Guildmaster B in a fair-sized northern European town is giving a party to celebrate his second son’s engagement to the daughter of another guildmaster. Come and let me show you what’s going on.
The street leading past the house is not one of the main streets through the town, so it’s paved with un-cut cobbles. On each side of the street the pavement slopes from the foundations of the houses toward the gutters to catch the runoff from the roofs, as well as any refuse thrown out the windows. The traffic—walking, riding or driving—follows the single row of big, flat stones down the middle.
For the past few days—and all morning today—the local people going about their daily errands have often been forced to step aside for wagons and riders bringing food and other goods to Master B’s house. At the moment, chopped tree bark is being spread across the street to dampen the noise from passing wagons during the feast, while another wagon with milk, cream and other last minute deliveries is trying to get past.
The house itself is one of the bigger and newer houses in town. It has two floors plus an attic and cellar, is half-timbered, and is built of mortared red-painted bricks in a frame work of tarred timber—also painted red. There’s no roof gutter or drain pipes, but each floor of the house slightly overhangs the floor below, keeping the rain away from the walls.
The Kitchen Yard
At the right end of the house a gate leads to the backyard and kitchen entrance. Master B has no need for a horse, thus there is no stable by the house, and the guests arriving by horse or in wagons must stable these with Master B’s neighbors.
The backyard is usually a fairly spacious place with a few outbuildings and storage sheds around the edge, but still enough free space in the middle to turn a wagon. Today, however, it’s packed with bundles, baskets, tubs, crates and barrels, and servants are jostling each other as they carry items in and out of the house.
To the left of the gateway along the backside of the house are the big, lidded water barrels. They are filled from the fountain at the nearby street junction every morning. Next to them is the handcart used to transport the water and other heavy objects needed in the household. Then comes the door leading to the kitchen via the scullery, and—below the kitchen windows—sturdy benches and bins used to temporarily store vegetables and other items that don’t mind the damp. Then there is the slanted door down to the cellar, and at the end of the yard, a small chicken run and the washhouse.
In many smaller houses the washing must be done in the kitchen, thus greatly disturbing the routine of the household and dampening the walls until the lime wash runs in streaks, but in Master B’s house there is a separate building for this. Normally the washing woman comes for a week four times a year, but for the feast she has been hired for four extra days to wash, iron and repair all the fine linen usually stored in the great cedar chests. Mistress B still isn’t happy; the linen should have been bleached by being spread out in the sun, but, alas, the weather did not cooperate and her best white tablecloth is slightly yellow along one side.
In the corner, as far away from the door to the house as possible, is the small midden and the latrine. Usually the night man comes to remove the refuse once a week, but as with the washing, Master B has paid for an extra removal yesterday. Still, it’s piling up already.
Right across from the kitchen entrance is a lean-to with peat and firewood beside the wood chopping block. Finally—on your right when you enter the gate—is the shed where the rushes to spread on the floors are usually stored, along with big bundles of gorse used for baking. But today they’ve been displaced by an extra load of the expensive charcoal used in cooking the many delicacies planned for today’s menu.
In addition to the permanent structures the yard today features:
A tub of live eels and one of carp over by the water barrels. The displaced rushes and gorse are piled almost completely across the gateway.
Hooks on each side of the kitchen door hold the linen-wrapped cured and smoked meats delivered last week.
A big basket of cauliflower with big bundles of dried lavender on top (to mix with the rushes spread on the floors) and three smaller baskets with peas, spinach and raspberries leave little room on the bench below the kitchen window for one of the two maids borrowed from the neighbors. She is plucking the feathers of two big geese, while the youngest of the two cats that keep the house free from mice and rats twines around her feet and bats at the feathers. The older cat has climbed on top of the hand cart, and is staring at the eels that are being killed and cleaned by the old porter, who’s usually in charge of water, firewood and other rough jobs.
By the open cellar door is Master B, carefully carrying a hay-packed crate with six big clay bottles down the steep steps to the cellar. All the wine and beer barrels have been in place ever since the old guildmaster died—just in case—but the best quality Sack (Sherry) had to be ordered especially. Iwouldn’t have done to seem too sure he’d get the position.
In the washhouse, two fires have been lit and two big iron cauldrons are bubbling under the supervision of the second of the borrowed maids. Because of the crowding, the cook must twist her way around the empty crates and other refuse overflowing the midden. She had prepared several lidded pots filled with rabbit meat, butter and herbs to produce jugged rabbit. She then sealed the pots completely with strips of pastry, and had only intended for the maid to watch the fires under the cauldrons, where the pots simmered half submerged in the boiling water, while she was cleaning and chopping roots and other vegetables. Unfortunately, the fires in the kitchen have no room for cooking vegetables, so nets containing whole cabbage heads stuffed with minced meat, celery and parsnips have to be boiled in the washing room. They must be watched carefully so they don’t overcook and split.
