Make a meal of it

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Dreading the seasonal class party?.

Throw a Tudor party.

Food and feasting fits well in a topic about houses and homes or Tudor life. The biggest and best feasts took place at Christmas time, so the autumn term is ideal for organising your own Tudor banquet.

Getting ready

In the Middle Ages all but the very poorest people observed a fast in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It began on the first Sunday in Advent and ended on Christmas Eve.

During that time meat, butter, eggs and sugar were forbidden; meals were smaller and less frequent than usual, and consisted of salt fish, pottage (a thick vegetable soup) and dry bread. The Christmas season was eagerly anticipated as it was the one time in the year when everybody could eat and drink as much as they liked. It lasted for 12 days, culminating in the great Twelfth Night feast.

School activities

* Introduce the notions of feasting and fasting by linking them to present-day observances, such as Ramadan and Lent, and discussing them in class. Children might even be encouraged to forgo their mid-morning snack on the day of the feast.

Setting the scene A feast wasn't just about fun and games. It was used to demonstrate the status of the host giving it and reinforce the social hierarchy, so its organisation followed strict rules. At the top table sat the most important people present. Each had his or her own dish and they were served by pages of aristocratic birth. Less important guests sat at lower tables and shared a dish, or "mess" with others. The humbler you were, the lower you sat, and the harder the benches.

Important guests were served first.Their food was of better quality than that given to their inferiors. Even the salt was graded according to status; on the top table it was white and served in a silver gilt container. Humbler visitors made do with a greyish powder on a bit of stale bread.

School activities

* Arrange rectangular tables in a T-shape down the centre of the hall. Cover them with cloths, reserving the most luxurious for the top table and using hessian or rough material for the bottom of the T. Provide covered chairs for the top table. Use benches for the people sitting at the lower table. Decorate the top table with flowers, fruit or pomanders made out of oranges stuck with cloves and decorated with gold or silver ribbon.

'Grub's up'

The boar's head was the traditional centrepiece of the feast. On a grand occasion it was garnished with rosemary and bay and carried in with great ceremony to the accompaniment of trumpets. In poorer households guests were served with mutton, pork, veal or pickled pigs' feet, and by early Tudor times (the Tudor period ran from 1485-1603) turkey was making an appearance on the menu. Catering in mid-winter was often a problem as fresh meat was hard to come by and guests expected a wide range of dishes, which had to be extravagant, complicated and elegantly presented. When they could afford them, cooks made lavish use of spices and sharp, pungent (or, as Chaucer has it, poignant) sauces based on verjuice - an acid, vinegar-like condiment made from sour green grapes.

In Tudor times it became fashionable to serve a dessert course to the most honoured guests. They withdrew, with great ceremony, to a special banqueting chamber where they toyed with luxurious trifles such as crystallised orange peel, sugared spices, marzipan subtleties and fresh fruit, washed down with sweet wine.

School activities

* Forget spit-roasted meat; keep it simple. The pestle and mortar was in constant use to grind spices, pound almonds for marzipan and make bread crumbs to thicken a sauce. Bring in whole spices and let children handle and sort them. Then get them to try their hand at pounding them in a mortar. It's surprisingly hard work.

* Prepare food for the dessert course. Children could bake spice wafers, using the recipe below, or make marchpane fruits from ready-made marzipan.

Spice wafer recipe 350g plain flour 1 tablespoon mixed spice 100g brown sugar 175g butter 3 tablespoons golden syrup Sift the flour and spices. Rub in the butter. Add the sugar. Add the golden syrup, slightly warmed, and mix together to a stiff dough. Shape it into a long sausage and rest in the refrigerator for one hour. Cut the dough into small pieces and roll each one into a ball. Flatten it slightly and bake on a greased tray. Allow space for them to spread. Bake in a moderate oven (Gas Mark 5, 375oF, 190oC) for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they begin to colour.

