What We Eat
Elizabethan cookery is generally sweeter than today’s; meats are often cooked with fruits, producing a mix of sweet and savory.
Some medical texts advise against eating raw vegetables as engendering wind (gas) or evil humours.
It is important to remember that while many things were period somewhere, not everything was eaten in every part of the world. Things which are common in Constantinople may never make their way to England.
The potato is still a novelty. It is not yet a crop in Ireland, nor is it found in our stews. The turnip, which has that honour, is followed closely by the parsnip.
Tomatoes are considered doubtful, if not actually poisonous, although they have already begun to appear in some southern European cooking.
Chocolate has not yet come in, except for medicinal purposes. The Swiss have not yet added milk and sugar to it. If you have ever tasted chocolate (which is very doubtful) it was a thin and bitter drink, probably flavored with chiles.
The much-touted St. John’s Bread (carob) may taste somewhat like chocolate but is not being used as a flavoring in baked goods. Any brown cake on your table must surely be gingerbread.
Just to be fair, vanilla isn’t a period flavoring in Europe either.
Almond is the most common flavoring in sweets, followed by cinnamon, clove, and saunders (sandalwood). Almond milk—ground almonds steeped in honey and water or wine, then strained—is used as flavoring and thickener.
Coffee is period in the strictest sense, but has not arrived in England.
The law says we may not eat meat on Fridays and Saturdays. This is not a religious fast but a way of supporting the fishing industry. Exceptions are made by special license for the old, the very young, and the infirm, and anyone else who applies for the license.
A typical fish day meal can include eggs, butter, cheese, herring, cod or other whitefish, etc.
Sugar is available, but is rather more expensive than honey, since it has to be imported. Grown as sugar cane, it comes as a 3- or 4-pound square or conical loaf, and has to be grated or pounded into useful form.
- The finest sugar (from Madera) is white and melts easily in liquid.
- The next grade is Barbary or Canary sugar.
- The common, coarse sugar is brown and rather gluey, good for syrups and seasoning meat.
From Life in Elizabethan England, A Compendium of Common Knowledge by Maggie Secara.