Spit Spot – MOL 84.314/10

In 2016 I visited the Museum of London to take a look at their iron roasting spit, item no. 84.314/10. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of detail listed for the item, and before I visited there was even less…one of the quid pro quo’s for having the item taken off display (it normally lives on public display in the medieval gallery ) was to provide detailed measurements to add to the catalogue description and I thought some of you might be interested in them.

Although it’s catalogued as late 15th/early 16th century in date, if my memory of the conversation is correct, it was a river find from the Thames so is speculatively dated and more likely to come from the latter end of that range, if not the early seventeenth century.

MOL item no. 84.314/10 spit dimensions
MOL item no. 84.314/10

The spit is made from flat iron bar which has been forged to a point at one end and shaped into a crank handle at the other, leaving the working blade section in the middle.

the handle
the business end!

The crank consists of a slightly barrel shaped axle, a vertical rectangular section and a cylindrical handle.

the crank handle
the axle

The 75mm long axle has been created where the bar has been forged down from rectangular bar to a roughly round section 12mm diameter at the junction with the main spit blade, 14mm diameter at the mid point and 10mm diameter at the junction with the vertical bar.

transition from blade to axle and handle

The vertical section of handle has been left rectangular, though slightly narrower than the main blade of the spit, and is approximately 18mm x 8mm x 70mm. This flat bar has been bent at right angles to the axle but shows signs of a fracture at the radius of the bend as if the bar was bent past 90 degrees whilst hot but straightened up when the metal was too cool to work efficiently

the axle showing the thickness of blade, axle and handle crank

The last 90mm-110mm of the handle end of the bar has been forged down to a cylindrical shape approximately 15mm in diameter and then bent at right angles to the flat bar to create the hand grip.

the handle…much smaller than anyone ever expects or recreates (us included!)

The point end has been shaped in a similar fashion to the handle, with the bar being forged to a conical shape, 12mm in diameter at the junction with the main blade and approximately 7mm in diameter at the point. The last 15mm of the point have been left faceted rather than fully round.

the tip

The blade of the spit tapers in width and thickness along its length changing from 24mm x 8mm at the crank end to 16mm x 7mm at the point. This taper, though slight, has been seen in later period spits and from a practical standpoint assists with removing roasted joints of meat from the spit at the end of cooking.
The item as a whole is in very good condition with only minimal nicks and damage.

The blade length of 950mm (around 3ft 1″) tallies quite nicely with the size of a statute billet (as I discussed back here ), especially as the 3ft 4″ length of each billet would include the carf or cut point meaning that most of the usable wood would be much shorter than the statute length…hopefully this appalling sketch will clarify that somewhat (though i really do doubt it!)

a statute billet was 3ft 4″ including the cut meaning that the usable wood was much less than that length

The gallery below includes all the halfway usable images that I took…typically the one thing I completely forgot to take was my camera so I had to rely on my mobile phone to do the job.
Finally a huge thank you to Hazel Forsyth at the Museum of London for arranging to have the spit taken off display for me to view.


Watch the Birdie!

Let me take you back to the heady days of summer, 2005. It was a different time, when self isolation was something that Howard Hughes was famous for, Don’t Stand So Close To Me was a Police song rather than a maxim for everyday life, Base Court at Hampton Court Palace was covered in grass, and Robert from the team had an idea for a photographic history event…yes it’s not just cookery for the Kitchen Team. As I’ve said several times before, cookery happens to be a great lens to look at history through, but sometimes it’s not just about the metaphoric lens that’s used.
Now right off the bat I’d better get the caveats in quick…2005 is a LONG time ago, mistakes in my recollection are highly likely. I’m no expert, that’s Roberts thing, unfortunately the current Covid-19 lockdown sees him stranded without access to a computer so I can’t ask him to fill in the details or gaps… I’ll aim to get an updated version from him as soon as is feasible, finally, this will very much be image heavy, detail light!

