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Elizabethan England

Elizabethan Food and Drink

by Rosie Crouch, Mandy Entringer,
Eric Frank, and Jody Post

Food and drink were a major part of life in Elizabethan times. People had three main meals per day. Breakfast was the first and most important meal of their day. The people of this time ate a variety of different foods and had many creative ways of preparing them. The people also had distinct table manners.

In eating breakfast, many people wanted a fine diet. Instead of eating normal bread, many ate manchets. Manchet was a round loaf which weighed about six pounds after it was cooked. It was browner than normal bread. When bread was eaten in the morning, butter was used to flavor it so that the bread was not so boring. Children often ate butter in Lent. However, adults who kept the fast strictly avoided butter during this time. Eggs were also eaten at breakfast. They were eaten "sunny side up" or beaten to make scrambled eggs. They were also mixed with bread crumbs to fry things such as fish. Another popular food for breakfast was pancakes, which were made from flour and egg batter. They were a treat for Sunday mornings. Elizabethans usually put jams such as grape, strawberry, and sometimes powdered sugar on them for a sweeter taste. Breakfast, the hardiest of all their meals, gave a healthy start to their day.

In earlier times, water was the main beverage. However, as farmers became more important, other drinks came along also. Milk was known for building healthy bones and giving a refreshing taste after a dessert. Farmers got milk from cows and she-goats. Other sources of liquid were a part of stews and potages. Other beverages were created from a wine base.

A famous hot wine recipe from this time is as follows:

1/2 put (275 ml) water
11/2 (850 ml) white wine
8 oz (225 g) ground almonds
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) ground ginger
1 tsp (5 ml) clear honey or white sugar
A good pinch of salt
A good pinch of Powdered Saffron or a few drops of yellow food coloring.

Bring the water and wine to a boil in a sauce pan. Put in the almonds and add the ginger, honey, or sugar and salt. Stir in the saffron or food coloring, and leave off the heat to stand for 15-30 minutes. Bring back to a boil, and serve very hot, in small heat proof bowls.

Another popular wine base drink was a caudle, a hot drink thickened with eggs and drunk at breakfast or at bedtime.

There were many differences between the meals of the higher and lower classes. Dinner was the most important meal for any class and came usually from 10:00 a.m. till noon. Ploughmen were well-scrubbed and usually ate at bare tables. Country table manners were not the daintiest. In a well-to-do household, however, a greater ceremony was observed. There was a cloth placed upon the table. Next, a trencher, a napkin, and a spoon were set at every place. Elizabethans loved fine linens.

An Elizabethan dinner usually consisted of several kinds of fish, half a dozen different kinds of game, venison, various salads, vegetables, sweet meats, and fruits. Rich men usually served food that suited them. Most had noted French chefs to prepare their meals. Many had a very moderate diet. Guests at a pleasant dinner table were offered oysters with brown bread, salt, pepper, and vinegar.

A pepper box and a silver chafing dish were among the table accessories. The wine was kept cool and fresh in a copper tub full of water. Each time a guest handed back an empty glass or goblet it was rinsed in a wooden tub before being refilled.

Guests were able to choose between roast beef, powder (salted) beef, veal and a leg of mutton with a "galandine sauce." There was often a turkey, boiled capon, a hen boiled with leeks, partridge, pheasants, larks, quails, snipes, and woodcock, in addition to the other foods. Salmon, sole, turbot, and whiting, with lobster, crayfish, and shrimps, were set before dinner guests. Young rabbits, leverets, and marrow on toast tempted those who did not care for the gross meats. Artichokes, turnips, green peas, cucumbers and olives were provided as vegetables. Attractive salads, including one of violet buds, were also served as vegetables. Finally, the host or hostess would usually offer guests quince pie, tart of almonds and various fruit tarts. They would also be offered several kinds of cheese and desserts, including strawberries and cream.

The midday meal in a good citizen's home consisted of certain coarser foods like sausage, cabbage (usually badly cooked) and porridge for the children. It was customary to spend two to three hours over this chief meal of the day. The nobility, gentleman, and merchant men commonly sat at the board till 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. Country fare was given with fat capon or plenty of beef and mutton. They also recieved a cup of wine or a beer. They were also given a napkin to wipe their lips. In the holiday season, rich and poor alike indulged in leisure time and feasting.

People in the middle and lower classes ate lots of potages and stews. They also had fish and vegetables at dinner. Behind the first cooked potages was the tradition of food processing. This consisted of soaking roots, leaves, seeds, nuts, and berries in cold water. They were soaked several hours in order to soften them, which made them easier to digest.

Next, the pot boiler method was used for cooking meat in water to make it more tender. Potage was made primarily from cereals and large weed seeds, which were roughly ground into bits and pieces.

