Saturday, 28 April 2012

Samuel Pepy's Best Ever Dinner

A portrait of Samuel Pepys you may not know. He is shown as one of the bearers of the King's canopy at James II's coronation in 1685.
In the next couple of weeks I will be making a minor contribution to a television series that is intending to plot the evolution of our daily meals -  breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is very familiar territory to me, as in 2000, together with art historians Peter Brown, Andrew Moore and Gillian Riley, I curated the major travelling exhibition Eat, Drink and Be Merry, which surveyed the development of the English table and our meals in great detail through major paintings and the decorative arts. We recreated dinners, suppers, breakfasts and teatimes from many different periods using original tableware, silver, porcelain and glass as well as food. Just for the record I have not seen anything yet that matches the scope and vision of that exhibition in any of the British TV programmes that have so far touched on food history. Just to illustrate what I mean, have you ever seen anything like this on tellie?

My recreation  of the Duke of Newcastle's Garter Feast of 1698. This is the king's table, where he dined alone
For the section of the programme to which I am contributing, the makers are focussing on records of food and dining in the dairy of Samuel Pepys. They want me to cook some of the dishes he mentions. Pepys (1633-1703) started his diary in January 1660 and stopped making entries when his eyesight started to fail in May 1669. Throughout his journal there are numerous references to food and particularly to drink, of which he was of course very fond. Some of his observations are very useful to those of us interested in understanding the cookery of this period. For instance, on 13 January 1662, he described an ambitious and expensive dinner of which he was very proud, which included a 'rare chine of beef' roasted in front of the kitchen fire with his clockwork jack. Many of the dishes were prepared by a professional cook who was brought in for the occasion. Pepys expressed some doubt that the jack could manage to turn this large joint, but was pleased that it 'do carry it well'. He tells us that the chine was put down to the fire before six o' clock. Since he left his office at noon, it would seem that this dinner probably did not get underway until about 1.00pm. So the beef, which was served in the first course may have cooked in front of the fire for as long as five hours. It must have been a massive joint as the usual roasting time recommended for this cut in the cookery books was between three and three and a half hours. I have roasted large joints of this kind many times with a jack and I usually roast them for about four and a half hours.

Perhaps the most celebrated meals Sam describes are his annual 'stone feasts', held in gratitude for a successful operation he had for a painful bladder stone in 1658. An entry for Wednesday 26 March 1662, describes one of these meals. He says, 'I had a pretty dinner for them, viz., a brace of stewed carps, six roasted chickens, and a jowl of salmon, hot, for the first course; a tanzy and two neats’ tongues, and cheese the second; and were very merry all the afternoon, talking and singing and piping upon the flageolet.' A year later on 4 April, he had an even more ambitious feast, 'Very merry at, before, and after dinner, and the more for that my dinner was great, and most neatly dressed by our own only maid. We had a fricasee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.'

Pepy's records of his food and drink are useful to the social historian, but in content they are rather scant and frequently only list those foods and dishes which he found notable. His accounts of his stone feasts are among his most detailed entries. His day to day comments on his diet tell us a lot about his food preferences. Since he mentions it nearly fifty times, one of his favourite dishes seems to have been the luxury meat venison, which he usually encountered in the form of venison pasty. Sam usually enjoyed this high status dish, but he also had some bad experiences, such as at a dinner on 1st August 1667 at the house of his next door neighbour, the parliamentarian and admiral Sir William Penn, 'Up, and all the morning at the office. At noon my wife and I dined at Sir W. Pen’s, only with Mrs. Turner and her husband, on a damned venison pasty, that stunk like a devil. However, I did not know it till dinner was done. We had nothing but only this, and a leg of mutton, and a pullet or two.'

Two venison pasties made from seventeenth century designs. They are both over three feet long.
Sam does not seem to have had a great deal of luck with the venison at Sir William's table. He experienced another rotten pasty on 28 August 1668, 'Betimes at my business again, and so to the office, and dined with Brouncker and J. Minnes, at Sir W. Pen’s at a bad pasty of venison,'

At yet another entertainment at the Penn household (Sunday 16 September 1666), he was displeased with the venison again, though this time it was baked in pans rather than in a pasty.  'At noon, with my wife, against her will, all undressed and dirty, dined at Sir W. Pen’s, where was all the company of our families in towne; but, Lord! so sorry a dinner: venison baked in pans, that the dinner I have had for his lady alone hath been worth four of it.' He was more than likely complaining because it was dry. Baking venison, a meat with very little fat does not make sense. Indeed,  according to his numerous records of the meat, the diarist only ever had it cooked this way on this one occasion. It was normally served to him in the form of a pasty, or more infrequently boiled.

