If there was one thing the royals knew how to do, it was to put on the feedbag for the holidays! This is probably where the term "groaning tables" originated, because at the castles and palaces, there was seemingly no end to the goodies prepared and brought out to gorge upon by the monarch and invited guests. Those wood tables likely did make creaking noises in protest at being abused by the weight of:
The first record of a turkey being brought to Europe was in 1519. It was to be many years before this bird had reason to fear the season. For the rich, the traditional meat on Christmas Day remained swan or goose.
In fact, in 1588, Elizabeth I ordered that everybody should have goose for their Christmas dinner, as it was the first meal she had after the victory of the Spanish Armada and she believed that this gesture would be a fitting tribute to the English sailors who fought off the Spanish. However, it is not known how many of the poor of the land could carry out this order as goose was an expensive luxury.
Unlike in modern times, Christmas was regarded as a quieter holiday that was also a holy day, with Masses and prayers being a focal point of the day. It was New Year's Day, the midpoint of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and Twelfth Night, its raucous conclusion, that were the big blow-out festivities at the royal court.
Advent was traditionally a time of fasting like Lent was before Easter, so fish would usually be banished from the royal menu after weeks of eating nothing but. No matter how cleverly presented, it grew tiresome and meat was what the royals craved for Christmas. The king might get up hunting parties in the days prior to the celebrations (and even during, as the amount of food a royal court in full swing could consume was astronomical) so that traditional favorites like venison, pheasant, and quail (Jane Seymour was said to be especially fond of quail) could supplement the groaning tables. The royals of olde were mostly carnivores....with a sweet tooth.
Henry VIII was said to be very partial to artichokes and would have those, along with Catherine of Aragon's favorite Valencia oranges and figs, shipped in from foreign climes to tempt his palate. His favorite dessert was a rich aleberry pudding (which one would assume involved a concoction of ale and some sort of berries), but by the Christmas season local produce was nonexistant, with tarts and pies made from fruit put up in preserves for the winter (cherries were a great favorite of Elizabeth I) or late harvested fruit like pears and apples, and vegetables limited to things that would keep for months in a root cellar, like onions, turnips, and parsnips. Potatoes and squashes had yet to be introduced to England. There was dairy a-plenty, so many dishes included eggs, milk, and cheese, and a Christmas goose would be supplemented by a wide variety of meats, including what we think of as more American traditions as baked ham or roast crowns of pork and beef.
Peacocks were a staple on the menu for the rich. However, it became a Christmas tradition to skin the bird first, then cook it on a spit over the fire and then place the roast bird back into its skin and feathers as a main table presentation. Therefore, on the table would be what would appear to be a stuffed and feathered peacock, when, in fact, it had been thoroughly cooked. This practice also took place in medieval households, lest you think the Tudors invented gourmet excess. While a male peacock with tailfeathers unfurled was surely a grand sight, it was not uncommon to re-dress other birds for their presentation as well, including swans, herons, ducks, doves, Cornish hens, grouse, and even the lowly chicken.
Think four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie is just a nursery rhyme? Not so. Presentation was everything at the royal court, with dishes calculated to make the diners oooh and aaah, so it wasn't unheard of to place live birds into a large pie crust, cover them with another crust, and bring it into the great hall peeping away. The *reveal* would take place and the birds would fly out to swirl around the hall and perch on its rafters, to the delight of the crowd.
The homes of the wealthy also used to cook a wild boar on Christmas Day, and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. However, cooking made the head's fur go pale and so it was covered in soot and pig's grease to make the cooked head looked more natural.
Christmas puddings were made of meat, oatmeal and spices. However, cooking this combination meant that if would fall to bits once it was ready to serve. The Tudors got over this by wrapping the mixture in the gut of a pig and cooking it in a sausage shape. It was then served by slices being carved from it and being served with the boar's head. The kitchen staff were nothing if not creative, as it was their job not only to provide plenty of food for the royal feasts, but to do it spectacularly as a form of entertainment.
It was also the fashion in Tudor times for Christmas mince pies to be shaped like a crib. The rule of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century ended this practice as it was seen as bordering on blasphemy, since it was meant to portray the manger in which the Baby Jesus lay swaddled after birth.
Since the Christmas season in England was cold (in the winter of 1535-36 the Thames froze so solidly that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were able to go sleigh-riding on it), often huge ice sculptures were included in a winter banquet. These elaborate carvings were mere decoration for the festivities and brought out before the meal to be paraded about the great hall so that everyone could be duly amazed and applaud the ingenuity of the sculptor. Sadly they would begin to slowly melt once indoors (the bigger the better, to last longer), but until then they remained a glittering, jewel-like adornment for the celebrations.
