A Tudor Christmas Feast!
It was common for Tudors to do penance and participate in fasting, particularly avoiding meat, cheese and eggs for Advent – the 40 days before Christmas. When advent ended on Christmas Eve, a period of feasting would begin. Twelfth night (Epiphany) would have had the biggest feast of all, with magnificent celebrations and up to twenty-four courses served. There were 'divers interludes, rich masques and disports, and after that a great banquet' at which, in 1532, two hundred dishes were served and temporary kitchens had to be erected in the grounds of Greenwich Palace.
But what did Tudors eat at Christmas?
Meat – The traditional meat at Christmas was swan, goose or woodcock. The Tudors would also have eaten venison, boar’s head and peacock (which was skinned and roasted, then put back inside its’ skin with its’ feathers on as a table decoration).
Boar’s Head - In wealthy households, the first course on Christmas day was traditionally a boar’s head that had been stuffed with forcemeat (a mixture of lean meat and fat), smeared with mustard and decorated with herbs and fruits (with an apple in its’ mouth). The cooking of a boar’s head made the meat pale so the head was rubbed with pigs’ grease and soot so it would more lifelike.
Wassail Bowls – Another much older tradition inherited from the Anglo-Saxons was that of wassailing, similar to modern traditions of drinking mulled wine. A wassail was a large wooden bowl containing hot ale, flavoured with apple, sugar and spices. This bowl was taken door to door, while the bearers sang carols. A crust of bread was placed at the bottom of the wassail bowl and offered to the most important person in the room– hence why people today toast at ceremonies and special occasions.
Minced Pies - During the 12 days of Christmas, people would visit their neighbours and share a traditional minced pye or christmas pye. The pyes would have thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his 12 apostles; typically they were dried fruits, spices and some chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds. Minced pyes were served at the beginning of the meal and the loaf shape was meant to represent baby Jesus’ crib.
Turkeys - Henry VIII is credited with making turkey the official Christmas bird following its’ introduction to England in the 1520s. It quickly became fashionable among the Tudor nobility and was often served in a Christmas pie, where it was stuffed with many other game birds. The demand for turkeys became so great that flocks of turkeys had to be herded to London on foot from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with the migration starting as early as August each year!
Christmas Pie - This usually consisted of a pigeon inside a partridge inside a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey, which was then put in a pastry case called a coffin. This was surrounded by hares and other game birds.
Plum Porridge - Plum porridge was enjoyed as a starter to line the stomach before the rich dinner to come. It was a thick broth of mutton or beef, boiled in a skin with plums, spices, dried fruits, breadcrumbs and wine. In the later 16th century, flour was added to make a pudding or cake, which has morphed into our Christmas pudding.
Twelfth Night Cake – This was fruitcake with a coin or dried bean it; whoever found it became king or queen or host for the evening's entertainment.
Alcohol - All of the food was washed down by large quantities of ale and beer, as well as mulled wine known as Hippocras, which was served just before bedtime. Lambswool was also common; it was a drink made from roasted apples, beer, nutmeg, ginger and sugar – the froth on the top of the drink gave this beverage its’ name.
Brussel Sprouts - A popular vegetable for the christmas menu were brussel sprouts, they were first mentioned in recipes around 1587.