Winner winner chicken dinner: Tudor carving habits

I’ve always loved roast dinners. Not to cook – I find that end bit where everything’s bubbling over, the potatoes are turning from ‘golden brown’ to ‘lightly cremated’ and the sink’s full of every pan you ever owned piled high in a dangerously greasy game of Jenga quite stressful. But to eat? Oh yes.

In fact, I would go as far as classifying a good roast dinner an essential health food. Let me explain…

When I was younger I had to spend a few weeks in hospital. Before being admitted I’d been reading one of the Harry Potter books but because of an astounding lack of forward planning on my part I got sick during a weekend trip to my grandpa, who lived over 100 miles away and ended up in a hospital that was too far for my parents to nip back home for one lousy book. I don’t remember much about the first week apart from one event in particular: languishing in bed, I turned to my dad and asked if he could tell me the end of the Harry Potter I’d been reading, you know, “in case I don’t make it.” (Yep – even from a young age I’ve always had a flair for hammy melodrama.)

I remember thinking that my dad was taking a long time to recall the story and almost gave up waiting for him before he suddenly answered. At this point it’s worth saying I was genuinely life threateningly ill, I was a young child and we were a long way from home. All he had to do was come up with something comforting and simple. He cleared his throat…

“Voldemort broke Harry’s wand so Harry couldn’t fight back. He killed Harry and then set fire to Hogwarts. Dumbledore managed to escape but Voldemort cast a spell and he lost all his powers…” his eyes gleamed brightly as he found his rhythm.

“Ron and Hermione were captured by Voldemort’s henchmen and forced to work for Voldemort. They weren’t allowed to talk because Voldemort cast a silencing spell on them so they couldn’t speak ever again. Eventually Voldemort controlled everything and no one could stop him. Dumbledore came back and tried to fight him but he couldn’t cast any spells and he was eaten by Hagrid’s big spider. Or it might have been that big snake that lived in the walls instead. The end.”

I remember asking him if he was sure that was the ending and him glancing at my mum, who had turned very pale and was clenching her fists very hard.

“Er…I might have forgotten some things,” he admitted. “Hang on…oh yes. It turns out that Hagrid was a secret agent for Voldemort all along – him and McGonagall -“

“Could I have a quick word, darling?” I watched as my mum frogmarched my dad out of the ward. She must have cast her own silencing spell on him because when they came back he wasn’t allowed to talk to me for the rest of the visit and just sat grumpily at the end of the bed eating my grapes.

I was pretty upset. I was also convinced he’d got it wrong, but this was in the days where most people had phones without internet so there was no way of checking apart from getting better and getting home to read it for myself. And what was it that lifted my spirits after my father had so callously crushed them, and spurred me on to good health? A roast dinner.

Oh, I know some of you will pipe up with other factors for my survival like the compassion and skill of the doctors and nurses, modern testing, medication, expert surgery and round the clock care. But to those people I say – could you cover any of that in gravy?

Yes, I know it takes a great deal of skill to become a medical professional. I know it’s a vocation that takes years to master and great levels of intellect that an apricot stuffed pork loin can never hope to possess. But what I also know is I’ve never, ever tasted a roast dinner as good as the one I had when I was finally able to eat a proper meal again. It was bliss. It was heaven. Things that I’d previously shunned, like boiled cabbage, I wolfed down like nectar from the gods. Was the meat chicken or pork? Lamb or beef? I couldn’t tell because it had taken on that worrying grey colour and had no discernible flavour from sitting in warm water for so long. Did it matter? Did it hell! The potatoes were soggy round the edges, there were no Yorkshire puddings and the gravy had clots of fat floating on the surface. It was, to this day, the best roast dinner I’ve ever eaten.

Each day after that I got a bit better, until I was allowed to go home. So yes, a roast dinner is a health food. It’s up there with acacia berries, flax seeds, coconut oil and quinoa and I truly believe it will only be a matter of time before Holland and Barrett start selling vacuum packed roast dinners alongside their perplexing array of supplements and protein powders.

