Kitchen confidential: The taste of history

Old English cooking: hearty, heavy, crude. Right? Utterly wrong. Research for a novel about a master chef of the 17th century opened up a lost world of subtle flavours.

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The Independent Culture

Red-faced cooks stirring cauldrons of stew, oxen rotating on roasting-spits, a boar's head with the inevitable apple in its mouth... English cuisine has never been judged a delicate art. The only way to eat well in the British Isles, foreign visitors used to be advised, was to have breakfast three times days. And if English cuisine was bad, what about historical English cuisine?

I have just finished a novel set largely in the kitchens of the 17th century. John Saturnall's Feast tells the story of an orphan who rises to become the greatest chef of his age. As I first conceived it, John's ascent would be a struggle from the squalor of the scullery to the excesses of the top table, boar's heads, roast oxen and all. The cuisine would be a kind of battlefield on which the chefs would hack and spit-roast their way to success. But as I began to read the recipe books of the time, a quite different picture emerged.

Poach lampreys, advises Sir Kenelm Digby in "The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Open'd", for the time it takes to say an Ave Maria. He goes on to tell how to skin them (use a napkin) and suggests a way to flavour and preserve them in clarified butter. Meanwhile, Elinor Fettiplace gives instructions to make the finest sugar syrup: first grind the sugar-cake to a powder, then introduce it via a hollow goose-quill into a washed-out and inflated pig's bladder, then suspend the whole assemblage by a thread over a simmering bath of hot water for a day.

Cured hams were not hacked but served with "quiddanies of quinces" and wafer-thin pastries. Delicate liaisons were whisked and flavoured with spices imported from the Guinea Coast and the Indies. Measuring cooking-times by prayer-lengths and temperatures by distinguishing between seething and rolling boils (or by boiling an egg until the part showing above the water was "no greater than a hazel-nut"), those red-faced cooks produced a technically sophisticated and cosmopolitan cuisine far beyond my expectations.

At the same time, it was not a cuisine for the faint-hearted. A recipe for "Essence of Roses" begins, "Take some sackfuls of petals and shred them fine." Some sackfuls? How long would that take without a blender?

An "approved remedy for Biting of a Mad Dog" directs the apothecary-cook to "Take a quart of Ale and a dram of Treacle, a handful of Rue and a spoonful of shavings or filings of Tin", while Robert May's directions for a "Subtlety" - or table centre-piece - describes a marzipan sculpture in the shape of a stag from which red wine would flow like blood when the beast was "shot".

The labour to produce such creations was prodigious, from the Master Cook down to the kitchen-boys and scullions who (using dissolved wood-ash as detergent) washed up pots, pans, plates and trencher boards. Households of a hundred people were not uncommon, and the different ranks ate different foods. Three kinds of bread might be baked in a day: cheat bread (from barley, rye and perhaps dried beans), maslin (rye and wheat) and finest white manchet (fine-ground wheat flour only).

Household accounts for celebrations like Hock-tide or Twelfth Night Feasts list gargantuan quantities of produce. The kitchens at Hampton Court, built in the 1530s, served upwards of 600 meals twice a day. Here Henry VIII famously banned his scullions from going about naked, such was the heat from the fires, and a visiting ambassador described the hearths as visions of hell. This vast infernal region got through 1200 oxen a year, half as many pigs again and 600,000 gallons of beer.

The kitchen in John Saturnall's Feast is an amalgam of Hampton Court and the much smaller one at Ham House. Built in 1610 on the banks of the Thames, west of London, Ham is unique in preserving its original 17th-century kitchens. In the basement a warren of little rooms comprise the "Lower Offices": the kitchen, the scullery, a Servants Hall, a laundry, several pantries, a wet larder, a still-house (for distilling essences and tinctures), a "Wash House", a dairy-room, even a "Confection Roome". Household inventories list equipment from spits (nine in all, four for larks) to flesh-forks (still something of a novelty) to an "oyster table" (for the Steward's Hall upstairs). Sieves were made of horse-hair. Whisks were bundles of birch twigs. Rye pastry was cut with jiggers and fitted into coffin-moulds which were filled with meat and sealed with butter. Kept cool, the meat in the "coffins" could be stored over winter.

Fire was a constant hazard, both from the open hearths and the rush-lights (rushes soaked in mutton fat) clipped in iron brackets to the walls. They dripped, smoked and provided a fitful (but economical) light. In Ham's West Passage, leather buckets dangling from the ceiling are the 17th-century equivalent of a fire hose. In case of fire, the buckets would have been passed hand to hand from the river, 200 yards away.

This was John Saturnall's world. Almost everything was done by hand, from turning spits to kneading dough to salting pork for winter. Working conditions were cramped and the hours ran from first light to long after dusk. A kitchen boy could expect to receive £1, 6s per year plus bed and board; a trained cook might make four times that sum. The kitchen hierarchy was rigid and upward progress was slow. Yet, after reading the etiquette manuals, receipt (or recipe) books, memoirs and family recipe collections, I would say English cooking in the early 17th century reached heights it has yet to regain.

Middle Eastern influences from the Crusades mixed with the continental cuisine that passed as French (or Italian, via Marie de Medici's chefs). Both collided with the native English tradition of roasts and such traditional delicacies as Quaking Puddings and "a smoothening Quiddany of Quinces", which was an English version of the Spanish membrillo. The result of this three-way collision was an eclectic, adventurous and technically vigorous hybrid. John Evelyn's Aceteria identifies 73 ingredients appropriate for "sallets", among them wood sorrel, viper-grass, succory and Jack-by-the-Hedge. A survey of diets in the late 16th century listed 225 kinds of food consumed by the English. Today 95 per cent of our diet comes from just 18 foodstuffs.

Far from being dulled by endless stews, 17th-century palates were stretched by a diverse cuisine, rich with bold flavours. One of the pleasures of writing this book was formulating the contemporary dishes which preface each chapter. A more humbling experience was failing (over several attempts) to cook a single one.

But that world of bold tastes and subtle flavours was short-lived. The English Civil War which began in 1642 swept away the great kitchens and broke the supply-chains on which they depended. In the British Library a vast collection of broadsheets, pamphlets and propagandist news-sheets, known as the Thomason Tracts, documents the chaotic conflict that followed. Famously, Cromwell "abolished" Christmas, but a more serious blow was his confiscation of the estates of his Royalist enemies. What, I wondered, if you were a cook? What would you do?

John Saturnall's path through that "brokeback Age" (as he calls it) takes him back to the prehistory of cooking, to a lost Eden and a feast in which all sat together as equals. Cromwell's Commonwealth can be seen as a warped version of that Eden and the restoration of the monarchy as another. But both are poor imitations.

The cuisine that returned with Charles II was a copy, an attempt to recreate a world which had vanished. Certain fruits simply disappeared (we no longer know what "sweet lemons" were) and certain techniques were lost. After the Restoration there is little mention in recipe books of distilled essences and tinctures. Sauces were thickened with cream rather than egg-white, making them heavy. In general, French models were followed, notably the recipes in Varenne's Le cuisinier françois. In place of genuine innovation came fads such as the "cordial waters" which the editor of the Countess of Kent's recipes added to her collection, describing them as "diet drinks". Apparently they became very fashionable.

"A cook leaves no monument save crumbs," John remarks ruefully. But John Saturnall's Feast stands as a memorial to his vanished world, to its tastes and smells, its textures, sights and sounds. On that point (even if on no other) I hope I've proved my Master Cook wrong.

'John Saturnall's Feast' by Lawrence Norfolk is published by Bloomsbury on 13 September, price £16.99