Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Supper with Shakespeare

A banquet of sweetmeats. This sugary assemblage is dominated by a 'standard' in the form of an edible banquetting house sited in an edible knot garden. Marchpane garden 'knots' are filled with flowerbeds made from fruit pastes and surrounded by gravel walks consisting of carraway comfits. There are also edible sugar tazze filled with jumbals, sugar playing cards, wafers, comfits and a host of other 'banqueting stuffe'. these include gilt gingerbread figures made from the original Jacobean moulds which are exhibited in a nearby case display.
This year I have had two exciting culinary brushes with the bard. In the summer I worked with the Royal Opera House in London to devise a dinner of Tudor dishes for a gala event celebrating Shakespeare's enormous influence on opera. Readings were given at the event by Prince Charles and Simon Russell Beale. At the moment I am on the other side of the Atlantic in Minnesota setting up a small, but lovely exhibition on dining culture in Shakespeare's England at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. This world class museum houses a rich assemblage of artefacts relating to dining from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including some important English silver. For over a year I have been working with the decorative arts curators Corinne Wegener and Eike Schmidt selecting objects and putting a narrative together which hopefully will steer visitors away from any stereotypical ideas they may have about English dining in the Tudor and Stuart age. You know the sort of thing - boars' heads and boorish behaviour - which was of course part of the picture, but there was also extraordinary refinement, staggering culinary creativity and a level of civility in manners that would put us moderns to shame. When was the last time you washed your hands as a communal activity at the table before and after the meal? Or dined with an eating set like this, as one English traveller did after returning from Venice in the early 1600s?

Coral handled knife and fork. Venice. Late sixteenth century. Luxury goods like this were imported into Britain from Venice. Whatever your class, eating knives and spoons were carried by all and for the well-off were worn as items of status defining jewellery. Photo © Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.

As well as the revival of classical architecture, philosophy, science and other branches of learning, the Italian renaissance also popularised the fork as a dining implement. Thomas Coryat (1577-1617), a contemporary of Shakespeare introduced it into England from Venice. He was ridiculed by his friends and given the nickname 'Furcifer' (fork bearing devil or rascal), but his introduction did eventually catch on and changed English eating habits forever. This is the engraved titlepage of the 1611 edition of Coryat's Crudities in which he describes his visit to Venice. 
I have lent a small number of important books and moulds from my own collection to the exhibition. These tell the story of the two main contributions to gastronomic culture of the sixteenth century – the dissemination of the art of distilling ardent spirits and the spiraling increase in the use of sugar. The second of these has inspired my chief contribution to the show – an authentic recreation of an English banquet of sweetmeats in the marvelous Tudor period room in the MIA. The table has been set with an array of the highly decorative sweet foods which were consumed after the main meal, sometimes in a separate room, or even in a small purpose built building in the gardens or on the roof, known as a banqueting house.

