread was not eaten, just what was placed on the bread. After the meal, the used trenchers, with the soppings from the meal, were given to the poor to eat.

Leftovers from Henry VIII’s table, the Great Watching Chamber, and the Great Hall were collected in a ‘voider’ (a large basket) and would be distributed to the poor by the Almoner. Those who ate in their own rooms were to take their leftovers to the scullery for the same purpose.  The Eltham Ordinances, states: “all such as have their lodgings within the court shall give straight charge to the ministers and keepers of their chambers, that they do not cast, leave or lay in any manner of dishes, platters, saucers, or broken meat, either in the galleries or at their chamber door……. and likewise to put the relics of their ale into another vessel, so that broken meat or drink be in no way cast away or eaten by dogs, nor lie in the galleries or courts, but may be daily saved for the relief of poor folks.” Anyone who disobeyed this rule was punished and on the third offense, any who failed to give their leftovers to the Almoner would forfeit their allowance, lodging and “Bouche de Court” (the permission to eat and drink at court)

As eating was communal, it was important to follow the strict rules of etiquette: these were elaborate, yet practical, as they prevented anyone touching food that would be eaten by someone else. Everyone brought his own knife and spoon to the meal. The requirement for a personal spoon is behind the custom of giving one as a christening gift.

The Waissail Cup

The Wassail Cup

A final festive feature, celebrated during the Tudor Christmas was the Wassail Cup. This was a richly ornamented cup which would be paraded through the great hall, and drunk from by all present as they took part in a call-and-response ritual – the drinker would shout ‘wassail’ and the collective response was ‘drink hail’. The drink in the Wassail bowls was often a warmed alcohol, such as mulled cider, sweetened and spiced. The bowl shown above even has its own whistle to alert the kitchen that more drink was needed.

These were the Rules of Etiquette at the Tudor table.

Sit not down until you have washed.

Undo your belt a little if it will make you more comfortable; because doing this during the meal is bad manners.

When you wipe your hands clean, put good thoughts forward in your mind, for it doesn’t do to come to dinner sad, and thus make others sad.

Once you sit place your hands neatly on the table; not on your trencher, and not around your belly.

Don’t shift your buttocks left and right as if to let off some blast. Sit neatly and still.

Any gobbit that cannot be taken easily with the hand, take it on your trencher.

Don’t wipe your fingers on your clothes; use the napkin or the ‘board cloth’.

If someone is ill mannered by ignorance, let it pass rather than point it out.

Good rules to follow even now, I’d say.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn what happened to the Trencher in Queen Elizabeth’s rule! See you then!

The Elizabethan Christmas and the Tale of Oranges

The Elizabethan Christmas

The Elizabethan Christmas

To continue with my Christmas Foods And Traditions Series we will look today at the Elizabethan period of England.

As a queen, Elizabeth had access to some of the most luxurious foods that were on offer now from many parts of the world. Her food reflected the wealth and power of England and was an important status symbol.

Oranges were originally brought from China, but by the 16th century they were grown in Spain and southern France. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, sweet oranges were given frequently as Christmas gifts because they were expensive, delicious and sure to note how wealthy the giver was.

Now to tell the Great Citrus Fruit Escape……………

Father John Gerard, a Jesuit priest, continued to practice Catholicism and move freely among the gentry in Elizabethan Protestant times, and that landed him eventually in the Tower of London.

A  well-to-do prisoner in the Tower was allowed to furnish their cell to their tastes and bring in their own food to make life there more tolerable. Father Gerard was gifted some oranges and he would share them with the guard and warden to bribe them. He persuaded the warden to allow him to send crosses made from the left-over orange peel to his friends.

Father Gerard's Orange Peel Crosses

Father Gerard’s Orange Peel Crosses

Along with the crosses he sent a prayer written in charcoal, which the warden would read first.

Father Gerard Prayer Written in Charcoal

Father Gerard Prayer Written in Charcoal

However, when the warden was not looking, Gerard used the orange juice that he had saved, to write a second message between the lines of the prayer. Once the orange juice was dried it became invisible, only to be seen when re-heated by lamplight fire. Father Gerard wrapped all the orange peel crosses in the paper prayer-messages and sent them with the guard to be delivered.

The Orange Juice Message Written Between the Lines

The Orange Juice Message Written Between the Lines

Also during this time, Father Gerard met fellow Catholic prisoner, John Arden, who was being kept in another part of the prison, near the garden and the moat.

While in the Tower Father Gerard was tortured, often being suspended for days by his wrists in the hope he would confess to treason and could be put to death. His fingers were barely able to move after this.

Gerard and Arden were given permission to spend some time in each other’s company. The coded messages had been deciphered by Father Gerard’s supporters and a desperate escape plan was put in place.  On the appointed evening, the men met in Arden’s cell and loosened the stone around the bolt of the door that lead to the roof. They reached the roof at midnight, in time to see a rowing boat containing three men approach the walls. As they were about to make contact, a man came from a house below and assuming the men were fishing, began to engage them in conversation.

Gerard waited patiently for the man to leave, but by the time he departed it was too late for an escape that night.

Thinking that the escape was doomed, Gerard was surprised to hear next day that the rescuers were going to try again. Waiting until they had been locked in the Tower together, Gerard and Arden again climbed onto the roof. Throwing down a weighted cord they raised up a rope that had been tied to it by the rescuers below. The plan had been to slide down the rope, but the angle it made meant that instead the escapers had to pull themselves hand over hand along its length. It is worth remembering that Gerard had recently been tortured by being suspended in manacles, which made a hazardous descent even more difficult.

After his companion managed to climb down, Gerard realized that the rope which had been straight was now sagging – making the climb even more difficult. Holding the rope between his legs, Gerard pulled himself out from the high roof. Half way across he became exhausted and at one point was left hanging in the darkness, strength failing. In the end Gerard and Arden managed to escape, all in thanks to his oranges!  Can you imagine? Is this where the saying “read between the lines“ comes from? I should think so!

More to come in the Christmas Foods And Traditions Series! Enjoy!

 

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