Recipes, Food and Cooking in Tudor England

Delights for Ladies

When Natalie asked me to write an exclusive article for her wonderful website I immediately said yes, for two reasons. The first, I love her site; the Tudor period is a fascinating and turbulent one, worth studying and writing about. The second, I tend to focus on single, historic recipes for much of the year, at Historical Foods, only branching out into more broad and general food history when I have the time to write about it, and so when Natalie asked, I felt it was high time I looked into this period in a bit more depth and focus my ideas, rather than just pick recipes from it.

I am sure you will agree, that what is true for social revolution, is also true for food revolution, this particular period was at the dawn of a new era, an enlightened era, where the old Medieval concepts and ideas were falling away, and the new world was opening up. The rural poor were in a sad plight, but the burgeoning city artisans lived quite comfortably, turning profits on new trades and investing in new industries, and luckily we have several interesting sources written about this rising middle class which focus on food and dining. Claudius Hollybrand, a French immigrant, wrote in 1570 that the English took their breakfast at seven, dinner at eleven and supper at five, while Sunday dinner and supper (as is still the custom in many households today) were the main meals of the week, for guests and extended family.

A typical Sunday meal, in a moderately wealthy Tudor family, according to Hollybrand, consisted of Salted beef and mustard, spiced cabbages, mutton stuffed with garlic, and capon [castrated male chicken] boiled with leeks as a starter course, and to follow this, a shoulder of veal, cold turkey and chicken, a venison pasty, blackbirds, larks, woodcocks and partridge [roasted] and a roast hare with black (blood) sauce. The desserts consumed were baked pears with scraped cheese, pippins, tarts, custard pies and cake, roasted chestnuts and a choice of cheeses, French, Italian and English. Each course washed down with a selection of red and white wines.

As you can see even the food was beginning to change and evolve, increasing in complexity from the heavily spiced and limited diet of the Medieval age. Also new foods and ingredients were being imported, from the Americas and exotic lands thousands of miles away, such as the Turkey in 1526, replacing or enhancing other ingredients which went out of fashion. And it is to this fashion I wish to turn; the increase in the printing and publication of books, along with their decrease in price, meant that new cook-books were springing up and becoming common place in the wealthier households, helping to change and shape the fashions of the food served to the table.

Green salads for example, (a dish the Medieval cooks called worts) were now being made and eaten, a thing not seen in any great depth in earlier recipe books, (salads and vegetables had not been trusted as a particularly healthy diet). Continental influences also filtered into the Tudor Cooks’ repertoire and diet. So at the risk of repeating what I wrote earlier, this really is a fascinating era to study.

As a Food Historian I hold in very high regard three ‘cook books’ published towards the end of the Tudor Period; each contain the thoughts, experiences and advice of the authors who lived through this tumultuous time. The first book was owned and used by Margaret Parker, wife of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, in running her household, and was published in 1557 (it was later donated to Corpus Christi – University of Cambridge – and it is recognised as the second oldest book written in English concerned only with cooking and recipes) it is called, “A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye”. The second book is by Thomas Dawson, published in two parts, 1596 and 1597 called “The Good Huswife’s Jewel”. The third book is by Sir Hugh Plat (or Platt) published in 1609 called, “Delights For Ladies”.

Note:  If you do a ‘Google Book Search’ for these titles several Internet sites have substantial and even partial bits and pieces from these books to research from, and some new editions are available for sale on Amazon etc.; however, I am in the fortunate position to have good [re]printed copies in my library.

These books were written (by men) for the education of women in their household duties; whose job it was to manage the household and to support her husband’s interests in any way she could, which was as true for the farmer’s wife, as it was for the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Margaret Parker, as it was for the Queen of England, Anne Bolyne. These books were the equivalent of the ‘How To Books’ which are still very popular today, ‘The Idiots Guide To … etc.’ only with more romantic sounding titles like, ‘Delights For Ladies’.

Tudor Woodcut

Whatever their station in life country women in the Tudor Period kept a keen eye on the household accounts, and ran each household according to their means. Kathleen Rosemary Fussel, in her introduction to ‘Delights For Ladies’ republished in 1948, says, “Their lives centred around their homes and the list of their daily activities were legion …. [they] brewed and baked, churned and ground their meal; they bred, fed, and slew their own beeves and sheep at their own doors … The spinning of the wool and flax, the fine and coarse needlework, the embroidery, the cooking, the curing, the preserving, the distillery, were all superintended by the lady… They ruled their households, occasionally it must be confessed with a rod of iron … [they] were for ever busy, preserving, conserving, candying, making syrup, jellies, beatifying washes, mouth-washes, pomatum essences, vinegar, and pickles … [and] the herb garden was the woman’s business.”

