Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | June 22, 2010

Musings of a Rennie – It’s the 16th century…What’s for dinner?

It’s the 16th century…What’s for dinner?

Yeah, yeah.  I know I should be saying, “And what do we take for our repast this day?”  …or something like that.  Whatever…

Anyway – one of the things that I’ve been doing at faire is cooking as a way to feed my family of four without going broke buying faire food.  (Besides, I don’t do well eating all those “fast foods”.)  And since I am cooking in my guild’s encampment, I need to cook foods that are period appropriate.

Which brings up one of the ideas that I have been tussling with…I want to work with foods that would have been available to a commoner, not just those a noble can access.  Remember, my faire character is a woman of lower middle class/craftsman class.  This means that I’m researching who had access to what.  There actually are quite a few foods that we can access today that were staples (or at least familiar) for common folks in the Renaissance. Yes, pomegranate, lemons, oranges, figs and dates would have been accessible because of importing, but these would have been luxuries depending on your Renaissance budget.  (My aunt-in-law in Idaho still experiences this accessibility problem.  Lemons in her little community are poor little lonely things that can be $1.00 each while I’ve got them by the bucket load on my little tree in Northern California.)

There are the arguments that we can cook turkey and potatoes because those foods had made it to England by the time we reenact being there.  But if you look at the history, you find out that only certain folks (nobles/rich) could get turkeys because they weren’t a commonly available animal.  Yes, Henry VIII had it, but he got it because he married Katharine of Aragon and got access to Spain’s pantry. Your basic commoners, like my group portrays, wouldn’t have just run to the butcher to pick one up.  In Reay Tannahill’s book, Food in History, she writes that the turkey-cock reached England in about 1523 by way of the “Levant or Turkey merchants”.and that “When Archbishop Cranmer framed his sumptuary laws of 1541 he classed turkey –cocks with bird of the size of crane and swan,” which means (to this poor beginner researcher’s brain) that you had to have the coin to pay that sumptuary tax on the turkey.  Other mentions are a Sir William Petre who had turkeys along with partridges, pheasants, guinea-hens at his Essex estate around the 1540s, and William Strickland of Boynton-on-the Wold being granted a crest of arms that had a turkey cock on it in 1550.  (Gads, I love this book.)

Yes, potatoes were around, but they were grown as ornamentals in private gardens (again quite limited access/rarity).  According to Jon Gardener, a royal gardener in 1440 (wrote a poem/booklet called A Treatise on Gardening) the potato was included as ornamentals in private gardens – again quite limited access/rarity.  Yes, potatoes were adopted by the Spanish as basic ships’ stores soon after Spain began shipping silver from Peru; and potatoes were common in Seville about 1573.  Potatoes had lost their status as a delicacy in Italy by 1601.  However, throughout Europe there were some mixed ideas about  the potato, and they weren’t eaten for a long time in England.  Your basic white potatoes started to show up in English markets about 1640s. (One proponent said it was good for stopping “fluxes of the bowels”, increased fertility, and was restorative.  Others thought it was a cause of leprosy.  Some people knew it was related to nightshade, and nightshade  isn’t a recommended veggie.  Really – I adore this book by Tannahill.)

Whenever I run into people that want to argue these facts, I just let them decide for themselves.  I figure that for my character and place, I wouldn’t have gone through the hassle or cost to acquire those items.  I needed food that would feed a bunch of people for a reasonable cost – just like today.  So the dinner menus I work on tend to be pretty low cost, filling food.

Anyway – at Valhalla Renaissance Faire this year, due to an emergency, I stepped up and helped plan the mystery ingredients for the Cast Iron Chef competition.

First, let me explain what the Cast Iron Chef competition is.  It is when various guilds/participants compete in a cooking contest where they are given a surprise ingredient to use.  In past years,  ingredients have included stout beer, sharp cheddar cheese, tart apples and dried fish.  (People were NOT happy with the dried fish.  I’ve heard stories!)

My guild is known for sponsoring the competition.  The usual person in charge of it was unable to attend and so three of us became  replacements.  One person complained that the competition was getting a little flat and staid because many competitors would plan on creating dishes that they could then incorporate the mystery ingredient into.  She suggested that we resurrect the surprise basket.  The three of us looked at each other.  You could see the wheels turning.  It is always entertaining when twisted minds get together and start sharing ideas.  So. Much. Fun.

So on the day of the Cast Iron Competition, we unveiled…whiting, rustic apple cider vinegar (the kind with the sediment still in it), and very old mace (remember it took YEARS for spices to make it from origin to the markets).  The competitors were given the instructions that all three ingredients had to be incorporated into the one dish.

Why those ingredients?  Well, firstly we wanted to pick things that were commonly available to all classes portrayed at faire.    I also wanted to look at the history.  I thought that we should use fish because of the various fish days that were common in the Renaissance.  Yes, it started with the restrictions of the Catholic faith, but then I found that there was a movement to increase fish consumption after the break with the Church in an effort to support the English fishing industry.  Have you heard of “Cecil’s Fast”?  Go check this out:

Secondly, we wanted to pick items that showed the skill of the cooks.  Any one of these items can be challenging.  Fish is easy to over cook, can taste “fishy”, can be overpowered by the way it is prepared.  Apple cider vinegar is strong, pungent, bold.  Mace is a spice that has fallen out of favor and many people are unfamiliar with nowadays.  If used with a heavy hand, it can be strong and astringent.  Too little, and it is lost.  The mace we used was very old – a bonus in our eyes as it probably did approximate the quality available by the time that the spice made it to the markets.

Right.  So you’re thinking, “All three ingredients together?  What can you make with these things?”  Let me tell you, the competitors were clever.  We had pecan-crusted whiting on a bed of rice; tarts filled with nuts, fruit, whiting; sauteed fish with a vinegar, onion and mace sauce; fish fried in butter and spices and served with light cheese sauce; fish with a sweet and sour kind of marmalade of vegetables.  The judges had to choose the winner based on presentation, flavor and period accuracy.   It was great fun.  It was particularly funny to find out that the winning cooks don’t like fish and had their guildmates do the taste testing throughout the dish preparation.

The taste testing after the judging was fabulous and stimulating.  But what was more interesting for me was to hear some comments afterward about how the winner was selected.  One person said that the winning entry actually disguised the flavors of the ingredients rather than highlighted them.  I agreed.  There was also discussion about how fancy dish presentations/concoctions get an advantage over the peasant dishes.  Personally, I had a problem with how period appropriate the dishes were.  (Did you know that pecans and cranberries are new world foods specific to Northern America? Well you should!  Come on folks…do a little research.) The rice was appropriate for the group who used it because they were Italian.  But it made me think about how these dishes could have been served in various households of the groups we portray.

I think that if we really research who we are portraying, what we can afford and eat as well as wear, we can bring a deeper reality of the characters we are developing.  It makes sense that the noble household would have a fancy tart filled with sweetens and exotic spices.  It makes sense that a working class household would have a simple but filling dish of good flavor.  So here’s to the cooks in my guild and others who make pancakes and sausages and roasted coney and creamed spinach and fruit tarts in the fire pit!

Next time you are walking faire, follow your nose.  You might be invited for dinner.

Aunt Magaidh


For the curious out there: The prize for the competition was an assortment of fishy items.  Canned anchovies, fish fry batter mix, Swedish fish candies, and every flavor of goldfish crackers available!  We hope the winners enjoy them!



  1. Thanks for the link to the Elizabeth Files. I want you to know that your excitment and passion is carrying over to others. Your fresh eyes and happiness are contagious.

    Love you!!

  2. Yeay! I love starting snowballs!

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