The Elizabethans, like us, had three main meals a day: breakfast, dinner, and supper. Breakfast was
eaten early, usually between 6-7am, dinner at midday, and supper between 5-8pm. The kinds of food eaten depended very much on wealth and
status. Poor people, in general, had humble and unvaried diets, whereas the rich of Elizabethan England ate well. They enjoyed all kinds
of meat, including beef, pork, lamb, mutton, bacon, veal, and deer, and fancy fowl such as peacock, swan, and goose. Their diet also
included freshwater and sea fish, such as salmon, trout, eel, pike, and sturgeon, and shellfish such as crabs, lobsters, oysters, cockels
and mussels. For the poor, bread was the staple food and it would be eaten with butter, cheese, eggs, and pottage (a vegetable soup
thickened with oats). Poor people could not
afford much red meat, like beef or pork, so tended to eat white meat, like chicken, rabbit or hare, and birds they could catch like
blackbirds or pigeons. As Queen Elizabeth made a law in 1563 that compelled everyone to eat fish on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays,
the poor also regularly ate fish. This law was made to support the fishing industry. Disobeying the law could mean up to three months in
The Elizabethans also ate fruit and vegetables. Some of the vegetables available to them were: turnips, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, leeks, spinach, radishes, garlic, and skirret (a popular root vegetable of the time). Some of the fruits eaten were: apples, pears, plums, cherries, lemons, raspberries, blackberries, melons, and strawberries. Expensive fruits, like peaches, oranges and pomegranates, were eaten only by the rich. Fruits were regarded with some suspicion in Tudor times, however, and were rarely eaten raw. They were mostly baked in tarts or pies or boiled to make jams. Indeed, pies were very popular in Tudor times and were eaten by rich and poor alike! The Tudors also did not appreciate the nutritional value of vegetables and rich people, who had a vast amount of choice in food, didn't eat enough of them. It is thus one of history's ironies that the lower classes, who ate a lot of vegetables as they could not afford meat, actually had a healthier diet!
Example of an Elizabethan Pie
Mary Arden's Farm
Nuts were also widely eaten in Tudor times, hazelnuts and walnuts being popular, and pulses such as peas, beans and lentils. Spices and
herbs were used to flavour food and honey was the most common sweetener as sugar was very expensive. Nutmeg was very expensive too.
As water was considered unsafe to drink, the Elizabethans drank ale instead. Even children drank ale as it was not very strong. Strong ale was reserved for times they wanted to make merry! The rich drank ale too, but also wine, which was very expensive. Popular wines were claret, malmsey, and sack (a type of sherry). Milk was sometimes drank, sheep's aswell as cow's, but was mostly used to make butter, cream, and cheese.
16th Century Market
Over the course of the Tudor period, more and more foods were introduced into society as they were discovered in the New World, such as tomatoes (or love apples as they were known) from Mexico; turkey from Mexico and Central America; kidney beans from Peru, and of course the potato famously brought to England by Sir Walter Raleigh in the later years of Elizabeth's reign. However, the Elizabethans did not know quite how to use or cook these foods to their optimum, so they were not as tasty as they could have been and tended to be kept as special delicacies.
As well as a good meal, the Tudors were fond of desserts. They enjoyed pastries, tarts, cakes, cream, custard, and crystallized fruit and syrup. The rich, who could afford to buy sugar, were very fond of sugary desserts, so much so that their teeth turned black! In fact, having black teeth became such a status symbol that people would deliberately blacken their teeth so it looked like they were rich enough to buy sugar! Marzipan, known as marchpane, was also popular. For special feasts, or banquets, the rich would have all kinds of novelties made out of sugar and marzipan, such as animals, birds, fruits and baskets. They would also sometimes have wine glasses, dishes, playing cards, and even trenchers made out of a crisp modelled sugar called sugar-plate.
Preparing a Tudor Meal
Preparing meals was quite time consuming in tudor times as there were no ready meals! Housewives had to make pottage and pies from scratch, and cooking was over an open fire. Broths would be boiled in pans and meats would be roasted on a spit. The meat had to be turned slowly to ensure even roasting and in the large kitchens of aristocratic households it was not uncommon to have a dog to do the task! These turnspit dogs (now extinct) were bred especially for the purpose and would be made to walk for hours inside a wheel (similar to a hamster's wheel only much bigger) that slowly rotated the meat. The dogs were also used to power fruit presses and butter churns. To keep the dogs moving, hot coal would sometimes be put into the wheel, or collars would be put onto the dogs that would choke them unless they kept walking.
Turnspit dog at work
In poor households, girls would help their mothers in the kitchen, learning the life skills they would later need as wives and mothers.
Bread was baked in an oven, generally made from stone or brick, but only the wealthy had their own oven. The poor had to share a communal oven as their houses were made of wood and were too small for one. The communal ovens would be large, perhaps big enough to bake up to twenty loaves at a time. Women would take their loaves to the communal oven, leave it there to be baked, and then collect it later. They would do the same with pies, tarts or cakes. Baked goods could also be bought, however, as there were professional bakers who would make and bake bread and pastries.
The kitchens of the wealthy were hubs of activity and those of the royal court were extremely busy. Food for hundreds of people had to be prepared in them every day! This required a lot of servants and the royal kitchens had several master cooks, each with their own staff! The kitchens of Hampton Court Palace still exist today and are open to the public.