Twenty five years is a long old time to be doing something, even when you love it as much as we all do working in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
Since we started cooking in the Tudor kitchens way back at the start of the 1990’s, an awful lot has changed. Staff have come and gone, and indeed gone on to greater things like an MBE (we’d like to think because of what was learned with us), and we’ve dallied with all sorts of periods of historical interpretation from mediaeval and Tudor, through Stuarts and Georgians, right up to the 1940’s and beyond. Through all that time, the one constant has been the use of surviving recipes to drive what we have done.
Recipes have been the foundation of the interpretation work, driving the search for equipment, ingredients and techniques…but the problem is there’s absolutely no evidence for the sort of things we’ve been doing ever taking place in the space that we have to work within and no evidence that any of the surviving recipes we have to work from were ever cooked at Hampton Court!
Last year we took some small steps to help address this by instigating the Daily Roasting within the Kitchens as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations for Hampton Court Palace. The main rooms we have to work in were designed for roasting meat in, that’s what the six large fireplaces around the walls were for, so having roasting on display for our visitors to see and interact with, truly was history where it happened, one of the core principles for interpretation within Historic Royal Palaces. This period of 151 consecutive days of roasting was an immense success…in short, everyone loved it from staff to visitors; it ticked so many boxes that define what a successful interpretation project is that we’d be stupid to leave it as a one-off thing.
With this in mind we’re bringing it back for the upcoming 2016 but with one subtle tweak!
From March 25th through to October 21st we will be presenting Encounters in the Tudor Kitchens where the Tudor kitchens of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace will be brought to life with the sights, sounds and smells of daily roasting. The Historic Kitchens Team and the State Apartment Warders within the kitchens, will be working together to give our visitors a sense of the function and history of the surviving roasting kitchen by demonstrating history where it happened and roasting a knuckle of beef each day.
During this time we’ll be lighting the Great Fire a little later than usual to give visitors the chance to see all the steps that go into the process of roasting meat before an open fire, we’ll then spend the rest of the day roasting beef and talking about all things associated with the gargantuan task of catering for Henry VIII’s Court. As well as roasting beef, we’ll be using the opportunity that over 200 consecutive days of cooking will give us to collect data on the temperature of the fire, the meat as it cooks, and the metal spit; as well as looking at speeds and direction of rotation to see how much of an impact, if any, this may have on roasting. Add to that some possible investigation of the temperatures within the chimney and we have a busy time ahead of us trying to add to our knowledge of this fundamental process within the food production areas of Henry VIII’s Palace.
All of this does come at a small price though. In order to expand the daily offer through into October and to spread the work through the whole Historic Kitchens Team, rather than a small subset, we will not be holding our regular monthly cooking weekends this year, with that work being subsumed by the daily Kitchen Encounters. We will though be bulking out the work on a couple of selected weekends, to support the Summer Palace event in mid July and the August Bank Holiday event at the end of that month. On these weekends we’ll branch out to cover more tasks than just the roasting and actually be able to treat these special events as just that, special and not part of the regular monthly programme, and the same holds true for the Christmas cookery as part of the Tudor Revelries between Christmas and New Year.
I’d like to reassure our regular visitors that this isn’t the end of the cookery as you know it, nor is it simply change for the sake of change; this is a decision that we thought long and hard over and a conclusion that was reached with the aim of providing the best experience for visitors that we can produce. Our aim is to knuckle down and really focus our work on one single theme rather than spread our effort thin on looking at everything at once. From here we’ll have created a solid foundation from which to expand back out from…if we know how meat was roasted we can then move on to look in detail at how it was served, or perhaps how it may have been baked and these thoughts and questions will then give us a new focus to work upon, eventually bringing us back to where we were but much better than before and better than we could have been if we hadn’t taken this opportunity for change
So that’s that then! Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think…love the idea? Loathe it? Can’t wait to experience it? Let me know either way, feedback is always appreciated.
So I said we would try to incorporate the work on the buttered beere recipe into the Christmas work plan…for those that missed it, it’s this recipe for How to make buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for cookerie in her Kitchin 1597…
Buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchin , 1597
…and as luck would have it, Marc H turned up for work with somewhat of a desire to give it a go, not only to see if the pewter would melt, but to see what it would taste like. We’ve tried this recipe out before at work, but that was over a decade ago and if memory serves, it was thrown together at the end of a day and there wasn’t much attention paid to trying to follow the recipe in any real way. Now this latter part might seem a little confusing given my comments on the knot garden post where I said that for the comfit making the recipe wasn’t followed explicitly, but merely used as a guide, well you’ll need to get used to that I’m afraid. It’s not just changing the rules as and when to suit, but is all about what is being looked at. In most cases, the recipes aren’t that important, they’re no more a record of what people cooked and ate in the past than my copy of More Rhodes Around Britain by Gary Rhodes is for Britain in the mid 1990’s. (Hey! Don’t judge me, it was a Christmas present from my mum…probably) They are though a record of what some people knew about in terms of ingredients and techniques, as well as foods that the intended audience didn’t know how to cook, as after all, that’s what we use written recipes for, we don’t use written recipes for things we can cook do we? There is a time though when investigating an actual recipe is what is being done and in that case, as with this recipe for buttered beere, following the text is important.
