‘All the King’s Cooks’ Deliciously Illustrates: No Matter Who’s King, the Bread Must Rise Properly

“NO VEGETABLES!” King Henry VIII bellows in a recent Horrible Histories sketch. “VEGETABLES ARE FOR POOR PEOPLE!”

Well… not exactly. Although it’s true that the plain, homegrown veg-intensive diet of Tudor-era peasantry bore little resemblance to the richly groaning tables of the nobility, Peter Brears’ All the King’s Cooks is a firm corrective to the stereotype of His Gluttonous Majesty gnawing away carelessly on huge chunks of random meat. In fact, as this exhaustively documented book demonstrates, the court was just as likely to be found nibbling on green salads… or admiring elaborate sugar figurines.

Make no mistake: a dilettante novelty cookbook this is not. To Brears mediaeval housekeeping is of very immediate concern; he is part of a team who for the past 20 years now has recreated a holiday meal at Hampton Court, the most famously elaborate of all Tudor palaces, trying to use where at all possible the original kitchens, fittings and methods.

As such — while there is an extensive recipe section in the back — this is for the most part a scholarly, thoroughly researched and highly detailed look at Hampton Court’s food services, ranging from sourcing, purchasing, receiving, tracking and finally preparation… and what steps were taken, in-between, to prevent the graft and kickbacks that one would assume were rampant in more primitive times.

One would assume incorrectly. The Comptroller of the Royal Household oversaw an intricate hierarchy composed of such offices as the Kitchen, Buttery, Cellar, Poultry, Pastry and Saucery, Woodyard, Spicery and Confectionery — essentially, the prototype of the modern industrial kitchen operation.

Besides regular meal prep (and given that huge hunks of meat were in fact involved, supper prep tended to begin right after breakfast), each courtier had a daily food and candle allowance — on a sliding scale according to rank – for as long as they remained at court. There were also the issues of feeding, dressing and housing the kitchen staffs, and maintaining both their cleanliness and that of their work areas. Then of course the dining areas must needs be kept ready in state fit for a king…

All told, the official checks and balances of Tudor housekeeping were fully as elaborate as a modern accounting firm would expect, and perhaps even a bit more shrewd in regard to the potential for human error as prompted by the deficiencies in human nature – paranoia being, after all, something of a Tudor art form. Suppliers were held to strict standards; receiving employees were required to submit detailed daily reports of what they received, while other kitchen officials checked these goods over for quantity and quality, and still others filed reports the next day indicating how much of it had actually been used.

All of this is surprisingly engrossing, from the historical and foodie POVs alike. The inevitable mass of material is arranged clearly and with a welcome economy of prose and vocabulary. The overall feel is of a narrative, not a textbook, and that interest once sparked carries the reader easily from detail to detail.

However, as noted, Brears is not exactly writing popular history, and at times this feels like a missed opportunity; there’s a curious sort of dichotomy between his obvious passion for his subject, and the Serious Business of its expression. The faint impression of defensiveness permeates the whole, apparently related to the aforementioned stereotype-busting; understandable, but kind of self-defeating, and a little disappointing.

This is a book about two things, Henry VIII’s court and good food, that are alike renowned for their sensual joie de vivre. Author and reader are both here because we’re fascinated by these subjects, and should be on the same side.

That said, any lingering awkwardness will most likely quickly become moot once the food takes centre stage. Cliché or no, I really must advise against reading this book when hungry, let alone when trying to maintain a diet. Not that it’s a matter of particularly exotic dishes – barring some unusual fish and game meats, not much appears here that would be alien to a restaurant menu in the modern day. Even back then, nobody considered the British daring innovators in haute cuisine. Where Brears is vindicated is in the curious… not sophistication, exactly, but a definite lack of expected crudeness.

These people were interested in food not just as a means of sustenance but in terms of technique, sometimes even artistry. They not only had spices, they knew how to use them. It’s intriguing – even a little endearing — to get this rare glimpse into the ground-level background of the Tudor domestic melodrama; an entire set of people who didn’t really care who was Queen at the moment, they were too busy ensuring the bread rose on schedule and the pastry was light. It would, I think, be an invaluable resource for those looking to add accurate period detail to their fictional accounts of same.

It’s all so down-to-earth, both as to quality and quantity, that it seduces the reader’s appetite even while the blatant disregard for nutrition is quite likely also horrifying him. Brears doesn’t go into this aspect much — probably wisely enough — but cholesterol, it must be admitted, had not yet been discovered in the 16th century and certainly wasn’t missed; although the nobility probably on average had a lot fewer years to enjoy their meals than did the aforementioned veg-eating peasantry.

Thus the daily diet runs to whole loaves of fresh bread (both wholemeal and ‘manchet’, or white), buttery pies and pasties with an assortment of tasty savoury fillings (handy to have on hand for royal snacking, Brears notes), and meals proper consisting of the aforementioned meats (fish on Fridays, including some shellfish), with sides of green salads, also peas and cabbages in season – it’s not mentioned here for some reason, but artichokes were also grown in the royal gardens around this time.

Meals proper, it should be noted, generally ran to six or so courses involving around 30 dishes total, all of it lovingly described from ingredients to finished product, and organised carefully into menus in the recipe insert. I haven’t actually tried any of the recipes – yet! – but they have apparently been adapted to modern kitchens, and on the strength of a lifetime spent messing about in the kitchen with cookbooks, they do seem highly reasonable as to both ingredients and prep.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the whole is dessert, perhaps the one arena in which the English chefs won the admiration of their Continental counterparts. The English speciality was in sugar work – the same concept the Food Network has discovered makes for both daring and dazzling TV. One can only imagine how much more so it appeared to 16th-century dinner guests. Eschewing today’s delicate arabesques, the Tudor sugar artistes went in mainly for painted models, producing not only lavishly detailed scale castles and the like (useful for impressing both the King and any visiting dignitaries) but bas-relief plaques made of marchpane, a sort of proto-marzipan.

Some of this — as replicated by Brears’ crew from the original molds — is illustrated in a colour photo insert, and it is stunning. Granted, given the paint recipes it may also have been a bit dangerous for the painters, but hey, back then, impressing the King was worth it.

It’s a unique bit of historical scholarship all ‘round, and warmly recommended as such, whether your intention is to add to your knowledge of Tudor times or antique feeding habits generally. Either way, you get to tell people that your latest recipes are very literally fit for a King.

RATING 8 / 10