Monthly Archives: July 2012

16th Century Food

Mrs Beeton documented the domestic and culinary aspirations of a Victorian household, but what rules and regulations were in force prior to that I wonder?  And what were people in Cambridge eating?

Two questions with somewhat elusive answers unless one has the inclination to take on a huge research project.

However, some fairly speedy research did uncover a 16th century cookbook, reproduced by Corpus Christi College.  A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye was compiled around 1557-8 and written by Margaret Parker, the then Master’s wife.

The book gives us an insight into the daily routine of a medieval kitchen, albeit a College kitchen.  Books of that period were more like broad lists of ingredients and suggestions without detailed instructions for preparation and cooking.

However these were the days when there was elaborate protocol for ceremonial meals.  Etiquette was observed in the seating order and in the placing of the salt which divided the more important guests from the rest.

Care too was taken in the order in which dishes were to be sent out to the tables. In an age without refrigeration  seasonal local produce was essential to health and digestion. The main meal was usually served around midday, with a light supper in the evening.

Not surprisingly the cooks in the 16th century used a large variety of fresh produce, combined with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, rosewater and saffron from the fields of Essex.  Only the wealthy used sugar.   Dried fruits such as raisons, prunes and dates were imported and an extraordinary variety of fish, meat and birds were prepared in the kitchens of the well to do.


Fish was always served on Fridays during Lent.  However, during Elizabeth 1’s reign Wednesday was also declared a fish day to encourage the fishing industry.

The seasons dictated what was on the table. Mrs Parker set the tone of the book with the following opening lines:

Declaring what manner of

Meats be best in season,

for all times of the year,

and how they ought

to be dressed, and

served at the table,

both for flesh

days and fish



So we learn that ‘Brawn (usually wild board meat) is best from a fortnights before Michaelmas (about mid September) until Lent (between February and March). Beef and bacon are good all year round.  Lamb and young kid (goat) are best between Christmas and Lent, and good from Easter to Whitsun (April to June).’

‘Peacocks are always good and when young and of a good size are as good at pheasants.  Cygnets are best between All Hallows Day (1 November) and Lent.’ The list goes on and includes: blackbirds, thrushes and robins.

It seems that anything fury or feathery was a candidate for the cook-pot.

Cambridge’s proximity to the Fenland waterways meant that fish was also plentiful.  Herring, Ling, Conger, Shad, Mackerel, Perch, Tench, Mullet and Bass are some of the fish that were regularly eaten.

A fish recipe:


‘A Pyke Sauce for a Pyke, Breme, Perche, Roche, Carpe, Eles, Floykes, and al maner of Brouke Fyshe

Take a posy of rosemary and thyme and bind them together, add a quantity of unbound parsley and put it in a large pot of water.  Add salt and yeast to the herbs and boil for a good period of time.   Then put in the fish with a good quantity of butter and bring back to the boil, and you should have a good pike sauce.’

A meat recipe:

‘For to Stewe Mutton

Take a neck and a breast of mutton to make a strong broth and skim it clean.  After it has boiled for a while, take out some of the broth and put into another pot with a pound of raisins and boil until tender.  Then strain a little bread with the raisons and the broth and chop thyme, savory and parsley with the other small herbs.  Add these to the mutton and then put in the raisons and whole prunes, cloves and mace, pepper, saffron and a little salt.  If you like, you may also stew a chicken or else a sparrow or such other little birds.’

Like Mrs Beeton  much later, Mrs Parker’s cookery book was aimed at those could afford the luxury of  a regular meal and imported goods to flavour their food.

but also shows us how people relied on seasonal, trapped and foraged foods.  That sounds very topical at the highest end of haute cuisine in the 21st century.