So first decision which beer to use? We only had two to choose from, a mild and an IPA so we opted for the mild to avoid the hoppy bitterness of the IPA, and only having one 500 ml bottle to play with made things a little easier as that’s pretty close to a pre-imperial pint measure, or close enough for us at least. With only one pint to play with, Marc was left with the sort of maths that boils his brains…scale the recipe down to a third of the measures and convert them to metric so that the ingredients could be measured with the scales we have!
So to one pint of beer, add one and two thirds of egg yolks…making sure to account for the variation in egg size that occurs with chicken improvement…then mix together well by passing the whole lot through a sieve several times to strain them together.
You’ll notice that he chose to use a fairly small, shallow pewter bowl for this recipe…well actually that’s a bit of a lie, I chose the bowl and told him to use it. Why a bowl and not any of the other vessels we have? Firstly, we have a fair number of these bowls and could, at a pinch, stand losing one if everything went wrong and the bowl melted. Secondly, all the other pewter vessels (which aren’t plates or bowls) we have access to have decorative foot rings to make them look attractive and help them stand up on the table. This would be a problem if subjecting them to heat from below as it’s the heat sink properties of the liquid that prevent the pewter from melting, just like if you try boiling water in a paper cup
with the pewter though, the foot ring wouldn’t be able to benefit from this heat sink effect and it will start to melt which can lead to holes forming in the vessel if the foot melts all the way up to the body of the vessel (types the voice of experience…though it was a long time ago, before we recorded that sort of cool thing happening). Ideally some sort of pan designed for the purpose would be chosen, but
that begs the question, did such a thing exist or, if this recipe was followed to the letter, would any pewter vessel that was to hand be used? Now we had planned to do some follow up work just boiling water in the pewter and seeing if the proximity to the heat would cause the bowl to melt before the water began to heat up and maybe look at testing a vessel with a foot, but unfortunately a pastry knot garden and a spit with 34Kg of meat on it rather got in the way…perhaps in the future. For the purposes of this recipe though, we presumed that applying the heat gradually
would be the best option, so a fairly high trivet was placed over a fairly low bronze chafing dish full of burning charcoal. This set up turned out to be very poor with the temperature increasing by only 0.8° in ten minutes, and with time being a factor, the trivet was swapped for a lower one. Although this improved things, with the temperature rising by nearly two degrees in the next ten minutes, the chafer then began to give us grief.
This bronze chafer is supposed to be a copy of the one found with the apothecaries equipment on board Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, and would correspond to a type ‘A’ in the descriptions given in Lewis, J. M. (1973) ‘Some types of metal chafing-dish’, The Antiquaries Journal, 53(01), pp. 59–70. doi: 10.1017/s0003581500021855. The problem with this reproduction is that it has never been finished properly and the air
holes in it are tapered in section rather than being parallel through the wall of the vessel and this restricts the airflow. It also requires regular tending and manipulation to ensure that the charcoal burns well and this was unfortunately just not possible with all of the questioning visitors that were in the kitchens that day. With all that in mind, Marc opted to swap the chafer out for one of the larger, tubular iron ones based on images found in Scappi’s Opera, and to revert to the original taller trivet. The increase in heat from this larger chafer saw the liquid rise in temperature by nearly 2.5° in five minutes and it was at this point that the spices and sugar were added.
Calculating how much of these ingredients was a bit of a headache. The recipe calls for half a pound of sugar, one pennyworth of nutmeg, one of cloves and half a pennyworth of ginger, all of these having been beaten.
Not having any tables of prices and costs to hand, Marc opted for using a pennyworth in weight or 1/240th of a pound as the measurement of the nutmeg and clove and half of that for the ginger. All of that calculated out as: 75 grams of sugar, 0.5 grams of nutmeg and clove and 0.25 grams of ginger (all rounded to work with the scales we had to work with). In the ten minutes it took to calculate those figures, the liquid had risen to 40.5° celsius and it was after adding them that Marc followed the instruction to “take another pewter pot and brewe them together”, which he did several times before returning it to the heat.
It then took another 50 minutes for the temperature of the spiced beer mix to reach 70°, with the underside of the bowl fluctuating in temperature from 109° to 133° and the charcoal, around 12 cm below, from 454° to 680° c with this latter temperature only being attained with some vigorous bellows action to increase the air flow to the recently topped up charcoal! As the end of the day was rapidly approaching it became very clear that the liquid wouldn’t reach boiling point before we had to finish up, so Marc chose to add the butter at this point, but how much is a “dish” of butter? The only reference we have found so far to the quantity a ‘dish’ may have been is in Zupko, R. E. E. (2001) A dictionary of weights and measures for the British Isles: The middle ages to the twentieth century. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. on p110 where it says “the dish was also a wt of 24oz for butter (c1800) in Cheshire”…not a lot to go on, but better than a random guess based on the size of any dish we happened to have to hand. So 226 grams of butter was added to the mix, dissolving in less than a minute.
