Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Laws of Eating.

Today the only worries we have in relation to our daily meals are paying the grocery bill, and eating locally and ethically in a manner acceptable to the nutrition police. Mind you, the latter can be quite tricky – it must be low-fat, low-carb (I live in terror of a fashion for low-protein), high-fibre, low GI, additive-free (unless the additives be vitamins, minerals, good bacteria, natural flavours and colours). But I digress. The only real police you might have to worry about are the International Environment Police (I am sure they exist) if you tuck into someone from an endangered species. In the past, it was not always the case, and if you were unlucky or greedy you could fall foul of Sumptuary Laws.

Most sumptuary laws related to what you could or could not wear, but some determined what you could and could not eat. There are a number of reasons for the enactment of sumptuary laws. The moral, of course – to minimise the sins of pride, gluttony, or lust (the degree of neckline plunge has previously been legislated). The economic - to protect people from themselves by reducing the temptation to fall into debt; maybe also to provide jobs (enforcers) and raise revenue (fines)? And, perhaps most importantly - to reinforce the social structure in a very visible way, by ruling that only those of a certain rank could wear fur, or the colour scarlet for example, or have more than a couple of blackbirds in a dish.
In 1517, early in the reign of Henry VIII, to reduce the excessive fare at feasts (isn’t that the whole point of feasts?), it was proclaimed that the number of dishes served depended on the rank of the highest person present. A feast with a cardinal could have nine dishes, a parliamentary lord, lord mayor, or knight of the garter could have six, and (to prove that money also talks) anyone who could spend ₤40 a year or whose fortune was worth ₤500 could have three. The problem with enforcing laws of that kind is that the enforcers are from the same class who enjoy the feasting too, so it has rarely worked in practice.

In 1541, Archbishop Cranmer (the man who facilitated Henry VIII’s divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, converted to Catholicism during the reign of Mary I, then recanted and was burned as a Protestant heretic) took his clergy to task on their indulgent lifestyles. His reforming regulations said that a meal for an Archbishop could include not more than six dishes of meat, and four of ‘second dishes’(what we would now call ‘dessert’ dishes), a bishop five of meat and three of second dishes, a dean or archdeacon four of meat and two of second dishes, and the ordinary clergy only two dishes of meat. The rule was honoured more in the breach than in the observance, and everyone gave up on it after a few months. The details are more interesting in their original language, so here they are, in the words of Henry VIII’s antiquary, John Leland (1506-1552)

“In the yeare of our Lord MDXLI it was agreed and condescended upon, as wel by the common consent of both tharchbishops and most part of the bishops within this realme of Englande, as also of divers grave men at that tyme, both deanes and archdeacons, the fare at their tables to be thus moderated.

“First, that tharchbishop should never exceede six divers kindes of fleshe, or six of fishe, on the fishe days; the bishop not to exceede five, the deane and archdeacon not above four, and al other under that degree not above three; provided also that tharchbishop myght have of second dishes four, the bishop three; and al others under the degree of a bishop but two. As custard, tart, fritter, cheese or apples, peares, or two of other kindes of fruites. Provided also, that if any of the inferior degree dyd receave at their table, any archbishop, bishop, deane, or archdeacon, or any of the laitie of lyke degree, viz. duke, marques, earle, viscount, baron, lorde, knyght, they myght have such provision as were mete and requisite for their degrees. Provided alway that no rate was limited in the receavying of any ambassadour. It was also provided that of the greater fyshes or fowles, there should be but one in a dishe, as crane, swan, turkey cocke, hadocke, pyke, tench; and of lesse sortes but two, viz. capons two, pheasantes two, conies two, and woodcockes two. Of lesse sortes, as of patriches, the archbishop three, the bishop and other degrees under hym two. Of blackburdes, the archbishop six, the bishop four, the other degrees three. Of larkes and snytes (snipes) and of that sort but twelve. It was also provided, that whatsoever is spared by the cutting of, of the olde superfluitie, shoulde yet be provided and spent in playne meates for the relievyng of the poore. Memorandum, that this order was kept for two or three monethes, tyll by the disusyng of certaine wylful persons it came to the olde excesse.”

To assist you to flout the old law, here are a couple of nice recipes from a cookbook of the time – A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye (about 1545)

To make a Custarde.
A Custarde the coffyn must be fyrste hardened in the oven, and then take a quart of creame and fyve or syxe yolkes of egges, and beate them well together, and put them into the creame, and put in Suger and small Raysyns and Dates sliced, and put into the coffyn butter or els marrowe, but on the fyshe dayes put in butter.

For to make wardens in Conserue. [Pears in Syrup]
Fyrste make the syrope in this wyse, take a quarte of good romney and putte a pynte of claryfyed honey, and a pounde or a halfe of suger, and myngle all those together over the fyre, till tyme they seeth, and then set it to cole. And thys is a good sirope for manye thinges, and wyll be kepte a yere or two. Then take thy warden and scrape cleane awaye the barke, but pare them not, and seeth them in good redde wyne so that they be wel soked and tender, that the wyne be nere hande soked into them, then take and strayne them throughe a cloth or through a strayner into a vessell, then put to them of this syrope aforesayde tyll it be almost fylled, and then caste in the pouders, as fyne canel, synamon, pouder of gynger and such other, and put it in a boxes and kepe it yf thou wylt and make thy syrope as thou wylt worke in quantyte, as if thou wylt worke twenty wardens or more or lesse as by experience.

Quotation for the Day …
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. Ernest Hemingway.

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