"Dishes are carried in, richly scented and steaming: capons stuffed with fruit; venison; coneys in fragrant sauces, piled with thyme and rosemary; calves’ foot jellies and pies of larks and blackbirds with delicate latticed pastry."
The main part of an Elizabethan meal was meat. For the rich this could be pork, beef, lamb, poultry, rabbit, venison or wildfowl. According to law, meat must not be consumed on Fridays or during Lent, with fish eaten instead. At first fruit and vegetables were not as popular, and eaten mainly by the poor, but in the later Elizabethan period exploration and foreign trade were bringing in new varieties only available to the rich. These included peppers, pumpkins and potatoes from the New World, and gooseberries and raspberries from Europe.
New ingredients for the rich - Credit: John Eckert
New spices brought from the east were also incredibly popular, as well as sugar, which came from Asia and was very expensive. The rich ate bread made from white flour, called Manchet bread, and drank wine from Spain and France. Water was too dirty to drink at this time, so ale was used in its place.
Rich Elizabethans loved to create spectacle with food, presenting dishes in exciting new ways and with exotic ingredients in order to show off. Meals would be eaten at a long table with a raised platform at the head for the host and important guests. The dishes were arranged on a side table so guests could choose what they wanted, and glasses also stood at the side. Guests would call a servant when they wanted to drink, who would wipe the cup and return it to the side when they were finished. This prevented anyone from getting too drunk! Desserts were also very popular in the Elizabethan period, and set out alongside the main dishes. Varieties of dessert included cakes, tarts, custards, sugared fruit, and flavoured jellies made from calves’ hooves.
The poor did not enjoy the same variety of food as the rich. They ate less meat and more vegetables, bread made from rye or ground acorns, and could not afford foreign spices. Sugar was too expensive, so honey was used as a sweetener instead. They drank ale, cider, perry (made from pears) or buttermilk.
Below is a clip from the BBC television programme The Supersizers Go Elizabethan, in which Giles Coren and Sue Perkins explore Elizabethan food and dining. It features many of the foods mentioned above, including a calves’ foot jelly ‘the colour of sadness.’