Books were rare in Tudor England, and recipe books were even rarer. Knowledge of what ingredients to use and how to prepare them would have been passed on by word of mouth or demonstration.
In 1615, however, Gervase Markham published a book called The English Huswife, offering all kinds of advice to women on running their homes. His wasn't the first book of its kind, but it is one of the earliest that still survives. He begins the section on cookery, rather pompously:
" ... when our House-wife shall address her self [to cooking], she shall well understand that these qualities must ever accompany it; First, she must be cleanly both in body and garments, she must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and ready ear; (she must not be butter-fingred, sweet toothed, nor faint-hearted) for the first will let every thing fall, the seconde will consume what it should encrease; and the last will lose time with too much niceness."
Dang it! You wouldn't want to be accused of too much niceness!
Anyway, the recipes from The English Huswife have been transcribed on the internet so they are available to everyone. I've picked out a couple below, and jotted an explanation beside them. If you'd like to find more, click here. Just be warned when you try to decipher them that a "coffin" is a kind of pastry case! If you don't realise that, your pies could turn out rather heavy!
Pottage with Herbs
Pottage was one of the most commonly eaten types of food - a kind of thick broth or stew - and would have appeared in many different forms from the richest to the poorest tables. The servants and labourers at Wardour Castle would have been unlikely to eat pottage with meat in, even outside Lent, but I've picked a recipe which sounds as though it might actually be edible at least!
Original Tudor recipe
If you will make Pottage of the best and daintiest kind, you shall take Mutton, Veal or Kid, and having broken the bones, but not cut the flesh in pieces, and wash it, put it into a pot with fair water; after it is ready to boyl, and thoroughly scum'd, you shall put in a good handful or two of small Oat-meal: and then take whole Lettuce of the best and most inward leaves, whole Spinage, Endive, Succory, and whole leaves of Cole flowers, or the inward part of white Cabbage, with two or three slic't Onions, and put all into the pot, and boyl them well together till the meat be enough, and the Herbs so soft as may be, and stir them oft well together, and then season it with salt, and as much Verjuyce as will onely turn the taste of the Pottage, and to serve them up, covering the meat with the whole Herbs, and adorning the dish with sippets.
Jacopo da Empoli's still-life gives us a taster of an Elizabethan kitchen.
Tudor recipe explained
1. To make the best and daintiest(!) pottage, take mutton (we would more likely use lamb), veal or kid (baby goat - not commonly eaten here these days!), break the bones but don't cut up the meat, wash it, and put it in a pot of fresh water.
2. Bring it to the boil and skim the scum off the surface of the water. (Be very careful if you're doing this without adult supervision, or even if there are grown-ups around!)
3. Add one or two good-sized handfuls of oats (the kind you might use to make porridge or flapjacks).
4. Peel the outer leaves off a lettuce and add the remaining inner part to the pot of boiled meat and oats, plus spinach, and endive or chicory (these seem to have been two different vegetables in Tudor times, but are now considered to be the same thing). Also add whole cauliflower leaves or the inside of a white cabbage, and two or three sliced onions.
5. Simmer until the meat is tender and the vegetables are soft, stirring frequently.
6. Season with salt and a little verjuice (this is a kind of acidic juice made from unripe grapes. Since most of us don't generally have this in the cupboard - I'd never heard of it, but apparently it's sometimes used in fancy cooking - I suggest substituting white wine vinegar).
7. Serve the meat covered by the vegetables and garnished with croutons (probably the nearest thing to sippets).
Marchpane is the Tudor word for marzipan, so this sweet food has been around for a long time, perhaps as long as sugar itself. One of the things that intrigues me about the Tudor recipe is that it finishes with baking the marzipan, whereas the modern recipe I've added here ends by chilling it. Maybe in the days before fridges, chilling was just too difficult, whereas heating an oven was a familiar task.
Original Tudor Recipe
To make the best March-pane, take the best Jordan Almonds and blanch them in warm water, then put them into a stone mortar, and with a wooden pestle beat them to pap, then take of the finest refined Sugar well searst, and with it Damask-Rose-water beat it to a good stiff paste, allowing almost to every Jordan Almond, three spoonfulls of sugar, then when it is brought thus to a paste, lay it upon a fair Table, and strewing searst sugar under it, mould it like leven, then with a rowling-pin rowl it forth, and lay it upon wafers wash'd with Rose-water; then pinch it about the sides, and put it into what form you please; then strew searst sugar all over it, which done, wash it over with Rose-water and sugar mixt together, for that will make the Ice; then adorn it with Comfets, guilding, or whatsoever devices you please, and so set it into a hot stove, and there bake it crispy, and serve it forth. Some use to mix with the paste Cinamon and Ginger finely searst, but I refer that to your particular taste.
Tudor recipe explained
1. Blanch the almonds - Markham says warm water, but as far as I know, it has to be boiling!
2. Grind them to a fine dust with pestle and mortar (apparently better if the mortar (the bowl) is stone, and the pestle (the grinding stick) is wood).
3. Take the finest sugar (which would be the equivalent of icing sugar), well sieved, and beat it together with rosewater from Damask roses until it makes a stiff paste.
4. Mix with the ground almonds at a ratio of 3 spoons of sugar paste per almond.
5. Sprinkle icing sugar on the table and roll out the almond and sugar paste.
6. Lay it on wafers soaked in rosewater (these were probably like ice-cream wafers - Lucy Worsley explains exactly how proper Tudor wafers were made on her website here).
7. Lift it up and shape it, then coat it in sugar, before washing in a mixture of sugar and rosewater again.
8. Decorate it as you please, then put it in a hot oven to bake until it is crisp.
Not the best beginner's project, maybe: crazy marzipan cacti at the Hungarian Marzipan Museum.
Photograph © Varadi Zsolt
1 1⁄2 cups whole blanched almonds
1 2⁄3 cups icing sugar
1/4 cup egg whites (how many eggs depends on the size of your cup!)
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla essence or almond extract
1. Using a food processor, grind the almonds into a fine powder (this should take about 2 minutes).
2. Add the icing sugar and blend well.
3. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the egg whites and vanilla essence, until smooth.
4. On a surface lightly dusted with icing sugar, roll out the almond paste into a block 35cm x 3-5cm.
5. Wrap in greaseproof paper and chill for at least 1 hour.