Tudor Kentwell

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Cooking, Sixteenth-Century Style


I spoke in an earlier entry about the difference in awareness of time then and now. This isn’t just my Kentwell experience talking; my academic head would argue the same thing. One obvious area in which this is clear is in the recipe books.

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an explosion in publishing. Partly inspired by advances in printing technology (it’s hard to publish much without a printing press) and partly by the development of a meritocratic elite who sought to learn how to portray themselves as fit their status, the presses churned out books on handwriting, etiquette, music, clothing and embroidery as well as the more obvious poetry and plays with which we’re familiar today. This was a society obsessed with the new, be it in music, clothing or art; an interest in new tastes and new foods was thus simply part of wider Jacobethan culture. It was this obsession with copying the new and exotic fashions of court which drove the publication of high status cookbooks, many of which survive – and are readily accessible - today.

Reading these recipes, the different approach to time is clear. I can’t imagine, in my modern kitchen, cooking a dish that would be several days in the making, but it’s not at all unusual for Tudor recipes to instruct the cook to simmer or soak or dry something for days. Equally, precise cooking times are often hazy; sometimes recipes do include information on times (“cook for one hour”) but more often they’ll simply say “cook until it is done”.

So, with this in mind, I decided this event was the time to try out a recipe that I knew would take three days or so to do: puddings of hog’s liver.

First, I extracted a piece of pig’s liver from the kitchen. I boiled it until it was cooked, then – waste not want not – used the water to boil barley for frumenty to eat then and there. The liver was left to cool, and grated.

On the second day I mixed the liver with breadcrumbs, flour, cream, sugar, salt, pulped apple, eggs and ginger. It looked vile. I took a strip of muslin, sewed it into a tube, and dropped tennis ball size blobs of the liver mixture into it, tying the tube with string between each blob. This, by the way, was an anachronistic cheat, as cooking puddings in bags dates from about fifty years after Kentwell. In the sixteenth century, liver puddings such as this should be cooked in intestines, but my butcher looked at me funny when I asked for some. (Befuddled butchers are – alas – but one of the difficulties facing the twenty-first century Tudor cook.)

The liver-filled bag was boiled for a couple of hours or so, before being taken out and hung by the fire. It caused much amusement amongst the punters who had obviously never seen anything like it. That, I decided, made the exercise worth-while, even if the puddings themselves turned out to be inedible.

On the third day, the puddings were removed from the bags. This was a messy business as they tended to stick, and I ended up with something the consistency of day-old cat-food smeared over my apron. The puddings were sliced, coated in oil, and baked in a hot oven, before being served forth.

They were delicious.

My Family

At Kentwell, I am known as Peronel Hawkins. Hawkins is a significant name, because it connects me with the convoluted heart of one of the largest families on the manor. The Hawkins clan – and I don’t think any of us truly know our numbers – sprawl somewhat chaotically across most of the barnsward area. I have at least two brothers – Harry and Robin - a number of aunts, and innumerable cousins. I’m related by blood or marriage to nearly everyone in the barns, and am linked to a number more by the vowed ties of god-parentage.

Kentwell families are strange things. Relationships are created lightly enough, by mutual agreement, often to serve the needs of a station. It’s easier, after all, to justify working with someone if you’re related to them in role. Why would I – new participant and single woman – be working in an apothecary’s shop? Why, I’m working for my brother, one Harry Hawkins.

In-spite of how easily they’re created, Kentwell families have real emotive significance; I greet Harry as brother when I meet him, whether it’s on or off the manor, and was honoured to pose for a Kentwell family portrait at his real-life wedding. It was thus with great sadness that, for a summer at least, I stepped away from my Kentwell family in order to join the gentry. The gentry – unlike nearly everyone else on the manor – take on the roles of real, historical figures, and thus have a different, assigned, name and back-story every year. As Ursula Crane – sister to the Mistress of Kentwell Hall – I could no longer be a Hawkins.

Strange as it sounds, for the first time it felt as if I was acting. This summer, at Kentwell, I was being Peronel Hawkins playing Ursula Crane.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Difference of Time

Yesterday, my Tudor self was woken by dawn and birdsong, and walked down a country lane to work. The first job, of course, is lighting a fire - not unpleasant, and a good way to ease gently into the tasks of the day.

Tomorrow, my twenty-first century self will be woken by the alarm clock. It will be too early, of course - alarm clocks always are - but if I don't leave on time I'll hit the traffic, and then I'll be late. Being late is the cardinal sin. My day is divided into meagre fifteen minute portions, and if I'm even five minutes behind it's a problem. I spend my day chasing my tail and trying to catch up.

One of the commonest questions visitors ask is "How long does it take?" It's a hard one to answer. After all, what measure of time is meaningful to my Tudor self? She's probably never seen a clock and, even if she had, it wouldn't function to modern standards of accuracy. One measure of time comes from the church, whose bells ring out twice-daily for the new Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. I can talk about "the length of time it takes to say a Pater Noster" or "as long as an Ave" or "until a candle has burnt half down", but it's all pretty arbitary. In practice, the day is divided simply into before dinner and after dinner; before prayer and after prayer; before dawn and after dawn.

So the honest answer to "How long does it take?" is "It takes as long as it takes." "It is ready when it is ready." That - it seems to me - is a way of viewing time that modern society has lost.

I try and bring some of that awareness into my life outside Kentwell. I don't wear a wristwatch - most reenactors don't, because the tan-mark is an obvious anachronism when we're in role - and I find there are enough clocks around that it's rarely a problem. I try and cultivate forgetfulness of time, because I do my best work when I'm fully absorbed in it, and I can't be so if I'm keeping half an eye on the second hand. I try and be aware of the rhythms of the day, and bend myself to them, rather than allowing the day to be framed by the demands of the clock.

Right now, it is just before dusk and, in the distance, the church bells are ringing.

I am *clean*

I've now been home from Kentwell for a few hours and - already - the experience is fading. It's amazing: when I'm at Kentwell it's hard to remember that I have a normal life in the real world, one in which there's electricity and running water; when I'm home from the manor life there assumes a hazy unrealness, as if it's something I've been told about, that happened to someone else.

I primarily remember Kentwell in little chunks of sensory experience. A big part of that is the difference between clean and dirty. Normally, I'm a two baths a day girl (we will not mention my Lush addiction) but, at Kentwell, that goes completely out of the window.

To give some idea of how grubby I was, let me briefly describe what I've been up to. I arrived on the manor on saturday morning, dressed in smock, petticoat and kirtle, and promptly lit two fires. Not small, tidy fires, but great big ones, one of which is inside an oven. This means kneeling in ashes and - to light the oven - sticking my left arm and shoulder deep into an ash-lined brick tunnel. This is not a way to stay tidy.

Over the past three days I've chopped I don't know how many vegetables, cleaned dozens of pots, shredded liver and gutted a pheasant. As a consequence, I left the manor smeared in a liberal mixture of sweat, ash, pig fat and pheasant guts. I'm also covered with what I'm pretty sure are flea bites. Nice.

Remember that smock I put on saturday morning? I've worked and slept in it since then, and only peeled it off last thing yesterday evening after I'd arrived home.

So it's no suprise that hot soapy water feels good.