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Reinventing Tudor Kitchens



Reinventing the Tudor Kitchens

Sandra Lawrence visits Hampton Court and meets a bunch of archaeologists and other experts who are finding out just what went on in those kitchens over the past 600 years

An enormous crash resounds through the high-vaulted kitchen ceiling. Huffing and puffing, two Tudor chefs in baggy breeches, frilly ruffs and codpieces manhandle a hog which has collapsed internally and fallen off its spit into the grate. Another chef hurriedly takes over stirring something grey and gooey.

 “Of course there are one or two people who think this is just messing about,” admits Marc Meltonville, testing the grey gooey stuff while his accomplices continue to heave the carcass back into position. “But we’ve just discovered something very interesting about Tudor meats here.”


Meltonville is part of a team of experimental archaeologists based at Hampton Court Palace, which, far from regarding the department as “messing about,” values their practical research into the kind of food that the palace would have seen over the last six hundred years. By dissecting old recipes, menu lists and banquet records, they are slowly piecing together exactly how the people who would have cooked and eaten that food would have lived. “There are things that you can only find out by actually doing them,” he points out while the other two continue to grapple with the half-roasted hog in the background.

Tudor time-warp

The Tudor Kitchens were re-interpreted in 1991, with the aim of making the visitor feel that they have travelled back in time and that Henry VIII’s chefs had just left the room for a moment. This new, realistic feel gave birth to the idea of experimenting, using the kitchens and utensils themselves to discover how those chefs would have worked.

Each of Meltonville’s team brings their own specialist skill to the project. They do not all come from an archaeological background – one is a trained chef, another a blacksmith. Yet another is a silver worker by trade. Their practical abilities enable them to recreate items which perhaps are only given a passing mention in a letter or menu from an ancient feast. They often have to combine skills – for example a ceramics expert may be forced to use his leatherworking knowledge to fashion a cup from Tudor times after initial research bears rather different fruit from received knowledge.

How were things made?

This is where the real “experimental archaeology” kicks in. In many instances, we just do not know how something was made, let alone used. “We are often regarded as an “edge science,” says Meltonville, clearly smarting from the term. He spends a fair bit of time lecturing to historical societies, explaining how it is a valuable resource. “With the cult of the “Celebrity Chef, cookery is now an extremely popular pastime in Britain, and part of that interest is discovering how our ancestors used ingredients and utensils. Spices in particular are a favourite with visitors and the best way of finding out how they were used is to actually do it ourselves."

Clues from the past

Some culinary records are straight forward – the wreck of Henry VIII’s ship The Mary Rose has fetched up a number of plain wooden plates stamped with Henry’s initials.  It doesn’ take too much imagination to relate these to the kind of general-use crockery of the time.

Other things are less clear cut. Meltonville likens the situation to a modern-day kitchen.  “What would remain of your utensils in a hundred years’ time?” he asks. “That favourite knife that you sharpened and sharpened until it wore away altogether or the spaghetti measure that came free with Woman’s Weekly and stayed unused at the back of the drawer?”

Nothing like the hands-on experience

It’s very easy to get an uneven picture of history if you don’t get your hands just a bit dirty. The team spend much of their time in libraries digging as much as they can from the archives, but eventually they have to resort to trying it out to see if it really works as the books say. It often comes down to trial and error – if one form of twig whisk won’t make egg whites stiffen, they need to try another – asking themselves what would have been available at the time. They are further hampered by the authentic costumes they wear whilst doing so. Although they often work in front of audiences as part of educational demonstrations, this is not just for the benefit of spectators.  

We are NOT actors,” Meltonville states, with the very slightest signs of irritation. “We are taking a job from the past and working out how it was done.” He feels that it is important to know whether puffy sleeves would have been too hot to work in, frilly collars too restricting or codpieces intrusive in the preparation of pies.

Origins of the “spit boy”

“Take this pig,” says team-member Robin Mitchener, in the middle of dismembering the hog that has fallen off its spit. “We now suspect that the title “Spit Boy” would have been derogative rather than literal. No small child could turn something this heavy.” The team are also beginning to realise that the stuffing inside the boar would not just have been for taste – it would have been instrumental in keeping the thing on the slender iron rod which is part of the elaborate equipment remaining at Hampton Court.  

Not, of course, that they are able to use all of the equipment – much of it is far too delicate to bash around these days. The team makes exact replicas, using traditional methods – which often have to be researched themselves - and then work with the new utensils. “We can get very easily sidetracked,” admits Richard Fitch. He then goes on to explain how he became fascinated by the traditional pins that held together his outfit and wasn’t content until he’d built a lathe which could replicate them exactly. Another time they ended up going to the Canary Isles to find saffron substitutes.

The education factor

Although the team are often called in by film makers for advice, their main function apart from recreating Stuart pies and Georgian puddings is educational. As part of the Palace’s educational resources, they take school parties on “interpretative” tours of the kitchens, showing the children how things were done, and getting them to join in on some of the safer tasks. It can be a two-way learning process, the pupils’ questions often leading to new avenues of research and occasionally the odd answer. The tours are extremely popular and need to be booked in advance, but aren’t always restricted to school parties – groups of adults can be catered for too.

Who eats the food?

Sadly the public don’t often get to taste the results of the experiments – modern Health and Safety regulations do not consider ancient methods of food preparation to be particularly hygienic. Looking at the hog being hauled back onto the spit, this is probably a good thing, though the team do occasionally have a banquet amongst themselves.

The “yeuch” factor is never far away. Stuart food, for example, proves a particular problem, there being about two-thirds of recipes the team cannot begin to recreate even in the name of experimentation due to two major ingredients.  Musk – from the private parts of the protected Musk deer – and ambergris which is the grey mucus that comes out of both ends of the endangered sperm whale. Meltonville does not seem overly upset at this. “I mean – who was it first looked at that and thought ‘I think I’ll put it on my dinner?’” he grimaces.

Marc Meltonville and his team spend Mondays and Tuesdays at Hampton Court Palace where they are available for pre-booked tours of the kitchens with school groups. They do three tours each day at 10.30, 11.45 and 13.00 and can take a maximum of 35 on each tour. To book, schools or interested adult groups, should call the education booking line at the palace - 020 8781 9540.



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