The final liquid, at just under 70° was “brewed” a final time before being poured into a drinking vessel for the acid taste testing.
As he’d made it, Marc was the gallant guinea pig first to try it, and on watching him take the first swallow his face painted quite a picture…
After a moment of silence accompanying the quizzical look, the verdict…”hmm, not bad!” Turns out he was right, not bad at all; very, very smooth and velvety with a sort of butterscotch taste that when you put your mind to it actually tasted of liquid hot cross buns. Very tasty in small quantities, very spiced but not too spicy, all in all highly recommended and well worth the effort, just a shame we couldn’t get it to the boil.
As it happened, Marc gave it another go on the last day with a pint of the IPA to see if the hoppy nature of that bitter would impact on the flavour…it didn’t! What did happen though was that Robin pinched the chafer when Marc wasn’t looking, removing the beer from the heat so he could cook his custard for the pastry knot garden. By the time he’d given the burner back to Marc to finish off the beer, the time was again against him and there was no chance of getting to the magical boiling point that time either…oh well, never mind.
So would the pot have melted? Very probably not, though clearly without actually trying this is only supposition; however with the melting point of the pewter around 100° higher than the maximum temperature that the underside of the pot ever attained, I would be very surprised to see the bowl melt before the liquid boiled. If we can, I’d like to try this again as I said earlier, just boiling water to test the principle, but whether that will happen in the near future I couldn’t say. I vaguely remember that I might have promised graphs with this post when I originally mentioned it on Twitter so I’ll stick one below that shows the temperatures of the liquid, underside of the bowl and the charcoal fire throughout the cooking; I’ll also stick another gallery up with all the images I took for this, poor though they may be. I’ll finish with a couple of caveats. I have not found out the composition of the alloy that the bowl is made from and in an ideal world I would be able to compare it to surviving sixteenth century pewter. To be honest I can’t see that comparison happening with what is for us, a fairly rough and ready ‘throw away’ little side project but if anyone fancies taking that on then just let me know. Clearly, the ingredients we used are modern and bear little resemblance to their historic counterparts but this is always going to be a problem with reconstructing recipes from history, you simply cannot get ingredients that are the same as they were in the past; in short, you can’t recreate the taste of the past, only our modern pastiche of it!
Some of you might remember that for the 2014 Christmas cookery event at Hampton Court we made some cokentryces over the course of the week. For those that missed it, have a look here to see them in all their glory, and to see why and how we did what we did. Well in the lead up to the 2015 event, pretty much the only instruction I was given was to organise something “just like that, but Elizabethan”…so not a whole lot to go on really. Whatever it was to be, it needed to be sufficiently large scale to occupy a large percentage of the team that would be working on any given day as well as being interesting and visual for visitors. It was a given that we would have roasting at the center of the work being done, and a couple of other tasks were chosen because of the available team members, but what was to be the cokentryce of 2015??
Well, after a lot of thought and discussion which discounted the suggestion of a series of Christmas boars heads kindly suggested by Marc H, the notion of a sugar subteltie was settled on…but what form would it take?
We’d already made some pretty impressive and interesting stuff including sugar versions of Hampton Court Palace and the Embarkation from Dover painting in the Royal Collection (and clearly when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Adrian, David, Lawrence and Alex, with minimal input from the rest of us) and I was well aware that these large scale sugar builds were responsible for a LOT of arguments and animosity amongst the team; so what would I get them to make that wouldn’t cause ructions and fitted the criteria for the event? The answer, a sugar knot garden in the Elizabethan style; fairly large scale but, and this was the most important part, modular in make up so that it didn’t matter if the whole thing wasn’t completed as it would show the construction process…the making was to be more important than the finished item.
Initial planning work took place early in December with what could be described as a rough and ready round table session in which photos of knot gardens, paintings, documents and scribbles were thrown about until a plan began to coalesce
Central to all of this was the book The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hill, 1577 which details plans and methods for laying out a gentleman’s garden in the latter half of the sixteenth century and includes images of suggested knot designs for planting. I’d allocated the task of planning and executing the garden to Jorge and Adrian, and with Adrian not available for the initial meetings, the bulk of the work fell to Jorge to arrange, which he did with gusto!
The suggested knot designs that caught Jorge’s eye the most were the ones found on pages 81 and 84 (below) and he quickly settled on the left most pair from page 84 (beolw right) as being the most suitable to use.
The plan was to transfer the patterns onto a sheet of paper and then to build the garden in sugar plate and comfits directly on top of this. The design was to be repetetive on the paper so that each knot could show progress towards a finished one, but that the whole could easily be imagined as a complete design in progress…if that makes sense; so of the four knots on the page, one would be complete and the other three would be in various states of competion showing the trail of work…or that was the plan at least!
