Acorns, crabs and bloody slaughter, or, what did the Tudors do in November?

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Novemberness of November today. It’s damp and drippy and everything in the garden is dying but the Christmas build-up hasn’t quite started yet, and… bleurgh.
I’ve decided this is the fault of twenty-first century life and if I was Tudor I would be far too busy for Novembery moping so I’m going to jolly myself along by thinking bit about what they would have been busy doing.

When I was writing Five Wounds, which is set mainly in the agricultural landscapes of the north, I was very conscious of how peopled the areas round settlements would have been. These days, farming takes very few people. One man can combine a field that would have taken a whole village to harvest in the past. We might notice the fields change colour from brown to green to golden, but it’s unlikely we’ll have much to do with it. In societies where more people are involved in agriculture, the changing seasons and hence the shifting calendar of agriculture have much more effect on what the people you know are involved in and what’s going on around you.

In a society without refrigeration, canning or air freight, of course, food will also be seasonal, and when the year is going to be shaped not just by the farming calendar but by the religious one, the annual round of festivals will give each month its particular character.

For this reason, one of my starting points for research was the Book of Hours. Books of Hours are devotional books, of which quite a number still exist from the fifteenth into the sixteenth centuries. They are often richly illustrated and, unlike wall paintings which rarely survive undamanged, they often survive as brightly and exquisitely detailed as the day they were painted. What makes them so useful for our purposes is that they generally include a calendar of church feasts, illustrated with full-page pictures representing the months of the year and the activities that were taking place each month. For the Tudors, 1st November, All Saints Day, was the first day of winter. But this didn’t mean farming activity stopped: work went on throughout the year.

Obviously, you have to be a bit careful if you’re writing about the north of England and you’re looking at a Book of Hours from southern Europe – the differing climates can mean different months for activities like harvests and planting. Another source, this time from England, is Thomas Tusser, who was born in Rivenhall in Essex. His ‘A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ was published in 1554. It gives rhyming advice for what to do in the garden and fields each month, for example,

‘Set garlic and peas, St Edmund to please.’

-a couplet which shows how the religious and agricultural calendars were intertwined in people’s minds even after the Reformation: St Edmund’s Day was celebrated today, the 20th November.Alongside cutting firewood, the most commonly illustrated activity in the Books of Hours November scenes is the fattening of pigs, by feeding them acorns. Acorns might not be anything other than waste now (unless you’re a squirrel) but in the Middle Ages, ‘pannage’, the right to feed your pigs in royal forests or on common land, was important. You will see people knocking down acorns with sticks, or hooking down the branches to reach them, and either driving your pigs into the forests to rootle under the trees or feeding them in troughs. In one picture the pigs’ heads are held in place over the trough by a yoke, to encourage them to eat as much as possible even when they were no longer hungry. Pigs were an important part of  the rural economy; for some families, bacon would have been the only meat eaten on a regular basis. It was said later on that every part of the pig, ‘everything but the squeal’ was used.Some pigs would be fattened throughout November. Others would meet their end at Martinmas, the feast of St Martin on 11th November.This was the traditional date for slaughter of cattle. It was the time of year when animals were at their fattest but the grass was no longer growing fast enough to feed them. So they had to be slaughtered now, or fed on stored food through the winter, a burdensome expense. The slaughter was followed by feasting as people ate the meat that couldn’t be preserved. At this time of year, there was plenty of other food still available for a feast. In the garden, there would be cabbages and turnips, apples, pears and medlars. The woods would provide walnuts and chestnuts .While the poorer sections of society worked hard at salting and smoking meat from the Martinmas slaughter for the winter, the upper classes could hunt, with a range of game now in season, game birds and animals including hare and venison. The Golf Book of Hours shows a nobleman returning from the hunt. There are two horses in the picture but while he rides one, his servant has to walk, because the second horse is in use for carrying a deer, slung across its saddle.The importance of the job of slaughtering cattle – a job which would have required physical strength – was one reason why battles were so often fought after Martinmas. It’s far easier to drag yourself away from home once the work is done and you know your stores of food are laid in for the winter. One thing that intrigued me about the Pilgrimage of Grace was that the rebels were away from home through the month. I wonder if the women, left at home with the task looming, took the chance of waiting till their menfolk returned even if it meant slaughtering slightly thinner stock, or picked up the poleaxe and had a go themselves.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

Of course, not everybody reared pigs just for subsistence. Some Books of Hours show pigs being driven to market in the town for sale. So if you lived in a town, November might have been the month when the streets were noisy with herds of squealing pigs being bought and sold. Then imagine how busy a street like the Shambles in York, where the butchers’ shops were, would have been, as all the bought-in beasts had to be slaughtered. These very noisome activities took place not in out-of-town abbatoirs as they do today, but in the very heart of towns, and butchers didn’t just deal with ready-killed carcasses, they were butchers because they butchered.

So, November. Lots of scoffing, but also plenty of gore. We will have get in some serious eating, anyway, before the abstinence of December and the Advent fast begin.

If you want a recipe, we’ll steer clear of the blood pudding and tripe, in favour of roasted crabs.

I used to think ‘when roasted crabs hiss in the pot’ in Shakespeare’s poem about winter meant the crustacea. Actually he was talking about crab apples – little, hard, tart apples that grow wild as well as in gardens.

