My English teacher used to disparage Caroline Spurgeon. Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us was too systematic for the honest amateur with dottle in his ashtray, the sort who took his pupils through Antony and Cleopatra in the morning and watched from his shooting stick as they toiled at sports in the afternoon. Still, you can make a case for treating Shakespeare as a force of nature and going about the plays as a natural scientist would, by instance and inventory. There’s something of this in Joan Fitzpatrick’s approach, 75 years after Spurgeon. In an intriguing essay in Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare (Ashgate, £50), Fitzpatrick lists six references in the plays to honey before moving on methodically to occurrences of ‘flesh, fish and fowl’. Even so, her research leads away from the plays to the dietary assumptions of the day, and she ends by asking what an early modern audience might have made of Caliban (‘neither clearly bestial, nor clearly cultured’) on the basis of his diet.
Caliban is her star turn, with his proposal to wait on Stephano in Act II, Scene ii (‘I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow’). The menu on offer would hold its own in a modern fusion restaurant. Choice of starter: crab apples, or possibly crab; hazelnuts (‘clust’ring filberts’) and exotic pig-nuts, not to be confused with acorns; jays’ eggs island style, straight from the nest. Choice of main course: bushmeat (marmoset) or seamew surprise. Stephano would have been safer with the monkey jerky: seamew is anybody’s guess, ‘a kind of bird or fish or limpets’, or maybe fillet of walrus, though the seafood angle may be deceptive. Caliban’s promise to ‘get thee/ young seamews from the rock’ could equally well refer to a kill on the crags inland: i.e. chamois, via ‘scammel’, and thence to ‘seamew’. A high protein lunch in any event.
Fitzpatrick, the editor of this collection, is not the only writer here to point out that meat was an appropriate dish while fruit was dodgy. Apples – some anyway – had been fine in the Garden of Eden, but later, with the onset of global sogginess (Genesis 6-9), fruit became too watery, as Thomas Moffett argued in Health’s Improvement, published in 1655: ‘Before the flood … vegetable fruits grew void of superfluous moisture: so by the flood these were endued with weaker nourishment,’ which turned humans into carnivores, consuming ‘such meat … as was in substance and essence most like our own’. A premonition of the Host.
Eating fish was associated with Catholic abstinence from ‘flesh’, and besides, there was Moffett’s anti-Phlegmatic prejudice that, like fruit, a piece of flounder or Dover sole was too ‘moist’, ‘engendring watrish and thin blood’. In one view, based less on health than categorical fears, berries, roots and apples were acceptable as long as they were transformed by cooking or marinating. As a forager, Caliban gets halfway towards the desired objective of ‘culture’, but Fitzpatrick’s Shakespeare was against eating monkey or walrus, while seafood was slushy and Papist, which put Caliban squarely in the barbarian camp.
For Renaissance scholars with their teeth into early modern food, the fun begins in the kitchen or out in the park with a pit of charcoal and a roasting spit. Ken Albala, a historian working on a book of recipes from ‘the antiquated kitchen’, has gone back to the texts with an apron and tongs. ‘Cooking as Research Methodology: Experiments in Renaissance Cuisine’ has him wrestling delightfully with a recipe from Lyon for garlic soup (‘souppe aux aulx’, 1555) and another for ‘Danish marzipan’ (1616) in what could make a dazzling TV mini-series. The key to the garlic soup, which scores high, is lashings of sugar and beef marrow; but don’t forget to lay in a brace of partridge (‘une perdrix ou deulx rosties’) to thicken up the mix.
Albala describes this ‘assay’ as ‘a simple experiment in aesthetics, a broadening of the palate, comparable to tasting an exotic and unfamiliar dish for the first time’. To camera here, as he lays down his spoon, wipes his mouth and rises from the table like a new tele-hybrid, part Jonathan Meades, part Simon Schama, for another assay: ‘The mid-16th century, in gastronomic terms, was precisely such an exotic place.’ And off we go with ‘How to smeare a rabbet or a necke of mutton’, from The Good Hous-wives treasurie. Beeing a verye necessarie Booke instructing to the dressing of Meates (1588). But first we need a pipkin.
That’s a small clay cooking pot with a round bottom (a flat bottom may crack when nestled in hot coals). Albala threw a few pipkins on a wheel and got a couple to hold up in the kitchen. He’s confident that The Good Hous-wives treasurie was an affordable book for middle-ranking households, which could purchase sugar, currants and other ingredients mentioned in the recipes. This wasn’t a helpmate for the kitchens of grandees with country estates. The signs suggest it’s for an urban kitchen: ‘there are no instructions at all for dealing with live animals, which are always found in cookbooks intended for manors and farms.’
Having chosen rabbit over neck of mutton, Albala couldn’t see how he’d get the required quantities into his cooking pot:
Take a pipkin, a porenger of water, two or three spoonefuls of Vergis, ten Onions pilled, and if they be great quarter them. Mingle as much the pepper and salte as will season them, and rub it upon the meat, if it be a rabbit put a piece of butter in the bellye … and a few currans if you will, stop your pot close and seeth it with a softe fier but no fier under the bottom, then when it is sodden serve it upon soppes & lay a few Barberies upon the dish.
He cast facsimile spoons after originals dug from the Thames. His juice of unripened grapes (‘vergis’) was probably pressed from Zinfandel or Sauvignon in California. Finally he caught his rabbit. With small onions, it all went into the pipkin. He ‘stopped’ the top with a thick flour and water dough and cooked the dish over hot coals for four hours. ‘The results were a revelation. Rather than the dry, boring, vaguely chicken-like texture of most modern rabbit recipes’ – surely he means modern rabbit meat – ‘this was unctuous, sweet and well caramelised with a subtle sourness.’ We’re fortunate that the truth of history can now be tested on barbecue charcoal and recorded on the index of the palate. The past tastes good to us, and so does the present.