Early Modern Life Story

Top tips for a merry Christmas feast

  We turn to Shakespeare’s plays and The English Housewife for top tips on cooking Christmas dinner

4 minute read

There’s not a lot of kitchen-based action in William Shakespeare’s plays: nevertheless, two very important characters of his ‘play the cook’. In Cymbeline, the kindly exiled lord Belarius says he ‘will play the cook and servant’, getting ready to dish up the spoils of a good day’s hunting. In Titus Andronicus, the title character announces that he will ‘play the cook’ as he prepares to have his enemies for dinner (in every sense of the phrase).

As Christmas approaches, what better way to impress your friends and family than to ‘play the cook’ yourself, and put together the sort of feast that Shakespeare himself might have enjoyed during the festive season? Here are a few hints and tips taken from the 1623 edition of The English Housewife, a bestselling housekeeper’s guide first published in 1615 by Shakespeare’s contemporary and fellow playwright Gervase Markham (1568–1637).

Titus Andronicus in the Globe Theatre, 2014. Photographer: Simon Kane.

First: take your time and make sure everything is clean.

Markham advises that a good cook should be ‘cleanly both in body and garments’, and ‘must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and a ready ear’, but ‘must not be butter-fingered, sweet-toothed, nor faint-hearted’.

Second: A well-cooked joint is essential.

Markham gives sound guidance on roasting meat – be slow and thorough, and check that the juices run clear before you serve it:

set it on a strong fork, with a dripping pan underneath it, before the face of a quick fire, yet so far off, that it may by no means scorch, but toast at leisure […] see that you baste it continually, turning it ever and anon many times […] and as you see it toast so scorch it deeper and deeper, especially in the thickest and most fleshy parts where the blood most resteth: and when you see that no more blood droppeth from it, but the gravy is clear and white; then shall you serve it up […].

Good food hygiene is, of course, vital. A fact about Richard III not mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, but discovered recently by archaeologists, is that he was infected with roundworms, probably as a result of ‘the faecal contamination of food by dirty hands’. Talk about a winter of discontent.

Title page from The English Housewife by Gervase Markham, published in 1615.

Third: remember that even great food can be let down by poor presentation.

A good cook who lacks ‘skill to marshal the dishes’, says Markham, ‘is like a Fencer leading a band of men in rout, who knows the use of the weapon, but not how to put men into order.’ Luckily, he provides a handy checklist:

mix the Fricassees about [the table]; then the boiled-meats amongst the Fricassees, Roast-meats amongst the boiled, Baked-meats amongst the Roast, and Carbonados amongst the baked; so that before every trencher [plate] may stand a Salad, a fricassee, a Boiled-meat, a Roast-meat, a Baked-meat, and a Carbonado, which will both give a most comely beauty to the Table, and very great contentment to the Guest.

This is just the first course. You might consider reinforcing your dinner table.

Mince pies from Swan Bar & Restaurant.

Fourth: leave room for later.

To round off your Shakespearean feast, present your guests with some good old-fashioned mince pies:

Take a Leg of Mutton, and cut the best of the best flesh from the bone, and parboil it well: then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet, and shred it very small: then spread it abroad, and season it with pepper and salt, cloves and mace: then put in good store of currants, great raisins and prunes clean, washed and picked, a few dates sliced, and some orange pills sliced: then being all well mixed together, put it into a coffin [pie crust], or into diverse coffins, and so bake them: and when they are served up open the lids, and strew store of sugar on the top of the meat, and upon the lid.

If everything goes wrong in the kitchen, just remember that a warm and cordial attitude goes a long way towards making your party a success. As Balthazar puts it in The Comedy of Errors, ‘Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast.’ Whatever your plans, may your feasting be merry this festive season.

Note: Spelling has been modernised in all quotations.

FINIS.

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