We knew that the design would need an amount of comfits to fill all of the spaces and represent the plants and paths between the knotwork hedges, and that these would need to be in a selection of colours. There would also be a need for sugar plate to be made to construct the ‘hedges’ from and that would clearly need to be green in colour,but how that colour would be applied was still a discussion point when we arrived to set up the kitchens on Boxing Day 2015.
This is not the knot garden I was thinking of!
Leaving the guys to sort out the jobs that needed doing and who was going to do them resulted in Robin starting the comfit making off with Zak observing and helping (as much as Robin would let him) and Adrian and Jorge getting a start on making some sugar plate and some green colouring for it. For those of you that don’t know what comfits are, they’re seeds or particulates covered in multiple layers of sugar syrup, each layer being dried off before the next is applied. If you think of ‘hundred’s and thousands’ for decorating cakes or gobstoppers then you’re on the right lines…the inestimable Ivan Day has a page that describes their manufacture and it’s a good place to start if you’re interested. For a closer period description, you’d need to look out for Delights for Ladies by Sir Hugh Plat from the turn of the seventeenth century, and whilst not readily available online, transcriptions of the pertinent section are a Google search away! (other search engines are available as they say).
Now I know that if I don’t cover it, I’ll get questions on it, so I’ll just point out that when making the comfits, as with pretty much everything that we do in the kitchens, the guys used the Plat instructions as a guide, rather than a hard and fast series of rules to follow. All measurements and quantities for the syrups they used were done by eye and not to specific measures as that’s how a cook works. If the syrup was too thin and not building up quickly enough then it was thickened with more sugar or by re-boiling, if too thick then water was applied to thin the solution out. The same held true with the colours; all were made up by eye in batches considered large enough to get the current task finished…something I suspect was a major factor in the change of tack that occurred with the hedge making as we’ll see in a moment or two!
Robin set up the balancing pan and frame for the comfits over on the charcoal stove as that enabled the chafer for the heat source to sit within the stove opening itself at exactly the right height to provide a gentle and controllable heat. Over a drink (or possibly two) on Boxing Day we chatted about what actual comfits were going to be made, and Robin had become slightly obsessed with comfiting grains of paradise so that’s what he started with. A largish spoonful of seeds went into the pan to warm through while a gum arabic solution was made for the first couple of coats and when these were dry, the sugar syrup coating could begin.
After ten or so coats, this batch was taken out of the pan and put into a paper packet then left in the airing cupboard in our office to thoroughly dry as it was the warmest place to hand. I think the second batch he started were fennel seeds, or possibly caraway…to be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention I’m afraid, but whatever they were, it gave Zak a chance to get his hands into the pan and have a go.
While Robin and Zak were getting stuck in to the comfits, Adrian and Jorge were making very rapid progress with the sugar garden design itself. Jorge had extracted some green colour from a bunch of parsley by pounding it in a large mortar and washing the resultant paste with a little water, this was then strained through a cloth to remove the solid matter and the green liquid used along with some egg white and rose water to make sugar plate, roughly following the instructions in The Second Part of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson.
Adrian then took this paste and fashioned the first ‘hedges’ on top of the paper plan and all looked remarkably impressive. Over the next couple of days, both comfits and hedging progressed apace. When Robin had a day off, Jorge and Zak could take the reigns of the comfit production and try making some cinnamon ragged comfits.
Their first attempts, whilst being pretty good and very tasty, were fairly tiny in actual size. A second go with slightly larger strips of bark proved to be less succesful but I think that’s more likely due to this being their second ever attempt at comfit making than anything else. Over the rest of the week, all three of them worked on comfits, adding coloured coatings to various batches leading to some quite impressive results.
While progress on the comfits was good, that of the sugar hedging was not quite as expected. Initial progress had been swift, and as far as I was concerned, looked pretty damn good, however Jorge and Adrian clearly didn’t see it that way as they decided to explore a different method of making the sugar green…painting it with the parsley colour. I believe the main reason was to try to make a more ‘realistic’ looking hedge rather than the solid green plasticine looking
product that using the colour within the paste gave them. It also helped with speed too as the sugar plate wasn’t reliant on the green colour being ready at the same time, it could be applied any time after the sugar was shaped; and this was convenient as they’d found that drying the liquid before the fire slightly to drive off some of the water but not alter the colour with the excessive heat of boiling, helped to produce a darker green.At the same time as making the knots, there were also small
medallion roundels being made as these allowed visitors to try their hand at the sugar work, and also some barley twist poles that might end up with King’s beasts atop them as can be seen in the Chapel Court garden at Hampton Court and in the background of the painting of the Family of Henry VIII in the Royal Collection. Then some time around mid-week things took a turn, I don’t know why as I was busy doing other work behind the scenes and by the time I noticed what was happening it was already done…not that I would have changed things, just asked why they did what they did so I could tell you. So what did they do? Well all along the plan was to use pastry jam tarts to add to the garden design in some way, but now
Adrian and Robin were working on an entire jam tart knot design…I thought to add to the two already done, but apparently not. Now there was to be the painted sugar knot and the pastry one, displayed not on or part of the original paper plan but separately on pewter plates; not that it mattered as the overall idea was for people to see the production and get a sense of the work that making a subteltie involved…but it is a shame it didn’t come to pass as originally planned.
