Urban myths. Urban myths everywhere.
1. Meat was off the menu on Friday.
Okay, this is a tricky one.
Strictly speaking, Wednesdays and Fridays were named as ‘fish days’ by the church, meaning that meat was not to be eaten. However, for the rich and elite, beaver tail, porpoise and goose were all considered to be ‘fish’, so these items remained on the menu.
2. Tudors ate with forks.
While forks were used in Tudor times, they were only used by the king himself. King Henry VIII had a fork which he used to eat sugary preserves. For everyone else, food was generally served in portions sized perfectly for the mouth, so they could be politely and neatly eaten with a knife alone.
3. In the 16th century beer was drunk instead of water because water was deemed unsafe for drinking.
As common as unsafe drinking water was in the 16th century, clean drinking water was available – especially if you lived somewhere like Hampton Court. Water was sourced from springs on Coombe Hill, three miles away from the palace. This water was piped right under the filthy River Thames to ensure that Hampton Court always had clean drinking water available.
This water was also used to fill the King’s bath, privies and fountain, along with the Great Kitchens, which required a great amount of water for the incredible amount of cooking that was carried out there every day.
4. Spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten or spoiled meat.
… for the gentry fresh meat, newly slaughtered on the manor farm, was in fact available through much of the year, while poultry was never killed until it was needed for the table… palates were accustomed to strong aromatic flavours, unspiced foods tasted insipid.
– Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century
Have you ever managed to disguise rotten meat? No? Shocking.
Herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon and mace were often used in Tudor dishes, but it had nothing to do with spoiled meats. Owing to the fact that they had to be imported, the ability to purchase spices was a way of showing guests that the host had a certain amount of status and abundance. You just need to look at the recipe for peas-porridge to see that vegetables often had just as many spices added as meat dishes, with recipes requiring a great deal of thyme, sage, onions, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and many other spices.
If we can afford fresh meat, it’s fairly safe to say that the likes of Henry VIII could too.
5. Henry VIII didn’t eat fruit.
As much as Henry loved meat, he also had a great love of fruit. The great king was especially keen on pears, plums, strawberries, cherries and apples. While married to Katherine of Aragon, Henry developed a taste for marmalade made from the oranges which Katherine had made popular from her native Spain. His only real limitation on the fruit front was the common belief that fresh fruit could cause fevers, so Henry ate his fruit preserved in sugar or baked into pies. Yum!
6. King Henry VIII was a messy eater.
As much as we love the image of Henry VIII throwing a chicken drumstick over his shoulder as he aggressively ate his dinner, this simply isn’t accurate. Henry was actually a pretty fussy eater. The king was always careful to wash his hands before, during and after eating, following a strict routine. His feasts were a delicate and considerate affair, where he was carefully presented a range of different dishes to choose from, eating his chosen meal as neatly as we would today.