Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Tudor kitchens part two.

In a courtyard overlooked by the windows of the Great Watching Chamber is a strange circular building dating from the 17th century. It once served as a kitchen and gave its name to the courtyard in which it is to be found today. William Kent, he of Chiswick House fame, turned it into a urinal in the 18th century. The Tudor Kitchens themselves were spared such an ignoble fate. Even though they were transformed into grace and favour apartment in the 18th century, their overall structural integrity survived allowing them to be restored to how they might have looked when they  reverberated to the sound of King Henry VIII’s kitchen staff, not that he had ate their food as a rule. The king had his own separate kitchen in which his personal chef prepared meals for him.

Years ago I recall seeing a huge iron cauldron suspended above a fire in the Tudor kitchens. Someone had cheekily left the label of a teabag dangling from the side. Live cookery demonstrations have become a tad more sophisticated ever since the kitchens have been played host to a research project run by Historia, a team of  food archaeologists. Dressed in period costume the latter regularly prepare and present 16th century meals using authentic ingredients and exact replicas of Tudor kitchen utensils. Such demonstrations take place in the historic kitchens on selected weekends throughout the year. Lest it is thought that the picture above contains an anachronism in depicting a Tudor man wearing glasses, Henry VIII sported a similar style. But it is less probable that a mere cook would have been able to afford to buy what was then very much a luxury item.

I have taken the opportunity to attend Historia’s cookery demonstrations as often as I can. I know I was green with envy one Christmas when the Eagle accompanied me to Hampton Court Palace. The cooks were roasting a whole deer to have later. Much as I like venison that was not the source of my envy but the fact they were staying in rooms thought to have formed Anne Boleyn's private apartments before she became queen. Even though I was told that the rooms bore little trace of their Tudor origins, just the possibility that Anne had whiled away many an hour there made me debate whether I ought to consider a new career as a food historian myself if that was one of the perks of the job! Sadly the food historians seem to be an all male bunch. In Henry VIII's time the only known woman employed in the kitchens was a maker of subtleties, which were stunning edible centrepieces crafted out of marchpane, a precursor to marzipan, and gilded with gold and silver leaf. When I went to Hampton Court in December work had begun on a subtlety in the shape of a Tudor warship. By the time I went back in January, even more of the ship had been gilded.

In December, one of the cooks was busy cutting up pieces of meat which they were planning to use on another day. “How do you intend to preserve it?” I asked, imaging that he would reveal arcane methods of meat preservation. “We’ll chuck it in the freezer,” came back the laconic reply. Still, they had used an ancient method of preserving joints of meat by placing them out in the deep snow, which covered the ground in December, although they were concerned that the local foxes might snaffle a frozen meal from Nature's own freezer. 
 I admired the bread in the ovens and asked it the cooks had made them. It seemed they had not as they were fashioned from the finest plastic and constituted part of the permanent display in the kitchens. 

Bread ovens were not only used by the Tudors to bake loaves but also pies. The pastry case itself was not designed to be eaten, only the contents, but the pie crust made an excellent baking dish. 

Sauces were made by boiling cubes of meat in the huge boiling coppers, several of which were still extant. 

Various foodstuffs could be cooked in dishes and pots on the small charcoal fires lit underneath openings in the bench top. I was told that by moving the dishes closer to or further away from the fire or by using different types of metal or earthenware pots and dishes were all ways in which Tudor cooks could adjust the cooking temperature in the absence of a modern thermostat.

“I see you're wearing clothes,” was my opening gambit to the man operating the spit in December. My comment was not as odd as it might have first appeared. Henry VIII was so incensed by the behaviour of the spit boys and scullions that he passed ordinances specifically forbidding them from going around ‘naked, or in garments of such vileness as they do now,” nor were they allowed to “lie in the nights and days in the kitchen or ground by the fireside’.  The man turning the spit said that he did not think the boys would have been completely naked, just stripped to their loincloths. But he added that in painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold; a naked man could be seen turning a spit. I don't know if he was pulling my leg, but despite scrutinizing the painting later I could not observe either spit or naked man and I didn't like to ask the warder on duty to point it out for me. The Tudor spit-boys might have been shameless, but it doesn't mean I am.

