Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine, by William Carew Hazlitt

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Royal Feasts and Savage Pomp.

In Rose’s “School of Instructions for the Officers of the Mouth,” 1682, the staff of a great French establishment is described as a Master of the Household, a Master Carver, a Master Butler, a Master Confectioner, a Master Cook, and a Master Pastryman. The author, who was himself one of the cooks in our royal kitchen, tells Sir Stephen Fox, to whom he dedicates his book, that he had entered on it after he had completed one of a very different nature: “The Theatre of the World, or a Prospect of Human Misery.”

At the time that the “School of Instructions” was written, the French and ourselves had both progressed very greatly in the Art of Cookery and in the development of the menu. DelaHay Street, Westminster, near Bird-Cage Walk, suggests a time when a hedge ran along the western side of it towards the Park, in lieu of brick or stone walls; but the fact is that we have here a curious association with the office, just quoted from Rose, of Master Confectioner. For of the plot of ground on which the street, or at any rate a portion of it stands, the old proprieter was Peter DelaHaye, master confectioner of Charles II. at the very period of the publication of Rose’s book. His name occurs in the title-deeds of one of the houses on the Park side, which since his day has had only five owners, and has been, since 1840, the freehold of an old and valued friend of the present writer.

It may be worth pointing out, that the Confectionery and Pastry were two distinct departments, each with its superintendent and staff. The fondness for confections had spread from Italy — which itself in turn borrowed the taste from the East — to France and England; and, as we perceive from the descriptions furnished in books, these were often of a very elaborate and costly character.

The volume is of the less interest for us, as it is a translation from the French, and consequently does not throw a direct light on our own kitchens at this period. But of course collaterally it presents many features of likeness and analogy, and may be compared with Braithwaite’s earlier view to which I shall presently advert.

The following anecdote is given in the Epistle to Fox: “Many do believe the French way of working is cheapest; but let these examine this book, and then they may see (for their satisfaction) which is the best husbandry, to extract gold out of herbs, or to make a pottage of a stone, by the example of two soldiers, who in their quarters were minded to have a pottage; the first of them coming into a house and asking for all things necessary to the making of one, was as soon told that he could have none of these things there, whereupon he went away, and the other coming in with a stone in his knap-sack, asked only for a Pot to boil his stone in, that he might make a dish of broth of it for his supper, which was quickly granted him; and when the stone had boiled a little while, then he asked for a small bit of beef, then for a piece of mutton, and so for veal, bacon, etc., till by little and little he got all things requisite, and he made an excellent pottage of his stone, at as cheap a rate (it may be) as the cook extracted Gold from Herbs.”

The kitchen-staff of a noble establishment in the first quarter of the seventeenth century we glean from Braithwaite’s “Rules and Orders for the Government of the House of an Earl,” which, if the “M.L.” for whom the piece was composed was his future wife, Mistress Lawson, cannot have seen the light later than 1617, in which year they were married. He specifies —(1) a yeoman and groom for the cellar; (2) a yeoman and groom for the pantry; (3) a yeoman and groom for the buttery; (3a) a yeoman for the ewery; (4) a yeoman purveyor; (5) a master-cook, under-cooks, and three pastry-men; (6) a yeoman and groom in the scullery, one to be in the larder and slaughter-house; (7) an achator or buyer; (8) three conducts [query, errand-boys] and three kitchen-boys.

The writer also admits us to a rather fuller acquaintance with the mode in which the marketing was done. He says that the officers, among other matters, “must be able to judge, not only of the prices, but also of the goodness of all kinds of corn, cattle, and household provisions; and the better to enable themselves thereto, are oftentimes to ride to fairs and great markets, and there to have conference with graziers and purveyors.” The higher officers were to see that the master was not deceived by purveyors and buyers, and that other men’s cattle did not feed on my lord’s pastures; they were to take care that the clerk of the kitchen kept his day-book “in that perfect and good order, that at the end of every week or month it be pied out,” and that a true docket of all kinds of provisions be set down. They were to see that the powdered and salted meats in the larder were properly kept; and vigilant supervision was to be exercised over the cellar, buttery, and other departments, even to the prevention of paring the tallow lights.