As you can see the men toiling in the fields had it no more hard than the women toiling in the kitchen, which is why, with this ‘legion’ of activities, there needed to be books written about performing each of them ‘correctly’ – mastering each of these given tasks would need a lifetime of experience and shared knowledge – I don’t know about you, but today, looking at the list of chores and tasks undertaken by Tudor women, I myself would be lost in knowing how to approach even half of these competently.

Yet it was not all toil. Although women were not as free as they are today, (in terms of personal freedoms and career choice) and it was thought they needed proper instruction in their duties by men, it does appear that Tudor England was still more advanced in this regard than many other nations. Thomas Platter, a Swiss, recorded in his travelling diary in 1599 that, “the women-folk of England, who have mostly blue-gray eyes and are fair and pretty, have more liberty than in other lands, and know just how to make use of it for they often stroll out or drive by coach in very gorgeous clothes and the men must put up with such ways, and may not punish them for it”. This ‘liberty’ (from the poorest to the richest) included being mistress of the house, and running it with skill and competence.

For the wealthier women, educated Court ladies and ladies of the great country houses,  books on instruction, although written by men, would have held a great deal of interest for them, simply because they dealt with many of those matters which were commonplace in their daily lives. And it was through mastering these chores and activities that they gained a personal satisfaction; a well run household (from the competent mistress to the diligent maid) was regarded as a source of pride; and though the toil was heavy, and routine, they also found occasional joy through festivals and feast days, where popular music, dancing and pageantry were present.

Also, not all the advice given in these books instructed women in their formal duties. Some of the advice and ‘recipes’ given within these books are somewhat akin to peddling snake oil, by saucily dealing in what almost amounts to witch-craft and alchemy; particularly for beauty products and beauty regimes. Within ‘Delights For Ladies’ for example is a method, “‘To take away spots and freckles from the face or hands’ – The sappe that issueth out of a Birch tree in great aboundance, being opened in March or Arprill, with a receiver of glasse set under the boring thereof to receive the same, doth performe the same most excellently and maketh the skin very cleare. This sap will dissolve pearle, a secret not known unto many”.

You can imagine many a Birch tree being tapped by a Tudor woman in March or April in the secret hope of achieving the desired pale skin by rubbing on their face the sticky sap collected. Is this so far removed in 1609 from what we still see today in the beauty product industry? Sir Plat also gives advice and recipes on, ‘How to take away any pimple from the face’, ‘To keepe the teeth both white and sound’ and ‘To colour a blacke haire presently into a Chesnut colour’ etc.

While still other parts of these books deal with pure medical ‘quackery’ … Thomas Dawson gives a treatment, “’For Sinews That Be Broken In Two’: Take worms while they be nice, and look that they depart not. Stamp them, and lay it to the sore, and it will knit the sinew that be broken in two.”

Yet this is not to say that all the advice given in these Tudor ‘How To’ books was ill-informed, quite the opposite; many other parts of the three main books mentioned contain advice which is still very relevant today; for example Thomas Dawson tells us in 1596 that ‘To Preserve Cherries’: To every pound of cherries take a pound of sugar – or ‘To Make Conserve Of Barberries’: To every pound of barberries, one pound of sugar – and this is exactly the ratio we still use today 1 to 1 (fruit and sugar) in preserving and making the best jams. Also, the connections between ailments and taking particularly effective herbs was made and studied, acceptable alternative medicines still in use today.

However, as a Food Historian, what interests me the most is the ingredients and recipes which were recommended in these books. Let us take a brief glance at what could be expected to be put before you on a Tudor table for dinner and supper.

At the end of the Medieval period you can still see this era’s influence in Tudor cooking, for example, “To Make Mortise” a dish of pounded/minced chicken with almond milk, sugar, rose-water and water. Or in “Mutton Boiled For Supper” a dish made by boiling the mutton joint in water with onions, parsley, pepper, saffron and vinegar. Yet we also now see more subtlety and complexity in a dish entering the cook-books, for example, “To Make Boiled Meats For Dinner” a dish whereby the choice cut of a neck of lamb is stuffed with marjoram, savory, thyme and parsley chopped small, and with currants and the yolks of two eggs, pepper and salt, stitched closed and boiled in lamb and vegetable broth, served with a little butter. Let’s be honest, if this was served to you today, at a three star restaurant, you would be falling over yourself in praise of such a well balanced dish.

I could go on, but I do not wish to bore you on such a specialist topic, but if asked I can always do a follow up post. Normally, if I write on Food History, I like to write, leave it on the computer for a week or two, to mull it over, then come back to it, write a little more, triple check the references and facts and then publish it. With this guest blog I obviously am not able to do this. So please forgive any small inaccuracies (I agree, large ones are unforgivable) or issues with grammar etc. To mollify you, I will leave you with a dish I have translated for you to try out at home, a wonderful Strawberry Tart from 1557.


Tarte Of Strawberyes 1557 A.D.

