Dame Alys in England, Part One

Dame Alys Katharine, from the Middle Kingdom, was one of several lucky SCAdians who recently attended "The Extravagances of the Edwardian Table" in England, at the same church used for the main hall scenes in the Harry Potter films. The culinary achievements on display were extraordinary, and Her Excellency was kind enough to share her experiences in this two-part SCAtoday.net feature story and photo album.

While the Edwardian table does not, on the surface, appear to be similar to medieval or Renaissance feasts, one thing in common is extravagance. The medieval lord or monarch attempted to show his guests how important and powerful he was by what was served and how it was presented. And that — plus the chance to live at Christ Church College, Oxford — was one of the factors why I decided to splurge on this rather expensive study weekend.

Christ Church College holds several "special interest weekends" every year. The spring one is a pairing of History and Food & Drink. History this year dealt with the Great War in 1916 which closely followed the Edwardian period of the early 1900s, since Edward VI died in 1910. Speakers are well-known and highly-regarded persons in their field. The speakers on Food included Peter Brears (former director of city museums in York and Leeds as well as a noted interpreter for more than 50 historic British kitchens), Ivan Day (food history scholar, writer, "reconstructionist cook" and host of a British television series on historic foods), Philippa Glanville (silver curator and author), Raymond Notley (consultant and lecturer emeritus of Sotheby's Institute of Art who also teaches at major museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum), Jane Pettigrew (international speaker on tea and tea history), Robin Weir (specialist in ice cream history and author of four books), and Sara Paston William (food writer and historian, consultant to National Trust and author of a plethora of books).

Devra Langsam (of Poison Pen Press) and I attended the weekend along with Susan McClellan Plaisted, a non-SCAdian (http://www.hearttohearthcookery.com/) who is the Director of Foodways at Pennsbury Manor near Philadelphia. (Susan's food interest parallels the later part of SCA time, and she is skilled at open hearth and bake oven cookery as well as sugar subtleties.) We were lodged in student rooms while they were on break from school. Our rooms were on the third floor of Meadows Hall (no elevators). The majority of the rooms shared a shower and toilet which was on a different floor for most participants.

Meals were served in Hall, the great open room that served as a model for Hogwarts dining hall in the Harry Potter films, although Christ Church has only three rows of tables and stained glass windows. Hanging from every inch of wall are portraits of former deans of Christ Church as well as other famous graduates and professors such as Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). A relative of Gervase Markham (The English Huswife, 1615) served as dean, and his portrait hangs at one end of the head table which stands on a raised dais. The seminar's lecturers and other VIPs ate there. The staircase up to Hall was the one used when Harry Potter and the new students entered Hogwarts or came up to the dining hall. It looks exactly the same as in the movies!

The sessions were, for the most part, extremely informative and often challenging. But it was the food and the drink that made a great impression. Christ Church has a well-stocked wine cellar. (Charles Dodgson was the one who came up with the system, which is still used today, of recording what wine was where and belonged to whom.) We had a tour of one of the wine cellars, and the quantities as well as varieties were amazing! The evening meal was always preceded by the notation "Buttery Bar Opens". Participants could order a variety of alcoholic beverages (for a fee) to lubricate the digestive system prior to indulging in the evening's repast. Wine and other alcoholic spirits seem to be an important and integral part of this College!

What was the weekend food like?

Breakfasts, from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. each day, consisted of a number of offerings. You could take what you wanted. On entering Hall, there was a table with orange juice, various flavors of yogurt and cereal. Waiters (both male and female, and all in uniform) brought toast and asked if we wanted a cooked breakfast. Choices included scrambled or fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and/or lamb kidneys. British sausage is not like American sausage. The smooth texture and the flavor was either liked or detested by the Americans I met in England. Bacon is more like what we call Canadian bacon, but it isn't quite that either. Pots of tea and coffee were already on the table along with butter, jam and marmalade.

Stuffed with breakfast, we descended the famed staircase to go to our first session at 9:15. At 10:45 we went over to the Junior Common Room (which had Internet access!) for "coffee". There were at least three types of cookie-type offerings — perhaps meringues, shortbread, spice cake or other variations. Half an hour later we were back for the next session.