Dessert would be the crowning glory of the meal. It was a common practice to have fruit tarts created specially for guests, using their device (shield quarterings) as the sugary decor on top. These were known as "conceits". (Were you conceited for showing off your arms?) Also featured would be "sweetmeats", what we could now call cookies and candies. Sugar acted as a preservative and allowed the baking to be done in advance of the feast.
The royal household would have a confectioner on its kitchen staff who would create fantastic subtleties that were meant to be gazed upon in awe before being consumed. Sugar was quite expensive back then, so only the greatest households could enjoy marzipan-crafted (or marchpane, as it was called in England, just to be contrary to those Frenchies) Nativity scenes, saints, castles, mythical figures....anything that could be sculpted from stone or clay could be crafted from sugar. Marchpane itself was a sweet paste created from powdered almonds, rose water, and, well, powdered sugar.
Sometimes these concoctions were dusted in gold leaf....and eaten by the royals! These designs were presented with trumpets, fanfare, and a great flourish to the royal table, often by the chief confectioner him/herself, for it was not uncommon for the monarch to carelessly remove a valuable ring and bestow it as a token of appreciation and thanks upon the creator of such awesomeness.
Often trenchers would be used in place of plates at feasts. Usually these were made from thick slices of bread, but at Christmas they were crafted from marchpane. Talk about a sugar rush from the first course on. If one didn't mind the residue of meat grease, gravies, and rich sauces, one could chip bits off the *plate* and eat that as well while waiting on dessert to be served.
With all this eating taking place, it would be difficult to imagine anyone in Tudor times wanting to do anything energetic at all. In this sense, Henry VIII helped them, as in 1541, he had a law introduced (the Unlawful Games Act) which banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery. All dangerous sports were banned but archery was seen as essential to maintaining the country's military strength. This was later joined by "leaping and vaulting" which kept young men fit and strong.
It was all washed down with a wide selection of wines, ale, small beer, and special holiday concoctions. Mulled wine, spiced up and bedecked with a horrendously expensive imported stick of cinnamon, was a particular favorite, and there were always wassail bowls set up to dip freely from once the meal was concluded and the court had moved on to the entertainment portion of the venue (more later).
Royal feasts were traditionally countless courses that seemed as if they would never end, and it was done to excess purposely so that leftovers could be given away to the poor.
Years ago I ran across a scaled-down version (I cannot recall where, so if anyone has seen this online, please post me a link and I shall duly give credit) featuring some of the dishes one might see gracing a royal tabletop:
MENU FOR A MEDIEVAL CHRISTMAS DINNER
Old English Sherry Cheese Puffs
Merrie Crown Roast of Pork
Savory Rice Stuffing
Lady Apple Fruit Wreath
Duchess Potato Puffs
Carrots and Grapes Vermouth
Herbed Green Beans
Royal Toast Triangles
Cran-Brandy Pudding with Golden Toffee Sauce
EXTRA TREAT: Ha’penny Friendship Bread
If anyone is talented in the kitchen and would like to experiment with a right royal feast, we also have the how-to's :P If anyone creates something, we'd love to see pix and a review on how it turned out! A lot of it is The Lazy Person's Guide to Fine Dining as some recipes incorporate modern convenience cuisine as ingredients. Not being a Mathlete I have no clue how to translate American measurements for the rest of the planet, but I'm quite sure Mr Google knows such things if you inquire nicely.
OLD ENGLISH SHERRY CHEESE PUFFS
1/2 cup Water, 1/4 tsp Salt, 1/4 cup Margarine or Butter
1 tbl Sherry, 1/2 cup All-Purpose Flour, 2 Eggs
5 oz. Jar Old English sharp pasteurized processed cheese spread, softened
1 pk 3-oz. Cream Cheese, Softened, 1 tbl Chopped Stuffed Green Olives, 2 tsp Sherry
Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease cookie sheet. In med. saucepan, heat water, salt and margarine to boiling. Add flour and sherry, stirring constantly, until mixture forms ball and leaves sides of pan. Remove from heat; blend in 1/4 cup cheese spread. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mixture will be smooth and glossy. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees F for 15-20 mins. until puffed and golden brown. Remove from cookie sheets. Cool slightly; make small slit in side of puffs to release steam and prevent sogginess. Cool completely. In small bowl, combine remaining cheese spread, olives and sherry; blend until smooth and fluffy. Slit puffs; remove any soft filaments of dough. Fill with scant teaspoonfuls of cheese mixture. Makes 18 appetizer puffs.