You can tell this roast thinks it’s too good for you now.
Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Pexels.com

For many, myself obviously included, a roast dinner would have been the obvious Easter meal last weekend with lamb being a popular and traditional choice. Some, however, may have chosen to shun tradition this year by skimping on certain side dishes now that Aunty Barbara wasn’t coming round to sit on the sofa for three hours lamenting the absence of mashed potato, and certain heathens might have even done away with a roast entirely. Not so in our household. I spent most of Easter morning locked in the kitchen doing Very Important (veg) Prep which involved the veg setting calmly in water and the lamb taking care of itself in the oven. I also spent a lot of time on Twitter. Every so often my husband poked his head in and asked how things were and if I might join him in looking after our toddler, who was rampaging round the living room high on sugar screaming “Egg! Egg! Chocolate Egg!” over and over.

“Sorry, love, I can’t. Need to check on the spuds.” I wiggled a pan of very placid potatoes that had yet to be cooked and shrugged. “I would help if I could, but it’s about to get mad in here.”

And, 45 minutes later, it did.

Have you finished with your anecdotes yet? When does the history start?

Soon.

The point is, when I brought that roast dinner to the table I was really looking forward to it. We assumed the traditional roles – you know, the one where the woman does all the work but the husband steps in at the last second to take the glory of carving it – and I watched through my fingers as he absolutely butchered my beautiful lamb joint.

When he placed a slice of meat on my plate that looked as if it had been carved with all the delicacy and deftness of a wooden spoon I knew it was about time he received a history lesson in the lost art form of meat carving:

The terms of a Carver be as here followeth:
Break that dear –
Slice that brawn –
Rear that goose –
Lift that swan –
Sauce that capon…

Wynkyn de Worde, The Boke of Keruynge 1508

Carving was a big thing at aristocratic Tudor tables. In fact it was such an important aspect of dining that several books were published to instruct squires and other young men aspiring to noble ranks in the correct methods for carving each animal they might come across at the dinner table. It was clear that my husband had read approximately none of them.

Putting aside what books such as the fabulously named Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Keruynge can tell us about Tudor tastes (porpoise, anyone?), the first thing to notice is that Tudor carvers were nothing short of wordsmiths. Where my husband had two main carving techniques (the classic ‘back’n’forth’ and ‘pull the legs off’), Boke of Keruynge contains no fewer than 39 inventively named techniques for different animals, each distinct from the last. Some of them are familiar, if a little graphic for modern day tables – “Dismember that heron”, “Unjoint that bittern” – while others are elegant in their ambiguity – “Frusche that chicken”, “Trassene that eel” – and yet more were clearly just made up when Wynkyn was running out of ideas – “Untache that curlew”, “Splat that pike”.

Only the very rich could afford whole animals, so the purpose of having so many methods of carving wasn’t necessarily down to making the most of the meat (after all, how much difference could there be between carving a swan and carving a goose – other than the legal implications of one of them?) It was about showing off.

In bringing a whole animal to the table the lord was inviting people to gaze upon his wealth. Having a highly trained carver was therefore a necessity – what you didn’t want was someone who would mangle the meat into unrecognisable chunks, but would instead arrange the choicest cuts and present them in as pleasing a way as possible. The role of the carver also wasn’t to cut the meat into tiny bite sized portions, but to slice certain cuts off and possibly de-bone sections which could then be speared onto a diner’s plate and cut up with their own knife (forks weren’t introduced to England until the 17th century.) A carver should therefore be someone who cared, ideally because one day they would be dining on beautifully carved meat themselves and they had to learn how to recognise what it looked like. For this reason carvers of non-royal aristocratic households tended to be young men who were living and serving in the households of lords, perhaps as squires, as part of their training for the ranks of the nobility.