Baking the cases was always going to be slightly tricky. We only have a modern gas oven to use rather than a period wood fired one, so blind baking is always a bit of a fiddle as it’s very difficult simulating working in the mouth of the oven. The best Robin has managed in the past is to fire
the oven up to full power then when the past goes inside, sit by the oven and check through the door every 30 seconds or so and if he notices the cases deforming, to open the door and man handle the paste back into shape. This works fine with a single tart case, but wasn’t going to be easy or efficient with the number that Adrian had made for the knot design. The solution, a simple and obvious one, but one that’s not occurred to any of us before as we’ve never had low enough cases for it to work, or enough peas…dried split peas covering the whole thing. Once
the whole lot had been baked for a few minutes, the peas could be dispensed with, the cases filled with differing coloured jams and the walls decorated with the green colouring before the whole lot was put back in the oven to finish cooking. I had thought that this was where they were going to leave things, but I should know by now not to underestimate Adrian and Robin and their desire
for ‘perfection’ and so the last day of the cookery saw a fairly mad dash to add a border of custard tarts to the knot design which unfortunately had a distinct impact on another recipe that was being worked on, but I’ll write about when I’ve done with this topic. For now, it’s safe to say that Adrian pulled out all the
stops to make and bake the tart cases while Robin made the custard to fill them.
So at close of play on the eighth day what did we have?
We had an amount of comfits of all flavours and colours…the grains of paradise were simply spectacular, innocuous at first and then BLAM, a whole mouth and throat full of spice and flavour, highly recommended if you’re having a go at comfiting. We also had two subtelties to display, one sugar knot design infilled with comfits:
and a pastry, jam and custard one:
So that was the knot garden subteltie from Christmas 2015. I’ve added all of the pictures that cover the subject to a gallery that you will see a link for in the sidebar (when I add that part…those of you working faster than I can add features!) Most are sub-par due to lack of light and duff camera on my part, but they should give you the idea of the way things progressed.
Coming next….cooking in pewter and buttered beer….just give me a while to type it 😉
I really should have learned after 24 years that there’s almost a snowball’s chance in hell of my camera taking useable images in the kitchens at Hampton Court over the Christmas event….just not enough light. Still, while I try to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of acceptable images for you all to see and to illustrate a couple of posts I have planned, have a short update on the use of the multi armed spit, for as I hoped, we managed to get it into action on the last day of the recent Christmas cooking week.
In a slight change of plan from the previous outing…and because we had sufficient spare beef due to some logistical juggling…we were able to
load the arms up so that there was beef on the outer spits for this second go, rather than just in the centre bar as before.
When we originally talked through the plans for this event, I’d allocated the roasting to Ross to arrange and he’d expressed a desire to try larding some of the beef as he’d never tried that before. I’d ordered some belly pork for this purpose but we’d simply not got around to using any of it earlier in the
week because it had slipped all of our minds that this was what we had planned. It was only when we noticed the pork at the back of the fridge that we remembered it, so Ross decided that he might as well give it a go with this last opportunity of roasting until the February cooking weekend.
So, cutting the pork into strips and with the aid of a rudimentary larding needle, he set about passing it
through the beef as best he could. Once the beef was larded it was time to put it, and the 16 chickens we had this time, onto the spit, however unlike the first time during the week that we used the multi spit, this time it was heaving down with rain meaning that the spit would have to be prepared in the kitchen and not outside in the courtyard. Using the courtyard meant that we could use the modern plastic trestles that we usually use to hold the drip tray and spits when cleaning, to support the 30Kg multi armed spit whilst loading it with meat.
This was not an option and whilst we thought of ways to overcome the problem, Dave’s quick thinking came up with a solution as he dismantled one of the tables from another room to use the oak trestles for the job! Ross arranged the trestles where it would be most convenient to work and with the help of Tom to steady the metal work and Robert to hold extraneous spit bars out of the way, he set to the job of loading the meat onto the spit.
Whilst they finished the job of loading the meat onto the metalwork, I was busy doing some quick calculations and worked out that the whole affair,
both meat and metal now weighed in at around 64Kg (around 141 lb)! As before, this was placed in front of a rather sizeable fire built by Paul and Ian from the State Apartment Warding team, and once again the meat was roasted using an ever cooling fire as there simply was no easy way to stoke the fire with fuel once the spit was in place. This time, Ross was a little concerned that the chickens at either end of the spit weren’t cooking too well and left the whole lot in front of the fire for a little longer in order to ensure everything was cooked through. After two and a half hours, it was time to remove the meat and Ross essentially
copied what Robin had done before, removing joints with the aid of a bowl to catch them and then transferring each piece to a waiting tray…all the while assisted by Dave and his heroic pose and Tom holding the spit still.
