Many of us read about the feasts in Martin’s books, and think to ourselves, “77 courses?! That’s absurd. You’re just making this up! No feast could be that big!” We’d think that, but we’d be wrong.
In fact, some historical feasts were considerably more lavish, more huge, and more absurd than those that GRRM details. In 1213, King John of England’s Christmas feast included 3,000 capons, 1,000 salted eels, 400 hogs, 100 pounds of almonds, and 24 casks of wine. A few decades later King Edward I’s coronation feast featured, among other items, 440 oxen and over 22,000 hens.
Just think of the logistics of that for a moment! How far afield would one have to go, and how far in advance, to secure that amount of livestock for a single event? I’m terrible with numbers, but I can tell you that it’s NUTS.
Richard II and his uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, threw a feast for hundreds in the late 1300s that featured mostly roasts. Roasting animals was a relatively expensive undertaking at the time, given the amount of wood required for the fire and the cost of the animals themselves. In addition to nearly 100 pounds of salted venison, the feast included a wide variety of waterfowl, including herons, cranes, swans, and geese. The bill for the feast also called for 11,000 eggs. If you figure that a good laying hen can lay around an egg a day, ponder for a moment how many hens it would take, and how long, to amass that number. Here are the courses for the rest of the feast:
- 14 salted oxen
- 84 pounds salted venison
- 12 boar, including heads
- 120 sheep heads
- 300 marrowbones
- More than 100 waterbirds, including cranes, herons and curlews
- 50 swans
- 150 capons
- 1,200 pigeons
- 210 geese
- 11,000 eggs
The First Course
- Veneson with Frumenty – Venison with a thick, sweet porridge of wheat
- A pottage called viaundbruse – A Stew Of Soft Meat
- Hedes of Bores – Boars Heads (traditional at nearly every feast)
- Grete Flessh – Great Flesh (Roast Oxen)
- Swannes roasted – Roast Swan
- Pigges roasted – Roast Pigs
- Crustarde lumbard in paste – Sweet Pastry Custards Of Wine, Dates & Honey
- And a Sotelte – And A Subtlety
The Second Course
- A pottage called Gele – A Stew called Jelly
- A pottage de blandesore – A White Soup
- Pigges Roasted – Roast Pigs
- Cranes roasted – Roast Cranes
- Fesauntes roasted – Roast Pheasants
- Herons roasted – Roast Herons
- Chekens endored – Chickens Glazed
- Breme – Bream
- Tartes – Tarts
- Broke braune – Jellied Brawn Of A Deer
- Conyngges roasted – Roast Rabbits
- And a sotelte – And A Subtlety
The Third Course
- Potage. Bruete of Almonds – Sweet Stew Of Almonds, Honey & Eggs
- Stwde lumbarde – Sweet Syrup Of Honey, Dates & Wine
- Venyson roasted – Roast Venison
- Chekenes Roasted – Roast Chickens
- Rabettes Roasted – Roast Rabbits
- Partrich Roasted – Roast Partridge
- Peions roasted – Roast Pigeons
- Quailes roasted – Roast Quail
- Larkes roasted – Roasted Larks
- Payne puff – Pan Puff
- A dissh of Gely – A Dish Of Jelly
- Longe Frutours – Long Fritters
- And a sotelte – And A Subtlety
According to the HRP site (Historic Royal Palaces), in a typical year, the royal kitchen in Henry VIII’s time served 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boar. That’s more than 14,000 large animals, meaning each member of the court was consuming about 23 animals every year. The whole of this was washed down with about 600,000 gallons of Ale. Is it any wonder the king ended up looking like this?
Clearly Robert Baratheon and Henry VIII would have been the best of chums. In order to process such quantities of ingredients and turn them into the feasts we all imagine, a staff of 200 worked extremely hard in the 3,000 square foot kitchen. Other notable features included:
- 6 fireplaces with spits
- a pastry house (!) with four ovens
- the ale cellar had double locks, and the keys were held by two separate officials
- three larders: for meat, fish, and all dry goods
- a boiling house, for making stock- the copper kettle could hold 75 gallons!
I would dearly like to have a pastry house of my very own…
Like her father, Queen Elizabeth I was no stranger to awesome food. The Spanish began cultivating a lot of sugar in the 1400s, and the English queen grew fond of the stuff. One of her earls, trying to gain the queen’s favor, threw a dessert feast for her. Lizzie sat in a gallery watching fireworks, while men carried up hundreds of desserts, among them:
- Sugar sculptures of castles, guns, soldiers and forts (English & French), as well as peacocks, swans and other animals.
- Marzipan creatures, fictional and real – eagles, lions, apes, frogs, snakes, worms, unicorns, mermaids and whales.
- Crystallized fruits, mostly apricots, damsons and plums.
- Preserved citrus peels (citrus fruits were still exceptionally rare in England)
- Sugar-coated almonds and spices, such as aniseed and fennel.
- Clear, cream and coloured jellies, flavoured with fruit juice, wine, rose-water, cinnamon and ginger, wobbling in bowls and or served in stiffened slices.
- Biscuits made from almonds, rosewater and ambergris.
- Fruit tarts of apples, pears and plums.
- Spice cakes made with cinnamon, cloves, saffron and mace.
That lineup might not include sugar skulls, but here’s dearly hoping that GRRM includes a similar sugary feast in one of his books. He’s given us cream swans and spun sugar unicorns, but I’d love to make some of the dishes above!
And of course, lest we forget the royalty of Pentos, Meereen, and other far flung cities across the Narrow Sea, I’ll take a look at some of the dinners put on by the Explorers Club in NYC. Stay tuned for that in a future post…