There was also another element to carving: power. As well as following the correct procedure, the carver had to carve the meat according to a rigid hierarchy. The man who owned the land where the animals had been killed had to be given the best cuts so one of the key jobs of the carver was to ensure that once the meat had been carved appropriately, he chose the gristle-free, richest and tastiest morsels for his lord. Once that had been done the platter of carved meat would be passed round the table – on a hierarchical basis, naturally – and diners would spear the cuts they wanted with their own knives. The carver could now breathe a sigh of relief that he had served his lord well and wouldn’t receive his own dismembering or unjointing later.

The role of the carver was so important that it had long been elevated in society. When what you served and how you served it said so much about your status and rank, the wealthy couldn’t afford to take risks with sloppy knifemanship from bog standard kitchen servants. During the 15th century the role of the carver therefore became highly coveted and developed into a special courtly office called the ‘carvership’ which only selected officials could hold. These roles paid well, as Elizabeth of York’s carver William Denton’s wage of £26 13s. and 4d. in 1503 attests.

The people in the background are just as horrified as I am with her lack of safe knife skills.

Knives in Tudor England

Knives were an essential part of life in Tudor England, and not just for preparing food. They were used for everything: cutting rope, whittling wood, stabbing clowns in the arse – you name it. Every man and boy over the age of five carried a knife with them at all times – I mean, I have child locks on all the kitchen drawers to stop my daughter getting at sharp objects, but sure – hand knives out to five year olds; they can definitely be trusted at that age.

But the carving knife was different.

Throughout the Tudor era and subsequent centuries the status of those who crafted carving knives – cutlers – increased. Cutlers who created the tools necessary to carve meat enjoyed a similar status to other master craftsmen such as jewellers and armourers. During the middle ages a cutler’s prestige could be increased according to the intricacies of the designs he created: a handle of polished brass was good, one that was inlaid with gold or silver was better, one set with amethysts and amber was best. And sparkliest.

As the Tudor era took hold, banquets became more elaborate and, what with the falling price of meat, feasts would contain numerous displays of meat carving and exotic animals for guests to sample, all with expensive spices and sauces to show off the king’s wealth and generosity. Such was the abundance of meat at Henry VIII’s court that his courtiers could easily be offered menus containing 5000 calories a day. To complement the richly overflowing tables a carver would be expected to put on a bit of a show and the knives he used were the main star. The accounts of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond (also Henry VIII’s only acknowledged illegitimate child) show that he possessed a pair of carving knives weighing just over 500g (an average modern day one weighs approximately 160g) that were also gilded.

It’s obvious that by now carving knives were more than just shiny tools. Yes, they showed wealth but they also represented a lord’s masculinity (you know, because the Tudor era was in dire need of yet more ways men could peacock around slapping their masculinity onto things.) The carving knife and what it represented became a symbol of how much of a man the lord was. A blunt knife could indicate a weak man who struggled to make an impression on the world. A plain knife could reveal a man’s miserly, simple ways that weren’t worthy of respect. Knives were so tied up in the concept of manliness and good honour that men who swore oaths would sometimes hand over their knives as testimony of good faith. As betrothal gifts young men would send their bride to be (or her family) gifts of knives which probably seemed sexier and a lot less threatening than it would today.

And in all of Tudor England, who should have the biggest, longest, hardest knife of all? Obviously Henry VIII. The inventory of his utensils described his knife case alone as “garnished with sundry emeralds and pearls and rubies about the neck and divers amethysts, jacynths and balases upon the foot thereof furnished with knives having diamonds at the ends.” I’m sure he wasn’t overcompensating for anything.

First the knives, now the codpiece? Henry love, simmer down.

My husband didn’t seem too interested in my history lesson. By now he was done hacking at the lamb and the walls were flecked with bloody juices. Scraps of meat lay strewn across the table and floor as he triumphantly proffered me the first glob.

Wynkyn de Worde hadn’t mentioned lamb in the pages I had come across, but if he had I expect he wouldn’t have called for it to be “Sawn Apart like Something Out of Jaws“. For all intents and purposes it appeared that my husband had adopted de Worde’s advice on how to carve a peacock instead and had thoroughly “disfigured” it.

Still, it tasted nice with or without bejewelled handles and ruby encrusted knife boxes.

E x

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