December 16, 2013

Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas: Feasting and Drinking

The third day of our Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas brings us to one of the most important aspects of a Tudor Christmas: Feasting and Drinking. I will focus on the some of the most popular foods, including Mince Pies, Meat, and Puddings. I will also discuss some of the most popular drinks of the time, including Wassail, Mulled Wine, Egg Nog, and Buttered Beer, all of which people still drink today!


Mince Pies were enjoyed by Tudors from the lowliest peasants to the King and his court. Minced pies were made with thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and his apostles. Often times, pies were shaped like a crib (to represent the Christ child) or decorated with a crib or infant child.

Historians from the Royal Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace have pieced together a recipe for Ryschewys Close and Fryez which is a perfect alternative to Christmas mince pies. Watch this video and visit the Tudor Cookery website for more information on how to make your own Tudor mince pies from Henry VIII's cook.

Meat was the main component of any Christmas feast. For peasants, poultry or game would have to suffice. However for the rich, Swan, Peacock, and a Boar's Head were often eaten. The first Christmas Turkey in England dates from the early 1520's, and was served to none other than King Henry VIII himself. I'm sure he enjoyed the turkey leg in particular.

Though expensive, Queen Elizabeth ordered that every household in England should eat goose as part of their Christmas Feast in 1588, as it was the first meal she enjoyed after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Needless to say, many of the Queen's poorer subjects had to settle for much smaller and less expensive game.

Presentation was extremely important in Tudor England. When meat, such as swan or peacock, was cooked, the skin and feathers were removed, then replaced once the bird had finished roasting, leaving the bird to look as if it had never been cooked!

Christmas Pudding has been a very popular Christmas treat since the Middle Ages. During this time, the Catholic Church decreed that every household was to serve a pudding made on the 25th. It was to be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his 12 apostles, with every family member taking a turn to stir the pudding from east to west, to honor the Magi. Eventually, the tradition fell out of use until George I re-established a Plum-version as part of the traditional Christmas feast. The Victorians further evolved it into more of what we know today.

Here's the link to an excellent Christmas Pudding recipe from Medieval Cookery.


Wassail is a drink dating back to Angol-Saxon times. The word Wassail comes from the Saxon greeting "Was Hael," meaning 'Good Health.' It is still drunk today in many parts of Europe and America. 

The drink is made from hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. A piece of bread or toast is placed at the bottom of the bowl. Once the Wassail has been drunk, the toast is given to the most important person in the room. This is where we get our modern tradition of raising a glass and "toasting" an important guest from. 

I have enjoyed making Wassail for the last few years in my own home. I find it to be a delicious drink that my family and guests enjoy. Here's the recipe I use:

  • 1 lb of apples, cored and cooked at 375 degrees for 1 hour in a foil covered baking dish. Remove peel when apples have cooled and mash.
  • 1-2 cups light brown sugar (to taste) 
  • 6 bottles of ale (such as double bock) 
  • 1 cup sherry 
  • 1 whole nutmeg, grated 
  • 2 tsp ginger 
  • 1/8 tbsp cloves 
Dissolve sugar in 1 bottle of ale over a low flame. Add spices and stir. Add remaining ale and sherry and remove from heat. Let sit for several hours, covered. Warm and add mashed apples. I usually garnish the Wassail bowl with apples.

Wassail was served in an elaborate bowl made in the shape of a large goblet. Small goblets or cups made of wood would accompany the bowl, making a Wassail set. Sadly, few Tudor examples survive. The tradition became much more popular during the 17th Century. Many stunning examples of 17th century Wassail bowls are still in existence, and sometimes are for sale (if you have a pretty penny to spend at Christie's)!

Another drink dating from ancient times, and thoroughly enjoyed by the Tudors, is Spiced or Mulled Wine. I love wine, and have enjoyed making this drink for the holiday season.

Spiced wine comes in many forms. The most common form is a red wine, heated and spiced with sugar, cinnamon, orange, and cranberries.

Here is the recipe I use every Thanksgiving and Christmas:

  • 2 bottles of light red wine (such as pinot noir)
  • 1 to 2 oranges (I squeeze the juice into the pot, then add the orange as well) 
  • 1 to 2 lemons (I only squeeze the juice, then discard the lemon) 
  • 1/2 cup kirsch (a cherry brandy) or other type of brandy 
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar 
  • Cinnamon sticks (to taste- I usually use three to five)
  • 8-10 cloves
  • Optional: Nutmeg and Cardamom to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot and bring to a low boil. Let simmer for an hour, then sit for a day or two (in the fridge). Heat up before serving.

Another drink of choice for Henry VIII and his court was Eggnog. Thought to have originated in East Anglia, England, this popular drink is made from eggs, milk or cream, sugar, spices, and alcohol. One possible origin for the mixture was from the old English "Egg Flip" which was a drink made from beer, rum, eggs, sugar, spices, and milk, poured together and heated with a hot poker which caused a frothing effect. The term "Nog" might have originated from the term "noggin," a wooded drinking cup commonly used for alcoholic beverages.

Eggnog was generally only enjoyed by the upper class, as dairy and egg products were expensive and hard to keep fresh. Did you know that the first recorded eggnog made and consumed in the United States was by Captain John Smith's 1607 Jamestown settlement?

Here's a delicious recipe for eggnog:

  • 8 large eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 1.5 cups rum
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 2 tbsp superfine sugar (an instantly dissolving sugar)
Mix eggs, yolks, and sugar together (excluding superfine sugar). Pour mixture into sauce pan and heat slowly. Gradually stir in milk. Heat and stir steadily until mixture forms a custard. Pour custard into a large bowl and stir in vanilla, rum, bourbon, and nutmeg. Let mixture cool, then cover and refrigerate for several hours or a day. 30 mins before serving, whip cream and superfine sugar until it forms soft peaks. Fold into chilled mixture until completely mixed, and serve in chilled glasses, garnished with ground nutmeg.

Buttered Beer is another popular holiday drink dating from Medieval times. Though more popular in the UK than the USA (with the exception of Harry Potter fans), it is still a delicious beverage to add to any holiday gathering. The oldest written Buttered Beer recipe dates from 1588 and is as follows:

  • 3 bottles of a good quality British Ale (not a lager)
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 unsalted butter (diced)
Slowly pour ale into a pot. Stir in ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Gently heat to a low boil, then let simmer. Gently whip egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Remove pot from heat and mix in whipped egg. Once thoroughly mixed, return to low heat for five mins. Mix in butter, making sure it melts completely. Froth the mixture by gently whisking it. After about 10 mins, remove from heat and let cool to a drinkable temperature. 

Though there are many other holiday drinks, I felt that these were the most popular and delicious of them. Each and everyone, in some form, was enjoyed by the Tudors, and can likewise be enjoyed by you in your own home! Happy drinking!

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