A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.
Sue Tillman, aka Mistress Hilly, a Militia Goodwife, performer and educator at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, contributed the information for this blog. Connie Teunis, me! edited this blog.
Microwaves. Convection ovens. Ginsu Knives. Gas-powered grills. Cooktop stoves. Electric mixers, woks, blenders, food processors, juicers and skillets. All are considered essential for preparing and cooking the food that 21st century people want: Seasonal food that is available year round, GMO and non-GMO, heirloom, locally sourced, fair trade, paleo, keto, lo-carb and so many more.
So what did people eat when it took months for seasonings to reach the local markets and all fruits and vegetables were seasonal, and what social influences determined their diets?
As the British Isles are, in fact, islands, the peoples living there have always relied on the sea for food, such as fish, eel, rays, skate, cod, salmon, sturgeon and various shellfish. Sea plants, such as seakale and marsh plants, and birds which can fly over water, such as ducks, geese and swan were important sources of food. (1)
Inland, deer, bear, boar, beaver, grouse and partridge were part of the inhabitants’ diet. Native plants, such as nettles, wild cabbage, wild parsnip and wild carrots were also part of the earliest inhabitants’ diets. Food was very basic and it was cooked in very simple ways. (1)
However, as people migrated to the British Isles from mainland Europe, they brought their food animals, crop seeds and ways of cooking. (1) By the time the Romans abandoned the islands, the food eaten on the islands were the same as those eaten on the mainland. Similar to the Romans, elaborate presentations of food were common among the nobility. (2) And among the inhabitants who were able to obtain sufficient food, the Theory of Humors, which began with the ancient Greeks, and the balance of humors, dominated British cooking.
During the Renaissance, the British believed there were 4 humors: Red Bile, which is warm and moist; Yellow Bile, which is warm and dry; Phlegm, which is cold and moist; and Black Bile, which is cold and dry. Cooking involved trying to achieve a balance among the humors inherent in food.
Land animals were considered dry humored. To balance red meat, the cook would add moisture. Red meats were typically boiled in a stew with a watery beef stock make from the marrow of bones if one was a commoner. If one were a Noble, red meat would be cooked in wine. The meat might also be cooked in a meat pie with added gravy. A Noble’s red meat, such as venison, might also be cooked over a roasting spit. If so, the meat would typically be stuffed with fat and a scullion boy would repeatedly baste it to keep it moist.
Sea creatures were considered wet humored and therefore, needed to be dried. Fish was commonly grilled, baked or fried. If stewed, verjuice would be used in the broth. Verjuice is a very sour acidic liquid made from unripe grapes, crabapples and other sour fruit. This acidic liquid would pull moisture from the fish.
Winged creatures, such as chickens, geese and swans, were considered balanced and could be cooked any way one desired. They would be served with or without a sauce. When chicken was cooked on a spit, a spit boy would use a sauce mop to put sauce on the chicken and keep it moist.
Even plants were part of the humor method of cooking. Mushrooms and garlic were typically cooked together. Mushrooms were considered cold and wet and garlic was considered hot and dry. Cooking them together balanced their humors.
Seasons were also considered to have Humor temperaments. Winter has the phlegmatic temperament of cold and moist. Hot, dry foods, such as beef, pork and game, would be cooked with spices, which were considered to have the characteristic of heat. Such seasoned meats would be served more frequently in boiled stews to balance this temperament.
Spring has the temperament of warm and moist. To balance this temperament, cooler, drier foods would be served. Meats, such as poultry and lamb, were more apt to be roasted. Greens were more apt to be included in the roasts.
Summer has the temperament of hot and dry. During the summer, to achieve humor balance, lighter foods, such as lamb, rabbit, poultry and fish were grilled or stewed in verjuice. People also ate more cool, moist foods such as cucumbers, melons, plums and cherries. Larger amounts of wine, which was wet humored, was consumed.
In Autumn, the cold and dry temperament is predominant and is associated with sadness or depression. To balance this humor, appetizing and acidic foods such as basil, butter, lamb and peacock dominated the table in the attempt to stimulate the senses. Sweets and sugar, which are associated with heat and moisture, were more prominent in the fall. Less fruit would have been consumed because fruit is associated with cold.
Other humors, such as bodily humors, also played a role in determining food and cooking. However, this is a blog and not a thesis; therefore, other humors will be left for another day.
Modern Renaissance Faires
At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, Mistress Hilly, a militia goodwife, can be found at Hilly’s Kitchen. Although the typical militia goodwife would have followed the militia and performed such duties as cooking, cleaning, mending and keeping loose women out of the camp, Mistress Hilly spends her day cooking and demonstrating.
One such demonstration involves making sausage. This sausage begins with four pounds of pork butt, which is dry humored. In keeping with the theory of humors, she then adds one pound of beef suet to balance the meat as well as egg yolks, onions, pepper, mace, sage and salt. (Seasonings will be discussed more in part 2.)
During the Renaissance, a Noble’s household might have a meat grinder mounted on a table. However, Commoners would typically spend hours cutting and dicing meat into very fine pieces. The meat and fat would be mixed with the other ingredients and then stuffed by hand into pig intestine casings, which is an incredibly tedious process. (Pig intestines were the traditional casings for sausage well into the 20th century.) The sausage would traditionally be hung in a chimney and smoked. Mistress Hilly, however, makes a loose sausage, cooks it in a cast iron skillet and serves it over spinach in the Italian fashion.
Mistress Hilly does several other demonstrations, too, such as making cheese. When you come to the Virginia Renaissance Faire, be sure to stop at Hilly’s Kitchen and watch as she demonstrates food preparation and cooking in the traditional Renaissance Way.
(1) Food and Cooking in Britain, English Heritage, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985. Food and Cooking in Prehistoric Britain: History and Recipes, by Jane Renfrew, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
(2) Food and Cooking in Britain, English Heritage, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985. Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes, by Jane Renfrew, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!