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When researching in order to write a 1,200-page trilogy there is so much background that never sees the light of day (or pages) of the finished books (though such close detail is naturally included to build and enhance the story). This series of ‘blogs’ sets out to give you an insight into building blocks that make up “The King’s Jew” – if you have any questions concerning any of these points just get in touch and I’ll be happy to share what knowledge I have garnered. Thanks
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In Chapter Four we meet Merek a young madman who has one wish to fulfil – he wants to kill King Henry the Third.
It is a documented fact that an assassin did make an attempt on Henry’s life.
In order to gain access to the Palace of Westminster – where Henry was staying – Merek devised what he thought was a fool-proof stratagem. He would gain the confidence of the workers in the Great Kitchens and then wheedle his way into the residential quarters of the palace.
But what were the medieval kitchens really like and what type of persons worked within those fiery furnaces?
Ancient fire pits were positioned in the middle of the room. A central fireplace can allow the maximum number of people to warm up around it and radiate heat into the maximum useable area. A hole in the ceiling would provide a draft through which the smoke could escape.
This design lasted for thousands of years. It wasn’t until two-story buildings became common that the next design innovation took place. The fireplace was moved to the outside wall. People didn’t want to build a fire in the middle of a wood floor on the second story. So it was easier to set the fireplace and chimney structure off to the side. These early designs vented horizontally.
Christchurch, Dorset. 12th-century chimney.
That’s when the chimney was discovered. By venting the fireplace up through the roof, a draft was created, drawing the smoke away. The chimney is probably the most important and enduring innovation in fireplace technology
Eventually, separate kitchens evolved in a dedicated kitchen area, often separated from the main building by a covered arcade/walkway. This way, the smoke, odours and noise of the kitchen could be kept out of sight of guests, and the fire risk to the main building reduced.
Spits roasting meat and huge iron cauldrons bubbling with soups and stews were all part of the kitchen’s daily routine.
Lambs, cattle, pigs, and fowl were tethered or penned nearby. Indeed, barrels of live fish and crabs ETC were kept within easy reach. Many castles kept a pond stocked with fish, and cooking herbs would be grown in nearby gardens. Castle kitchens could be large enough to roast up to three whole oxen at once! Don’t try this in your modern kitchen!
Water would be normally be supplied by a well, but castles during the later Middle Ages began to pipe water right into the kitchen area. Utensils and whatever dishes the lord might possess would be washed in large stone sinks often using grass or straw as a scouring medium. Often sand would be used to properly clean metal cauldrons.
Breakfast in the Middle Ages was usually a simple meal of bread and wine / water. Dinner would be served between 10 a.m. and noon and feature several courses. Dinner, especially for celebratory feasts, would demand large quantities of food be prepared. At the marriage of Henry III’s daughter, sixty cattle were slaughtered and prepared as the main course for the meal!
Kitchens, Pantries, Larders and Butteries
There were also assorted knives, stirring spoons, ladles and graters. In wealthy households one of the most common tools was the mortar and sieve cloth since many medieval recipes called for food to be finely chopped, mashed, strained and seasoned either before or after cooking. This was based on a belief among physicians that the finer the consistency of food, the more effectively the body would absorb the nourishment.
It also gave skilled cooks the opportunity to elaborately shape the results. Fine-textured food was also associated with wealth; for example, finely milled flour was expensive, while the bread of commoners was typically brown and coarse. A typical procedure was farcing (from the Latin farcio, “to cram”), to skin and dress an animal, grind up the meat and mix it with spices and other ingredients and then return it into its own skin, or mould it into the shape of a completely different animal.
Major kitchens – like those of thirteenth century Westminster Palace – had to cope with the logistics of daily providing at least two meals for several hundred people. Guidelines on how to prepare for a two-day banquet include a recommendation that the chief cook should have at hand hundreds of cartloads of “good, dry firewood”.
Besides washing up – using grass, straw and sand – the other job of highest importance and continual nature was tending the fire; watching the pots and spits, banking the embers to keep them going all night, lighting dead fires with brands or coals from living ones, and hauling coals and wood. This was when the SOUFFLEURS – from the French meaning ‘to blow’ – came into their own as these guys looked after the fires and either made them burst into roaring flames or kept them low so as to simmer food.
