Jacobean Life – Food


Last week I posted some early modern recipes, and so I thought some snippets on food in general might prove interesting. Londoners in Elizabethan and Jacobean England had plenty of choice when it came to dining.  Of course money was an important factor, but even the poor were in most cases able to buy cheap loaves of bread. Food markets were located throughout the city; including Leadenhall, Stocks Market, Cornhill and Cheapside, Eastcheap, and Billingsgate.


Leadenhall was on the corner of Gracechurch Street and Cornhill, and sold meat and poultry; the staples of a Jacobean diet.  Beef was by far the most popular choice, and cattle were driven in from miles away, often down Oxford St, which at the time was not much more than an overgrown lane. In addition to beef, sheep and poultry were for sale everywhere, and there were stalls throughout the city selling sausages and pies. The Stocks Market (on roughly the site of the current Mansion House) sold fish and meat.  Cornhill and Cheapside were home to flower sellers, as well as purveyors of poultry; including pigeon, duckling, goose, chickens, and even swans. Billingsgate was at this time a general market, specialising in fish, fruit, grain and salt.


Game was a common staple. Hare and rabbit were cheap and plentiful, and deer was also available. Most meat was either roasted or stewed, or found its way into pies and sausages. The eating of fish was not merely encouraged, it was obligatory. Fish days were Fridays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it was forbidden for anyone to eat meat during Lent or other special holidays. This part ban on meat effectively ensured 156 flesh-free days a year, but this was only severely enforced during Lent. At other times the rules could be bent, for example, eating meat on Wednesdays might be lawful provided there were at least three dishes of fish served alongside. Licensed ‘meat-eaters’ were useful dinner guests; these were either people exempt from abstaining from meat due to health reasons, or those rich enough to make a hefty donation to the poor-box in exchange for the privilege of eating meat. Having a licensed meat-eater at the dinner table on fish days therefore ensured one could serve a large helping of meat, and if it was shared, no one need know.


Fish was poached or fried, and salted fish was a basic throughout the winter because it could be easily preserved and stored. Dried, salted Cod was a staple for the poor. Oysters were eaten in enormous numbers, brought in from Colchester and Whitstable. They were either eaten in the shell, or used in pies and stews as well as soups. Salmon was pickled in Scotland and along with conger eel, was usually poached in beer.


Cheese was a favourite on meat and fish days alike. Leadenhall market sold Cheddar and Cheshire, but most Londoners ate a basic cheese made from ewes’ milk. Vegetables were usually boiled. Pottage was a basic vegetable soup thickened with grain; a commonplace in the country, it was often only consumed by the poor in London. Fruit was eaten by everyone, but usually boiled or stewed, and seldom consumed raw. Snacks such as ‘hot codling’ (baked apple) were sold on the street, and native fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, and plums, were widely available and cheap. But imported fruits like oranges, apricots, and lemons were prohibitively expensive – a lemon cost 6 pence, the same price as a medical handbook.


Bread was the basic of any meal. The rich ate bread baked at home from the purest white flour, while the poor made do with rye bread. If a harvest failed then bread was concocted from oats, lentils, and beans. Exotic foods were also making their way onto the streets of London, thanks to the advances in foreign trading. Those with the money could buy sugar, pepper, almonds, dates and olives. Potatoes had arrived but there was not yet a consensus on the correct way of eating them.

Multiple sources, including Tames, Picard, Ackroyd
©2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


  • March 8, 2010 - 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Of course, be my guest!

  • March 8, 2010 - 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article! Please may I link to it on the Leadenhall Market area on my site http://www.cheeseatleadenhall.co.uk?

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