Written by my special guest, best selling author and historian Alison Weir:
My interest in Tudor England stretches back over five decades and more than twenty books, and I know there are many others with a passion for the period. So I thought it would be fun to give some hints and ideas for hosting the perfect Tudor dinner party.
I did just that, some years ago, one Christmas Eve, and my family agreed that it was a fascinating and enjoyable evening. Before starting any preparations, I did some research, and the books that I found most helpful were these: All the King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears (London, 1999); Food and Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim (Stroud, 1997); The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams (The National Trust, 1993) and, for the recipes I used, The Tudor Kitchens Cookery Book, Hampton Court Palace by Roz Denny (undated).
The first thing to be considered is the setting. We don’t all live at Hampton Court – worse luck – and most of us don’t have a great hall, but many have dining rooms, or dining parlours, as they would have been known, and you can add atmosphere by the setting of the table and using candles for lighting. Spread a white linen or damask cloth on the table. You may like to strew fresh herbs or petals along the table, or in the centre. Place pewter or silver bowls of salt at intervals.
Each place setting should have the following, although you may wish to adapt it to suit the preferences of modern diners: a pewter or silver dinner plate, with a knife and spoon next to it on the right – add a fork if you must, but their use was a luxury in Tudor times (when people speared food with a knife and ate it with the fingers of the other hand, using the spoon for runny dishes) – and a white napkin to the left, folded around two white bread rolls – ‘manchet’, or white, bread, was considered to be the best, and was therefore served to the upper classes. If you bake the rolls yourself, make a cross in the middle. On the right of each dinner plate place a goblet for wine. Wine is served from flagons or ewers placed in the centre of the table, each covered with a cloth.
Food was served in two or three courses, and there were several dishes at each, like a Chinese or Tapas meal today. Each dish would have been served as a ‘mess’ – with portions sufficient for four brought in serving dishes to the table. Sauces were often served in separate dishes. Sweet and savoury courses were served at the same time, but you may – as I did – prefer to keep to a more modern meal structure, with a starter, main course and pudding. Hard cheeses and wine can be served with sweet dishes.
If you have a sideboard or console table, convert it into a Tudor buffet by draping it with silk or damask (scarves or runners will work for this) and arranging on it any silver you have, as well as extra wine cups or glasses – we’ll assume that this is a wealthy Tudor household and that you can afford glass!
In Tudor times hosts and guests were seated in strict order of rank, but in this more egalitarian age it’s best to seat guests wherever you or they wish. Napkins were worn, not in the lap, but across the left shoulder or arm.
Food was served with great ceremony, being carried to the table in procession. You might like to record a trumpet fanfare to signal the arrival of each course. As the food is brought in, you announce, ‘By your leave, masters!’ and everyone stands, sitting down when the dishes are placed on the table.
Grace is then said, in Latin. I used the Christchurch Grace, from Oxford:
Nos, miseri homines et egeni, pro cibis, quos nobis ad corporis subsidium benigne es largitus, tibi, Deus Omnipotens, Pater Cælestis, gratias reverenter agimus; simul obsecrantes, ut iis sobrie, modeste atque grate utamur, per Jesum Christum Dominum Nostrum, Amen.
This translates as: We unhappy and unworthy people do give Thee most reverent thanks, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for the victuals which Thou hast bestowed on us for the sustenance of the body, at the same time beseeching Thee that we may use them soberly, modestly and gratefully. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
If a joint of meat is served, the host carves – it was the mark of a gentleman to know how to do so. Gentlemen guests should help their ladies to the choicest portions of food before serving themselves.
For drinks, serve the kind of wines that were enjoyed – and drunk young – in Tudor England: sweet wines from Anjou (Henry VIII’s favourite) or red and white wines from Bordeaux or the Rhine. Ale and beer can also be served. Water was not drunk at table.
After each course of a Tudor feast a subtlety – a sculpted confection of sugar – was carried in impress the guests, but at a dinner party it is probably better to serve it with the dessert course. Unless you are skilled at sugar sculpture, or know where to get one made, it may be better to go for an elaborate cake.