The kitchen staff of huge noble or royal courts like Westminster Palace occasionally numbered in the hundreds, including:
Pantlers – (a servant or officer in charge of the bread and the pantry in a great family) who oversaw the storage and preparation of bread in the pantry.
Bakers – making pastry and the many and varied loafs of bread.
Waferers – who specialised in making crisp, often sweet, very thin, flat, and dry biscuits;
Sauciers – specialising in producing all manner of sauces.
Larderer – responsible for the storage of meat and fish.
Butchers – who slaughtered the animals, dressed the flesh and prepared the standard cuts of meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish.
Carvers – skilled at disjointing the meat and slicing it uniformly to obtain a maximum or satisfactory number of portions.
Page boys – young male servants;
Milkmaids – employed to milk dairy cows and prepare dairy products such as cream, butter, and cheese.
Butlers – a middle-ranking member of the servants of a great house, in charge of the buttery (originally a storeroom for “butts“, that is casks, of wine and ale).
AND many scullions who performed the most physical and demanding tasks in the kitchen, such as cleaning and scouring the floor, pots and dishes and assisting in the cleaning of vegetables, plucking fowl, and scaling fish. Hence the name SCULLERY – the place where this all took place.
Off the kitchen was the Pantry
A pantry is a room where food, provisions or dishes are stored and served in an ancillary capacity to the kitchen. The derivation of the word is from the same source as the Old French term paneterie; that is from pain, the French form of the Latin pan for bread.
The head of the office responsible for this room was referred to as a pantler. .
A larder is a cool area for storing food prior to use. Essential qualities of a larder are that it should be as cool as possible, close to food preparation areas, constructed so as to exclude flies and vermin, easy to keep clean and equipped with shelves and cupboards appropriate to the food being stored.
In the northern hemisphere, most houses would arrange to have their larder and kitchen on the north or east side of the house where it received least sun.
A pantry may contain a stone slab or shelf used to keep food cool. In the late medieval hall, a thrawl (cold shelf) would have been appropriate to a larder. In a large manor all these rooms would have been placed as low in the building as possible, or as convenient, in order to use the mass of the ground to retain a low summer temperature. For this reason, a buttery was usually called the cellar by this stage.
Pay attention you readers of Scottish descent – The Scots term for larder was the spence, and so in Scotland larderers (also pantlers and cellarers) were known as spencers. This is one of the Anglo-Scottish derivations of the modern surname. Introduced by the Norman French after the Invasion of England in 1066, it was a metonymic occupational surname for someone who was originally in charge of the pantry of a great house or monastery. The term derives from the pre 10th century Old French word “despense”, from the Latin “dispendere”, meaning to weigh out or dispense. Any Spencers out there?
A buttery was a domestic room in a castle or large medieval house. It was one of the offices pertaining to the kitchen. It was generally a room close to the Great Hall and was traditionally the place from which the yeoman of the buttery (The Butler) served beer and candles to those lower members of the household not entitled to drink wine. The room takes its name from the beer butts (barrels) stored there.
Did Merek succeed in his deadly task? Well, you’ll have to read what happened to him but below is how he managed to gain entrance to the King’s chamber –
Extract from chapter four – “Welcome, Merek,” said the leader of this group, “a busy night ahead of us. The King and his young Queen are in residence and we are short of one of our number as that scullion, John, has once more absented himself from our company.” Merek saw his chance.
“Master Thomas,” he said with due deference, “if it please you, for a hearty meal and a mug of small beer, let me help this night for I have no more work at the Tower until the morrow.” He held his breath, amazed at his own audacity since he knew nothing of the real duties of these men yet it couldn’t be that difficult to carry a platter up a flight of stairs could it?
The man, Thomas, looked him over before he spoke quietly to the fellow next to him. The man disappeared for a brief moment returning with the colours of their calling. “Off with your cowl, Merek,” said Thomas, “and pull this on.” He slipped the tabard over his head and, now officially a worker in the palace he smiled an inward smile unseen by any other and mentally danced a jig on the spot. Thomas watched him, and saw nothing but an additional serving man sent by the saints to make his night’s work easier. Merek revelled in the veil of innocence that covered his face and stood there quietly ready to do his duty. Kill the King.’
Thus ends our look behind the scenes of Chapter Four.
BUT SCROLL DOWN FOR YOUR PRIZE and next week we’ll have a sneaky peek at some more background from TKJ = “The King’s Jew. Book One. At the tomb of King Edward the First…”
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