Monday, 20 January 2014

A Medieval Meal for Real

The roasting range in the kitchen of Gainsborough Hall, probably being used for the first time in four hundred years as it was intended, for roasting a full range of meats and poultry for a high status meal. A goose sawce madame, four rabbits, four mallard, a woodcock and other game birds roast on the hand turned spits.
I am often rather grumpy about the way in which food history is represented on British television. Commissioning editors in this country seem to regard it as a niche subject area only suitable for three minute intercuts into popular food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. I suspect the purpose of these bijou interludes is to afford viewers a brief moment to make a coffee between the thrills and spills of the great cupcake, or gingerbread house challenge. Another approach has been the 'Carry on Banqueting' comedic slant, such as that of the Supersizers series some years ago, when Giles Coren and Sue Perkins took the piss out of our culinary past, while a medley of well-known celebrity chefs made fools of themselves making a mess at recreating ancient dishes. Because the food genre is considered a branch of entertainment, there has never been a serious cultural survey of our food traditions. You might say, 'what about the living history programmes, such as The Tudor Farm, or Clarissa Dixon-Wright's Hannah Glasse or The King's Cooks?' I don't suppose I am going to be popular for saying it, but I am afraid these programmes give the false impression that the food of our ancestors was terribly lumpen and unskillfully prepared. Watching the 'expert' presenters for instance, making raised pies that look like wobbly junior school pots does not really celebrate the incredible skills that our ancestors possessed in pastry work. I am afraid that they really need to up their game. 

When a virtuoso chef such as Heston Blumenthal is given the opportunity to examine our culinary past, he favours an approach which tends to use highly technical contemporary methods, telling us more about modern restaurant presentation than past traditions. Very little recognition is given to real experts. For instance, the makers of a recent BBC documentary about the food writer Dorothy Hartley actually filmed Peter Brears in his home kitchen talking about her dessert recipes. But this excellent sequence never made it into the final edit. This is ironic, as the outstanding contribution that Mr Brears has made to our understanding of English food will prove in the long term to be far, far more important than that of Miss Hartley. I think we have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to this subject on British television. 

Imagine my surprise then, when I was recently invited by KBS, the South Korean equivalent of the BBC to work with them on a programme about medieval food and dining in England. They did n't want a celebrity chef or restaurant critic presenter and they did n't want to dumb down the narrative. What they did want was to celebrate the true history of English food using real expertise, rather than bang on in the usual stereotypical way about how bad it was. During the process of making the documentary, which was directed by the celebrated Korean producer Kim Seung Ook, I quickly discovered the remarkable technical virtuosity, fresh perceptions and high production values of his outstanding crew. 

The recipe for Sawce Madame, a goose stuffed with quinces, pears and herbs from The Forme of CuryThis is a page from a c.1420s version of the text - courtesy John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The original text dates from the 1390s. 
My aim was to accurately recreate an ambitious medieval meal in a high status household, so we chose to film at Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire with its wonderful great hall and kitchen complex. I enlisted the help of the outstanding re-enactment group Lord Burgh's Retinue, who regularly work at the hall. Led by Paul Mason, the group excelled themselves in a long, but exciting day's filming. I coached the kitchen crew in using their roasting range properly, showing them how to splint a salmon with hazel wands and how to skewer meats authentically, so they did n't stay still while the spits rotated. We also spent two days in my own kitchen where I demonstrated the preparation of a number of fifteenth century dishes, including a sawce madame, bake metes of partridge, gingerbread decorated with box leaves and a hastelet of fruyte. At Gainsborough we filmed a high table sequence led by Paul with full Plantagenet dining ritual, from Latin grace and blessing to washing of hands with an ewer and basin. The table and buffet was dressed correctly for the period and there were demonstrations of carving, sewing and correct service.