During the meal, you might like to have a CD of Tudor music playing quietly in the background, as if a consort of musicians was present.
For my Christmas Eve meal, I served dishes that involved a fair amount of preparation. To start there was a whole fresh salmon, a fish that was popular in Tudor times. Having laid it on greased foil on a baking tray, I stuffed it with some butter mixed with ground mace and salt, and spread the rest over the outer skin, sprinkled it with whole cloves and covered it with more foil. I baked the fish until the flesh was pale pink, placed it on a large platter, and garnished it with whole stewed prunes, currants, lemon wedges and dill.
In Tudor kitchens they would have roasted a pig whole, but for the main course I bought a leg of pork from my local butcher – boned shoulder will do as well – and trimmed away any fat or gristle. I then stuffed it with a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped rosemary, raisins, two egg yolks, 100ml of cream, nutmeg, ground mace and seasoning, and trussed up the joint with string. While it was roasting I mixed more breadcrumbs with 100ml of cream, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, saffron and seasoning. Half an hour before the joint was finished, I removed it from the oven and coated it with this mixture, then returned it until it was done. I left it to stand before carving, to allow it to set, and reserved the strained juices for the sauce.
I made up the meat juices to the amount needed with stock and water, then added a large grated apple, cider vinegar, parsley, sage, sugar, salt and pepper. I brought it to be boil, then simmered until the apple was soft and stirred in a lump of butter for richness.
The meat was carved at table and the sauce was served separately. I also offered ‘a dish of peas’ – which the Tudors would have eaten as a dish in itself, not a vegetable on the side – and a dish of carrots. There were – of course – no potatoes, which prompted a protest from my husband! Instead, I served thick slices of brown bread.
I made two sweet dishes: wardens, or pears, in red wine, which were absolutely delicious, and marchpane.
The day before the dinner I peeled the pears, left on the stalks, and boiled the fruit for 15 minutes in heated red wine in which sugar had been dissolved. I then removed the fruit and placed it in preserving jars. I added to the wine some ‘sack’ (sherry), more sugar, honey, cinnamon and ginger, then boiled it, simmered it for 5 minutes, then poured it over the pears, sealing the jars shut. The next day I poured off the wine syrup into a jug, placed the pears – now ruby red – in a serving dish, then poured the syrup over them. I added bayleaves as garnish and served the pears with thick whipped cream.
You can make marchpane – a popular Tudor treat – by following any recipe for shortbread and adding rosewater. Use cutters to make shapes, and glaze with icing and edible gold food colouring. My marchpane disappeared very quickly!
Although the meal had been labour-intensive – and brought home to me how hard people had had to work to prepare food from scratch in the sixteenth century – everyone said it was wonderful, with excellent flavours and aromas. Certainly it gave us a taste of Tudor England!
There was no tea or coffee in Tudor times, so after the meal I suggest you serve guests warmed spiced wine – ‘hippocras’ – and wafers or candied and dried fruits.
What should you wear for your Tudor dinner party? You could go the whole hog and hire a costume – you could even come in character, and suggest that your guests do so, and remain in role for the evening. Or you could just wear a plain velvet evening dress with some Tudor-style jewellery.
If you are planning a Tudor dinner party, I do urge you to get the books I recommended above, as they are packed with recipes and information on table etiquette. Above all, have fun. There will be so many talking points that all the preparation will have been worthwhile.
‘O Lord, which giv’st thy creatures for our food,
Herbs, beasts, birds, fish, and other gifts of thine, ‘O Lord, which giv’st thy creatures for our food,
Bless thee thy gifts, that they may do us good,
And we may live, to praise thy name divine.
And when the time is come this life to end:
Vouchsafe our souls to heaven may ascend.
(An Elizabethan Grace)
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Originally published on ExpatsPoat.com, 2015 for the series Fear and Loathing in Tudor England
All images are Public Domain