Intriguing Facets Of Tudor And Habsburg Era Dining
Image Credit: Dining

♚Tudor king Edward VI was born on this day in 1537. The Habsburg monarch Maximilian II died on the same date in 1576.

♚Their stories are a study in contrasts as are the dynasties they were part of. This extends to the cuisines prevalent in their eras as well.

♚Regardless of class, the predominant diet in Tudor England comprised bread and cheese. The difference was in the quality of these staples. 

♚On the other hand, the Habsburgs — especially under Maximilian II — are said to have displaced the French as the masters of haute cuisine and evolved a form of "political gastronomy".

On October 12, 1537, Henry VIII’s (third) wife Jane Seymour gave birth to his only legitimate son and long-awaited heir. The boy, Edward, became the King of England and Ireland at the age of nine. He was dead by 15. His rule lasted only six short years, and it was never the glorious reign his father had hoped for. Instead, it would be his half-sister Elizabeth who later ushered in the golden age of the Tudors.

Nearly four decades after Edward’s birth, on the same date in 1576, Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor — king of Bohemia, Germany, Hungary and Croatia — breathed his last at the age of 49. He was Edward’s contemporary in a sense; Maximilian was nine or 10 years old when the former was born.

Linked by a date, the dynasties these monarchs belonged to — Tudor (for Edward VI) and Habsburg (for Maximilian II) — were a study in contrasts. And this contrast extended to their kingdom's respective cuisines as well.

In Tudor England, everyone — from the peasants to the aristocracy — ate bread and cheese as their staples. While the poorer classes subsisted on “Carter’s Bread” — made of wheat and rye — the middle classes had a more nourishing wholemeal alternative, called “ravel” or “yeoman’s bread”. As for the noble families, their bread was made of fine white wheat flour, resulting in the “marchet”. 

Edward’s grandfather, Henry VII, had increased imports of French wine, which also the ruling classes consumed; beer was for everyone else, writes Marilee Hanson in “Tudor England Food And Drink”. 

Meat — salted, smoked or dried — and fish (cod or herring) supplemented the Tudor diet, as did vegetables like cabbages, beans, peas, onions and carrots, as well as fruits (apples, plums and so on). Hanson notes that potatoes and tomatoes were alien to the Tudors; it was when Edward’s half-sister Elizabeth took the throne that these were introduced to England. 

Tudor kitchens had three larders: one for storing meat, another for fish, and the third for spices and nuts. The kitchens were set apart from the main house, to decrease damage in case of a blaze. Several different cooking pots would be set atop small fires to prepare the meal, and a large stone oven served to bake the bread.

In contrast to this sturdy, hearty Tudor fare, Hapsburg cuisine truly came into its own under Maximilian II. By the mid-1800s, France was losing its status as the leading European kingdom in les questions culinaires. Johann Rottenhöfer, Maximilian II’s chef, was considered the leading expert of the 19th century and his philosophy and approach to cooking matched his monarch’s ideas about ruling. In 1858, he published a highly-regarded cookbook — New Complete Theoretical And Practical Instruction In The Finer Art Of Cooking.

Rottenhöfer is said to have introduced a form of political gastronomy to the Habsburg era: the way his dishes were presented and served at state banquets and balls was meant to foster peace and harmony among the various European powers. Even ignoring the political subtext, his culinary creations were masterpieces to behold. Apart from ice and jelly statues, Rottenhöfer’s banquets used “heavily embellished stands of animal fat” — these would be carved into elaborate, highly detailed architectural shapes and used to present cold cuts and entrées.

While his dinners may have been among the most elegant in Europe, courtesy Rottenhöfer, Maximilian II himself had a fraught relationship with food.

Known to suffer from “gout, heart attacks, bouts of ‘kidney colic’, [and] quite possibly syphilis”, the emperor’s meals were overseen by his physicians. 

In The Habsburgs, Dorothy Gia McGuigan describes Maximilian II taking ill because of — on different occasions — eating too much fish, unripe fruit, pears and cherries, iced wine. His doctors advised him to dilute his favoured Hungarian wines with water, treated him with aloe, and finally — on the prescription of a “healer”, Venetian treacle with “a single scruple of tincture of coral, of sapphire, or hyacinth, or a solution of pearls or potable gold”, combined with antimony.

The elixir revived the king briefly, but then his health rapidly deteriorated. Aged 49, on this day in 1576, Maximillian II was dead.