The finished sawce madame at the servery 

A bake mete of partridge surmounted by the bird itself with gilded beak and spots of gold on its feathers
A soteltie waits to be taken to the top table 
The kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall
A chastelet, a pie made in the form of a castle with different fillings in each tower awaits a spectacular flambé with brandy before being brought to the table
An early fifteenth century gingerbread coloured with red sanders is ornamented with box leaves pinned on with cloves
The great hall at Gainsborough. There was originally a lantern on the roof, which allowed the smoke from the central hearth to escape. The magnificent perpendicular oriel window floods the high table with bright light.
KBS director Kim Seung Ook(second from right) and his remarkable crew. Development producer Gina McDonald, who co-ordinated the production in the UK with me is in the middle.
The programme will be screened later this year as an episode in the wonderful KBS series A Food Odyssey, a visually stunning and highly intelligent global celebration of food culture. A DVD will also be available. BBC commissioning editors please take note. 


  1. Amazing! I hope the British companies take note that a crew from another country have done their own history better than they did? Any chance of getting this DVD, perhaps with subtitles, when it comes out?

  2. Fabulous, how fortunate are you to be able to cook in these kitchens... It is something I can only dream of. I totally get your point about the small food history bits in The Great British Bake Off but I do think if you get one 16 year old motivated to go and study history it has served its purpose. I really don't get why you don't have a program on television, I would watch it with great interest and foremost I would be able to feel sure that what I learn is indeed realistic and true. I am a Belgian girl writing a blog about British food culture and I know I will sometimes get it wrong because I don't always have access to some manuscripts or don't know about a book because the only copy is privately owned, but my heart is in it and I give it my all to be correct. I am writing a book about British food in Flemish at the moment, my Belgian audience is convinced British food is lumpen and uninspired, I am going to prove it is elegant and interesting. I will check my sources and don't just believe what I read until I can track down the primary source. I spend my pennies on books, moulds and devises. Surely if ones heart is in the right place, it must be supported. I will never call myself a historian, I am just truly in love with Britain and British food and how it evolved from the stone age up until now.

  3. Oh Ivan, now I am sure you must be as famous as the Queen herself. This post was a wonderful little vacation for me; the visuals et al. And, salmon splint with hazel wands - you are just the best in every respect.

  4. I wonder if they would let you do an English voice over - bet American TV would buy it! It looks fabulous!

  5. I actually enjoyed Giles and Sue's little romps; the nonsense of it all was extremely entertaining, and we got to see you a few times as well. I also enjoyed your contribution to Royal Upstairs Downstairs, although that show as a whole was poorly thought-out. The best of the shows, though, were with Harry Dodson and Ruth Mott on those old Victorian Kitchen and Garden series. I also enjoyed the Edwardian Country House, which employed a competent chef who wasn't allowed to excel.

    But where, oh where, is the Ivan Day Show?? It could run on for several seasons. Pick a century, and then work through ingredients and techniques over the course of 26 episodes, ending with a two-hour full-meal special. The next season, pick a new century, and wow us over all again. The ratings would go through the roof.

    1. I gave up on them after just one programme: sorry - they were just piss takers.

  6. Fascinating post. A wonderful picture of the kitchen at Gainsborough Hall and being used as you say for the first time in 400 years for its intended purpose must have been a sight to see. It's disappointing that British food history is being taken seriously only by the minority and that it took a South Korean to present it as it should be, Let's hope the BBC do sit up and take note.

  7. Seems to me as I read your post that what the producers (in both the UK and the US) think a viewer wants is Masterchef and more Masterchef. Please! We want real content. :) Thank you for being passionate about what you do!

  8. Ivan, I'm an amateur student of medieval history, and I found this post fascinating. I was hoping to summarize it a bit on my blog and point back to your post for a detailed reading. I write at Would it be OK for me to do so, and perhaps post a couple of the photographs from this post? Thanks! -Keira

  9. Of course Keira. That is fine. best regards


  10. Completely agree with your comments Ivan about how food tv is all about aspirational celebrity chefs and ex models and soap stars. It's a bit of a shame.