In actuality I suppose I should start back in 2001 when we visited the ALFHAM annual conference that was held that year at Colonial Williamsburg. As part of a jam packed time in the US we managed to fit in a day trip to Gettysburg to look around the town as it was only a few miles from where we were staying, and there was something, or someone there that Robert wanted to try to see. ..Rob Gibson.

Gibson ran a photography business that used the wet plate collodion process, the same process used during the US civil war, and was (as I recall) unique at the time we visited him, with every other photography business in town producing mock sepia prints for tourists and re-enactors. Rob produced the real deal and was absolutely the nicest chap in the world. With a kindred spirit in Robert, he spent ages explaining his process and showing us results, advising on best practice and even letting Robert have a go with his studio. By now Robert was already formulating plans to suggest a live photography event at some time in the future, and all the chatting with Rob Gibson merely cemented this thought in his head. There might be some drawbacks for us though, following the process authentically required the use of both high concentration alcohol as a solvent, and potassium cyanide as a fixer! Rob kindly explained which side of the state line you needed to be on to buy the 95% by volume grain alcohol that he used in the process, and we absolutely did not head straight to a liquor store to buy any, nor did we experiment with using it in cocktails…but that was unlikely to help us back home. The cyanide was a bigger problem.

After our US jaunt, Robert continued to work on his plans for an event and decided straight away to work in calotype rather than the wet plate that Gibson used. This was an earlier type of process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot and much more suitable for use in close proximity to visitors.

Vintage large format camera with modern focus plate

As well as the process to use, Robert needed to add more cameras and lenses to his personal collection, make a load more focusing plates and negative carriers for the backs of the cameras, a portable darkroom so that he could process in-situ, tripods, darkroom equipment and work on practising producing the negatives and taking prints from them; all of which took time. Fast forward to summer 2005 when the event was ready to go and for a couple of weeks, each day (light permitting) Robert, ably assisted by Marc, Robin and Barry, would take photographs all around Hampton Court.

Portable darkroom for processing in-situ.

He would photograph the architecture, trying to replicate the earliest images taken of the Palace in 1845, he would take pictures of his assistants and he would photograph visitors to enable them to fully understand the whole process and the history and science behind it.

Marc explaining the photographic process
Processed negative of a family of visitors

By working in a darkroom in-situ he could process the images “in front” of visitors and even though he would not have time to make prints until much later in the project, the use of digital cameras would allow the negatives to be inverted for visitors to see the final results before they went home. This working in-situ is the principal reason for the brush marks and streaking on the images. Robert never did find a satisfactory brush or sponge for applying the chemical solution to the paper to make the film. He tried a raft of different methods but couldn’t find anything that would allow even application of the solution while working in darkness. I suspect that this is the main thing he’d want to correct if we could run this event again.

That being said, the results were fantastic! Processed outdoors, feet away from the camera and done so that visitors could watch and experience the process rather than to produce perfect pictures. Move the slider left and right to see the negative and positive versions.

NB all positive images used here are digital inversions of the scanned negatives, not scans of the prints. No post production other than inverting and reducing in size has been done

Fortunately for most of the time the weather was fantastic…brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, which made for ideal photography weather, mostly because it really shortened the exposure times into the sub one minute bracket.

Robert preparing to photograph a family group. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
The subjects eye view. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

Some days though, were not so great, but somehow Robert managed to work wonders with ridiculously long exposure times, often measured in minutes, to get some great shots

Visitors chatted for ages about the science and history of photography as well as waiting patiently while the “film” was exposed and a photograph was taken.

Base Court
Looking at the image on the focus screen
Marc talks details to a visitor
Robin helps him take a picture of the picture

As well as visitors and the buildings, Robert tried his hand at a still life

Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

and when visitors weren’t forthcoming, there were always willing subjects waiting to have their portraits taken…any excuse to sit down for a few minutes!

Marc posing for his portrait
The processed negative, hot off the press

That last one is one of my favourites as it really illustrates that the camera does lie! As you can see from this image of Robin, he’s not that swarthy in complexion and his waistcoat is actually made up of dark colours, not the light ones that the positive image above might imply

Robin and Robert

It’s all to do with the wavelengths of light that the calotype is sensitive to, picking up a little more UV (I believe) than modern films and digital cameras…hence the darker face on both Robin and Marc who had been working outdoors quite a bit…hard to tell with Barry as he was channelling a more “Victorian side show wolf man” vibe for that week, and Robert was pasty faced from being in a darkroom for weeks!
The other “lie” is the lack of people in many of the images of the Palace, though this is one that most people are familiar with…though it was nice to be able to show it “live” so to speak

The lengthy exposure time means that only Barry, who was stood still, shows up in the image; the rest of the visitors who are walking through the courtyard can only just be seen as a light blur (this is easier to see on the right and left of the positive image)

Long exposure times measured with a pocket watch rather than a stopwatch

It wasn’t just the main Base Court that they worked in, Robert took the camera and darkroom all over the place, from out in the East Front Gardens

Fountain Court

Clock Court

As well as looking out onto the Privy Garden from the upper floor of the south side of the Palace

This was a really successful event, that really showed that it’s not just through cookery that people can learn about history at Hampton Court Palace. Watching the actual process of tasks being performed, in this case real photographs being created, and being able to engage in the practical process really adds to the visit, it gives the opportunity to forge lasting memories and to learn new things about something that you thought was quite a simple topic.

Visitors waiting to look through the camera back. Notice the clockwork birdie on top of the foreground camera!
Taking a bigger image needs a bigger “film”
Robin and Marc explain printing a positive from a negative
Making a print by exposing the sensitised print paper to light through the negative
Up on the roof. Robert acquiesced to requests for a portrait from the builders…where they were working! Image courtesy M. Hawtree

I’m certainly keen on trying to repeat this again at sometime in the future (if we ever get out of the current COVID-19 lockdown), and will be sure to record it in more detail if we do.

Below is a gallery of all of the negatives (and their digital positives) that are worth seeing, click on the thumbnails to see the larger images. You’ll note that I didn’t get too creative with image titles, but that should allow you to easily match negative to positive.Enjoy!

A selection of these images was published in Alternative Photography: Art and Artists, Edition I


Up on the roof

Back in October 2016 I caught a lucky break…a rooftop tour on a beautifully sunny day. It’s not cookery related (vaguely kitchen related stuff after the pictures), but we could all do with a lift and some images of a better time…click the images for larger versions.

If you feel the need for Kitchen related stuff…the roof on the right is the Great Kitchen

Looking west, along the Tudor north side of the Palace
the same view as above but zoomed out
The photos above were taken from here. Image clipped from and (C) Google Maps

When you stand there and look at this view it really gives a sense of scale to the Palace as the front seems so far away from you (this is taken from the eastern end of the Great Hall)…it looks like its own Tudor townscape, so different from the feeling you get when you’re walking around at ground level.

Looking at the Kitchen roof on the right (with the zig zag pattern in the tiles), you can see the 3 sets of chimney stacks that sit on top of the 3 fireplaces on the north side of the Kitchen.

north side chimney stacks correspond to….
1…the fireplace in the Baden-Powell space in the Kitchen
2…the fireplace modified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with coal range and oven
3…fireplace altered probably in the late seventeenth century to convert to a charcoal range

Well it looks like I’ve meandered back inside from the roof…might as well finish off with some shots of the Great Kitchen roof from underneath then!

ooh! That’s a bad quality photo

One of the things we always encourage people to do when they come into the Kitchen is to look up…I mean it’s magnificent and they miss it. Ok, so it’s not quite the Great Hall or Chapel roof, but it’s not far off it in my opinion. Kids always say it looks like thousands of books on library shelves…just before they comment on all the spider webs they can see.

Seeing it from the ground is one thing, but you get a whole new appreciation for it from close up…the opportunity for which came during the last refresh of the Kitchen interpretation in early 2018

Up in the rafters
Don’t look down!

Of course, all those rafters and beams don’t look particularly Tudor because they aren’t, the original Tudor roof was supported on the corbels that stick out from the walls all down the length of the building.

This corbel used to hold up the roof

you can still see two parts of the original roof structure if you look up…well, one part of Wolsey’s original kitchen at the east end of the building, and one part of Henry’s extension at the western end.

right next to the wall…the curved beams…Henry VIII’s Kitchen roof
and this is part of Wolsey’s roof structure

So that’s the ever so exciting roof dealt with, not sure where I’ll go with the next post…I’ll see how the mood takes me, I’m making this up as I go after all.


A Collection of Christmas Cokentryce!

I wrote this back in 2015. Originally I’d tweeted throughout the Christmas cookery week with updates of the work being done, then after the dust had settled from the event itself, I used the now-defunct Storify service to tie all the tweets together and flesh out the background and information that 140 characters wasn’t nearly enough space for.
With Storify set to be binned I managed to save the whole thing by exporting to a PDF and there this has languished for a few years…now re-purposed for you lucky people to enjoy.
As it was originally a Twitter story, I’ve done my best to reconstruct it as per the original, dated pop culture references and all…

From December 27th 2014 to 1st Jan 2015 the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace were once again brought to life with Tudor cookery. Over the 6 days we made three cokentryce, this is what happened and why.

So what’s a cokentryce, and why make 3?

There are a number of surviving medieval recipes for making a cokentryce such as this one from Harleian MS 279:

Harleian MS.279 .xxviij. Cokyntryce. – Take a Capon, & skald hym, & draw hem clene, & smyte hem a-to in the waste ouerthwart; take a Pigge, & skald hym, & draw hym in the same maner, & smyte hem also in the waste; take a nedyl & a threde, & sewe the fore partye of the Capoun to the After parti of the Pigge; & the fore partye of the Pigge, to the hynder party of the Capoun, & than stuffe hem as thou stuffyst a Pigge; putte hem on a spete, and Roste hym: & whan he is y-now, dore hem with yolkys of Eyroun, & pouder Gyngere & Safroun, thenne wyth the Ius of Percely with-owte; & than serue it forth for a ryal mete

[Take a capon and scald him [in boiling water] and cut him in half at the waist. Take a pig and scald him and gut him as the capon was, and cut him in half at the waist too. Take a needle and thread and sew the front of the capon and the rear of the pig together and the front of the pig and the rear of the capon together then stuff them both as you would stuff a pig. Now put them onto a spit and roast them until it is nearly cooked then coat with a mix of egg yolks, ginger and saffron followed by parsley juice then serve it for a royal meat]

“Clearly that’s a goose and not a capon…can’t you guys even follow a simple recipe?”

“at least you got the pig right…but hang on! I can’t see a boiling pot and they don’t loook pre-boiled and to cap it all, that’s a medieval recipe and this is supposed to be a Tudor kitchen so what the hell is going on here??”

The recipe for cockentryce is an excellent example to use to explain what our job in the kitchens at Hampton Court actually involves.

We’re employed to look at the kitchens of Henry VIII and to put them into context, both of the building and also in history. That means looking at ingredients, recipes, equipment, people, and documents….pretty much everything that might impact on our understanding of those rooms. We’re interested in process much more than taste or end result. It’s simply not possible to produce something that we can say tastes like it did in the past, we can though say that this is how it was made, and these are the techniques used and this is how it could have been done in this space. We are at times though limited by ingredients and equipment and the requirements for cockentryce are a good example of this. To fully understand we need to look at the rational behind the recipe and look at what it is calling for you to make. Although ostensibly telling you to “just” cut the two animals in half and sew the opposing front and back halves together that is missing the subtext which is the creation of, in the case of the recipe, two new animals. If you just cut ‘n shut the two halves together you end up with what Heston Blumenthal created for his Feasts programme…something that needs somewhat of an extensive tummy tuck to get rid of all the excess bunching at the join as clearly the two vastly differently sized animals are never going to marry together neatly

Heston’s cokentryce

Heston’s version may be following the recipe, but it’s missing the spirit that I belive was intended. When you see fantastic creatures in medieval manuscripts, such as this image from the Luttrell Psalter, they look fantastic but they also look feasible with all the parts joining together in an animalistic way. Many of the illustrations are not simply fantasies constructed by the illustrator but were images of what were believed to be real animals that existed somewhere in the world, they may not have been roaming around Europe but roam they most certainly did to the medieval mind; this is what the recipe for cokentryce is trying to create…an actual animal, not simply 2 halves sewn together for comedy effect. It is supposed to be as real and believable to the medieval diners as the dinosaurs in Walking with Dinosaurs are to modern TV viewers; we know they aren’t real but we expect them to look realistic and I belive the same held true for the cokentryce recipe.

Add. M.S. 42130 f182r

so it isn’t just a case of cut and sew if you want to make a “realistic” looking animal, the old adage of measure twice and cut once is true when making a cokentryce and it really helps if the ingredients are of a similar girth, something which causes slight confusion when ordering from the butcher as meat tends to be sold by weight not waist size!

It is also this need to create a new animal that means making 2 as stated in the recipe isn’t particularly simple.

To make a good looking end result the two halves need to be cut and joined so they look good and hold together so Adrian and Marc united them with a scarf joint favouring the front of the goose and rear of the pig in the cutting. This method allows the animals to be cut in such a way as to leave more skin than rib and flesh to give more area for sewing. This meant that out of each pair of animals only one new one could be created as the opposing halves were not suitable for joining and were used for spare parts on the main beast. I suspect that with more practice they would be able to end up with 2 new animals from each pair; practice as they say, makes perfect.

“Yes…but why the goose when the recipe calls for a capon?”

Capons are castrated roosters; the castration is done in one of two ways, either chemically or physically. Chemical castration of fowl has been illegal in the EU since the 1990’s…residual chemicals in the end product do the same to male consumers as they did the bird, and physical castration is illegal within the UK on animal welfare grounds, though it isn’t illegal to import true capons from areas of the EU where physical castration is still legal. This tends to mean that most birds labelled as “capons” in the UK are simply fat chickens, and they haven’t grown in quite the same way, aren’t quite the same shape, have too much breast and not enough leg and aren’t in great supply. Put simply, the goose is a substitute that we feel is acceptable given the restrictions on obtaining true capons and they have a similar measurement to the sucking pigs that we chose to use.

“ok, so you went with a goose that’s fine…but this is a medieval recipe and you’re in a Tudor kitchen….”

Well, leaving aside the argument that the first half of the sixteenth century is still medieval, as I said before, it’s almost the perfect recipe to showcase what we do in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace…research, reconstruction, investigation, interpretation, experimentation and history all seen through the lens of food. We have no evidence to say that Henry VIII ever saw this recipe presentented before him, but likewise we can’t say it wasn’t. Just because the source material here is from the previous century it doesn’t mean it was only made in that century; cokentryce can be found in fourteenth century recipe collections and there’s plenty of evidence to show that recipes from earlier centuries were included in recipe collections in the sixteenth century and after all, the cokentryce according to Harleian MS 279 is a “ryal mete”. so what better place to make one than in a royal kitchen?

“and the boiling….or lack of it?”

quite simply we don’t have pots big enough to fit a goose or pig into! I also suspect that the scalding process referred to in the recipe is the scalding done as part of the slaughter process to make it easier to pluck or dehair the carcasses rather than an extra one done as part of the cooking process. Having tried scalding chickens before placing them onto a spit for roasting, their skin shrinks quite extensively which whilst making them look more rounded and smoother and neater to the modern eye, also has the effect of increasing any cuts or splits in the skin which, combined with the shrunken skin would make sewing the halves together that much more tricky than it already is. Oh, and before you ask about the stuffing, the flavour wasn’t important to us, the process was so we used bread as a stuffing. This had the advantage of being quick to insert, held the body out to a suitable dimension and held the animal reasonably firmly on the spit, which is the principle role the stuffing plays, but without the time consuming process or cost of mincing pork to use as a stuffing.

Sewing the halves together isn’t a quick job; the grease and fat in both animals starts to melt and makes everything extremely slippery.

and when it’s sewn together you need to think about how the beast will be posed, so in this case a stiff wire was inserted through the mouth and down the neck to provide an armature to allow the head and neck to be positioned well.

once on the spit, pins, wire and thread were used to position the legs and wings with the aim of cooking it in pretty much the final position it was wanted to be in as once cooked it would not be possible to move any of the limbs without breaking them off.

again, during the coating process we deviated somewhat from the recipe as previous experience has shown that using a green batter is more successful than simply coating with the parsley juice.

So the end of day 2 and the 1st of the 3 planned beasts was complete. It was good….but not good enough for Adrian and Marc, they wanted more, bigger and better and along with Jorge, set to discussing what improvements the mk2 variant would have.

Jorge wanted to apply more colour and use different colouring techniques with the next version whilst Adrian and Marc wanted more legs and a better, more natural overall look to the 2nd….and a tail, a much better tail than the one provide by the pig.

“our butcher has just delivered the meat for the last cokentryce that’ll be started tomorrow. He left with the look of ‘what the hell have you done with my beautiful meat??’ on his face”

here you can see the tail that Marc made from the back skin of the goose,stitched into shape and cut so that as it cooked and shrank it would hopefully form a serpent/dragon like appendage.

Adrian was keen to try and add scales to the pig skin and used Jorge’s spare pen knife, which was the finest and sharpest blade to hand, to cut scales into the skin. His thinking was that as the pig skin cooked and formed crackling, the scales would be revealed like the score lines in a traditional roast pork joint and that these would then show up through the thinner batter that was to be applied at the last stage of cooking….it didn’t work.

So 2 down…1 to go, and as with the previous ones, the guys wanted bigger and better. They wanted to take what they had learned from the previous 2 (which were the first ones they’d ever attempted) and improve on that for the last. Chances are this would be the last cokentryce that they would get to made for a while so they wanted to go out in style.

Linen rag paper coloured with the Brazil wood solution for the membrane with goose quills for the structure

unfortunately by the time it was all finished it was gone half past three and what little light there had been in the kitchens had gone. This meant that the flimsy cameras I had were simply not up to the task of taking pictures of the finished beast in all its glory. Suffice to say it had a golden bill and toes along with silver and gold tips to the dorsal spines that, much to Adrians shock had stayed in during the cooking process; a miracle considering they were just spare rib bones poked through the skin and into pieces of bread stitched into position beneath.

The paper wings were ok, but it would have been much better had they been real feather wings…something for the future perhaps?

You’ll notice that I’ve got all the way to here and not actually mentioned what it or they tasted like; possibly one of the more popular questions we were asked over the week. Well it is what it is, the front tastes of goose and the back pork, because that’s what they are and I suppose we should take it as a compliment at having produced a sufficiently convincing series of animals that people would ask what it tastes like.

It’s also worth noting the reaction that our visitors had to the whole thing, which was very positive. Young and old seemed to be genuinely fascinated and even those who expressed a negative opinion for whatever reason, were still interested enough to ask questions and discuss the process and history of the dish. We all spoke to hundreds of people for great lengths of time and all in all had a great, if extremely tiring 6 days making these three animals. It was a genuine team effort and one I am very proud to have been a part of.

…and so with all the visitors having left, the washing up done and the tables and equipment returned to the store room, all that was left was to sweep the floor and think about what we might like to do for future events.