Inside the house, in the scullery, the kitchen maid is cleaning carrots and onions on the table below the open window. The scullery is really just a small passageway between the yard and the kitchen and normally just contains a table with three washing basins and a big pitcher, plus some half-empty shelves. But today every shelf is filled to overflowing with cooling cakes and pies, while a big pile of bread loaves on the table is threatening to tumble into the water basin. The maid has been jostled by the passing people until she has nicked her finger and is crying. That may, of course, also be from peeling the onions.
Aside from the door to the scullery, two more doors lead from the kitchen, one to the larder and one to the pantry and the rest of the house.
There’s an ash-wood trap-door in the floor of the larder, which leads down into a cool cellar room. The narrow wood ladder down can be tricky to navigate. This lower room is much cooler than the rooms on the kitchen level and is used to store things like eggs, milk, butter, cream and cheese which need the cool to prevent spoilage. At the moment, the cellar is filled mainly with dishes for the third and last course of the banquet, so the trap door is kept closed to allow people to move freely around in the larder above.
Here troughs are lined up, filled with salt-covered meats. As well, barrels with oats, barley, peas, salted herrings and beer are packed as closely as can be on the floor.
On the shelves are smaller crates with anything from dried apples to sago from Malaya, pots with venison cooked in purified butter, and covered basins with the fresh mutton, salted beef and smoked ham, all boiled yesterday and now waiting for the cook to find the time to dress them for the table.
Under the ceiling hang dried cod, smoked and dried sausages, as well as dried herbs for cooking and tisanes.
On the opposite side of the kitchen from the larder is a partially screened off area with a three-foot diameter, beehive-shaped, clay-covered stone oven that is built into the wall. The area also contains a big trough made of planks and a big solid table. A short pitchfork, a long-handled peel (spatula) and half-burned broom hang on the wall beside the oven door, various ladles and scrapers stand by the trough, while the table holds a two-foot-long knife that catches the eye. The shelves along the walls hold tin-plated hoops, molds and tins of every size, along with pie dishes, weight scales, metal cutters, and wood stamping devices.
This area has been the center of much activity for the past week, while all the bread now piled up in the scullery was baked. This morning the oven has been heated one last time and the last—most delicate—dishes are being baked.
Baking always starts with waking up the yeast by dissolving the sourdough saved from the previous baking in water, then flour is shoveled from the wheat and rye barrels into the big plank-built kneading trough. Then the yeast water is added, along with more water and either salt or sugar and spices. Rye bread dough is soft enough to be worked in the trough until it is ladled into the tins, but the firmer doughs are just mixed in the trough before being transferred to the working table for beating and kneading until ready to divide and be shaped or molded. While the dough rises, the oven is heated by pitchforking a bundle of burning gorse into the baking cavity. When the wanted temperature is reached, the fire and ashes are swept out and the loaves and molds are slipped inside with the long-handled peel (baking spatula). Finally the oven door—of stone or metal—is sealed with clay and the bread allowed to bake. After the bread is finished, the last residual heat is used to bake puddings, pies and pastries.
Today, blind-baked pie-shells filled with dried fruit and custard are slowly setting in the last heat, while big, rich, heavily-fruited cakes containing butter, cream, eggs, sugar, currants, ginger and cinnamon that were baked earlier within the tinplated hoops are cooling on the kneading table.
The absolute center of activity is the big, broad-arched fireplace, six feet wide and three feet deep, which is built into the wall in the main kitchen area. Chimneys have only been common in ordinary townhouses for about a hundred years, but Master B’s house is new and a fine brick chimney leads the smoke away from the cooking fires.
In the center of the fire cavern is a big log fire supported by a pair of firedogs (iron log holders) heating a big brass pot that contains four boiling soup hens. Tied to each of the two pot handles is a cloth that contains a big English suet pudding that is stuffed with raisins and other dried fruits.
In front of the log fire, a whole suckling pig, stuffed with dried apples, bread and sage, is roasting on a spit and dripping fat and juice into a tray. The spit is turned by a newly installed air turbine, powered by the draft up the chimney. From time to time the house maid tending the fireplace ladles drippings from the tray over the meat.
On each side of the fire, iron baskets filled with glowing coals are providing the heat for the tinned-copper saucepans in which the sauces are being made. In houses where entertaining fine visitors is a common occurrence, a knee-high stove (masonry bench with iron-sheeted fire baskets in the top and air flues below) is often built beside the fireplace. Once the baskets are filled with glowing charcoal, it becomes much easier to work on a stove than on the free-standing baskets beside the fire. But as it is in Master B’s kitchen, both the cook and the maid must keep bending and rising as they move from fire to fire.