I was saddened to discover that Henry's alleged jolly japes with the kitchen staff when he was said to have joined them all for a came of cards, was not wholly true. It is more likely Henry played cards with one of the Sergeants, a post equivalent to a butler in a great household and therefore hardly the most junior of the King’s retinue.

I must say I rather envied the man turning the spit in December. The weather had been incredibly cold and it was hard to tear myself away from the hypnotic warmth of the bright fire. He told me that he had recently completed building an open fireplace in his modern home and that it was a delight to have a real fire blazing away, at which point he was told off by the Master Cook, probably for bringing the 21st century into what was supposed to be a re-creation of the Tudor world. When I returned in early January, they were again roasting meats on spits, this time in readiness to take upstairs to the Great Hall in which Henry VIII, who was in residence along with his fourth and fifth wives, would be dining in public. In reality, Henry usually dined in his own private apartments, served with food from his aforementioned private kitchen.

The Tudor kitchens prepared food for the Tudor equivalent of the staff canteen, with the nobility eating in the senior management dining room, known to posterity as the Great Watching Chamber or in their rooms. I think the junior staff got the better end of the deal, having their meals under the magnificent hammer beamed roof of the Great Hall.

I was unable to identify one of the roasted meats given its size. It seemed more akin to a turkey than a chicken but I was not aware that Tudors of Henry's time were familiar with the bird. The fowl was in fact a capon or castrated chicken. It made my mouth water as did the other spitted meats. I asked whether another bowl contained bread sauce but it seems it was chicken rendered down into what looked to me like an unpalatable mess but which would have found high favour at a Tudor table thanks to its white colour and texture, according to one of the cooks.

The food archaeologists dress according to the specific period they are supposed to be representing. Thus, on one occasion when they were attired as cooks at the Stuart court of James I, one man showed me that his apparent pot belly was actually the fashionable padding in his doublet. I get the distinct impression that much as they love giving demonstrations to the public, they would all be just as happy cooking on their own.
“It must be tough on your partners”, I commented, thinking I would be none too pleased if my (imaginary) beloved vanished over New Year and other bank holidays.
"We were doing this before we met our partners, so they are well used to it by now,” the master cook insisted.    

With all the foods prepared the cooks carried the various dishes to the Great Hall and set them before the king, in readiness for the doors to the Great Hall to be opened so that the general public could file by and take a quick photo of their liege lord guzzling.

When I examined my photos of my December visit I realised there were a few kitchen utensils that I could not identify. On my next visit the cooks explained what they were.Sitting on a table against the kitchen wall was
the wooden base which used to hold the great sharpening stone needed to keep the kitchen knives sharp. On the floor was what is believed to be a rare example of a cast iron medieval pestle and mortar. Or so the food historian told me. There was also a huge pestle and mortar hewn out of white marble.

One important element of the Tudor kitchens that many visitors may well pay scant attention to is Master Carpenter’s Court. It was through here that fresh deliveries passed by on their way to the kitchens, having arrived via the gatehouse. The latter was occupied by the Clerks of the Green Cloth, whose job it was to check and account for all kitchen supplies. Nowadays the gateway is usually firmly barred although it was once opened a few years back to allow the public to gain access to the palace when the Base Court entrance was closed. To entice visitors to explore this otherwise neglected corner of the palace, an audio loop can be heard of the sound of horses' hooves and goods deliveries, possibly in heavy barrels, being made.

To see the Tudor kitchens at their best a visitor would be well advised to try and go along to Hampton Court Palace on a day in which Historia are giving one of their demonstrations. There will be at least one held every month during 2011.