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Please note that I generously recived permission from English Heritage, the publisher of the book by Peter Bears from which the following excerpts are taken, to publish the text excerpts below on this non-commercial website. This means the permission is exclusively for display here, and for personal use regarding the text, and you may not use the text elsewhere.
Food & Cooking in 17th Century Britain,
by Peter Brears.
Published in 1995 by English Heritage.
Copyright © Peter Brears and English Heritage, 1985
ISBN 1-85074-537-4

At this period the day was punctuated by three main meals; breakfast, taken shortly after rising, dinner, taken at midday, and supper, taken in the early evening. The first of these was a relatively light meal by the standards of the day, probably having a selection of cold meats, bread and butter, and cakes served with tea, coffee or chocolate by the end of the century. Then, as now, there were great contrasts in breakfast preferences, however, the Cromwells taking rich broth or caudle, followed by a cup of small ale with toast and sugar at midmorning.

Unlike today's dinners, in which the frequent courses follows each other in a set sequence from soup to dessert, the seventeenth century dinner was only of two or, at most, three courses. Each course comprised a number of diverse dishes, including both sweets and savouries, so that the diner could help himself to whatever he liked in the manner of a modern buffet, this giving each individual a much greater freedom of choice. The first course would be placed on the table in a neat, symmetrical arrangement, and include most of the major meats dishes, together with soups which could be removed and their place taken by a further dish once everyone had been served. In the second course there would be a range of lighter meats, game and sweet stuff laid in a similar symmetrical pattern, but this division of the dishes was only a general rule, leaving plenty of scope to include whatever might be available at any particular time.

The third course was composed of fruit, sweets and cheese, but the manner in which it was served changed as the century progressed. In the earlier decades, it continued the popular Elizabethan practice of banqueting; the 'banquet' in this case being an elaborate dessert course of sweetmeats etc. served either as a meal in itself r as a continuation of dinner or supper, usually set out in a separate apartment. It presented an opportunity for the cooks and the gardeners to make a great show of their skills, with elaborate confections and rare fruits displayed in new and exciting ways. For important functions, cardboard galleons sailing on seas of salt could startle guests with their cannon, fired with real gunpowder, while pastry deer bled red wine when arrows were pulled from their sides.

John Evelyn gives the following colourful account of William and Mary's entertainment for the Venetian ambassadors, when

the banquet was twelve vast chargers piled up so high that those that sat one against another doubtless could hardly see each other. Of these sweetmeats, which doubtless took some days piling up in this exquisite manner, the Ambassadors touched not, but left them to the spectators.... in a moment of time all that curious work was demolished, the confitures voided, and the tables cleared.
This appears to have been the fate of many royal banquets. Even when the Garter knights held their great dinner in the magnificent Banqueting House in Whitehall, 'the banqueting-stuff flung around the room profusely'. In most households, however, particularly from the restoration, the third course began to be served at the dining table, in the manner of a modern dessert.

At supper, early in the evening, only a single course was laid, but it could be made up of numerous dishes, or be extended by a banquet whenever necessary. Then, after a few hours of good conversation, music, singing or cards, accompanied by much alcohol and perhaps tobacco, the company would be served with a light meal to prepare them either for their homeward journey or for the chill of the bedroom - Pepys, for example, having 'a good sack-posset and cold meat and sent my guests away about 10 a-clock at night'. The sack posset certainly provided the ideal close to the day. Made of eggs, wine and spices scalded with sweetened cream, spooned from the most beautifully decorated silverware, or sipped from voluminous earthenware vessels, its rich smooth warmth and alcoholic potency soon lulled the diners into total oblivion: 'And so to bed.'

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Text Copyright © Peter Brears and English Hertiage 1985. With permission.
Graphics Copyright © N. Kipar 1999.