Braithwaite dedicates a section to each officer; but I have only space to transcribe, by way of sample, the opening portion of his account of “The Officer of the Kitchen:” “The Master-Cook should be a man of years; well-experienced, whereby the younger cooks will be drawn the better to obey his directions. In ancient times noblemen contented themselves to be served with such as had been bred in their own houses, but of late times none could please some but Italians and Frenchmen, or at best brought up in the Court, or under London cooks: nor would the old manner of baking, boiling, and roasting please them, but the boiled meats must be after the French fashion, the dishes garnished about with sugar and preserved plums, the meat covered over with orangeade, preserved lemons, and with divers other preserved and conserved stuff fetched from the confectioner’s: more lemons and sugar spent in boiling fish to serve at one meal than might well serve the whole expense of the house in a day.” He goes on to describe and ridicule the new fashion of placing arms and crests on the dishes. It seems that all the refuse was the perquisite of the cook and his subordinates in a regulated proportion, and the same in the bakery and other branches; but, as may be supposed, in these matters gross abuses were committed.

In the “Leisure Hour” for 1884 was printed a series of papers on “English Homes in the Olden Times.” The eleventh deals with service and wages, and is noticed here because it affords a recital of the orders made for his household by John Harington the elder in 1566, and renewed by John Harington the younger, his son and High Sheriff of Somersetshire, in 1592.

This code of domestic discipline for an Elizabethan establishment comprises the observance of decorum and duty at table, and is at least as valuable and curious as those metrical canons and precepts which form the volume (Babees’ Book) edited for the Early English Text Society, etc.

There is rather too general a dislike on the part of antiquaries to take cognisance of matter inserted in popular periodicals upon subjects of an archaeological character; but of course the loose and flimsy treatment which this class of topics as a rule receives in the light literature of the day makes it perilous to use information so forthcoming in evidence or quotation. Articles must be rendered palatable to the general reader, and thus become worthless for all readers alike.

Most of the early descriptions and handbooks of instruction turn, naturally enough, on the demands and enjoyments of the great. There is in the treatise of Walter de Bibblesworth (14th century) a very interesting and edifying account of the arrangement of courses for some important banquet. The boar’s head holds the place of honour in the list, and venison follows, and various dishes of roast. Among the birds to be served up we see cranes, peacocks, swans, and wild geese; and of the smaller varieties, fieldfares, plovers, and larks. There were wines; but the writer only particularises them as white and red. The haunch of venison was then an ordinary dish, as well as kid. They seem to have sometimes roasted and sometimes boiled them. Not only the pheasant and partridge appear, but the quail — which is at present scarcer in this country, though so plentiful abroad — the duck, and the mallard.

In connection with venison, it is worth while to draw attention to a passage in the “Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VII” where, under date of August 8, 1505, a woman receives 3s. d. for clarifying deer suet for the King. This was not for culinary but for medicinal purposes, as it was then, and much later, employed as an ointment.

Both William I. and his son the Red King maintained, as Warner shews us, a splendid table; and we have particulars of the princely scale on which an Abbot of Canterbury celebrated his installation in 1309. The archbishops of those times, if they exercised inordinate authority, at any rate dispensed in a magnificent manner among the poor and infirm a large portion of their revenues. They stood in the place of corporations and Poor Law Guardians. Their very vices were not without a certain fascinating grandeur; and the pleasures of the table in which our Plantagenet rulers outstripped even their precursors, the earlier sovereigns of that line, were enhanced and multiplied by the Crusades, by the commencing spirit of discovery, and by the foreign intermarriages, which became so frequent.

A far more thorough conquest than that which the day of Hastings signalised was accomplished by an army of a more pacific kind, which crossed the Channel piecemeal, bringing in their hands, not bows and swords, but new dishes and new wines. These invaders of our soil were doubtless welcomed as benefactors by the proud nobles of the Courts of Edward II. and Richard II., as well as by Royalty itself; and the descriptions which have been preserved of the banquets held on special occasions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even of the ordinary style of living of some, make our City feasts of to-day shrink into insignificance. But we must always remember that the extravagant luxury and hospitality of the old time were germane and proper to it, component parts of the social framework.

