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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Food in the 17th Century

Grain and legumes Peas and beans, which made up a very large part of the diet of the Mediæval poor, were still treated as a staple food, but to a lessening extent during the Stuart period being replaced by cereals and the potato. The many varieties of grain remained the most important crop and were the daily staple for most segments of 17th century society. Differentiation was in the varieties, its quality and how it was prepared. The lower classes ate coarse bread of considerably higher bran content, while the upper classes enjoyed the finely ground, white wheat flour that we are used to today. Wheat was considerably more expensive than other grains, and rarely eaten by the masses. Most bread was made with a mixture of wheat and other grains.

While grain remained the undisputed main staple food, during the 17th century scepticism towards New World imports such as potatoes and maize softened among the general populace. The potato in particular found new appreciation in northern Europe, where it was a much more productive and flexible crop than wheat. In early 19th century Ireland this would have disastrous results. With much of that country depending almost exclusively on potatoes, the potato blight, a fungus that rotted the edible tubers of the potato plant while still in the ground, caused a massive famine that killed over a million people and forced another two million Irish to emigrate.


Meat As for meat, if you are going to slaughter an animal for food, then it seems only right and proper that no part of the animal is wasted. Blood was used in soups and for blood sausages, tripe was an ingredient in stews, soups or pies, and even cuts that clearly reminded of the live creature were readily consumed. Calf's head could be served as a separate dish, and eating eyes, tongue or cheeks was not seen as problematic; in some regions they were even considered to be delicacies.


The consumption of meat in Europe remained exceptional by world standards, and during the period high levels generally moved down the social scale. Even so, the poor continued to rely mainly on eggs, dairy products, and pulses for protein. Often they did better in the less populated regions, where wild game and fish could still easily be found. The richer European nations, especially England, ate considerably more meat than the poorer ones.

New discoveries Cane sugar, native to India, was already known in Roman Europe and later in the Mediæval world, but it was expensive and mainly regarded as a medicine. From the end of the 17th century greatly increased production in the New World struggled to meet the increased demands of Europe. By the end of the period the maritime nations of England, France, the Low and Iberian Countries were consuming large quantities, but other parts of Europe used it far less. At the same time, modern distinctions between sweet and savoury dishes were becoming general; meat dishes were much less likely to be sweetened than in the Mediæval period.


Drink Before the Early Modern (Tudor) period, the social drinks of Europe had all been alcoholic. Increased contact with Asia and Africa, and the discovery of the Americas, meant that Europeans came into contact with tea, coffee and drinking chocolate. Yet it was not until the 17th century that all three products became popular as social beverages. The new drinks contained caffeine or theobromine, both mild stimulants that are not intoxicating in the same way as alcohol. Of them all, chocolate was the first to gain popularity, and was one of the preferred drinks of the Portuguese nobility in the 16th and early 17th century. All three remained very expensive, however.


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