What Type of Foods Did They Eat During the 1600s in England?

Local agricultural products and marketplace trends determined the 17th century English population’s diet.
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Political and economic affairs of the 17th century had a significant influence on the evolution of the English diet. Local food crops, political unrest, agricultural advancements and changing social needs established the trends and traditions of the English meal. Government regulations on brewing, bread baking and spice trading also helped determine the dinner table display.

1 Traditional Fare

The resources available through local agricultural products are the foremost indicator of any culture’s diet. Staples of the 17th century English diet included foods prepared with greens, vegetables and herbs grown in the kitchen garden, such as spinach and sorrel, as well as fruits and nuts found in the wild. People of this era made these convenient foodstuffs into pottage by combining them in a pot over the fire and thickening them with bread -- a meal comparable to a modern day stew. Pottage could remain over the fire for several days, with additional foods added as its volume diminished. A batch of pottage could change significantly over its lifetime. Poor and rich alike enjoyed pottage, with peasants using inexpensive grains and vegetables like beans, peas and lentils, or acorns foraged from nature. The wealthy class enhanced their pottage with more expensive ingredients such as bacon, jelly and eggs.

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2 Bread and Pudding

Roasted meats and sweet and savory pies and puddings were traditional menu items in 17th century England. Bread was another staple of the 17th century diet. The Assise of Bread, an act of Parliament, regulated the weight, size, type and price of bread and affected the availability and convenience of commercial loaves. Bread was made with a variety of flours. When the harvest was good, Englanders could use flours made with wheat, rye and barley. When these grains weren’t readily available, flours would be made with beans, oats and lentils. More expensive specialty and spice breads were reserved for funerals and religious holidays.

3 Trending in 17th Century England

A temporary fall of the monarchy in the middle of the century left prestigious cooks without jobs. To supplement their income, they wrote cookbooks and found a market in the non-aristocratic landowners and people who were finding opportunities in a new economy. Food etiquette and good table manners were crucial for maintaining good social relationships, so these books were in demand as the newly wealthy wanted to educate themselves on hospitality. Political marriages opened the door to different cultures, and food imported from mainland Europe became trendy. These trends included French foods such as anchovies and capers. Cooks also began to incorporate French cooking techniques, including rich roux, ragouts and fricassees. European neighbors also taught the English that raw foods were safe to eat, and uncooked fruit and salads made their way to the English meal. Cinnamon, ginger and cloves made their way into the marketplace through the Eastern spice trade route.

4 Beverages and the Birth of Coffeehouses

The 17th century birthed the first English coffee house. In 1652, Pasqua Rosee, a Turkish merchant’s servant, brought ingredients, recipes and experience from Turkey to establish the first of what would become an icon of London culture. Coffee was here to stay. Missionaries from China, believing that tea was responsible for the long lives of their Chinese contemporaries, brought tea to London, which also became a traditional English drink. Other beverages consumed by the English during the 1600s were beer and wine. Many people brewed their own ale and beer at home, which yielded a low alcohol content and therefore was consumed readily. Landowners seeking to improve their land maintained prized orchards, which resulted in increased cultivation of bees and honey, and subsequently, fruity beverages such as cider and wine as well as mead, which was made by fermenting honey with other fruits and spices.

Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.