Lunch was at 12:45 p.m. and was a "light lunch" each day, consisting of a soup, various cold meats (ham, roast beef, salmon, corned beef), pickles, sliced tomato, a number of different breads and rolls, condiments, several types of salads (potato, greens, macaroni and so on), with fruit, multiple kinds of cheeses and crackers to end the meal. This was served buffet style so you could take what you preferred.

The afternoon session began at 2:00 p.m. Around 3:30 or 3:45 was a break for tea, which was pretty much the same offering as for the morning coffee. Back to the afternoon session which began around 4:00 or 4:15 p.m. We never seemed to actually become hungry!

The fanciest food was each evening. We started on Thursday evening with the open Buttery Bar. (I'm not used to alcoholic beverages, so I had a cola.) Dinner in Hall (not the Hall but simply "Hall") was at 7:00 p.m. and not one minute before. At 7:00 the doors opened, and we were directed to three long polished wood tables (see the Harry Potter movies). These were set with two wine glasses, a water glass, two forks, two knives and two spoons. Unlike Harry and his schoolmates, we had closely-placed chairs rather than benches. There was a head table on a dais at the far end of the room. Diners remained standing while those at head table found their places. Then came three raps on the table and grace was said in Latin by one of the "scholars". (In the US we would say "professors".) Then we could all sit down and tuck into a splendid meal which arrived course by course, wine by wine.

The Thursday menu for those without dietary restrictions was:

  • 1st Course: Morecambe Bay Potted Shrimps with Melba Toast (White wine was served with this. I had half a glass.)
  • 2nd Course: Roast Rib of Oxfordshire Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Gravy, Horseradish Sauce and English Mustard (This was tender, tasty and scrumptious) (Red wine was served with this. I had half a glass.)
  • Château Potatoes
  • Purple Sprouting Broccoli
  • Glazed Carrots

For every evening there were alternatives for those with dietary restrictions — vegetarian, gluten-free, non-dairy, and diabetics, although prior requests for these options had to have been sent.

Thursday evening the dinner was followed by the "Traditional College Dessert". We got up from the tables and moved to the first section of Hall where an equal number of place settings had been set. Lecturers sat at both ends of the table to answer questions and assist with the customs of "dessert". There were four wine decanters on the table (sweet red, sweet white, port and Madeira) which were to be passed clockwise until all the contents were consumed. The "heads of the table" were to ensure that the bottles continued their rounds and didn't become lodged in one place! The non-liquid portion of dessert was a variety of interesting and unusual (to Americans) cheeses, crackers and fruits. Following the wine and cheese, snuff was offered. No one at my end of the table seemed to want any. Therefore, fueled by a total of four half-glasses of wine, port and Madeira, I volunteered to try it. Fortunately I had read a number of historical novels in my youth which explained how to "take snuff". I took the tiniest pinch from the snuff box, placed it on the webbing between my left thumb and forefinger, closed off my right nostril, bent low to the snuff placed on my hand and took a deep sniff. Interesting! It both tasted and smelled at the same time. The mixture was somewhat fruity but hard to describe. My sinus cleared up immediately! After a few moments I produced two (ladylike!) sneezes. This seemed to embolden several others to attempt taking snuff, but most people still declined.

Friday evening, those with no dietary restrictions had:

  • 1st Course: Smoked Chicken Salad with Mixed Leaves, Olives and Raspberry Vinaigrette (White wine was served with this.)
  • 2nd Course: Poached Supreme of Salmon with Orange Hollandaise
  • Anna Potato
  • Leaf Spinach
  • Courgettes Provençal (basically zucchini in a tomato-based sauce) (We had red wine, I believe, with this.)
  • Dessert (also called "pudding"): Rhubarb Tart with Ginger Custard

Saturday evening was the "Gala Banquet" which, we were told, was black tie, formal dresses or cocktail dresses. There was a "Pre-banquet Reception" in the anteroom just before one enters Hall. After we (gracefully, one hopes!) ascended the wide stone staircase, waiters offered either "Fino or Amontillado Sherry". (I had half a glass of the amontillado, in remembrance of the famed Poe story.) We circulated in the anteroom, chatting with other participants and the lecturers, most of whom were in black tie. At precisely 7:30 p.m. the great doors opened to a vista of terrifying splendor. The tables were set with crisp white linen strips rather than full tablecloths. (Head table had the full cloth.) Small electric candelabra lamps were lit on all tables. There were flowers spaced down each table with pieces of College silver placed between them. These were pieces mainly from the 1800s and 1900s. Pedestal bowls of fruits sat on silver plates which were themselves covered with shelled brazil nuts and almonds. Head table had a real candelabra (silver, of course) in the center which augmented the table lights.

