Eating in Elizabethan England
Did you know there are over 2000 references to food in the works of William Shakespeare? Here are some fascinating facts about eating in those days ...
• The gentry ate three good meals a day while the lower classes had two
• The rich ate vast amounts of meat and considered eating vegetables to be for the lower class, while the poor consumed lots of vegetables, fruits and potages (soups)
• Bread was the major part of the diet and everyone ate cheese, although generally dairy products were also considered 'lower class'.
• Ale was drunk by everyone in preference to the polluted water but it was brewed without hops and not very alcoholic.
• The lower classes were not allowed to hunt rabbit or deer, but they could hunt wild pig and take fish from the rivers.
• By law fish had to be consumed three times a week, partly to keep the fishing fleet in good repair as they were used to augment the navy.
• Sugar was becoming increasingly popular with the gentry with the resultant increase in tooth decay. Blackened teeth, however, were considered a status symbol displaying the ability to afford sugary things!
The Food of Love: A Taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasons
Shakespearian scholar, Alycia Smith-Howard writes:
While conducting research for our Shakespeare cookbook, Chef Alan Deegan and I pored over age-old recipe books, and trawled through dusty archives to uncover the food that Shakespeare would have known and enjoyed. It was humbling to encounter the scrawled notes of countless, nameless "Greasy Joans" to whom we owe debt of thanks for preserving and passing on our culinary heritage.It is also what makes projects such as "The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies" so important. It is essentially a chronicle of the commonplace concerns and knowledge of common folk.
Shakespeare's autumnal comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is unique among his works as the one play that is focused exclusively on the everyday lives of ordinary, middle class, Elizabethan folk. The play's two principal characters are the quick-witted Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Like Greasy Joan's simmering pot, the formidable Mistress Page reminds us of wonderfully filling foods that comfort us against a brisk chill:
Come, we have a hot venison pasty to dinner! (I.i.178).
Shakespeare's most explicit (and delightful) "food as food" reference appears in The Winter's Tale, where we are treated to an actual grocery shopping list!
Let me see; what am
I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound
of sugar, five pound of currants, rice,—what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father
hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?—none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I
may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of
raisins o' the sun.
Perdita's extraordinary sheep-shearing feast is only outdone by the celestial celebration in Shakespeare's last, and some would argue, his greatest work, The Tempest, where he depicts a feast hosted by the great goddess Ceres herself (Most bounteous lady of wheat, rye, barley, oats and peas! IV.i.1771). The word 'feast' itself, in fact, appears over 100 times throughout Shakespeare's plays. And, for me, Shakespeare has always been a feast for the senses.
Samuel Johnson called Shakespeare's works "a Map of Life." Without a doubt, food is an essential part of the journey, and there are over 2,000 culinary references in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Working alongside Chef Deegan to produce The Food of Love: The Taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasons afforded me the enviable opportunity to explore these references and the works of Shakespeare from a fresh and delectable perspective. And, what a delicious treat it has been!
'The Food of Love: A taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasons' is a beautifully presented and fascinating cook book cum food history book. An inspired and thoughtful gift for lovers of food, cooking, history, literature.... and leisure time!