If you really are what you eat then it’s pretty important to know what the famous figures of the past had on their tables. To bring history to life we must dig down deep into the lives and loves of people from long ago, and that definitely involves food. I find it fascinating to delve into famous historical characters and discover what they ate (that’s a big big part of my newest eBook, scheduled to release this month).
King Henry VIII is well known for having six wives and separating the Church of England from Catholicism, but he is also famous for his enormous appetite. With a 54 inch/137 cm waist he was no lightweight, and he suffered from numerous illnesses, probably including gout, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Many of these problems can be traced to his diet, because the Tudors loved nothing if not their food, and the king was bound to have the best of everything.
What the Tudors Ate
No Man is an Island
Just as Henry established a truly English church, separate from Continental ties, his reign cemented what would be considered classic English fare today: plainly dressed meat, beer, toasted cheese, and pudding. Though the Tudors indulged in some crazy culinary stunts, this era saw an overall trend toward simplicity, differentiating the cuisine of the Isles from that of the rest of Europe.
I told you that the Tudors were lavish, and that certainly goes for their pies. Royalty enjoyed the most creative meals where the entertainment was actually the food; a 1598 recipe records instructions “To make Pies that the Birds may be alive in them, and flie out when it is cut up.” Now that would be a dinner to remember!
For my history of English food project I decided to make an authentic (or as close as I could get) Tudor mincemeat pie. The modern descendant of this recipe (especially popular around Christmastime) contains no meat whatsoever, but in the good old days it had a delightful sweet/savory flavor. Back then the filling—which was a medley of dried and fresh fruits along with minced beef—would have been baked in a “coffyn” crust. This was a thick, almost inedible flour and water mixture that served as a disposal baking tin. This crust would be fashioned into beautiful designs (entire castles with battlements, if they wished), and then the filling was scooped out and eaten.
I took a few risks on this dish, mixing and matching and adjusting ancient recipes to suit my needs. My major problem was a lack of suet (I’ve found that you can’t get that in Northwest Arkansas for love or money.), but I made do with vegetable shortening. The result was absolutely delicious, and I admit to eating most of the pie all by myself. If you would like to try your hand at it, here are the recipes I used:
Tudor Mincemeat Pie Filling
This redaction is edited from one by “wolfmomsca,” via Stefan’s Florilegium.
- 1 lb. ground beef or veal (cooked)
- 1/2 lb. suet
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 egg yolks (hard-boiled)
- 2 tbsp. rosewater (or vanilla)
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 lemon peel or orange peel (finely minced)
- 8 prunes (finely minced)
- 2 cups apple or pear (minced)
- 1/4 cup currants or raisin (finely minced)
- 3 dates (finely minced)
- Mince your beef and suet very fine (rough grind if you’ve got a grinder).
- Mix the salt and spices in with the meat and suet.
- Mash together the egg yolks, rosewater, and sugar, then mix with the meat and spices. Next add the peel, prunes, and minced apple or pear.
- Put the resulting mixture into a pie crust or coffin placed on top of a baking stone or cookie sheet.
- Scatter your minced currants and dates across the top of the mixture.
- Top with a crust if you wish, or simply cover the pie with tinfoil. Bake at 350 °F (177 °C) for about 45 minutes if using a top crust, or 35 minutes covered with foil, then 10 minutes uncovered. Placing a pan underneath your baking stone or cooking sheet will catch the liquid that is apt to drip from the pie during baking.
- Eat the pie warm if you wish, but it is equally good (if not better) when cooled to room temperature or even refrigerated. This is how it would have been served on an Elizabethan buffet.
A Tudor Coffyn
If you wish to make fancy adornment for your pie (some Tudor cooks created entire castles out of coffyn pastry), you might want to make a double batch.
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 cup lard/vegetable shortening
- 1 cup water/milk
- 1 egg white, or mixture of rosewater, sugar, and melted butter
- Mix together the flour and salt.
- Heat lard and milk/water together in a pan until almost-but-not-quite boiling.
- Pour the hot liquid into the flour and beat well until smooth.
- Let the dough cool a bit, then take roughly 1/3 of it and roll flat to make the base of your pastry. The base should be pretty thick. Form the sides of the pie crust with your fingers, then spoon in your filling. Roll out the rest of your pastry large enough to cover the top, then put it on and seal well.
- A few minutes before the pie is finished baking, spread egg white or the butter mixture onto the top crust for a lovely golden sheen.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love my eBook, Cooks and Queens! Get it now to read more about royalty, suet, and so much more besides.
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