Altogether there were many things to eat during this period. Overall the diet was much healthier than what many people eat now. During the holiday seasons everyone, including farmers and laborers, celebrated in holiday feasts.

The two main parts of a normal diet in the Elizabethan England time were bread and meat. Bread was the most important component of their diets. The wealthy people ate manchet, a loaf made of wheat flour. In the country districts, a lot of rye and barley bread were eaten.

Another important component of an average diet was meat. England had been noted for its meats and means of preparing them. The English had a way of making tainted meats edible. First, a person would remove the bones from the meat. Then, they would wrap it in an old, coarse cloth. After it was wrapped, they would bury it at least three feet underground. It was left underground from twelve to twenty hours. When the meat was dug up, they found it sweet enough to eat. They also used a lot of spices to add flavor to the unrefrigerated meat. Soaking the meat in vinegar and adding sauces also flavored the meat.

One particular meat dish was Polonian Sawsedge, usually eaten from November to February, when fresh meat was scarce. The dish was made from the fore part of a one or two year old tame boar. It was a very heavily spiced dish. The recipe is as follows:

Platt's Recipe for Polonian Sawsedge

"Take the fillers of a hog; chop them very small with a handful of red sage: season it hot with ginger and pepper, and then put it in a great sheep's gut; then let it lie three nights in brine; then boil it and hang it up in a chimney where fire is usually kept; and these sawsedges will last a whole yeere. They are good for sallades or to garnish boiled meats, or to make one rellish a cup of wine."

In Elizabethan times, the word "herb" stood for all things that were green. This included things from grasses to trees. One popular vegetable of the time was turnips, which were usually either boiled or roasted. The poor, however, ate them raw. Artichokes were eaten raw with added salt and pepper. Aaparagus, which was known as "sperage" during this time, was boiled and eaten with salt, oil, and vinegar. The sweet potato, a popular dish, was roasted in ashes, sopped in wine, or topped with oil and vinegar. Sometimes, sweet potatoes were even boiled with prunes for flavor. Regular potatoes were also either boiled and roasted.

The cooking techniques related to the kitchens of the landowners. There was invariably some kind of fresh meat to replace the preserved foods on which lesser households depended in winter and spring. Fresh or salted ingredients were used according to availability. Cooks used a great deal more than a pinch of pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron due to the starchy ingredients and creamy sauces. Many techniques and materials solved contemporary food preporation problems.

Texture was important because of the limited number of eating tools used. Most people carried a general-purpose dagger-shaped knife and spoons. The dinner fork was an oddity until the 18th century. People tried inventing different eating tools but failed. A few eccentrics used a fork for dining, but most continued to eat with their fingers. Supposedly, it was Henry VIII who introduced the fork into England. In some places, such as the Navy, knives and forks were regarded as being prejudicial to discipline and manliness.

The absence of the table fork would have had few repercussions on table manners, had it not been for the way in which the service of food was organized. Very high ranked men had their own dishes, plates, and drinking cups. No napkins were used at this time. Men had to remember to clean their hands before their meal and keep them clean during the meal. Other table manners were not to blow one's nose with the fingers and not scratch at any anatomical parts at the table. Poking at the meat or any dish was considered unpleasant and annoying to others. When dinner guest were finished with the meal, the bones were thrown on the floor, not on the plate. This was a custom in elevated households. Finally, to finish the meal right, a delicate burp was acceptable. Whether one was a member of the high or low class, manners were the same for everyday life.

In conclusion, food and dining were a part of everyday life in Elizabethan time. They had many different dishes and styles of cooking. They also had distinct manners and traditions that went along with their meals.

See also "Banquets and Feasts" and "Food and Drink"

Works Consulted

*Black, Maggie. Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain. New York: English Heritage,1985.

In this series we found a recipe about fine wines made and served at breakfast time. We also found a picture of royalty being served.

Burton, Elizabeth. Pageant of Elizabethan England. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

In this book, we found a lot of information on the different food groups, such as the meats and vegetables. The book gives information on the popular foods of the time and describes techniques used to prepare the foods.

Byrne, M. St. Clare. Elizabethan Life in Town and Country. London: Methun, 1961.

This book is very useful in describing the different foods of the rich and poor. It talks about food for various meals. It talks about the difference in the food between the city and the country.

*Dod, A.H. Elizabethan England. New York: London and Beccles Publishers, 1974.

In this book we found two pictures, one of maids serving the higher class, and the other of the banquets of the Elizabethan times.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1973.

This book gives good information on techniques, such as using spices on the food. It also gives examples of tools used, such as forks. Acceptable table manners of this time period are also described in this book.

Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991.

In this book we found a lot of information on food, including everything from how to cook eggs to how to make special wine drinks. It also contains information on potages and stews made from weeds, berries, and nuts. Many things to eat in this time period were healthier than in this day and age, according to the authors.


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