Rumour had clearly gotten round amongst the staff on duty that day that we had planned to finish the week with a bang and a lot of meat on the spit as we had numerous colleagues appear towards the close of the day….on the “off-chance there might be some spare meat” they all said with a hopeful air 🙄 …still it was good that it all went to a good home. That which wasn’t removed by our friends and colleagues has gone into the freezer to be used in pies and stews at a later date, the only waste being what had fallen out of the meat into the drip tray.
I have to say that Sir Hugh Plat’s description….how to turn five spits at once with only one hand…is dead on the money. With the meat on the spit the balance of the whole apparatus was superb, making it childs play to turn the spit around. The only problem with it is the manhandling of the weight, especially when compared to a single spit bar; but I think that if one had to roast five spits worth of meat and you had the choice between five individual spits, possibly needing three people to turn them, versus one of these…I’d plump for one of these I think.
Ok, as promised here are a couple of videos I took yesterday showing the multi armed spit in action. The top one has Ross in action roasting while explaining to a visitor…the bottom one, shot from below, shows the action a little more clearly I think.
So, a few days ago I posted that the plans for the Christmas cookery week at Hampton Court Palace would include the use of the reproduction multi armed spit that we have in store….and true to my word, we fired that beast up yesterday to do some roasting with.
We first came across the idea of a multi armed spit when looking through a copy of Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera in the Brotherton Library in Leeds over a decade ago when we first tackled the idea of the Elizabethan use of the Kitchens at Hampton Court…
Those images leapt off the page and seemed like just the sort of thing that was ripe for reconstructing and testing experimentally but we had to ask ourselves what was the likelihood of a Papal cookbook having any influence at the court of Elizabeth the first? Another research trip a little later on really helped us out with this matter as we found an almost identical image in an English book from 1594, The Jewell House of Art and Nature by Sir Hugh Plat…
This image illustrated Plat’s ‘secret’ no. 14, How to turn five spits at once with one hand… something that any self-respecting spit turner would find a god send, as did we! This showed that the idea that was illustrated in Scappi’s book had travelled outside of Italy and the Papal court, in fact Plat himself says that he borrowed the idea from there at the end of his text, and had come to England where Plat wrote and published. It may not have been common, in fact it might never have been made at all, but the point about experimental history is to test and construct or reconstruct objects, items and theories that exist in the historical record rather than the just archaeological one.
So What does Plat suggest is the way to enable this to happen?
Simply attach five spits together, like a mole spear, ensuring that there’s a handle at one end and that they are spread wide enough apart to allow the meat to be placed onto each respective spit. Add a metal cross to support the free ends of the four bars that do not form the axis of rotation and Bob’s your uncle as they say.
Unfortunately we were much younger then, and less diligent and so weren’t specific enough when it came to the instructions for reconstruction, so rather than have the spits arranged as Plat shows…attached to the central bar in one plane and then the outer two arms bent one way, the inner two, the other; we ended up with the four shorter spits arranged in a cross shape around the central one. It’s not a huge diversion from the original, but it is sufficient enough to annoy the hell out of me whenever I see it!
You’ll notice that we had to use some modern plastic trestles to support the spit whilst it was being loaded with meat; which is why we did it away from public view….yes, yes, I know this is public, but here I can explain the reasons and rationale to all of you, that’s just not possible with a couple of hundred visitors stood around you watching the action unfold…there’s also another reason for the trestles too. I keep calling the multi spit a beast and it truly is. Our normal spits weigh around 10Kg unloaded, this baby weighs in at just over 30Kg (about 66lb) before the meat is added!! Our meat of choice for testing this tool…chicken, simply because it’s the most cost-effective meat to use to fill the spits and test the operation; but in this case we added some beef to the centre spit in order to have all five in use rather than have a second beef laden spit running at the same time.
The beef went on first onto the central spit, we’d split the joint into three pieces to try to get it to cook at the same rate as the chickens would otherwise it would mean a lot of mucking about trying to unload the chickens then put the spit back together again to finish cooking the beef.
Getting the chickens on was a bit of a faff compared to the beef as the cavity and holes are much too big to hold the birds onto the relatively thin spit bars, so Robin had to run the bar through the body of the birds diagonally from just above the wishbone on one side of the carcass to the diagonally opposite side on the back of the bird.
With all of the meat in place the supporting metal cross was added to lock all of the free ends together and secure the spit as one…
With that part complete, the chickens needed to be secured in order to stop them from simply staying still whilst the metal rotated as if it was a miniature chicken Ferris wheel rotating around the beef. This was achieved by the deft use of long skewers pinning pairs of birds on adjoining spits rather like this…
Now fully loaded with 12 chickens and 1 beef knuckle joint, the weight of the spit had increased a little. The chickens weighed just about 17Kg (about 37lb) and the beef 6Kg (around 13 lb) so the whole shebang weighed in at around 53Kg (just under 117lb)…not exactly lightweight!
