Tudor Cookery at Hampton Court - and Other Treats

Countess Alys Katharine recently returned to Hampton Court to study the cooking of Tudor England. Her report follows.

Tudor Cookery at Hampton Court – and Other Treats Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

This year I visited the kitchens over the Easter weekend for four days, spending about six hours each day sitting on an extremely cold brick ledge in the unheated main kitchen. The weather was cold (usually in the 30s or very low 40s), rainy, gusty winds and even snowy. It was so cold that we could see our breath as we chatted! We visitors shivered but the cooks swore they were warm in their hand-made, wool, Tudor clothing.

The cooks at Hampton Court are currently working with recipes from the fifteenth century and early sixteenth century as they prepare foods in the Tudor kitchens. Meats roast in the huge fireplace; sauces bubble on the range of charcoal “stoves”; two skilled artists prepare wax, sugar and marzipan subtleties for special meals.

The cooks work the first full weekend of every month, Bank Holiday weekends, Easter weekend, Christmas weekend and the weekends of school holidays. You can see specific dates by going to http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/ . (Click on “What’s On” and look for the cookery link.)

Because it was Easter weekend, the first two days of cookery were Lenten meals – no meat, no eggs, no milk, no butter. The cooks prepare some six to eight dishes a day which then serve as their supper around 4 p.m. (Leftover foods are served the following morning as their 10:00 a.m. “dinner”.)

Good Friday’s dishes included a boiled trout; roast turbot; salmon and crab “patties”; an eel boiled, then grilled and served with leeks; a sweet apple dish; a cold almond dish, and a dish of sliced onions boiled in ale, fried and served with toast points. After much discussion of how to put a flat turbot on a spit without its falling off, the turbot was secured and slowly turned in front of the roasting fire, cooking in about fifteen minutes. There is a video of the turbot turning on the spit at the blog site of one of the cooks: http://tudorcook.blogspot.com. The eel, I found out the next day, was a disaster. It tasted horrible and no one ate it after the first bite.

Saturday was another fish day. The most frequently-used ingredient seemed to be figs, showing up in three dishes. This day’s fascinating cooking was watching Robin hand-raise a tart case as well as making diamond-shaped pastry for the dish called “bryndons”. A “before” and “after frying” photo is on a web page of photos that I took while at Hampton Court [see "original article" link]. Some of the photos are from last year’s visit to Hampton Court when they also did Tudor cookery.

Easter Sunday brought smiles to the cooks since they could now indulge in meat. And, indulge they did! Both a roast of beef and a leg of venison went onto the spit. Three more meat dishes – ffylets en galentyne, froysse out of lentyn and buknade – went to the supper table as well as a mashed pea dish; a sweet, ground almond dish; pears in a wine syrup and a custard pie with eggs, cream, parsley, marrow, dates and prunes.

Easter Monday (which is a Bank Holiday in England), saw another leg of venison, another roast of beef, a venison “chawetty” (which is minced venison in something like a pot pie); “rice of genoa”; a cawdel made with almond milk, wine, egg yolks and sugar; a lovely cabbage dish; “creme bastard” made with egg whites, milk, sugar and honey; and finally a “tarte owt of lente” which is like a cheese pie. Again, Robin hand-raised the tart case (video on his technique is on the blogspot). I became so enthused with the tart that I made two versions when I came home and managed to hand-raise the case almost as nicely as he did. (Needs more practice, though!)

The Hampton Court cooks appear to be a staple now at Hampton Court and are part of its education team. Their cookery varies from Tudor (Henry VIII) through Georgian (George III), depending on what historic period the palace is focusing on. It will be Tudor cookery again next year since Hampton Court will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. If you are in the UK, plan to stop here and watch the cooks at play. They are very friendly, extremely knowledgeable, enjoy answering questions, and will even let you turn the spit as the meat roasts!

A particular treat for me was to get a ticket for a “private, guided tour” of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. We went through careful security at the Ambassadors’ Entrance and met our guide in the gorgeous Grand Entrance Hall. The State Rooms almost glow with gold embellishments! While many of the rooms have cream-colored walls, some are in jewel tones of red and green with coordinated furniture and art objects.

One difference between our tour and the ones for the public in August when the Queen is away is that there were no ropes to keep us from examining details in paintings or carvings on fireplaces and furniture. However, it was strictly “hands off” everything. Our guide was accompanied by two staff members, one who preceded us and opened doors and one who followed our group and closed doors. (After our guide pointed out a hidden door in a wall which led to the private quarters, one of the staff members called us back to see that the door was slightly ajar… Anyone back there??)

We walked on the same carpets as the guests when being welcomed by the Royal Family. Apparently these carpets are carefully rolled up and stored when the rooms are open for the general public. A different set of carpets, meant to handle the scuffling of thousands of feet, are laid down for the public viewings. We saw the room where knights are now made, saw the old “royal chair” used years ago and the one the Queen now uses.

Our tour ended back in the Grand Entrance Hall where we were treated to a glass of champagne, given a guide book of the State Rooms, and then escorted out of the front gate of Buckingham Palace! No side doors for us!

The other treat was accidentally stumbling across an exhibit of an ancient royal marble table in Westminster Hall, the largest surviving building of the old Westminster Palace which burned down in 1834. The table dates from around 1260 and consisted of three piers or legs of Purbeck marble with a marble top. One of the original piers was on display with a modern copy showing what it would probably have looked like when new. The modern copy had gold decoration on the front part of the leg or pier. Supposition is that additional piers could be added so that the table stretched from 9 feet to 12 feet long.

The table was used by Edward I through Elizabeth I for feasts and banquets as well as for part of the law courts which were held in Westminster Hall. After Elizabeth, the table seems to have disappeared until parts of it were recently discovered under the flooring and recognized for what it was. It was indescribable to see something that all of those kings and queens had actually touched and used.

A mid-March trip to the UK isn’t the preferred time of year to visit, but the warmth of the people, especially the cooks at Hampton Court, made up for temperatures that barely reached a high of 40 degrees Fahrenheit!