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
Tudor cuisine was lavish. An ambassador to Henry VIII’s court is quoted as saying, “…the wealth and civilization of the world are here; and those who call the English barbarians appear to me to render themselves such.”
First of all, there was a lot of meat going on during this era. Just listen to this account of game found in one household’s larder: “cranys, redshankes, fesauntes, sholardes, pacokes, knottes, bustardes, great byreds, hearonsewys, bytterns, reys, kyrlewes, wegions, dotrells, ternes, smale byrdes.” Henry's daughter Elizabeth clearly had a taste for meat; her court went through 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 760 calves, and 1,870 pigs in a single year. In addition to vast amounts of meat, there were also delicious confections such as trifles, fools, whitepot (a baked dish of cream, eggs, and currants), clotted cream, and leach. Needless to say, this kind of cooking was hardly conducive to trim waistlines.
As water was considered unhealthy (and without adequate filtration systems it probably tasted pretty darn nasty), alcohol was the go-to beverage. Ale and wine were the two major drinks in England up until the 16th century; that is when the radical new practice of using hops led to to the introduction of beer. This drink was looked down upon for a very long time, and King Henry actually forbade the use of hops in his ale, considering them to be as bad as sulfur.
It is thought that Henry VIII suffered from malnutrition. How is that possible with all of the food he was eating (about 5,000 calories a day)? Well, the menu was dominated by meat and bread, and since vegetables were considered "peasant food" they weren't used very much. This led to diseases like scurvy, even among wealthy and well-fed aristocrats.
No Man is an Island
While Britain technically remained isolated from the rest of the world, the Tudor Era saw a great expansion in trade routes. Exotic foreign ingredients were easier to get than ever. Tomatoes, sweet corn, kidney and lima beans, pumpkins, red peppers, peanuts, pineapples, and tapioca were all brought to England during this time.
This was a period of experimentation and adventure. Only imagine being a chef in Henry's Court and having to figure out how to use sweet corn!
Defining "English"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.
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.
Brit-Bit: It is said that Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth were black from sugar, and some of her poorer subjects artificially blackened their own teeth in order to seem affluent. That gives new meaning to the phrase, “sweet tooth!”