When we talk about the Tudors, we generally split the period into two separate halves: the time of the great King Henry VIII, and that of his even more famous daughter, Elizabeth I. Interestingly though, between these two sections, the diet didn’t really change all that much – in fact, Medieval food was all very similar to Tudor food. And Tudor food was very similar to Stuart food. The food revolution that changed Great Britain for good didn’t happen until much later. What did happen at this point, however, was a massive change in society, with everything getting just a little bit better for all involved.
When it came to the attitudes of those in Henry’s court, everything centred around England and how wonderful the country was. Everyone wanted to be known for the best produce, and anything which would make England better (even though it was obviously already the best country in the world).
With Elizabeth in power, things changed a little bit and the focus switched to the idea of expansion. At this stage, the whole word had gone through a grand rebirth, so every country was discovering incredible things in science and art. Ship designs changed to allow trading to cover longer distances in shorter times, which kicked off a massive race all over the world to bring in the best imports possible.
The attitudes of those in the Elizabethan court focussed far less on what people had, and more on what they had managed to bring into their country from across the globe. For Tudors in the time of Henry, the spice trade only went as far as Venice. The Arabs traded with the Venetians who, in turn, traded with the rest of Europe.
If you asked the same question of an Elizabethan, they would have been able to list off countries all over Africa which their ships had visited to trade. Traders travelled all around India, all the way to China and – eventually – right the way across to America. The change that had the biggest impact on society was sugar. Elizabethans loved sugar, but originally had to source it from Persia where it was processed. By the end of the Elizabethan era, however, the English had come across plenty of other countries where they could grow their own sugar, halting their trade with the Persians.
The English began to grow their own sugar in the West Indies, which lowered the price to a significant degree. Taking it a step further, sugar processing factories were set up in London and Bristol, further lowering the price. The sweetener which was once reserved for royalty was slowly becoming available to more and more people.
Another interesting item to take into consideration when discussing the Elizabethan banquet is the rather interesting banqueting trencher. This entertaining item served a similar purpose to a Christmas cracker: the cracker is pulled, the terrible joke is read out, and everyone has a chance to bond over this terrible joke that has just been told. Although the banqueting trencher was a little more beautiful and less disposable than a Christmas cracker, the idea was very much the same as it held a little political message or a joke in the middle. Once this secret message has been read, everyone would discuss it and share a laugh or a groan, much in the same way as they would with a Christmas cracker. With this activity complete, the diners could flip over their trenchers and use the plain side of the dish to hold their food.