It is to be remarked that some of the most disturbed and disastrous epochs in our annals are those to which we have to go for records of the greatest exploits in gastronomy and lavish expenditure of public money on comparatively unprofitable objects. During the period from the accession of Rufus to the death of Henry III., and again under the rule of Richard II., the taste for magnificent parade and sumptuous entertainments almost reached its climax. The notion of improving the condition of the poor had not yet dawned on the mind of the governing class; to make the artizan and the operative self-supporting and self-respectful was a movement not merely unformulated, but a conception beyond the parturient faculty of a member of the Jacquerie. The king, prince, bishop, noble, of unawakened England met their constituents at dinner in a fashion once or twice in a lifetime, and when the guests below the salt had seen the ways of greatness, they departed to fulfil their several callings. These were political demonstrations with a clear and (for the age) not irrational object; but for the modern public dinner, over which I should be happy to preach the funeral sermon, there is not often this or any other plea.

The redistribution of wealth and its diversion into more fruitful channels has already done something for the people; and in the future that lies before some of us they will do vastly more. All Augaea will be flushed out.

In some of these superb feasts, such as that at the marriage of Henry IV. in 1403, there were two series of courses, three of meat, and three of fish and sweets; in which we see our present fashion to a certain extent reversed. But at the coronation of Henry V. in 1421, only three courses were served, and those mixed. The taste for what were termed “subtleties,” had come in, and among the dishes at this latter entertainment occur, “A pelican sitting on her nest with her young,” and “an image of St. Catherine holding a book and disputing with the doctors.” These vagaries became so common, that few dinners of importance were accounted complete without one or more.

One of the minor “subtleties” was a peacock in full panoply. The bird was first skinned, and the feathers, tail, head and neck having been laid on a table, and sprinkled with cummin, the body was roasted, glazed with raw egg-yolk, and after being left to cool, was sewn back again into the skin and so brought to table as the last course. In 1466, at the enthronement of Archbishop Nevile, no fewer than 104 peacocks were dressed.

The most extraordinary display of fish at table on a single occasion took place at the enthronement feast of Archbishop Warham in 1504; it occurred on a fast day; and consequently no meat, poultry or game was included in the menu, but ample compensation was found in the lavish assortment of confectionery, spices, beer and wine. Of wine of various vintages there were upwards of 12 pipes, and of ale and beer, thirty tuns, including four of London and six of Kentish ale.

The narratives which have descended to us of the prodigious banquets given on special occasions by our early kings, prelates and nobles, are apt to inspire the general reader with an admiration of the splendid hospitality of bygone times. But, as I have already suggested, these festivities were occasional and at long intervals, and during the intervening space the great ones and the small ones of mediaeval and early England did not indulge in this riotous sort of living, but “kept secret house,” as it was called, both after their own fashion. The extremes of prodigality and squalor were more strongly marked among the poorer classes while this country was in a semi-barbarous condition, and even the aristocracy by no means maintained the same domestic state throughout the year as their modern representatives. There are not those ostentatious displays of wealth and generosity, which used to signalise certain political events, such as the coronation of a monarch or the enthronement of a primate; the mode of living has grown more uniform and consistent, since between the vilain and his lord has interposed himself the middle-class Englishman, with a hand held out to either.

A few may not spend so much, but as a people we spend more on our table. A good dinner to a shepherd or a porter was formerly more than a nine days’ wonder; it was like a beacon seen through a mist. But now he is better fed, clothed and housed than the bold baron, whose serf he would have been in the good old days; and the bold baron, on his part, no longer keeps secret house unless he chooses, and observes, if a more monotonous, a more secure and comfortable tenor of life. This change is of course due to a cause which lies very near the surface — to the gradual effacement of the deeply-cut separating lines between the orders of society, and the stealthy uprise of the class, which is fast gathering all power into its own hands.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42