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An Elizabethan Christmas Feast: Sugar, Spice and All Things Nice

by Marta Patiño

Elizabethan Christmas FeastChristmas in 16th century England is best illustrated by the old adage: 'eat, drink and be merry'. England didn't have much cause for celebration during the dark years of Mary Tudor's reign, which saw 300 people burnt at the stake for heresy, so the young Elizabeth's rise to the throne was a welcome change. The enigmatic queen swept away the stale solemnity of Mary's court, replacing it with an appreciation for luxury, extravagance and popular culture.

The Christmas feast was the highlight of the year for those households that could afford it and no expense was spared. A popular main dish was Brawn and mustard, made from force-fed boar meat. Other traditional meats served included roast beef, goose and turkey.

Turkey was first introduced to Europe from the Americas during Henry VIII's reign and gradually rose in popularity as a Christmas dish, given that it was cheap and quick to fatten. For the well-to-do, the most traditional meat eaten on Christmas Day was goose. It is said that in 1588 Elizabeth I ordered the entire country to serve goose at their Christmas feast, since it was the first meal she had eaten following England's victory over the Spanish Armada and would thus provide a fitting tribute to the Navy Royal. Christmas was a singular occasion and each household would have spent as much as possible on their Christmas feast. That said, many households wouldn't have been able to comply with the Queen's demand, since goose was at that time an expensive luxury.

The main meat dishes were accompanied by plum porridge, minced pies and a beer brewed specially for the occasion. During the Elizabethan age water could carry disease and was not considered fit to drink. Instead, beer was the staple drink for the majority of people at all levels of society and it was common for country homes to house their own brewery. Beer was also sold at tap houses and taverns, which did a rollicking trade during the 12 days of Christmas.

Banqueting tables at grand homes were decked with spectacular fare for the Christmas feast, affording the nobility an ideal opportunity to flaunt their wealth and creativity. Roasted swans and peacocks provided a dramatic centrepiece for affluent tables. These elegant birds were placed at the centre of the table, their feathers still in place despite the birds having been thoroughly cooked. The trick was to skin them for the roasting process before slipping them back in their skins. Wealthy households also liked to serve wild boar, the animal's head providing yet another spectacular table decoration.

Elizabethan Christmas FeastAlong with the discovery of the New World came a rush of unusual fruits and vegetables. Aristocratic tables during an Elizabethan Christmas would have been laden with exotic delicacies, such as tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers and pineapples. Expensive foods such as citrus fruit, quinces, melons and apricots would also have been imported from Southern Europe for the occasion.

While the lords and ladies enjoyed the choice cuts, the servants baked the 'humbles' into a pie. Humble pie was made from deer's kidneys, intestines, brains, heart, or liver. To make the pie the humbles were boiled in a stew along with suet, apples and currants and seasoned with salt, sugar and spices.

At an aristocratic Christmas meal, the piece de résistance would have been a spectacular 'banquet course'. Featuring an endless array of delicious and colourful sweetmeats, this course was created more as a feast for the eyes than for the taste buds. Sugar was the main ingredient of most of the dishes. Increased imports of sugar from the West and East Indies, as well as just Morocco and Barbary, ensured the English aristocracy soon developed a sweet tooth. The Elizabethans discovered a whole host of ways in which they could use sugar, not just in creating desserts and confectionary, but also for seasoning vegetables and even concocting medicinal remedies. The downside of eating so much sugar was obviously that it made your teeth rot: it's said that Queen Elizabeth's teeth went completely black because of her vast appetite for sweets.

The banquet course provided yet another way for the host to display his wealth and status, as well as his understanding of the latest fashions. These beautiful, delicate creations were often produced by the lady of the house, allowing her to dazzle the guests with her culinary and artistic skills.

The showstopper was marchpane, or marzipan, made from almond paste and sugar. It was sometimes moulded into three-dimensional shapes and iced to resemble fruits and even slices of baconÐcalled 'collops of bacon'. Large disc-shaped marchpanes were at times gilded with an edible gold leaf. Other favourites included ginger bread, quince marmalade, candied or gilded fruits and sugar-plate. The latter was a blend of egg, sugar and gelatine that could be moulded into any shape the chef desired. Sugar-plate walnuts and eggs were especially popular. 'Leech' was the name of another highly coveted sweetmeat. Made from milk, sugar and rosewater, it was cut into cubes and often arranged to form a chequerboard.

Although most of the sugar-laden creations were not designed to be eaten, a selection of dessertsÐmainly tarts and custardsÐalso typically accompanied the banqueting course.

Hot drinks were also served alongside the sweetmeats, including mulled wine (hot wine infused with spices and sweetened with sugar) and syllabub (spiced hot milk flavoured with rum or wine). Another traditional festive beverage was lambswool, made by blending hot cider, sherry or ale, spices and apples and heating the liquid until it formed a white 'woolly' head.

The Queen typically spent Christmas in Whitehall, where the festivities were especially extravagant. Hundreds of guests would take part in two week-long courtly celebrations, which included splendid feasts and unrivalled entertainment. For a fun insight into what such an event would have been like, visitors can attend a special 15th century-themed Christmas Banquet, held every evening throughout December at Hatfield house, Elizabeth I's childhood home located in the county of Hertfordshire.

To create your very own Elizabethan banquet course, here's a selection of recipes taken from a book published in 1609 titled Delightes for Ladies.

To make a Marchpane.
Take two pounds of Almonds being blanched and dryed in a sieve over a fire: beat them in a stone mortar; and when they bee small, mix with them two pounds of sugar being finely beaten, adding 2 or 3 spoonfuls of Rose-water, and that will keeps your almonds from oyling. When your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling ping, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers: then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it: then yce it with Rose-water and sugar: then put it into the oven once again, and when you see your yce is rise up, & dry, then take it out of the oven, & garnish it with pretty conceits, as birds and beasts, being cast out of standing moulds. Stick long comfits upright in it: cast biskets and carrowaies on it, and so serve it: gild it before you serve it: you may also print off this Marchpane paste in your molds for banquetting dishes: and of this paste our comfitmakers at this day make their letters, knots, Arms, Escocheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies.

To make Ginger-bread
Take three stale Manchets, and grate them: dry them, and sift them thorow a fine sieve: then adde unto them one ounce of Ginger being beaten, and as much Cinamon, one ounce of Liquorice and Anniseeds beeing beaten together, and searced, halfe a pound of sugar; then boil all these together in a posnet, with a quart of claret wine, till they come to a stiff paste with often stirring of it; and when it is stiffe, mould it on a table, and so drive it thin, and put it in your moulds: dust your moulds with Cinamon, Ginger, and Liquorice, being mixed together in fine powder. This is your Ginger-bread used at the Court, and in all Gentlemens houses at festival times. It is otherwise called dry Leach.

To make Leach of Almonds.
Take halfe a pound of sweet Almonds, and beat them in a mortar; then strain them with a pint of sweet milke from the cow; then put to it one graine of musk, 2 spoonfuls of Rose-water, two ounces of fine sugar, the weight of 3 whole shillings of Isinglass that is very white, and so boyle them; and let all run thorow a strainer: then may you slice the same, and so serve it.

For more information:

Hatfield House

A Tudor Christmas

A freelance writer based in the Canary Islands, Marta Patiño is the former editor of Living Tenerife. She now contributes articles to a number of publications on travel and history.
Article © 2005 Marta Patiño
Top photo courtesy of BritainOnView.com; lower photo courtesy of the Geffrye Museum.


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