Table manners

Forget Charles Laughton tearing at a chicken leg in his most famous role as Henry VIII. Tudor diners had paid a great deal of money for their sumptuous velvet doublets and they didn't want to spoil them. Every diner had a napkin, which was laid over one shoulder. They brought their own knives to the table and, because forks were not in general use, ate with their fingers from shared dishes. So the etiquette books of the time place great emphasis on the importance of clean hands and the avoidance of habits likely to put fellow diners off their food. It was, for obvious reasons, rude to scratch or to delve about in your nose or ears. It was even worse form to put half-chewed pieces of meat back on the common plate. A "voiding" dish was provided for the lumps of gristle and well-bred guests used it.

A feast was an act of theatre, and it began with the ceremonial entry of the bigwigs to a flourish of trumpets. Grace was said, and squires brought bowls of water for the guests at high table to wash their hands. Only after they had been served could the rest start to eat. Those sharing a dish helped themselves in order of precedence (the most important people first) - and it was considered polite to offer a dish to a fellow diner first.

School activities

* Choose the members of the class to sit at high table and the servants to wait on them (perhaps draw straws to decide who the guests of honour are to be). Practise the grand ceremonial entry, walking in a slow and dignified manner. Use Tudor music to set the scene. Pick pupils to act as servers at high table and practise serving while kneeling.

* Check that the other diners have washed their hands thoroughly before coming to the table and remind them to offer food to others before themselves.

* Brief pupils on suitable topics of conversation for the feast. This was an opportunity to display wit and intelligence. In the teaching context, it's a chance to draw on what children have learnt about the period.

Entertainments After the feast came singing, dancing and amusements. Most large households had a jester to provide entertainment. Sometimes there was a mummer's play or a masque. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was originally written for just such an occasion.

School activities

* Teach children a simple round dance to perform at the feast. In Tudor times the galliard was popular. It involved high leaps and was an opportunity for the men to show off their strength and skill. Children could develop their own leaping dance, which concludes with a sweeping bow or curtsy.

* The Tudors loved "part songs". Teach your class "Fr re Jacques", "London's Burning" or "Three Blind Mice" to give them a taste of this style of singing, or a traditional song such as "Greensleeves".

* Ask for acts from aspiring performers. Reward the best performers with foil-wrapped chocolate coins.

'How do you like your hedgehog?'

Food served at great feasts was designed to impress so the table was laid with a great variety of rare and luxurious dishes. Novelties were at a premium. One recipe book gives instructions for cooking hedgehog. Another dish was a pig's stomach, filled with ground pork and spices, covered in blanched almonds and baked slowly. Swans, peacocks and pheasants were roasted whole and served in their plumage garnished with carved vegetables.

Sugar (then from Cyprus) was a status symbol. At 10 old pence a pound (a loaf of bread cost 1 penny) only the rich could afford it and the highlight of each course was a "subtlety". This was an elaborate confection of sugar paste or marchpane (marzipan) modelled in the shape of a castle, a ship, or any motif that fitted the occasion. This was paraded round the hall for the admiration of the guests.

Fruit was on the menu at the costliest feasts, but it had to be exotic. It might include oranges and lemons or some of the new varieties of plums and apricots that had recently become available. Occasionally tomatoes were served, dressed with sugar and served with cream, and there is at least one recipe for candied potatoes.


Tudor Dance Book Hawthorns Music, Hawthorns Drive, Wheaton Aston Stafford ST19 9NQ. Tel: 01785 840186. Price: pound;3.49 (plus pound;1pamp;p). This simple introduction by Marion Panzetta and Jackie Marshall-Ward has instructions for dancing plus music. Includes the Pavane and Galliard.

Food and Feast in Tudor England By Alison Sim. Sutton Publishing


* Talk with pupils about table manners today. Make a list of good and bad manners. Compare them with those from Tudor times. Which still hold good today?

* Bring in a selection of food from the supermarket. Which would have been familiar to Tudor diners? Which are more recent?

* In Tudor times the host and favoured guests received larger portions than humbler people. Was that fair? How does this compare with today's customs?

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