Shakespeare's forgotten foods

Date:24-04-2014 07:58:06 read:0

Shakespeare's forgotten foods

To mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Leah Hyslop takes a look at the Tudor foods that didn’t survive as well as the Bard’s plays

Fond of a drink: Shakespeare's Falstaff loved his sack Photo: Rex Features

We are lucky enough in Britain to have a rich food heritage that stretches back hundreds and hundreds of years. Many of the dishes Shakespeare and his actors loved are still foods we enjoy today; on a Sunday, many of us tuck into “great meals of beef” just like the doughty soldiers in Henry V, while home-grown, in-season strawberries are as much a delight to us as they were to the Bard's Richard III, who asks the Bishop of Ely to send for some from his garden.

But a society's food, just like its language, changes over time; adapting to new (often foreign) influences, and discarding what has become unfashionable or obsolete. So it is that many of the foodstuffs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays as ordinary and commonplace send us straight to the footnotes.

One of the more appetising “lost” Shakespearean dishes is the warden pie, mentioned by the clown in The Winter’s Tale as he reels off his shopping list for the sheep-shearing feast: "I must have saffron to colour the warden pies…” Wardens were a hard type of pear that had to be cooked before eating, and are first thought to have been first cultivated by monks at the Cistercian abbey near the village of Old Warden in Bedfordshire around the 13th century. Because the pears lasted a long time, they were a popular storecupboard staple, particularly in winter months, and were even part of the army's provisions during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The most popular way to serve them was in spiced pies, flavoured with the kind of ingredients the clown hopes to buy: mace, ginger, nutmeg. Sadly, like so many of our traditional fruits, the pear is now hard to find - though a college in Bedfordshire is, rather wonderfully, seeking to preserve it for future generations.

In Romeo and Juliet, one of the servants asks his friends to “save me a piece of marchpane” from the ball. As its name suggests, ”marchpane" was a forerunner of marzipan, made from ground almonds, sugar and rosewater, but Tudor cooks used it for far more than covering cakes with. As well being turned into sweets, the substance was transformed into amazingly ambitious creations used as centrepieces for banquets, decorated with gold leaf or carefully-mouded sculptures. In 1561-2, Queen Elizabeth received a whole host of marchpane gifts worthy of the Great British Bake Off showstopper challenge, including an edible version of the old St Paul’s Church and another “made like a tower, with men and sundry artillery in it”.

The drinks cabinet, too, was a different world in Shakespeare’s time. Most people's go-to refreshment was ale, as the water was so polluted – Shakespeare's own father was an ale taster in Stratford – while wine was more expensive. One of the most popular wines was sack, a sweet fortified wine imported from Spain, and which that hardy drinker Falstaff has a soft spot for. He claims that his favourite, "sherris sack", (not too dissimilar, of course, from our modern sherry) has the ability to take away “foolish and dull and curdy vapours” from the brain. But sack's supposed intellectual benefits don't stop him also enjoying tankards of "metheglin", a spiced mead associated with Wales.

Another favourite tipple was posset, described by one writer in the 17th century as “hot milk poured on ale or sack, having sugar, grated biskit, [and] eggs, with other ingredients boiled in it, which goes all to a curd”. Though the sound of that won't get many 21st century tastebuds tingling, it was clearly considered pretty irresistible back then - Lady Macbeth relies on the allure of a posset to drug the guards outside Duncan's quarters. It seems we Brits have always had a bit of a sweet tooth.

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