The Tudor period was a time of great creativity, and one of intellectual, political and religious transformation. In the kitchen, however, change came more slowly. Bread, meat, fish, pottages and wine continued to form the basis of most diets. People still avoided uncooked fruit and vegetables, believing them to carry disease. Indeed, during the plague of 1569 it became illegal to sell fresh fruit.
But the wealthy had access to alternative ingredients. Explorations to the New World brought all sorts of exotic and unusual delicacies to the tables of the rich. Spanish conquests in South America led to the introduction of the potato (from Chile), the tomato (from Mexico), and the kidney bean (from Peru). Other new ingredients from the New World included maize, Indian corn, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, pineapples, French beans, red and green peppers, turkeys and tapioca. Oranges and lemons, quinces, apricots and melons were imported from Southern Europe, and grown in the gardens of wealthy landowners.
The English had an ever increasing appetite for sugar, now imported from territories in the West and East Indies as well as from Morocco and Barbary. Sugar was used for anything from dressing vegetables and preserving fruit to the concoction of medical remedies. But it was still an expensive ingredient, and therefore eaten mainly by the rich. As a result, the wealthier you were, the more rotten your teeth were likely to be. Queen Elizabeth was said to have loved sugar so much that her teeth were black.
The rich still held grand and spectacular feasts, the gluttony and pomp of a banqueting table providing an opportunity for aristocrats to display their wealth. John Nichols' history of Queen Elizabeth's journeys through Britain offers a vivid glimpse of the luxurious and fantastical nature of these feasts: "Where the Queen paraded through a country town, almost every Pageant was a Pantheon; even the pastry cooks were expert mythologists: at dinner select transformations of Ovid's Metamorphoses were exhibited in confectionery and the splendid icing of an immense historic plumb-cake was embossed with a delicious basso-rilievo of the destruction of Troy."
One important change in dining habits was that trenches (plates) began to be made of wood rather than thick slices of bread. These square wooden boards were carved with separate hollows for meat, gravy and salt.
The late 1500s was the first time that cookery books began to be published on a regular basis. Many of these books concentrated on the 'secrets' of the wealthy - the confectioneries and remedies hidden in the closets of noblewomen, a powerful selling point in this period. Increasingly these books were aimed at women, as is revealed by titles such as The Good Huswifes Jewell. However, it is estimated that only between 5 and 10 percent of women were literate at this time - add to this the fact that the books were expensive commodities (as were the ingredients for the recipes), and it seems likely that the market for these books was confined to a small affluent area of society.