So why were some of Sam's pasties tainted? In one entry for 10th July 1666, he indicates that a pasty made in his kitchen was sent to the bakers - "At noon home to dinner and then to the office; the yarde being very full of women (I believe above three hundred) coming to get money for their husbands and friends that are prisoners in Holland; and they lay clamouring and swearing and cursing us, that my wife and I were afeard to send a venison-pasty that we have for supper to-night to the cook's to be baked, for fear of their offering violence to it: but it went, and no hurt done." So it looks like Mrs Pepys occasionally tried her hand at making them herself. But a venison pasty was more often made by a cook on the estate where the deer had been hunted. A whole boned side was encased in a pastry crust (usually rye paste) so these pasties were very large. When cool they were stored in a larder, where under cold conditions they could keep for months. The thick pastry casing prevented bacteria from entering and causing decay, at least for a while. It was a process equivalent to canning. However, this technique of preservation sometimes failed, as Sam found out to his disgust at Penn's dinners. Pasties were often sent from the country seats where the deer had been hunted, frequently to London, where they were much appreciated as gifts. Some travelled great distances. There are sixteenth century records of these great pasties being sent to France. Sam and his neighbour William Penn probably got hold of them, as well as raw venison meat from noble friends who owned deer parks. Venison was not a meat you could normally buy from a butcher.

Venison pasty was on the bill of fare at an extraordinary feast which Pepys attended in 1685, many years after he stopped writing his diary. Most scholars have overlooked this meal in the many published discussions of Pepy's diet because they have tended to focus on his diary entries. This was the coronation feast of James II. Although we do not have a firsthand account by Pepys of the occasion, the king commissioned the herald Francis Sandford to write a comprehensive book on the event. This includes a detailed description of the feast, which compared to the everyday meals he describes in his diary, must have been the most sumptuous repast that Sam ever experienced.

Sam sat somewhere down this end of the bishops' table on the right hand side of the hall
As one of the barons of the cinque ports (five maritime towns on the south coast), he was not only entitled to help carry the king's canopy, but also to attend the feast in Westminster Hall. He sat on a table reserved for the Archbishops, Bishops, Barons of the Cinque Ports and Judges.

Pepys had been fairly intimate with James when he was the Duke of York. Here he is again supporting the royal canopy.
The commemorative silver gilt cup made for Creshald and Gawdon Draper.  Courtesy of V&A
After the coronation, Pepys was also entitled as a perquisite for his role as a bearer to a share in the silver stave mounts and bells from the canopy. We have no idea what he did with his silver, but two of his fellow barons - Creshald and Gawdon Draper, who were from the same family, pooled and recycled their portions. Their silver was made up into a cup engraved with an image of the king's canopy in the latest chinoiserie style. This remarkable object was recently acquired by the V&A. Creshald, who was a baron for Wincelsea bore one of the staves of the king's canopy, while Gawdon, who represented Rye, held a stave of the canopy over the queen consort Maria de Modena.

At Charles II's coronation in 1661 an unruly brawl broke out at the beginning of the feast, as the barons of the cinque ports struggled with some of the king's footmen, who were determined to take the canopy from them. 'But at the Vpper end of the ffirst Table sate the
 Bishops, & below them the Judges, & the rest of the
 long Robe, & at the Table of the Masters of Chancery sate the Barons of the Cinque Ports: ffor as
 soone as they had brought the Canopy over the King 
to the ffoote of the stepps & that the King was retired, some of the Kings ffootemen most insolently
 and violently seised on the Canopy, & the Barons endeavouring to keepe it as their just right, were
 drawne downe to the lower end of the Hall, still
 keeping their hold, where accidentally Mr Owen
 York Herauld, seeing the Contest, caused the 
dore to be shutt, & his Majestie being advertised of
 this Insolency, Comanded one of the Equerries to 
goe & cause the Canopy to be delivered to the Barons, who by this meanes, lost their place at 
the vpper end of the Table assigned them.'* 

