The moveable feast : Tales of kings, manners and pastries


How the rich and the famous ate in history is fascinating. When King Louis XIV moved to Versailles, he established a system by which dignitaries would take his food to him crying “the King’s meat”. He dined in style.

More crude is Peter the Great, Emperor of all Russia, who in 1721 is noted to eat simply but not have the table manners of Versailles whose style he copies but then ruins by trampling across the banquet table treading on dishes and cutlery with his unwashed feet.

Each King or Queen had a fondness for pastries. Henry VIII of England is given a huge pie by the abbot of Glastonbury in which are the deeds to 12 manors. He sends this to the king with his chief steward Jack Horner but the king finds only 11. Horner, “Put in his thumb, pulled out a plum and said what a good boy am I”.

At about the same time one of Henry’s wives, Jane Seymour, enjoys Cornish pasties which are made for tin miners. These pastries contain meat and vegetables wrapped in pastry with jam or fruit at one end. The whole delicious meal is called ‘croust’ and has many descendents to this day including a variation — the Melton Mowbray Pie which hunters on their horses tuck into their pockets while on the chase.

Between the croust and the Melton Mowbray Pie, English recipes for pastry have begun to appear. Previously a coarse, tough pastry was used principally to seal in the juice and flavour of the meat during cooking and protect it against contamination. It wasn’t meant to be eaten but people have begun to snack on the tasty meat juice flavoured pastry fragments.

I hope these snippets satisfy my friend and assistant Rajan Maharjan who loves information about food almost more than he does food itself.

The Roman Emperor Augustus is very fond of Asparagus. He has originated a aying, “Quicker than you can cook asparagus”.

If you live in the Roman Empire, you often dry asparagus for later use as a sort of gundruk.

In the 5th century, the Christian Bishop Augustine completed his book City of God in which he says, “Who would think they sinned if they took a little bacon and cabbage with a few mouthfuls of pure wine, but will be served at three in the afternoon with every kind of vegetable; the most exquisite of mushrooms and truffles flavoured with a wealth of spices”.

If you have wondered where the saying “To eat Umble Pie comes” from, here is what Ed Pearce says. “Umble Pie is a dish made from the umbles (liver, heart, brains, feet, et cetera) of a deer, or other animal killed in a hunt. After being topped with a layer of dried fruit the mixture is put into a pastry case and baked. This pie, however, is not for the aristocracy, who eat only the superior fleshy part of the deer; it is only considered suitable for the huntsmen and the servants. That is why the phrase ‘to eat humble pie’ means that someone of lower rank is forced to give way to those in higher positions, and be made humble”.

Catherine de Medici, who brought artichokes, asparagus, macaroons and

pasta to France when she married Henry duc d’ Orleans, has been recorded as indulging a little too much of eating too many artichokes at wedding and becoming quite ill. At which point artichokes nearly lost their reputation as an aphrodisiac.