Robin and Ross carried the spit through to the fire to the “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” of the assembled visitors and selected a rack to use for the roasting
A few quick turns in order to check that nothing was moving that shouldn’t have been and then the meat was in for the duration.
Now Plat says that this tool enables the use of less fuel than if you had multiple spits one above another upon the rack and if by this he simply meant that your fire doesn’t need to be as high and thus uses less wood then this is correct; the single multiple armed spit takes up much less vertical space before the fire than five similarly loaded spits would do. It also allows one person to do the work of three and removes any need to swap spits up and down the vertical face of the fire to ensure even cooking of all the meats…but it does present similar problems to using five spits in that it becomes virtually impossible to tend to the fire as the spits and meat block the way. So in this case, rather than try to build a small fire and maintain that at a constant level throughout the cooking time, the State Apartment Warders responsible for the fire built what can only be described as a monster of a pile of burning wood then simply left it and we used a fire that was constantly, but slowly cooling. It worked a treat! There was no problem with the cooking or the fire over the two hours of roasting, yes it took a little longer then it normally might if we were simply roasting chickens on a single spit (we would expect that to take around an hour at most) but that is because the fire was cooling all the time; it did however have the benefit of less time and labour expended on dealing with the fire and the Warders only needing to keep a watchful eye on it as opposed to the constant manipulation that we ask of them when we usually roast.
When it came time for the meat to be removed from the spits, we decided to work in situ rather than try to carry the hot spit back out away from the public to a more convenient area. Ross held the handle end fast while Robin dealt with the business end so to speak. The metal cross was released, it’s held in place with a pin that passes through the central bar and stops it from sliding off of the end, and then it was pushed back out of the way. With the ends of the four outer spits floating freely, there was enough space between the spits and the rack to allow the chickens to be easily removed, and once the skewers retaining them were removed then they slid off in the blink of an eye into waiting bowls and trays. The beef on the central spit proved a little more tricky to deal with and though one piece slid off, the remaining two had to be cut off.
With the meat removed…to substantial applause I might add…all that was left was to wash up the spit and drip tray and store them ready for next time. So when is next time? Currently we’re planning on finishing the week with a bang and firing this up again on the last day…but this time adding more chickens (16 in total rather than 12) and possibly some more beef…we might even try beef on the outer arms rather than just the centre, but I haven’t run that idea past the guys yet…if you hear distant screams of Nooooooooo!!! then they weren’t up for that idea 😎
I took some video of the spit in action, but IT restrictions mean I can’t include it in this post….I’ll upload them as soon as possible and let you all have a look as seeing it in action makes it much easier to understand.
So what’s the upshot of this? What have we learned? Well the principle of having five spits attached to one another so that one person can turn them all is pretty sound. The meat cooks well and evenly through even though you might presume that it may not as it would be shielded from the heat of the fire by the other pieces of meat when it rotates away from it, and that the side facing away from the fire when the meat is at its closest to the heat is much further away when that side is turned to face the fire. I don’t think I could say with any certainty if it was indeed more fuel-efficient as without using carefully controlled firewood such as kiln dried timber, the amount of moisture in each piece will vary considerably meaning that two similar looking fires can generate vastly differing amounts of heat and burn for very different lengths of time…perhaps something to think about investigating in the future? What we can say is that there is a degree of labour and time-saving in that the work tending the fire is offset from the duration of the cooking to the time before the meat is placed on the rack. This time spent preparing and building a larger than normal fire appears to be much less than would be needed if the fire was constantly tended and refuelled. I suspect that this practice would need to be the norm if multiple spits as opposed to the single multi-armed spit were filling the rack in front of the fire as in both cases, actually being able to reach the fire to add fuel or manipulate the shape of the fire is extremely difficult. The fact that you do not need somebody dealing with the fire during the roasting time also means that they could be used elsewhere in the kitchen, perhaps looking after multiple fires simultaneously with less effort than if they were having to load fuel onto several fires through the roasting process or doing other tasks and this may help to explain why there are no staff listed within the surviving staffing lists of the kitchens of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I that appear to be responsible solely for the fires….again, food for thought and future investigation I suspect.
So, long story short, does the multi armed spit work well…
About a week ago I drifted into a conversation on Twitter about the use of pewter vessels for cooking in rather than serving in…the question being asked was, did anyone know of any medieval or early modern recipes that used pewter vessels as cooking pots. As it happened, I’d been scanning through recipes planning the Christmas week of cookery at Hampton Court so some pertinent recipes were fresh in my mind, such as How to make buttered Beere from The Good Huswives Handmaid for cookerie in her Kitchin 1597…
as well as a smattering of early seventeenth century examples and a nice recipe from the eighteenth century telling you how to use a pewter plate in your cooking pot to turn stewed pears purple, but to be wary that you don’t get the plate too hot and melt it (when we’ve tried this in the past that’s one of the two outcomes we got from following the recipe, the other being stewed pears that weren’t purple and a hot plate in the cooking pot!)
Anyway, I was asked to visit the original discussion which had started the whole thing off here and long story short, as I was planning on having the ingredients for the buttered beere recipe in stock for the Christmas cooking week, I thought we might as well kill two birds with the one stone and changed the plans for buttered beere from “if we get time” to “make time to do this”…all I have to do is find a suitable pewter pot that we don’t mind sacrificing to the greater cause of experimental history!
So add that to the list of what’s on next week in the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace and keep an eye out for photos of melted pots and spilled beer on Twitter!
Those of you who have been paying attention can’t help but have noticed that Hampton Court Palace has been celebrating its 500th birthday this year. We’ve had interpretation all through the Palace looking at many of the different slices of history that Hampton Court has been host to and we’re finishing off the year with the reign of Elizabeth 1st.
Upstairs in the State Apartments you’ll be able to join some of Elizabeth’s courtiers as they celebrate Christmas at the end of the sixteenth century with gift giving, dancing and music; whilst down in the Kitchens we’ll be turning our hands to banqueting stuff as well as the staple of roasted meats. We’ll have beef roasting each day of the 8 day event (27th December to 3rd January inclusive) where you can come and experience the life and work of one of Elizabeth’s kitchen galapines, turning the spit for yourself and seeing just how difficult or easy, not to mention hot, the job would have been. Twice in the course of the week we’ll be firing up our multiple armed spit to roast some chickens…
It’s a reconstruction based on images found within Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto Di Papa Pio V, seen here in the 1570 edition which you can find online HERE
Although Scappi was the private cook to the Pope, his ideas and writing did travel and we find reference to the multiple armed spits in The Jewel House of Art and Nature by Sir Hugh Plat from 1594; a copy of a later edition can be found online HERE for those interested. In Plats work he refers to the spit as a method for “How to turn five spits at once with one hand, whereby also much fire is saved” and explains that “This secret I have borrowed out of Pope Pius the fifth, his Kitchin”…and we in turn “borrowed” it too in order to have one reconstructed to try out. It’s a bit of a beast and needs a lot of meat to fill it, making chickens the most cost-effective means of demonstrating it (prompting all kinds of discussion about our modern obsession with cheap meat, most specifically cheap chicken and all that brings with it!)…I’m still not sure which days we’ll have the multi-spit on the go, it’s been in store unused for over 10 years (which is how long it’s been since we looked at the kitchens in the reign of Elizabeth I) and needs a damn good clean before we can use it so it’ll be at least the 2nd or 3rd day of the week before it sees action, and we’ll fire it up over the last weekend as well, presuming that the second delivery provides all the chickens we need to use it with. If you want to see it in the flesh, keep up with my Twitter feed (@Tudorcook) and I’ll let you know then when it’ll be in operation but fret not if you miss it or can’t get to the Kitchens to see it in person, I’ll pop images up on Twitter and possibly here after the fact so you can see what we did.
So roasting aside, what else is planned? Well, I said banqueting stuff and so we’ll be trying to make a large table decoration or subteltie out of sugar over the course of the 8 days. It’s planned to take the form of a Tudor knot garden with sugar “hedges” and grass and gravel paths and in-fill made of comfits and other sugar sweets as well as hopefully some jam tarts and pies, and possibly some sugar beasts for a final flourish; though I’m contractually obliged to point out that I’m promising nothing and this could all be pie in the sky as the main task is to talk and interpret for the visitors so if they’re interested and ask lots of questions the result is a little less gets finished. Again, keep an eye on Twitter for progress reports and such like.
Initial planning for the design was started over the last working weekend at the beginning of December when Jorge took designs and inspiration from The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hill, 1577 and roughed out a basic design on paper
To be honest, I’ve not really got much idea what the final design is going to look like as I just put the idea of the garden to Jorge and the guys and left them to it. They seem happy enough with what they’re working on so I’m confident it’ll all come good in the end but as with so much of what we’re doing at the moment, only time will tell!
So that’s the plans for the next 8 days, or at least the bits the visitors will get to see, we’ll arrive at work and start setting up on Boxing Day and then crack on from the 27th. On top of all of that we’ve the audit of the stores to finish with contents of the store room shelves to double-check and then labels for them to create, planning for the February cooking weekend and if that wasn’t enough there’s some behind the scenes training for one of our apprentices, with 2 of the others doing some hands on learning in front of the public…no pressure then!
Consider this a holding action for now….still deciding what to do regarding starting blogging again or not.
For now, I’ve added a link to the old blog site in the sidebar…why not just import it all to here? Reasons, as I am lead to believe the youth of today say; two of them actually, firstly I think I want to keep the two seperate and not have all the old stuff here (new broom and all that) and secondly, there was a technical issue in exporting the old data and importing it here and I couldn’t be bothered to solve that issue, so if you want to see the drivel I wrote before, then follow that link