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. Please see Part 1: Foods and the Theory of Humors for additional information.
Seasonings and Cooking During the Renaissance
Before the British Renaissance, herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (how many of you were able to read this without singing it?) were typically used to season food. During the Renaissance, herbs continued to be the primary form of seasonings among the lower classes. However, by the Renaissance, trade with the middle and far east brought the importation of spices into England. This importation was very expensive, though, and only the wealthiest and the nobility could afford them.
Many of the spices considered common in the modern kitchen, such as cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, saffron and turmeric were brought to England by traders, at great expense. And sold at great expense. Pepper was worth its weight in gold!
Salt was one of the few spices available to most commoners. Salt for most commoners came from salt mines and typically contained quite a bit of debris. Commoners who lived near the sea fared better- they would use sea salt. They would boil the sea water until all the water had evaporated and salt was left on the bottom of the pot. But again, there were typically some impurities.
Nobles, however, enjoyed imported white table salt. This salt was refined and the impurities were removed. But it was very expensive. When Nobles entertained guests at banquets, they would demonstrate their wealth by putting bowls of salt on the table, even though they secretly hoped that no one would take any of it. The placement of salt on tables also became a sign of one’s status with the host. If a guest was seated “above” the salt,” i.e., on the side of the table closer to the hosting noble, the guest was favored. If a guest was seated “below the salt,” i.e., on the side of the table farther from the hosting noble, the guest was unfavored.
Renaissance dishes for the wealthy typically used many different spices. The modern cook might be shocked at the heavy use of spices. However, heavy spicing was often necessary for flavor. It often took months to ship spices from the Far East to England. Spices were shipped in wooden containers. These wooden containers were obviously not hermetically sealed. Consequently, the spices would be exposed to air, both arid desert air and moist ocean air. The spices would lose much of their flavor. Thus, heavy spicing was needed for flavor.
Vegetables were also added to dishes for both their food value and their flavoring value. Whereas commoners used herbs and nobles used spices, both commoners and nobles ate onions, leeks and carrots.
Milk and milk products also seasoned foods. Milk and butter could have very different flavors depending on where the cows were grazed. If a cow grazed in a field full of clover, its milk was typically sweet. If a cow was grazed in a field full of onion grass or leeks, its milk would have a distinctly savory flavor. Butter and cheese made from clover or onion grass fed cows would have correspondingly different flavors.
Nobles not only enjoyed spiced foods, they also enjoyed elaborate foods. When traveling or on a picnic with her Nobles, Queen Elizabeth often enjoyed a baked chicken and plum pie. As discussed in part 1, beef, pork and venison roasts and chicken would typically be baked or roasted with a wine-based sauce to keep they from becoming dry. Fish would be grilled, baked or fried in a cast-iron skillet. Seasonal vegetables would be served with the meats. And care would be taken to present the dishes in an elaborate fashion. Swan, which is actually a very tough meat, was favored by the nobility because of its appearance when served: The swan would be plucked, skinned and cooked. After cooking, the feathers would be stuck back into the meat before serving and the swan would appear as though still alive.
A peasant’s fare was far more humble. A Noble’s home typically contained many rooms with a separate room for cooking and may have had one or more ovens. Peasants typically lived in one room homes. There was no separate kitchen. Rather, they slept, cooked and ate all in the same room. Their homes did not contain ovens; the village baker typically had the only oven. Villagers would go to the baker and barter for use of the oven. Each peasant cottage would typically have one kettle. That one kettle cooked the peasant’s daily fare, typically a pottage or porridge.
Peasants would place whatever they had to eat in this one kettle. This typically consisted of beans, a few pieces of bacon, vegetables and grains. This one kettle was then placed over the fire until the porridge was cooked. This porridge was the basic element of a peasant’s diet. Unlike the nursery rhyme: “Pease porridge hot. Pease porridge cold. Pease porridge in a pot nine days old,” porridge would not have been allowed to sit for nine days and spoil. Since most peasants lived on the edge of starvation, there was typically nothing left over. If there was, it would be eaten for breakfast the next day before beginning a new pot of porridge.
Modern Renaissance Faires
At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, Mistress Hilly, a militia goodwife, can be found in Hilly’s Kitchen, cooking and demonstrating food preparation typical of the 16th century. Some of her many demonstrations include making butter and buttermilk and making cheese.
Mistress Hilly also demonstrates baking in a brick oven. As she likes to say, her oven is a “glorious thing.” It is a composite of mud, straw and cement. The door to her oven is made of wood covered with tin. When she wishes to bake something, she lights a small, low fire in her oven. It is important that the flames not lick the top of the oven for, just like during the Renaissance, a high flame would cause the bricks to crumble. The oven is heated low and slow, which may take several hours. She determines how hot the oven is by how long she can hold her hand near the outside of the oven. When she is satisfied with the temperature, she scrapes out the ashes, puts her meat in and closes up the front with the tin covered wooden door.
She also demonstrates how to make an absolutely delicious soup favored by nobles. This soup is made with ground lamb meatballs, exotic spices, currents and dates. Everything is boiled in a wine-based stock. It is known by the incongruent name of Farts!
When you come to the Virginia Renaissance Faire, be sure to visit Hilly’s Kitchen. Although the Virginia Renaissance Faire is packed with shows and activities, be sure to save time to see her demonstrations on making sausage, butter, cheese and Farts!
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!