Save Me A Piece Of Marchpane!

 

© The British Museum Press

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of The Shakespeare Cookbook last week. Published by The British Museum Press, it’s the latest title they’ve produced to compliment The British Museum’s major new exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World. Written by food historian Andrew Dalby, and his partner Maureen, an experienced chef, this lovely book is a treat for Shakespeare fans and historians alike.

Beautifully written and researched, The Shakespeare Cookbook presents over forty original recipes alongside modern equivalents created by the authors. The recipes are organised into chapters which draw on Shakespeare’s plays, so each recipe is not only presented in its historical context, but is supported with quotations and themes from the plays. The Romeo and Juliet chapter, for example, makes clever use of the banqueting scene at Juliet’s house to explore some seventeenth century party foods, such as Capons With Oranges Or Lemons, and Medlar Tart. Medlars are similar to little apples, they contain five large seeds and originated in ancient Europe. Their flesh can be mixed with cream and sugar, to produce a unique-tasting pudding. However, they are, according to the Dalbys, almost entirely inedible until they begin to rot at the start of autumn, hence the lines in As You Like It:

You’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that’s the right virtue of a medlar.

(3.2.118)

 

Medlars 

Another party food enjoyed in Shakespeare’s England was the infamous marchpane, made from almonds, and usually mixed with pine nuts and rose water. Marchpane was often moulded into a large cake, and served as a centrepiece at a fancy banquet. It could be decorated with caraway seeds, sculpted figures, and even gold leaf.

‘In 1561-2, just before Shakespeare was born, Queen Elizabeth I received three presents of marchpane. One, made by George Webster, her master cook, took the form of a chessboard (alternate squares perhaps being gilded); a second, from Richard Hickes, Yeoman of the Chamber, was ‘made like a tower, with men and sundry artillery in it’; a third, from John Revell, Surveyor of the Works, was a replica of the old St Paul’s church.’

The Shakespeare Cookbook

 © JW. San Gimignano: Panforte (Flickr)

In addition to dessert recipes, there are many recipes for meat, fish, and poultry. One which caught my eye was roast mallard. According to the authors, most of us eat mallard when we eat duck, something which I admit took me by surprise, since I hadn’t equated Duck A’L'Orange with Duck A L’Pond. Here is one of the original recipes for roast duck reproduced in The Shakespeare Cookbook:

To Boyle A Mallard With Onions:

Take a mallard, roast him half enough, and save the dripping, then put him into a fair pot, and his gravy with him, and put into his belly six or seven whole onions, and a spoonful of whole pepper, and as much abroad in your pot, put to it as much mutton broth or beef broth as will cover the mallard, and half a dish of sweet butter, two spoonfuls of verjuce, and let them boil the space of an hour. Then put in some salt, and take off the pot, and lay the mallard upon sops, and the onions about him,and pour the uppermost of the broth upon them

The Shakespeare Cookbook

In addition to food, The Shakespeare Cookbook also provides recipes for Metheglin, a Welsh mead made with spices, and a very popular drink at the time, since it was tasty and reputed to have health properties. And posset, a drink made from milk curdled by the addition of wine or ale. The modern recipe in the book is a non-alcoholic version involving lemons.

Andrew and Maureen Dalby have done a wonderful job with this book. It’s informative, well-researched, beautifully illustrated, and a great read. In addition to the recipes, it contains a wealth of food history pertaining to the period, and lovely notes on original ingredients. The authors state in their introduction that their aim is to give readers the opportunity to ‘taste the same flavours that Shakespeare’s audiences tasted’. And that, I think, is where this book stands out. By following the modern equivalent of original early modern recipes, The Shakespeare Cookbook enables us to get closer to the real flavours of Shakespeare’s England. Not only would I recommend this book, I’m actually going to try some of the recipes. It is a lovely addition to early modern food history, and a neat addition to the historian’s bookshelf.

 
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