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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Edible Tudor England at Berkhamsted Castle

Updated: Feb 15

The motte-and-bailey castle in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, was built to control a key route between London and the Midlands as part of the consolidation of Norman power in England during the 11th-century. Surrounded by protective earthworks, and a deer park for hunting, the castle became the new administrative centre of the former Anglo-Saxon settlement of Berkhamsted. In later years, the castle was occupied variously by (amongst others) the Earls of Cornwall, Edward the Black Prince, Archbishop Thomas Becket, and even Geoffrey Chaucer. In the late 15th-century, the castle was occupied by Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (mother of Edward IV and Richard III). By then the castle had become increasingly unfashionable and, after her death in 1495, it was abandoned and fell into decline.

By the mid 16th-century, it was in ruins and unsuitable for royal use. Stone was taken from the castle to build houses and other buildings in Berkhamsted, and it was almost destroyed during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s. As a result, the castle became the first building in Britain to receive statutory protection from Parliament and is now a scheduled ancient monument. In 1930, the castle passed from the Duchy of Cornwall to the government's control. Today it is managed as a tourist attraction by the Berkhamsted Castle Trust on behalf of English Heritage.

As part of the latter's 'Edible England' Heritage Open days, Tastes Of History introduced visitors to Berkhamsted Castle to late Mediæval and early Tudor food over two days in September 2021 (Sunday 12th and Monday 13th). In the shadow of the motte we pitched our display on the site of the original castle kitchens. Taking our inspiration from the Castle's cooks, all the dishes we served were taken from The Forme of Cury ('The Method of Cooking') [1], an extensive 14th-century collection of English recipes. Unfortunately the original Mediæval manuscript is lost, but the text can be recreated from its inclusion in nine other manuscripts. The most famous of these is in the form of a scroll with a headnote citing it as the work of 'the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II'. Given Berkhamsted Castle's royal heritage we felt confident that recreating recipes produced by the King's Master Cooks would be most appropriate. To that end we decided on a menu that included a 'Grete Pye', two types of tart, a chicken dish, two vegetable dishes and an old favourite, Lemon Posset.

Tarte in Ymbre Day In the Mediæval Church calendar Ember Days were celebrated four times a year; the word 'ember' (or 'Ymbre') is derived from the Latin phrase Quatuor Tempora meaning 'four times'. Ember Days were observed with fasting (no food between meals) and half-abstinence, meaning that meat was allowed at one meal per day. For those folk who wished to avoid meat completely, then a tart made principally with dairy products which were permitted (cheese, eggs, butter, etc.) makes eminent sense.

Tart de Bry Alongside Ember Day tarts we also offered 'Tart de Bry', where the name provides a clue to its filling of Brie cheese.

Grete Pye Pies were very popular in Mediæval and Tudor England. Unlike today, however, this game pie used a pastry that was not intended to be eaten. Rather, the hot water crust was needed to contain the filling and act like a baking tin. When delivered to the table during a Tudor feast as part of a 'mess' [2], the pie lid would be removed and the content shared among the diners. Each person would transfer the filling to their 'trencher' or plate before eating.

Hennys in Bruet Otherwise known as 'Chicken in Cumin', Hennys in Bruet is an English variation of a popular dish in western Mediæval Europe. In France it was known as 'Cominée' indicating the characteristic seasoning with cumin.

Buttered Wortes The Old English word 'wortes' is the plural form of 'wort' and simply means 'leaves'. This dish, which we have recreated for the annual commemoration of the Battle of Bosworth Field and frequently include in Sunday lunches, is tasty way of serving leafy greens. Lightly frying boiled cabbage or spring greens in a generous quantity of butter with leeks and seasoned with pepper is perhaps indulgent but delicious.

Chebolace It is not always easy to identify a historically correct recipe that is suitable for vegetarians. Roman dishes, for example, typically include fish sauce as a flavour enhancing ingredient. Cherbolace, however, was an option that satisfied at least one visitor who singlehandedly polished off a whole bowl. It is a simple savoury green soup spiced with coriander made from onions, spinach and, in this instance, kale.

Lemon Posset And finally, we could not resist offering visitors the ever popular lemon Posset. In this version, however, no sugar was added to the cream to balance the sharpness of the lemon. While the first record of sugar in English dates from the 13th-century, we thought it appropriate to leave sugar out since at the time of Cecily Neville's residence in the castle it still would have been an incredibly expensive import. We were keen to discover whether the absence of sugar would affect the flavour. As it turned out Lemon Posset remained a big hit with visitors.

The Final Word Our especial thanks go to incredible staff and volunteers from Berkhamsted Castle Trust who not only organised the 'Edible England' event but made us feel so welcome.

Please feel free to like, share or comment. And if you are inspired to try the recipes, then Bon appétit!



1. Cury comes from Middle French cuire: 'to cook' (spoken in the 14th- to the 16th-century).

2. Circa AD 1300 the noun 'mess' meant 'a supply or provision of food for one meal'. The word in English is derived from the Old French mes meaning a 'portion of food' or a 'course at dinner'. This sense is itself derived from Late Latin missus for a 'course at dinner' (in the literal sense it meant 'a placing', for example, on a table). The notion that a 'mess' meant 'a communal eating place' (especially a military one) is attested by the 1530s. This is a development from the earlier 15th-century sense of 'a company of persons eating together at the same table', originally a group of four.


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