On the big working table in the center of the kitchen, the remains of the servants breakfast of bread, small (weak) ale and scraps of meat is pushed to the side. Normally, there’d be hot gruel or leftover soup or stew as well, but today every fire has been fully occupied with the meats for the feast. Two racks of lamb stand cleaned and ready to go on the spit once the pig is tender, and they must be finished before the geese now being plucked can get their turn.
A bowl with boiled, spiced meatballs for the saffron soup waits beside the carefully measured spices from the spice cupboard. Only Mistress B has the key for those expensive ingredients, so every time the cook needs more of this or that she must first go find the Mistress, who’ll then come to the kitchen to taste and decide if the cook is right and the dish needs more seasoning. This does not make the cook less harried!
In the pantry, the dishes are being garnished whenever the cook can find the time. The second of Master B’s house maids was supposed to have helped with the decorations, but Mistress B is keeping her in the dining room to arrange the finished dishes.
The pantry is a long, narrow room with tables along each side and shelves below and above. The shelves are filled with tureens, platters, jugs, and all the other service needs for the table.
At the moment, a dish of boiled beetroots is waiting to be garnished with the chopped whites from hard-boiled eggs. Sugar-glazed roots in many colors are arranged in flower-like patterns and wait for the green mint to form the leaves. Radishes carved as flowers wait for the racks of lamb to be roasted and bent to form crowns. A roast sirloin of beef has been surrounded with honey-glazed onions and decorated with swirls of candied lemon peel, and the big platter is due to be moved to the dining room and make room at the table for the next dishes.
The Dining Room
The room the family usually uses for dining is far from big enough for the guests invited, but Master B’s house is so new that it has a room especially intended for dining and entertaining. It’s on the second story and rather far from the kitchen, but the elegant timber-paneling and the moldings on the plaster ceiling look most impressive. Carved cupboards and side tables line the walls and trestle tables have been set up and covered with white linen damask down the center of the room. The benches and stools alongside it are supplied with fine, red pillows. To soak up any spilled wine and food, as well as to hide any unpleasant smells, the floor is covered with rushes mixed with lavender and southernwood.
The table is set with plates of delftware (biscuit-colored pottery with a white glaze and blue decoration), glass tumblers and polished pewter mugs, while silver and silver-gilt salts, casters and saucers are scattered along the length of the table. Also at each setting is a pointed knife for spearing the food from the serving platters and cutting off the bites. Forks, on the other hand, Master B considers an Italian fancy not fit for a plain man. Fingers are good enough, and there are plenty of napkins.
In the center of the table is Mistress B’s pride and joy: a silver epergne (tall table decoration) with flowers and candles reflected in a mirror tray. At the moment, she and the house maid are arranging the bread baskets that will be handed around during the meal, along with saucers of pickles and biscuits. All the while, they are planning the arrangement of the dishes for the three courses. The meal is to consist of three courses of many different dishes from which the guests can choose what they want to eat (like a buffet).
The first course consists of two different soups placed at each end of the table. These are served first. Once the soup is eaten, the tureens will be removed and two fish dishes will take their places. Also on the table for the first course is a symmetrical arrangement of most of the major meat dishes. These are carved and sent around the table by the hostess once the soups and fish are eaten.
After the guests want no more of the first course, the servants clear away the leftovers and carry in the second course of lighter meats, pies and vegetables. These dishes must also be arranged symmetrically, as must the third course of cheese, fruits and sweet dishes, which are displayed on the side tables in the dining room.
Here’s the menu for Master B’s Feast:
Soup á la Reine (chicken soup with minced chicken meat, peas and cream),
Saffron soup (parsnip soup with herbs and meat balls spiced with saffron),
Baked carp on bacon with butter and white wine sauce,
Eels stewed in red wine and herbs,
Roast suckling pig garnished with roasted red apples,
Roast sirloin of beef with honey-glazed onions and candied lemon peel,
Roast racks of lamb bent to a crown with radishes and turnips carved as flowers on each bone,
Boiled cured beef in white horseradish sauce,
Boiled leg of lamb in mustard sauce,
Dutch pudding (stuffed cabbage heads),
Black-glazed smoked ham,
Boiled cured pork in green parsley jelly,
Venison preserved in butter,
Raised pigeon pies,
Sugar-glazed roots in many colors arranged in flower-like patterns with green mint for leaves,
Boiled cauliflower covered with a lemon sauce,
Boiled beetroots garnished with the chopped whites from hard-boiled eggs,
Spinach pie with poached eggs.
Third Course (The Banquet):
Cheeses with caraway rolls,
Custard pies with fruits,
English suet pudding,
White Pot (Cream and bread pudding),
Honey stewed apples,
Dried figs stewed in sweet white wine,
Jelly with raspberries and sweetened cream,
Spiced fruit cakes,
Medieval biscuits (slices of rich bread dusted with sugar and spices and re-baked),
Sack posset (hot eggnog),
P.S. Master B’s house may be seen at: