The soot-blackened pot is simmering over the open fire and a rich, meaty aroma fills the air. Moving carefully the woman keeps the fire burning with the wood, all cut and stacked beside her canvas home. Around her the pots, scoured clean with the ashes from last night’s embers, wait for the next batch to feed the hungry household.
This is domestic history in action at the Loxwood Joust re-enactment camp.
Sadly, due to health rules, only the participants themselves can taste the results so we visitors can only smell, salivate and wonder what it’s like.
Unless of course you have discovered, as we did, The Copper Pot in the marketplace and bought yourself a packet or two of historic recipe mixes to try at home.
Owner Nick is dedicated to the recreation of authentic recipes to let all his customers have a real taste of the past.
From the spiced wines of the Court of Richard II through the rich stews of Elizabethan England to the succulent hot chocolate enjoyed by the aristocracy during the 17th and 18th century, The Copper Pot’s packets and mixes keep as close as possible to the original ingredients.
What was Tudor food really like?
Hollywood tells us that the Tudors had awful table manners and held over-indulgent feasts at tables groaning with rich foods. But the reality was very different. Table manners were strict because most dishes were communal and having clean hands was vital when people were digging into the same bowl with their fingers. You had your own plate, cup and knife and had to wash your hands in full view of everyone else so they could trust you were clean.
On a visit to Mary Arden’s farm in Shakespeare country we learned a lot about the way the Tudors ate in a fun and entertaining way.
Of course there were clear demarcations depending on wealth. The poorest lived on a diet of pottage made from peas, milk, egg yolks, breadcrumbs and parsley and served with a rough bread of rye or ground acorns. Anything they could catch would wind up in the pot including blackbirds, pheasants, partridges, hens, ducks, and pigeons, and fish from lakes and rivers.
Wealthier folk had much more choice and their stews would be richer with costly meats like swan, peafowl, geese, boar and venison. Their bread was either a wholemeal loaf known as ravel or yeoman’s bread, whilst the richest had manchet, made from white wheat flour.
At the start of Tudor times veggies were limited to mainly onions and cabbages but the later conquest of the Americas brought tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers to their table.
Drink was ale for everyone and wine for the rich – water was definitely not to be trusted!
Recreating a 1596 stew
By the time this dish saw the light of day, cooks would have had a far wider range of possible ingredients than in earlier Tudor times, although still only for the highest classes. The Copper Pot’s dried mix is a blend of raisins, dates, prunes and warming spices.
Now you could make it yourself as none of the ingredients are difficult to find, but the mix makes it really simple and you can be sure the balance is just right.
A little under a kilo of stewing steak, seared in a pot with a dash of oil. Add the mix and 900mls of a pale ale – as close to the barley-based ale of Tudor times as Pork Belly could find – then it was into the oven for a long, slow simmer.
3 hours later out it came, smelling rich, spicy and a tiny bit sweet with the meat as tender and dark as a 16th century night.
And what better to serve with this historical dish than a bowl of pea pottage hot? Another of The Copper Pot’s authentic mixes. Just add egg yolk and fresh or frozen peas. It’s an acquired taste, hot or cold, and not something anyone should consider eating ‘nine days old’!
Pork Belly used a sour dough bread to mop up the juices and while he gorged like a knight at a banquet we toasted each other in Loxwood Mead.
We’ve written before of the joys of traditional mead, and how it’s pretty straightforward to make. But Loxwood Mead is a little different. Sometimes when you try something new at a festival or tasting session you bring it back home, all anticipation, then discover away from the fanfare and fuss it tastes – well a little disappointing.
Not so with this mead, which we’d found while researching our trip to the Loxwood Joust. Event organiser Maurice Bacon and his son Danny noticed how popular mead was as a drink amongst the re-enactors but were aware that outside the circle of history buffs, LARPers and dungeons-and-dragons masters mead didn’t have much appeal.
So they set about devising a brew that would bring it right up to date.
As with all meads, the wine is not made with grapes but 100% fermented honey – the process that turns most of the sweetness to alcohol. Mead can be a bit heavy and sticky-sweet but Loxwood Mead is light and refreshing, although it still packs a 12% ABV punch.
It works just as well on a warm summer’s day as on a cosy winter’s night – and complimented the rich, meaty, Tudor-style stew.
Now we say roll on Christmas when we can try out The Copper Pot’s 14th century Ypocras spice mix to make our festive mulled wine.
Your very good health!
You can buy The Copper Pot’s historic recipe kits online here or look out for Nick at an historic festival near you.
Loxwood Mead is available to buy online and is beginning to be stocked in bars and restaurants. They aspire to be bee-friendly with 10% of their profits each year going to support UK bee charities.
Disclaimer: We were given the Loxwood Mead and some of The Copper Pot mixes to try.