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Lisa Tsering
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Roast Peacock, Anyone?
The Kitchens of King Henry VIII Come Alive at Hampton Court Palace

By Lisa Tsering
First appeared in World Travel & Cuisine, May/June 2001

LONDON -- A cook in the court of Henry VIII might be called upon to fillet a porpoise, boil a whale, or stew eels in honey.

He might also be called upon to prepare a whole roasted peacock -- served dressed with its incandescent blue feathers and a gilded beak -- or to serve up grilled beavers' tails on "meatless" Fridays. In Henry's day, dishes started at opulent and rose from there.

Visitors to Hampton Court Palace, located half an hour's train ride outside of London in the town of Surrey, can see a historically authentic recreation of the palace's Tudor Kitchens as they would have looked during the preparation of a feast on Midsummer's Day 1542. Such a special occasion would demand dishes like gilded peacock, baked carp in wine with prunes, venison pie, creamed almonds, and stuffed boar with sauce.

The carefully restored Tudor Kitchens give visitors a glimpse of the intricate planning that went into 14-course feasts for up to 1,200 courtiers at a time, complete with the vast quantities of wine and ale, mountains of confectionery, and an assortment of meats that seems shocking today -- boiled mutton, roast boar, beef, red deer, ox, veal, and pork -- plus every kind of bird available: swan, cocks, pheasant, larks, chickens, sparrows, and quails. Water birds, too, were often served with sauces made from their own blood mixed with bread crumbs or baked into pastry pies.

"If it swims or slithers, we eat it," explains spokesman Marc Meltonville. Dressed in a green doublet and cutting up apples on a rough-hewn table before a huge fireplace, Meltonville -- who refers to himself as a "practical historian" -- is employed by Historic Royal Palaces to demonstrate the arts of the 16th-century royal kitchen.

As religion played a big part in court life, Henry followed a strict code in eschewing meat on Fridays. His cooks soon found every loophole they could to get around that, though, and served hare (roasted with the skin on, studded with cloves and stuffed with a forcemeat of bread, suet, and spices) in addition to "everyday" seafood -- eels, anchovies, prawns, oysters, salmon, trout, lobster, crayfish, and crab -- plus sturgeon, porpoise (baked in pastry), and whale meat (very well roasted) on "meatless" days.

Sweet tastes were often paired with meats or fish, while some stronger tastes survived from ancient Roman times, such as the salty preserved fish sauce called liquamen (which has evolved into our Worcestershire sauce).

Cooks were fearless in their combinations of ingredients, in efforts to impress guests of the king: Pigs might be fed dried figs before slaughter, to "exquisitely flavor" the meat, according to a cookbook of the time; or snails would be fed a diet of milk or wine must and spelt. One notable dish, a cockatrice, was created by sewing half a chicken onto half a pig, Meltonville explained.

All manner of organs were prepared as delicacies, including beef lungs, spleen, offal, and even udders, served brined and vinegared. Henry VIII and his court ate "as few vegetables as possible, making up less than 20 percent of their diets," added Meltonville. Cabbages, onion, peas, and leeks were common, but the potato was still considered "a botanical curiosity."

Beer, wine, and ale were always available by the gallon and served to both children and adults in a watered-down form. One popular drink of the day was syllabub -- blended cream and fruit with white wine or alcoholic cider.

Chocolate didn't reach Britain till the 1650s, so royal cooks of Henry's time finished their meals with a cheese course, cinnamon- and pepper-spiked marzipans, or the occasional rich, creamy dessert such as the mild-flavored Rosee. Generally, though, "dessert is a modern concept, which gained popularity in England in the eighteenth century," said Meltonville.

Hampton Court Palace was home to some of Britain's best-known kings and queens. Although it's most often identified with Henry VIII, some wings of the six-acre palace underwent a face-lift when William III and Mary II lived there at the end of the 17th century.

Some say the palace is haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife, who was sent to die in the Tower of London after he accused her of adultery. Other must-see features at the palace include Henry's magnificent State Apartments; the Georgian Rooms, where royalty relaxed; courtyards and cloisters; acres of gardens, including a large maze; Henry's grand Astronomical Clock, which marks the time, the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon simultaneously; and one of the greatest collections of Renaissance paintings in England.

After a tour of the Tudor Kitchens, one nagging question remains: Why would Henry VIII eat a peacock in the first place? "Simple," said Meltonville. "Because he could."


Upcoming events:

Music and Majesty August 1 to 1 Sept., 2002 Musical performances enjoyed by Georgian monarchs are re-created in the palace courtyards.

Cooking Up History Weekends in November and December, 2002 (see Web site for details) The Great Kitchens will be transformed into working kitchens from the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods. Historic cooks re-create dishes from these eras and invite visitors to learn more about the food and court life of the palace.


Hampton Court Palace is open seven days a week and is wheelchair-accessible. Admission is 11 adults/7.25 children/8.25 seniors and students, and includes a choice of guided or audio tours. There are restaurants and a bureau de change on the premises. Family ticket: 33.00 (up to 2 adults and 3 children). For more information, call 011-44-870-752-7777 or visit Historic Royal Palaces online at

Getting there:

By car: The palace is located on the A308 close to the A3, M3, and several exits of the M25 London Orbital. Parking is available. By train: Trains run twice an hour direct from London Waterloo to Hampton Court Station. The journey time is only 32 minutes and the palace is a 2-minute walk from the station. By bus and Underground: Directions are available on the website (trains are more convenient than the Underground). Getting to London: Virgin Atlantic