Supping On Shakespeare: The Bard Wrote Of More Than Bread
Image Credit: Pieter Claesz's Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627

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ON MAY 20, 1609, the first-ever collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets was published, “perhaps illicitly”, by a well-known London publisher named Thomas Thorpe. While the argument over whether or not the Bard had granted Thorpe permission to publish his verses is best left to scholars, what is indisputable is that Shakespeare’s work offers food enthusiasts plenty of opportunity to pore over descriptions of what his characters ate, drank (and spoke of having eaten and drunk). Often, references to food were used as puns, clever jibes, code for a character's traits, and risqué innuendo. Here’s a brief and none-too-comprehensive glossary of the food contained within Shakespeare’s plays. 

Ale — Often preferred over drinking water, which was of poor quality, in Tudor England.

Ambergris — Edible waste product of whales, used as a flavouring and perfuming agent in food for royalty. (See also, ‘Kissing Comfits’)




Bread — Could be made of a variety of flours including wheat, rye, barley. When people had to be frugal, they used flours made out of beans, peas, oats, acorns and lentils. The main types of bread were: simnel (this loaf would be boiled, then baked), white, wheaten, household (brown), and horsebread (bean and bran flour meal for horses). Spiced and other special breads were meant for occasions like Christmas, weddings, funerals etc.



Carbonado — Piece of grilled meat.

Cates — The choicest delicacies and foodstuffs in one’s larder.

Chewet — Any dish made with a combination of minced meat, fruits and spices. Cooking techniques could range from baking to boiling or frying.

Codlings — Immature/half-grown apples. 


Fricassees — Meat browned in butter then served in a flavourful sauce or stew.

Fooles — A chilled mixture of fruit and cream.

Funeral Baked Meats — Meat pies. Pastry shells were sometimes known as “coffins” when they were meant merely to seal cooked meat and other ingredients, or to keep them from spoiling. Coffins would be tossed rather than eaten, and thus, made of coarse/rough flour.

Gallimaufry — An assembly/assortment/mixture.

Gooseberry Foyle See 'Fooles'.

Hash — Derived from the French “hacher”, i.e. to hack, chop or slice. Sliced meat is prepared in a sauce.

Hedgehog — Among the 10 oldest recipes to have originated in England (with the likes of Nettle Pudding), roast hedgehog could be prepared in one of these ways: “...singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water.” Ahem. It could also be wrapped in a casing of grass or leaves to prevent the meat from getting scorched; or, wrapped in clay, then baked in the embers of a fire. 

Jumbles — Another name for bonbons.

Junket — A type of jam made with gelatin, sugar and cream, then poured in a mould (like a wine glass).

Kickshaws — Adapted from the French “quelque-chose” (meaning, “something”), this is a puff pastry filled with berries, marrow, kidney, "or any other thing what you like best". Instructions for cooks from ‘The English Housewife’, printed circa 1615, ask that you mix eggs, cream, currants, cinnamon, cloves, spinach, endive, marigold flowers and pettitoes (pigs' feet). Small birds, roots, oysters, giblets, lemons can also be added. 

Kissing Comfits — Perfumed sugar sweets, meant as breath-fresheners, that used sugar along with “musk, civet, ambergris and white orris set with gum dragon”. A cookbook called “Delights For Ladies” details — over 11 pages — directions for making comfits, capped with the recommendation that “for every two pound of sugar, a quarter of a pound of aniseeds or coriander seed” should be used.


Lenten Pie — Meat-free pie for Lent. Could be made of fish.

Marchpane — Marzipan.

Peacock (Fried) — Included in banquets as a “subtlety” or “entremet”, a whole peacock would be served in its feathers. Medieval recipes sometimes called for removing the skin of the peacock, sprinkling the inner side with spices, then draping it back over the cooked peacock. 

Pie — Typical for its time, from ‘The Good Huswife’s Handmaide for the Kitchen’ (1588), a recipe for “sweete pies of Veale”: Take Veale and perboyle it verie tender, then chop it small, then take twise as much beef suet, and chop it small, then minse both them together, the put Corrans and minced Dates to them, then season your flesh after this manner. Take Pepper, salt, and Saffron, Cloves, Mace, Synamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and season your flesh with each of these a quantitie, and mingle them altogether. (See also, Funeral Baked Meats.)

Posset — Hot milk curdled with ale or wine, and flavoured with spices.

Pottage — Thick soup or stew. Could comprise ingredients like bacon, jelly or eggs (as thickening agents), peas, spinach, sorrel etc. Served with bread. 

Roasts — With specific reference to leg of mutton.

Sallet — Salad.

Sack — White fortified wine.

Umbles — Organs like liver, kidneys etc, usually of deer. Could be prepared in a pie.

Venison Pastie 

Warden Pie — Pie made of warden pears. Warden was the name for a type of small, dark pear, also known as the Black Worcester pear.