MERRIE CROWN ROAST OF PORK
7 lb Pork Crown Roast, 1/2 tsp Salt, 1/4 tsp Pepper
Heat oven to 325 degrees F. Season meat with salt & pepper. Place roast in lg. roasting pan, rib bones up. Cover rib bones with foil to prevent excess browning. Insert meat thermometer so bulb reaches center of roast not touching fat or bone. Roast at 325 degrees F. for 2 hrs. Prepare Savory Rice Stuffing (recipe to follow). Fill center of roast with stuffing; continue roasting 1 1/2-2 hrs. longer until meat is well done and thermometer register 170 degrees to 180 degrees F. Remove foil from rib tips. Place roast on serving plate or carving board. Garnish with Lady Apple Fruit Wreath (see recipe).
TIP: For ease in carving, insert fork in top of roast; make slices by cutting close along sides of rib bones.
SAVORY RICE STUFFING (this one is so not medieval or Tudor as they didn't eat rice, but apparently it goes well with pork)
2 pk Green Giant Rice Originals frozen long grain white & wild rice,1/3 cup Water, 1/2 cup Chopped Onion, 1 pk Herb Seasoned Stuffing Mix, 1/2 cup Chopped Celery Jar, 1 4 ½ oz Jar Green Giant Sliced Mushrooms, 3 tbl Margarine or Butter
Cook rice according to pkg. directions. In lg. saucepan, saute onion and celery in margarine until tender. Add water and stuff mix; stir in rice, tossing lightly. Use to stuff Merrie Crown Roast of Pork.
TIP: If desired, stuffing can be baked separately in lightly buttered 2 quart casserole at 350 degree F. for 30-40 minutes.
LADY APPLE FRUIT WREATH
16 oz. Jar whole spiced crabapples, drained, 2 drops Red Food Coloring, 3 oz. Pkg. Cream Cheese, softened, 1/3 cup Chopped, Toasted Pecans, 1 tsp Milk, Bunch Parsley or Watercress
In small bowl, combine cream cheese, milk and food coloring. Mix until smooth and creamy. Frost each apple, using scant teaspoonful of cheese mixture, half-way up sides, covering bottom of apple. Dip bottoms of apples in chopped pecans. Arrange apples in wreath of parsley or watercress around meat.
DUCHESS POTATO PUFF (neither is this one as they had no potatoes, but would it be Christmas without taters today?)
2 1/4 cup Water, 3 tbl Margarine or Butter, 1/2 tsp Salt, 1/2 cup Milk, 2 1/2 cup Mashed Potato Flakes, Egg, 1/2 c Dairy Sour Cream, 2 oz Shredded Cheddar Cheese
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter 1 1/2-quart casserole. In medium saucepan, heat water, margarine and salt to rolling boil. Remove from heat. Stir in milk and potato flakes. Blend in egg, sour cream and cheese, mixing thoroughly. Scoop or spoon into prepared casserole. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 20-30 minutes, until lightly golden brown and puffed. Refrigerate leftovers.
CARROTS AND GRAPES VERMOUTH
2 pk Green Giant Frozen Crinkle Cut Carrots in Butter Sauce, 3 tbl Brown Sugar, firmly packed, 3 tbl Vermouth, 2 tsp Cornstarch, 2 tbl Water, 3/4 cup Green Grapes, halved, 3/4 cup Red Grapes, halved
Cook carrots according to pkg. directions. Slit pouch open and drain butter sauce into med. saucepan. Stir
in brown sugar and vermouth. In small bowl, mix cornstarch and water until smooth. Blend into butter sauce. Heat over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and slightly thickened. Add carrots and grapes. Heat additional 2 mins.
TIP: To make ahead, prepare carrots as directed, adding grapes just before serving. Heat thoroughly.
HERBED GREEN BEANS
1 1/2 pounds green beans fresh, 1/2 cup onion finely chopped, 2 tbl butter or margarine, 3 tbl lemon juice, 1 tbl fresh parsley, chopped, 1 tsp salt optional, 1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme chopped OR 1/2 tsp dried acorns, 1/4 tsp paprika
In a saucepan, cover beans with water; cook until crisp-tender. Meanwhile, in a skillet, saute onion in butter until tender. Add lemon juice, parsley, salt (if desired), thyme and paprika. Drain beans; add herb butter and stir to coat. Serve immediately.
ROYAL TOAST TRIANGLES
1 can Pillsbury Refrigerated Crescent Dinner Rolls, 1/2 cup Spicy French Dressing
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly greased cookie sheet. Separate dough into 8 triangles; cut each in
half lengthwise to form 16 triangles. Place on prepared cookie sheet. Brush lightly with French dressing. Bake at 375 degrees for 10-12 mins. until puffed and golden brown.
1 1/3 cup All-Purpose Flour*, 1/4 cup Firmly Packed Brown Sugar, 1/2 tsp Cinnamon, 1/4 tsp Allspice, 1 tsp Baking Soda, 1/2 tsp Baking Powder, 3 tbl Brandy, 1/4 cup Milk. 3 tbl Oil, Egg, 3/4 cup Chopped Walnuts, 2 cup Cranberries, Halved
*Self-rising flour IS NOT recommended for this recipe.
Generously grease 1-qt. mold or casserole. In med. bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, soda and baking powder. Add brandy, milk, oil and egg; stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in walnuts and cranberries. Spoon into prepared mold. Cover tightly with foil. Place on wire rack in large steamer or kettle. Pour boiled water 3-4" deep into steamer; cover. Keep water boiling gently over low heat. If necessary, add water to maintain steam. Steam 1 1/2-2 hrs. or until pudding springs back when touched lightly in center. Cool slightly. Invert onto serving plate. Cut into slices. Serve with Golden Toffee Sauce and a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.
GOLDEN TOFFEE SAUCE
1/2 cup Firmly Packed Brown Sugar, 1/2 cup Sugar, 3/4 cup Whipping Cream, 1/3 cup Margarine or Butter, 2 tsp Brandy
In small saucepan, combine sugars, cream and margarine. Heat to simmering; cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat; add brandy. Serve warm over Cran-Brandy Pudding (see previous recipe)
1 can Frozen Lemonade concentrate, 1/4 cup Cointreau or Curacao, 1 can Grapefruit Soda, chilled, 13/16 qt Bottle Claret Wine, 1/2 c Brandy, Ice Cubes or Mold
In large pitcher or punch bowl, combine all ingredients. Chill with ice cubes or mold. Serve immediately. Garnish this lovely cocktail beverage with a pink grapefruit wedge or orange slice.
HA’PENNY FRIENDSHIP BREAD*
5 1/2 cup Pillsbury Best Bread Flour, 2 pk Active Dry Yeast, 3 tbl Sugar , 2 c Water, 2 tsp Salt , 1/4 c Oil
Lightly spoon flour into measuring cup; level off. In large bowl, combine 2 cups flour, sugar, salt and yeast; blend well. In small saucepan, heat water and oil until very warm (120-130 degrees F.). Add warm liquid to flour mixture. Blend at low speed until moistened; beat 3 minutes at medium speed. Stir in additional 3 1/2-4 cups flour, until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl. On floured surface, knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 mins. Place dough in greased bowl; cover loosely with plastic wrap and cloth towel. Let rise in warm place (80-85 degrees F.) until light and doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hrs. Punch down dough several times to remove air bubbles. Allow to rest on board covered with inverted bowl for 1 min. Shape as desired.
6 SMALL LOAVES: Grease 6 6x3" loaf pans. Or, if desired, grease two cookie sheets to make free form
loaves. Divide dough into 6 parts. Remove air pockets by working dough with hands and rolling into 6 10x5" rectangles. Starting from shorter side, roll up, pinching edges firmly to seal. For free-form loaves, taper ends slightly. Place seam-side- down on prepared pan. Cover; let rise in warm place until light and double in size, about 45 mins. Heat over to 375 degrees F. Bake for 25-35 mins., until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped. Remove from pans immediately. Cool on wire racks.
6 SMALL BRAIDS: Grease 2 cookie sheets. Divide dough into 6 parts. Remove air pockets by working dough with
hands. Roll each part into an 6x3" rectangle. Cut each rectangle lengthwise into 3 6x1" strips. Braid strips together, tuck ends under and seal. Repeat with remaining dough. Place on prepared cookie sheets. Cover; let rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 45 mins. Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 25-35 mins. until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped. Remove from pans immediately; cool on wire racks.
TO DECORATE: Make small 1/2" slit in top crust of each loaf; insert shinny copper penny. Tie loaves with ribbon and decorate with small sheaf of wheat or other grain, dried flowers, silk flours or dried berries. Attach friendship note which will follow
TO PRESERVE BREAD: Allow loaves to dry in cook dry place for several days until VERY HARD. Spray or brush clear, glossy polyurethane or spray clear, glossy resin around loaf. Let dry; repeat with second coat. When dry, decorate as desired.
TIP: Loaves may be brushed with mixture of 1 egg white and 1 tbsp. water before baking. If desired, sprinkle with sesame or poppy seed. For crusty topped loaves, set small pan of water in oven while bread is baking.
A penny for happy thoughts,
Grains that grow and nourish,
Leavenings to lift us up,
May friendship ever flourish.
*loaves were inspired by the "Beggar's Rhyme" of
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, please put a penny in the old man's hat,
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do, If you haven't got a ha'penny--God Bless You!
I hope you were paying attention because there's a quiz:
In case you missed it: