Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, History, Museum

A Taste of the Tudor Kitchen

Tudor Kitchen display, Tudor House and Gardens, Southampton, Hampshire

I recently had the good fortune to attend an absolutely brilliant workshop on life in the Tudor kitchen by food historian and interpreter Emma Shelley.   The workshop is part of a vibrant programme of educational events and activities organised by Southampton City Council’s Arts and Heritage Department to compliment the recent opening of the Tudor House and Gardens, Southampton.   Emma’s knowledge and enthusiasm for Tudor cooking is inspiring.  Her clear explanations and interactive ‘hands-on’ approach kept us all engaged for a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours.  The interior of Westgate Hall, a 15th Century timber-framed building, also added an air of authenticity, the perfect backdrop to learn some Tudor cooking skills.  I love cooking.   I have cooked Regency and Victorian food before, but never tried Tudor cooking, I had mistakenly thought that the ingredients would be too difficult to source and the recipes tricky to follow.   Emma has proved me quite wrong. 

Emma prepares for our butter-making task, Tudor style.

We helped make butter, ate dried pears, tried traditional bread, cakes (well biscuits actually, but the Tudors called them cakes), quince sweetmeats and a lovely sweet/savoury dessert that reminded me of traditional thick-set fromage frais.  

The end result of the group butter-making task
Emma prepares a delicious Tudor dessert for us to try.

All of the food displayed was typical of fare made by a Yeoman farmer’s wife.   Emma explained that the wife would have had dairy and storage rooms, no glass in the windows and for light used beeswax candles, rancid beef fat tallows and rushlights.  There were no forks in Tudor times, just knives.  The Tudor diet was varied and made-up of whatever was in season.  Their average calorie intake often topped 5-6,000 a day.  Many of the ingredients used are still familiar to us: wheat, barley, peason (peas), garlic, quinces, plums, cherries, apples, pears, mutton, cheese, pork and fish.  Honey was not as readily available due to a law that only allowed clergy and landowners to have a bee-keeping licence. Pastry was robust and used as a container for the filling as opposed to an edible casing

Fasting, usually on Wednesdays, Fridays and sometimes Saturdays, was practised throughout the Tudor and Elizabethan period. Fasting was also observed during Lent and Advent.   On fasting days no meat or white meat could be consumed, only fresh or preserved fish, dairy, dried fruits and vegetables.  Incidentally, root vegetables were eaten but viewed with suspicion by the God-fearing Tudor who thought their earthy connections were too close for comfort to hell and the devil.  Potatoes were never eaten at all in Tudor times, they had been brought over to the UK but were ignored as they are related to the nightshade family.  The use of white flour was seen as a symbol of high status, it was a finer texture than brown flour as a result of the bran particles having been removed.  Bread made with white flour was called manchet.  Bread was made twice a week.  I can’t wait to have another go at Tudor cooking.  Emma recommended Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking by Elinor Fettiplace and Hilary Spurling, published in 1987 by Penguin.  It is unfortunately out-of-print but I am sure a copy can be found in a good secondhand bookstore or on-line repository.   Happy Tudor cooking!

To contact Emma Shelley, please click here.

Tudor chafing dish from Saintonge in South-West France on display at Tudor House & Gardens, Southampton. Chafing dishes were used to keep food warm on the table, heating plates of food resting on top.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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