The Tudor room at Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. This fine example of a wainscotted chamber from the 1570s has a typical strapwork overmantel with carved oak Corinthian pilasters, terms and a family crest. It was sourced from a manor house in Suffolk and installed in the MIA in the 1920s. I may be wrong and stand to be corrected, but as far as I know it is the only English renaissance period room in the US. Photo © Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.
The same room brought to life with a banquet of sweetmeats. The stack of bride cakes and bride cup on the buffet indicates that we are at the tail end of a bridal feast or 'bride ale'. My aim is to bring the room to life with the food and to make the twenty-first century visitor feel that they have gate-crashed an intimate Tudor party.
Bride cakes and bride cup. These flat currant filled spice cakes, rather like large Banbury cakes, started life as hearth cakes baked with a brandreth and girdle. The wealthy baked them in ovens, frequently to a a very large size. The antiquarian John Aubrey in the later seventeenth century recollects how they were stacked up 'like the shewe bread in the pictures in the old bibles'. The bride cup was filled with hippocras or muskadine and paraded by the bride leader from the church to the place of the bridal. A rosemary bow was 'dipped' in the wine and ornamented with family armorials and hundreds of ribbons tied in 'bride knots' to the rosemary leaves.
A woodcut from a sixteenth century bible showing 'shewe bread' stacked up in piles.
Note the bride cup filled with embellished rosemary being carried aloft by the bride leader and the very large bride cakes in this detail from a painting by Joris Hoefnagel of a Wedding Feast at Bermondsey (1580s). On the table, which is scattered with flowers is a standing salt, rather similar to the example from this period by Christopher Eston in the exhibition.
Ophelia's celebrated reference to the language of flowers in Hamlet in which she says, 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance', has led us all to believe that rosemary was a herb emblematic of death and funerals. But its evergreen qualities were also symbolic of everlasting and enduring love. This is why it was also highly significant at Elizabethan weddings. In this woodcut, a Tudor bride is flanked by two grooms both with rosemary branches tied to their arms. Note also all are wearing white kid gloves. These were perfumed with musk and ambergris and given as gifts at weddings. I made a very fine white sugar glove from an early mould which is on the banqueting table.
Banquet guests ate their sweetmeats from thin roundels or trenchers usually made from beech wood and decorated with ornamental designs and verses. They were also crafted from sugar as here. I made eight sugar ones for the table, painting them with designs copied from a wooden set housed the British Museum. The guests ate  banqueting stuffe was eaten from the plain side and then they turned over to reveal the verses. These were read for amusement and instruction sometimes in a sequence around the table creating what was called a roundelay. They were not always round in form. Rectangular examples have survived, some with paintings of emblematic and allegorical figures and learned texts. 
A 'cut laid tart' made from a design published in Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook (London: 1660). May started his long career as an apprentice cook under his father in the Star Chamber in the last decade of the sixteenth century. His cookery book published in the year of the Restoration of the English monarchy was a nostalgic collection of recipes of how food had been before the Civil War tore the country apart. Similar ornamented tarts are described by Gervase Markham in 1615. The tart consists of two sections. The lower contains baked fruit, the top is ornamented with pastry and the interstices filled with fruit pastes and preserves.
Another of May's cut laid tarts filled with quince paste
The centrepiece of the knot garden marchpane is a sugar plate banqueting house ornamented with gilt Medusa's heads. The design is based on the surviving banqueting house at Long Melford in Suffolk, not far from the house out of which the  MIA Tudor room was removed. The conical roof , with its flag and the knot gardens themselves were inspired by woodcuts in William Lawson's A New Orchard and Garden (London:1618).
Silver standing salt by Christopher Eston of Exeter c. 1583. Photo © Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.

Drinking glass, façon de Venise. Netherlands. c. 1660. Drinking glasses were imported into England from Venice, the Low Countries, Bohemia and Austria. Many were luxury objects like this Venetian style winged drinking glass, but they were designed for use. Photo © Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.

Supper with Shakespeare - the Evolution of English Banqueting

Thursday 13 December 2012 - Sunday March 31 2013
Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Tudor Room (325) and Gallery 332
Free Exhibition

Friends Lecture: Supper with Shakespeare 

Speaker Ivan Day
Thursday, December 13, 2012
11 a.m. – Noon
Pillsbury Auditorium
Minneapolis Institute of Arts,
2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, 
Minnesota 55404 
(888) MIA ARTS (642-2787) (Toll Free)


  1. Thank you for all the wonderful photos!

  2. That cut laid tart looks amazing, the layers are so fascinatingly done- so regal and yet inviting.

  3. Fascinating post and really interesting points about popular misconceptions of Tudor dining habits. Thanks!


  4. Beautiful stuff!

    There's also this partial room at the MET in NYC: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/65.182.1,.2

  5. Thanks Sarah, Now that I have seen the photos I realise I have seen the room in the Met when I worked there in 2009! best regards


  6. Magnificent work! I'm sending this post to my dad, who loves making fancy tarts and other baked goods. I love eating them, but my pastry skills need some work. Sounds like I need to take one of your courses!