From Margaret Parker’s own cook book “A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye” 1557

This is a wonderful strawberry tart recipe, thickened by sugar, butter, egg yolks and white bread crumbs. The egg yolks and bread break down as a thickening agent and do not overly flavour the dish, so if you find sweet strawberries with lots of delicious flavour this strawberry tart will beat any modern one hands down.

It has to be noted that the wild strawberry in the Tudor period is different to the mass produced ones we see in the supermarket today, but if you buy small, sweet, organically grown ones from an old strawberry variety (or pick wild ones you planted in the garden, like I do) it will be pretty close.

We are using both plain flour and wholemeal (or whole wheat) flour to approximate an 80% extraction rate of a fine Tudor flour.

To make a tarte of strawberyes.

Take and strayne theym wyth the yolkes
of foure egges, and a lyttle whyte breade
grated, then season it up wyth suger and
swete butter and so bake it.

To make short paest for tarte.

¶. Take fyne floure and a cursey of
fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and
a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges
and make it thynne and as tender as ye

“the coffyn must be fyrste hardened in the oven”

1557 Strawberry Tart For The Modern Kitchen:

Recipe Ingredients:

For the fruit filling

  • 500g strawberries
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 slices of bread, grated to make breadcrumbs
  • 150g brown sugar (demerara)
  • 100g unsalted butter (melted)

For the pastry

  • 300g plain flour
  • 150g whole meal flour
  • 200g butter, softened
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tbsp water (warm)
  • 2 strands of saffron

Recipe Method:

In a small bowl or cup add 2 tablespoons of warm water and the strands of saffron to infuse for five minutes.

Make the pastry by sifting together the plain and wholemeal flour into a bowl. Dice the softened butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips to make a ‘breadcrumb’ consistency. Beat the egg yolks and add them to the flour with the saffron infused water.

Use a wooden spoon to make a soft, silky pastry, incorporating everything together – if the pastry is a little wet add a spoonful or two of extra plain flour to help bind it.

Take the pastry into your hands and gently knead it for a minute to make sure everything is combined fully, cover it in cling film and pop it in the fridge for twenty minutes to firm up.

Grease a large tart or flan tin and preheat the oven to 180C. After twenty minutes take the pastry from the fridge and roll it out on a floured work surface, line the tart tin with the pastry, work it into the tin then trim off the edges. We now need to ‘blind bake’ the pastry case, or as the manuscript from 1557 has it, “the coffyn must be fyrste hardened in the oven”.

Cover the pastry base in the tin with some baking paper and then spread some baking beans or some loose metal change (coins) so that it fills the case. Pop this pastry case in the oven to blind bake for about ten minutes, or until firmed up. The coins or baking beans are essential to weigh the pastry down as it bakes.

In a mixing bowl add the strawberries after you have washed them, cut their tops off and hulled them out (cut out a V shaped part of the stalk-heart out of the top). Add the brown sugar, the breadcrumbs and melted butter. Beat the 4 egg yolks and add them too. Then using a potato masher gently mash and mix all this fruit filling together. You want to keep the strawberries semi-whole, but make sure everything is mixed, finish by using a spoon to mix thoroughly and coat everything in the butter, egg, sugar and strawberry juice.

When the pastry has dried, take the tart tin out of the oven, remove the baking beans and baking paper and fill the case with the fruit filling, sprinkle over some extra sugar and bake in the oven for about twenty to thirty minutes. You can if you wish use any extra pastry to make a pastry lattice shape over the top of the tart.

After the strawberry tart has baked remove from the oven, allow to cool and serve large slices to friends and family, telling them that this is a recipe from 1557!


Tudor Kitchen’s Hampton Court

As an end note: Some of the best research, cooking and practice demonstrations in Tudor foods is undertaken at Hampton Court Palace this is a great place to watch experts at work.

Regards, Conner.

From Historical Foods



  1. Wow. What a wonderful, in-depth and informative article.
    I thoroughly enjoyed it and learnt a lot.
    I too will be making this tummy Tudor tart.
    Thank you Conner and Natalie

  2. Great post! I’m certainly glad that our dinners are a bit more restrained in the number of dishes served!

  3. Mary Ellen Harris-Keeler says:

    They seemed to cook such large meals. But, many had large families, or if it was a meal at court, there were many to feed. Some of it actually sounds good, athough, being a Texan, I just don’t eat mutton!

  4. I. C. Webber says:

    Thank you, you save my project.

  5. I’m looking for Anne of Cleves cake recipe.

  6. I am also looking for the ANNE OF CLEVES CAKE recipe. I cannot find it any where! I am In the states and we get our BBC late. I have watched all the Henry the VII series and saw the cake being eat (by what’s her name) sorry. I do want to make that cake. And the British Baking Show that competes?, can they give out recipes for what they are baking? I would love try some recipes. That is a very good show with out all the BS that is on our baking showing. TYSara

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