James II's coronation feast in Westminster Hall was superintended by the king's master cook Patrick Lamb. The table at which Pepys dined was furnished with one hundred and forty four dishes. Most of these were meat and fish dishes, including lots of pies, but there were eighteen salads on the table and luxury items like asparagus, mango, bamboo, truffles and morels. Scattered among the dishes of puffins, pallets rago'd, whole roasted fawns and pettitoes, were tarts, jellies, blancmanges and other sweet dishes. The king and queen's table was lavishly embellished en ambigu with three tall pyramids of sweetmeats and fruit. Sam's table had twenty-seven dishes of sweetmeats ranging down the table, so like the salads they were easily accessible to the diners. In the table plan below, the green dots represent the position of the salads; the red ones the dessert sweetmeats. The centre of the table must have been a riot of colour.

In addition to the eighteen salads arranged down the middle of the table, there were two more on the table, a salmagundi and a lemon salad, the positions of which I have also marked in green above. In Royal Cookery, (London: 1710),  a book of recipes published in Patrick Lamb's name after his death, there is a recipe for Salmagundy.  It was a type of salad made with lettuce, finely chopped chicken and anchovies, garnished with small poached onions and scalded grapes. With a whole host of spelling variants over the next hundred years, including Solomon Grundy, it went on to become a popular dish. There are versions of Lamb's original recipe in later cookery books, such as that of Hannah Glasse (1747).

Patrick Lamb's Salmagundy on a blue dash charger

In the seventeenth century, the word menu was not in use in this country. The term that was in common usage was 'bill of fare'. However, at James's great feast, the long list of dishes was referred to as a 'catalogue'. Here is the full catalogue of the dishes on Sam's table from my copy of Sandford's book. A venison pasty is listed as item 144. I am not sure whether he got to sample it, but if he did, I hope its was sweeter and more toothsome than the one at Sir William Penn's 'that stunk like a devil.' 

A catalogue of the several meats on Sam's table from Francis Sandford, The History of the Coronation of the Most High, Most Mighty, and Most Excellent Monarch James II (London: 1687). All the other black and white images are also from this book.
* Sir Edward Walker, A Circumstantial account of the Preparations for the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles the Second. (London: 1820), p. 122.

An online article on the James II coronation cup by Tessa Murdoch


  1. Any comment on what type of sweet-meats might have been in the dishes on the table?

  2. Hello Elise, Unfortunately, there are no records of the specific sweetmeats served on this occasion. In fact in most of the other records of major feasts and their accompanying banquet courses of this period, 'sweetmeats' is a word used as a generic term. However, from the evidence of the receipt collections we do know that there was a vast range of biscuits, march panes, preserves, wafers, comfits, cotoniaks etc. available for serving at these occasions.

  3. Item 50. "Puffins"? Would be this the seabird or something like the baked "Puffs" recipes from the period?

  4. These were the seabirds. There were some also on the King and Queen's table. the entry says '24 Puffins cold'. In addition, the royal table had many more avian rarities than the bishops' and peers' tables - Ciprus Birds, 12 ruffs, 8 godwits and 8 ortolans!

  5. "Cipras Birds" are preserved fig peckers ("beccafico") it seems. An interesting display of wealth - preserved fish and fowl of the world.

  6. Absolutely brilliant. A great read and what dishes you prepared! The pasties are a works of art. I had no idea they were stored for ages... no wonder that a tiny crack would make for a stink.

  7. Pepys never mentions vegetables when he speaks of dinners he has eaten. Were vegetables eaten regularly in his time? or fruits? I wonder if the pasties contained vegetables as they do today? It seems to have been a very meaty diet that could have contributed to the formation of stones. Of course, he would not have known that at the time.

  8. Vegetables were certainly grown in profusion at this time and also sold in markets, so of course they would have been eaten. There were even vegetarians or 'Pythagorans' at this time, such as Thomas Tryon and John Lowther 1st Viscount Londsdale, who advocated that vegetables were healthy. But vegetables often don't get mentioned in bills of fare, or in Pepys diary for that matter. However, there is compelling evidence from the eighteenth century that vegetables were often used to garnish meat dishes, often by arranging them on the rims of the serving dishes. Perhaps they were not mentioned because most took them for granted. It is a very interesting question, but cannot be answered by the common assumptions we have about early modern aversion to fruit and vegetables for medical reasons etc. Why did they spend so much time and trouble to grow vegetables, if they were not eaten? Just look at the gardening books of this period - they tell a very different story to Pepy's diary. Cheers Ivan