Tudor Food and Drink A to Z – Fiona Hurley

I have a super cool post for you guys today, from Fiona Hurley! She contacted me with a submission about Tudor food and drink, but with a twist! It’s listed from A to Z! I’d loooove more creative posts such as this! Perhaps I should sit down and write some challenges out! Haha.

This is Fiona’s second submission, if you’re interested in reading her first one about lost Spanish soldiers after the Armada fell, click here.

A word from the author,

A friend of mine was doing an “A to Z blogging challenge”, and I thought I’d try to do one with a Tudor theme. I found a number of interesting titbits about food and drink, and this seemed like a fun way to share them. Obviously some letters were more difficult than others, but that was all part of the challenge! 

Tudor Food and Drink – A to Z

At the tavern

A is for Alcohol, which the Tudors drank plenty of. The wealthy enjoyed strong, sweet wine such as Rhenish or Malmsey. Ale and beer (see Hops for the difference between them) were popular among all classes. The low-alcohol “small ale” was drunk by adults for breakfast and by children throughout the day.

B is for Bread, the staple of everyone’s diet. The colour of your bread was directly related to its price. The poorest people ate “Carter’s bread”, a dark mixture of rye and wheat. The prosperous farmer or middle class townsman ate the wholemeal “yeoman’s bread”. The richest enjoyed “manchet bread”, made from the whitest flour, which ironically was less healthy than the unrefined bread of the poor.

C is for Carrots, which were usually purple or white. They became their typical “carroty” colour only in the 17th century, when the Dutch bred them in honour of William of Orange.

D is for Dinner, the main meal of the day. Tudor people rose early and ate a small breakfast, if they even bothered with breakfast at all. So dinner was normally eaten between 11am and noon, while a smaller supper was taken in the evening. “Lunch” was not yet a thing.

E is for Eggs, probably the main source of protein for the poor. Even in cities, you might hear the clucking of hens or the honking of geese in someone’s yard. Eggs could be poached in a pot or roasted in the ashes of your fire.

F is for Famine, a constant threat to the poorer classes. After a bad harvest in 1596, reports came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne of “sundry starving and dying in our streets and in the fields for lack of bread”. Crop failure might result in food riots and general unrest. A series of Poor Laws were passed to provide for those in need.

G is for Grain, used to make bread, soup, and beer. In other words, most the calories consumed by Tudor people came in the form of grain. The most common types were wheat, rye, and barley.

H is for Hops, first cultivated in England in the 16th century. Before this, you drank unhopped ale, which had a brief shelf life. Ale was usually brewed by a woman for her household, although a good “ale-wife” could supplement her income by selling the excess. The addition of hops produced beer, which lasted longer than ale. This changed the brewing industry, because brewers (now mainly men) could produce and sell their product in larger quantities.

I is for Inflation, which increased rapidly throughout the 16th century. This was a huge shock, as prices had been stable for several centuries beforehand. Several reasons have been suggested for this inflation: population rise, wars with France and Scotland, an influx of money and goods from the New World. Some large farmers and merchants took advantage of higher prices to increase their wealth, but the poor suffered greatly from increases in the cost of food.

J is for Jelly, used in both sweet and savoury dishes. A typical jelly was made by extracting gelatine from a calf’s foot. At court, royal cooks moulded jellies into fantastical shapes such as animals and castles.

K is for Knife, used to cut your food and also to spear a portion of the dish from the centre of the table onto your own plate. A host wouldn’t provide knives, as guests carried their personal knives and spoons with them. Forks were rarely used, however, except by those decadent Italians.

L is for Lobster, which was far from a luxury food. A fisherman who caught a lobster in his nets might throw it back, or use it for fertilizer or fish bait. Only the poorest in coastal communities would consider eating lobster.

M is for Marchpane, an early version of marzipan, made from ground almonds and rosewater. Like jelly, marchpane was used by Tudor cooks to create edible decorations for the feasting table. Queen Elizabeth was once presented with a marchpane model of old St Paul’s Cathedral.

N is for Nutmeg, an expensive spice that came all the way from the Banda Islands in Indonesia. Its price skyrocketed further when it was rumoured to ward off the plague. The Portuguese, Dutch, and English fought throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to hold the Banda Islands and therefore control the profitable market for nutmeg.

O is for Oats, used in England mainly to feed animals. The Scottish and Irish ate oats as a regular part of their diet, in porridge or in oatcakes cooked on a griddle. This further enhanced the English view of their Celtic neighbours as uncivilized barbarians.

P is for Potato, a South-American plant that arrived in England in about the 1580s. Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited with its introduction. Initially, potatoes were considered dubious items, suspected of being poisonous or causing leprosy. One story tells of a royal banquet where these new vegetables were served; unfortunately, the cook threw away the tubers and served the leaves, which made everyone violently sick.

At the market

Q is for Quince, a popular fruit for pies and jams. In a typical pie recipe, quince was coated in honey and sprinkled with ginger before being baked. The first marmalade in England was made from quinces; indeed the word marmalade comes from marmelo, the Portuguese word for quince.  

R is for Rice pudding. “The Good Huswife’s Jewell” (1596) provides the following recipe: “Boyle your Rice, and put in the yolkes of two or three Egges into the Rice, and when it is boyled, put it into a dish, and season it with Suger, Sinamon and Ginger, and butter, and the juyce of two or three Orenges, and set it on the fire againe.”

S is for Sugar, served in a tall cone known as a “sugar loaf”. To break off a piece of sugar, you used a pliers-like implement called a “sugar nips”. At the beginning of the Tudor era, sugar was an expensive luxury for the super-rich, but by the end it was becoming more affordable. Predictably, the dental health of the population worsened. Worldwide, the human price of sugar was horrific, as increasing demand fuelled the growth of plantations in the Caribbean and the expansion of the slave trade.

T is for Tavern, a scene for both convivial conversations and deadly confrontations. While an alehouse was typically a spare room in someone’s house, a tavern was an establishment built specifically for the consumption of alcohol. An inn was slightly more upmarket and also provided lodging for guests and their horses. A tax survey in 1577 recorded 14,202 alehouses, 1,631 inns, and 329 taverns in England and Wales — one drinking establishment for every 187 people.

U is for Umble pie, which was filled with the chopped offal (or “umbles”) of a deer. After a successful hunt, the gentlemen took the venison for their kitchens, while the gamekeeper made do with the umble pie.

V is for Vegetables. Turnips and parsnips were the most common vegetables; onions and beets were also widely available. Artichokes were popular among those who could afford them, but in general, the rich ate few vegetables. All vegetables were thoroughly cooked, because raw vegetables were believed to unbalance the humours and cause illness.

W is for Whiskey, a popular beverage in Ireland and Scotland. Known as aqua vitae (Latin for “water of life”) or uisce beatha (Irish for the same), the drink was stronger in alcohol and rougher in taste than the modern equivalent. The first record of Scotch whisky comes from 1494, when King James IV ordered enough malt to make 1500 bottles. Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Irish whiskey; Irish pirate Gráinne (Grace) O’Malley made sure to bring some with her when she travelled to London to meet the queen.

X is for Xmas, when feasting and drinking were as popular as they are today. Christmas dinner was typically roast pork or beef, followed by mince pies and plum pudding. A popular hot drink was “lambswool”, made of mulled ale poured over hot apple puree to result in a woolly-looking brew.  

Y is for Yogurt, unknown to the Tudor English but used as a remedy across the channel in France. King Francis I, a contemporary of Henry VIII, suffered from an unpleasant complaint of the intestines. His ally Suleiman the Magnificent sent a doctor all the way from Turkey with the cure. The French king was advised to add yogurt to his diet, which greatly improved his bowels and his temper.

Z is for Zzz. Doctors believed that the purpose of sleep was to aid digestion. They recommended against eating too late as this might disturb the humours, although before bedtime you might ease yourself into slumber with a cup of warm wine or ale. And so the Tudors ended their day as they began it – with alcohol!

I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

5 thoughts on “Tudor Food and Drink A to Z – Fiona Hurley

  1. Apparently Irish whiskey was much favoured by the Tudor English. As you allude to in the case of Grace O’Malley.
    English army Captains fighting in the Irish wars always made sure to bring Irish whiskey with them when they returned to England as they esteemed it to be far better than their own.

  2. It’s taken me a while to get round to reading this as life has been hectic lately. However, it has been well worth the wait and I have learned much from your “Tudor Food and Drink A-Z”. Writing about the Elizabethan era, I often come up with queries regarding meals eaten by my characters so this list will be so helpful. I shall send the link to my daughter who is also writing an historical novel. Her main interest is in the Stuart era but she often has the same questions about food eaten then, so recipes in existence during the previous century will be helpful to her as well.

    Thanks so much for this very interesting piece, Fiona. I look forward to reading more from you in the future. Btw, do you have a website and are you on Twitter? If so, I can follow your writing more closely.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. My main sources were:
      – “Life in Elizabethan England” (http://elizabethan.org/compendium/index.html)
      – “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England” by Kathy Lynn Emerson
      – “Food and Feast in Tudor England” by Alison Sim

      My Twitter handle is @FionaHonor, but I haven’t posted for ages (I’m trying to cut down on social media so I have more time for writing and other activities). I also use the @FionaHonor handle on Pinterest, where I have a board for Tudor and Stuart England.

      • Hello agian Fiona,

        Many thanks for giving me the names (and a link) to the books you used for reference for your article. I shall investigate them and. am sure, will find them very helpful. As you may know, playwright and poet Christopher (Kit) Marlowe is my main area of writing on the Tudor era and to find the everyday meals that he and his contemporaries would have eaten will be invaluable. I know when he had some money he treated himself in Cambridge University’s Buttery, the more expensive restaurant (for want of a better word) open to students so if I can compare the menu between that and his cheaper options, it would be great research.

        I am now following you on Twitter as @ChasquiPenguin and though you don’t tweet very often, I shall check from time to time to see your latest. I agree with you about cutting down on Twitter and do try to divide my free time between that and my other interests, with writing taking up most time. I am not subscribed any other social media sites and intend to keep it that way!

        Thanks very much again for all your info and I look forward to reading more from you.

        Best wishes,

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