But the place settings! Truly Edwardian! At each place there was a folded napkin with a roll sitting on top of it. (We had been told that bread plates were not used at this time; the roll went on the tablecloth, not on any plate.) Each place had a service plate which was "bookended" by a veritable forest of silverware. On the left there were six (!) forks of different shapes and sizes. On the right there was a total of six knives and three spoons, again of different shapes and sizes with some of the spoons placed between certain knives. There were four different glasses for the alcoholic beverages and one for water. Each place setting had its own menu booklet. The room just shone! I was rather worried about which implement to use, but you just start at the outside and work your way in — the outside left fork and the outside right knife or spoon, whichever is next... Okay, first item is consumed and whisked away by the uniformed waiters. (Serve from the left; take away from the right.) Only five forks, five knives and three spoons remaining!

What did we eat? We had:

  • 1st Course: Mousse de Saumon Fumé (A smoked salmon mousse, eaten with knife and fork.) The wine that accompanied the salmon was Chablis Domaine Vrignaud 2004.
  • 2nd Course: Crème Palestine (A cream soup of Jerusalem artichokes.)
  • Barbu Bouilli Pochée Sauce Homard (A fish with lobster sauce.)
  • Zephyrs de Foie Gras aux Trufes (Two small slices of goose liver topped with a slice of black truffle. The foie gras was so silky and buttery! It was truly a whisper of breeze in the mouth!) The wine was Château d'Angludet 1995.
  • 3rd Course: Carré de Mouton Rotie Sauce Capres (This was roast mutton, two years old and hung for five weeks, with a caper sauce. Prince Charles is trying to revive the mutton industry and educate people that mutton need not be strong-flavored or tough. The Mutton Renaissance Club provided this particular meat. It was absolutely tender and delicious and came wrapped in a piece of the mutton fat which was so flavorful.)
  • Pommes de Terre Nouvelles (tiny new potatoes served in their "jackets")
  • Brocolis aux Amandes (broccoli with almonds)
  • Celeri Braisé (braised celery which was delicious, even though it is not my favorite vegetable)

This was followed by Sorbet à la Kirsch as a palate cleanser. We didn't taste much kirsch (cherry liqueur) and it was very, very sugary. Champagne Blin 1998 accompanied this.

  • 4th Course: Cailles au Purée de Petits Pois (This was a small roasted quail served with a pea puree. I didn't particularly care for the pea taste, but the quail was good even though it was uncouth to pick up bits with one's fingers. This was one of those knife and fork challenges! How can one get all the tender morsels from between the tiny bones and not use one's fingers or teeth??!?)
  • 5th Course: Bombe Gladstone and Pailles au Parmesan. (This was a type of ice cream or sorbet with small cheese-flavored sticks. I think this is where the extra fork that I had left over was to have been used, but ice cream with a fork just didn't seem right, and there was a spoon still waiting...)

We weren't done yet. When the plates were cleared, we tackled the fruit and nut display that had been on the table. Waiters brought around House Port and then coffee. Now it was time to sit back, relax, sip coffee and port, and bring a fantasy evening to a close.

While the weekend's topic did not deal with the SCA's time period, it still was of great interest. Several of the lecturers — Paston, Day, Weir, Brears — have all written books or researched material within "our" time period. Manners and customs all evolve from earlier practices. There still was a head table. While a Latin grace is not said at SCA feasts, it would have been said at period meals, and several examples of period Latin graces can be found in the books of manners from the 1400s and 1500s. Next year's program will be 29 March to 1 April and will focus on sugar from medieval times onward. I think I had better start saving my money now!

Related Links

Click the "original article" link below to see the photo album from Alys' trip. Part Two of this two-part feature is at http://scatoday.net/node/6248. Her personal web site (separate from the photo album) is at http://home.netcom.com/~alysk/. SCAtoday.net published a link to a modern-world news story about the event at http://scatoday.net/node/6115.