Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

From the Tudor Kitchens of England to the New World

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During these cold and fraught winter days, I’ve been immersing myself in the world of the Tudors, rulers of England from 1485 to 1603. It’s a very different world from the one I’m currently living in. But it’s not without its own moments of violence, political wangling, and greed. That’s the intriguing thing about history. If you pay attention to it, and think about it, its lessons become clear.

People love, bear children, move from place to place, plant gardens, raise crops, or write books.

And they cook. And they eat. Every day they eat.

There’s something soothing about knowing that. That the cycle of life always includes food, no matter how mean or sparse be the larder.

Today I want to share a few  thoughts – brief as they may be – on one reality of the early English culinary presence in the New World. More to the point, I  need to emphasize the probable impact of the Tudor dynasty. Those royals and their courts influenced the cooking of the first English people in America in innumerable ways. They altered ideas about that cooking, cemented the beliefs that sailed with those first settlers on the ships rickety that tossed about for months on the Atlantic waves.

Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace (Credit: Serhii Taran – Dreamstime.com)

Although the Spanish (Santa Elena) and the French (Fort Caroline) planted settlements up and down the Atlantic coast of America before the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, their culinary influence in the New World depended more upon the exposure of the English to these other culinary cultures in English kitchens. Take, for example, the French influence on the foods served in Tudor kitchens, foods that were sought after as courtiers became exposed to myriad dishes at court. Henry VII and Henry VIII both enjoyed the culinary skills of a certain Pierrot (likely Perot le Doulce*), mentioned first in 1505. Pierrot’s biography, slim as it is, points to the fact that he was of French origin and highly regarded as a cook of French food. And thus began the trend, although Elizabeth I seems to have preferred English cooks, a possible reflection of her strong dislike of Papists.

It’s heartening these days that more and more you see writings on the history of food, cooking, and eating appearing wherever you fasten your eyes. Some works turn out to be meatier than others, thick with plenty to chew on.

And thus I read Peter Brears’s radiant Cooking and Dining in Tudor and Early Stuart England (Prospect Books, 2015), avid for the inside scoop, the gossip if you will, the telling details that always make the past come alive. One key point that Brears makes is that with the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541), the Church’s lands fell into the hands of  the wealthy class, who then spared no expense when it came to food and entertainment. With some dishes from Italy, Germany, Holland, and Turkey making inroads on English medieval cookery, Brears postulates that by around 1600, medieval cooking ceased to exist in “polite households.” (p. 13)

All of this, of course, worked subtly behind the scenes to change mindsets.  What I mean by that statement is this: The settlers who arrived on the shores of Cape Henry in 1607 came from a higher social class than did those of Plymouth in 1620.  For the people who populated the early Virginia colony, the Tudor years were relatively fresh. You may think that thirteen years difference – the span of time elapsed between the Virginia and Massachusetts settlements –  insignificant, but it’s an intriguing difference nonetheless. Memories of food stay with you, as we all know. And, as for the Plymouth colonists, seventeen years and social class separated them from the reign of Elizabeth I.

That makes me wonder about a lot of things, so while this blog post only raises the questions, and proves nothing definitive, these thoughts will likely occupy me for a while. I do invite readers far more erudite than I to please chime in and share their thoughts on the matter.

For a peek at the earlier style of cooking of the time, here are two recipes:

How to make Fartes of Portingale Lamb Meatballs) – From The Good Huswife’s Handmaide in the Kitchin (1588 and 1594) Take a peece of a leg of mutton. Mince it smal and season it with cloves, mace, pepper, and salt, and Dates minced with currants: then roll it into round rolles, and so into little balles, and so boyle them in a little beef broth and so serve them foorth.

To fry whitings (Fried whitefish in apple or onion sauce) – From The Booke of Goode Cookry Very Necessary for all Such as Delight Therein (1584 and 1591 editions)

‘To fry Whitings. First flay them and wash them clean and scale them, that doon, lap them in floure and fry them in Butter and oyle.  Then to serve them, mince apples or onions and fry them, then put them into a vessel with white wine, vergious, salt, pepper, cloves & mace, and boile them togither on the Coles, and serve it upon the Whitings.’

16th century hearth (Credit: Martin Brayley | Dreamstime.com)

*53. Perot le Doulce, cook pro ore, both to Henry VII. and Henry VIII. Lease of the tenement in which he now dwells, lying among other the King’s tenements at Charyng crosse, Midd., viz., between the hospital of St. Mary Rouncedevall on the north, and the King’s other tenements there on the south, the highway from London to Westminster on the west, and the churchyard of the said hospital on the east. Westm. 14 July. Pat. 30 Hen. VIII., p. 2, m. 44.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

Featured image also copyright Serhii Taran – Dreamstime.com.

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