And why roast them? Well, if you taste one they are mouth-dryingly tart. If you can be bothered to peel them you can use them just like a normal cooking apple, though with more sugar added. But for ordinary Tudors, sugar was in short supply. If you roast them, however, slowly, taking up to a couple of hours, you will find they have turned sweet enough to eat as they are. You can do it on a barbecue, or a baking tray in the oven, and add some cinnamon if you have some.

Happy November!

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Sugared rose petals – and other lovely Tudor things to do with roses

2014-06-09 15.13.31The hedgerows are covered in wild roses at the moment.

Unlike hybrid tea roses which are a bit tough, wild roses are excellent for eating. Using roses in cookery has gone out of fashion in England in the last few hundred years, though thanks to their being more common in Middle Eastern and North African cookery, you can get rosewater at Lakeland and in many delis. The Tudors, of course, were big on eating flowers, partly for colour and flavour but also because of their ‘virtues’.

‘Virtue’ meant the particular healing or health-giving properties that many plants were believed to contain. These could be physical or psychological. Books, called herbals, listed the virtues of different plants. The idea of foods being medicinal or healthy makes sense to us but it sometimes tipped over into the magical. It wasn’t just plants that had virtues – precious stones could have them too, and a jewel that was thought to have lost its virtue might fetch much less money than one that still had power, say, against epilepsy, or to protect in childbirth.

Anthony Askham‘s Little Herbal, written around 1550, gives this recipe for ‘melrosette’. If you’re interested in Elizabeth I, you might also like to know that Anthony Askham is believed to have been the youngest brother of Roger Ascham, who tutored Princess Elizabeth in Greek and Latin from 1548-50. So while Anthony was writing down recipes, Roger was giving grammar lessons to the future queen.

I’ve updated the spelling but left the language exactly as it is. See? You can follow a Tudor recipe! Easy!

‘Melrosette is made thus. Take fair purified honey and new red roses, the white ends of them clipped away, then chop them small and put them into the honey and boil them meanly [ie for a little while] together; to know when it is boiled enough, you shall know it by the sweet odour and the colour red. Five years he may be kept in his virtue; by the roses he hath virtue of comforting and by the honey he hath virtue of cleansing.’

In other words, the virtue will last for five years. ‘Fair purified honey’ just means normal honey, as far as we’re concerned – it’s a reminder that in the Tudor kitchen or stillroom, things came in different states and you might have to do a fair bit of work on an ingredient before it was ready to use!

 He also suggests several different recipes for a sugar rose syrup. Here is the simplest:

‘Syrup of roses is made thus. Some do take roses dight [done] as it is said and boil them in water and in the water strained they put sugar and make a syrup thereof.’

And another:

‘Some do stamp new roses and then strain the juice out of it and [put] sugar therewith, they make syrup, and this is the best making of syrup. In winter and summer it may be given competently to feeble, sick, melancholy and choleric people.’

‘Melancholy’ and ‘choleric’ mean something more than just ‘sad’ or ‘irritable’. They relate to an idea which dominated Tudor medicine, that people’s health was governed by four ‘humours‘. The humours, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, needed to be in perfect balance, and their relative quantities in your body made you a certain type of person, melancholy, choleric, sanguine or phlegmatic. Personally I think this rose syrup would be nice on ice cream or rice pudding but please don’t feed it to anyone sanguine or phlegmatic – there might be awful consequences… Notice he also specifies that you can eat it in winter or summer. Askham was an astrologer, so he would have known that you had to eat things at the right time of year, as well as being the right type of person. Tudor nutrition was complicated….

The problem with these recipes from our point of view  is that they need a LOT of rose petals. I don’t have old-fashioned roses in my garden and I didn’t want to go and strip all the local hedgerows, so I’m going to show you sugared rose petals, which you can do with just a few, and with no risk of sugar burns. There are Tudor recipes where you dip the rose petal in boiling syrup, but this works just as well.

You need:

rose petals

Not this sort of rose.

Not this sort of rose.

egg white

white sugar (granulated or caster)

a small paintbrush

small scissors

First, gather your rose petals carefully. I didn’t wash mine because it had just been raining so I dried them by gently pressing them between two layers of kitchen roll. You have to make sure not to bruise them, because they’ll turn brown.

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Then use the scissors to trim away most of the white part from the base of each petal (this part is tough and tastes bitter). Spread some sugar out on a plate. Paint each rose petal with egg white, then dip or sprinkle it with sugar until it’s completely covered. Leave to dry overnight.

They are crunchy and ridiculously delicious, like very delicate sweets. I used mine to decorate my daughter’s birthday cake, because she’s nine and that’s her idea of the height of sophistication.

Of course, in Tudor England they would have been pretty sophisticated, because sugar was a luxury item. For this reason, the people we have to imagine using these recipes are wealthy women, who would have learnt sugarcraft as girls and carried on making sweetmeats and preserves even once they were in charge of a whole household with several cooks. And while flavours like this are very good at evoking the sixteenth century, we’d better not forget that sugared rose petals were something most ordinary Tudor people would never even have tasted!

 

Delicious. And all gone.

Delicious. And all gone.