Little Moreton Hall offers visitors a taste of Christmas past

Marchpane pie and Manchet anyone? Little Moreton Hall offers visitors a taste of Christmas past Words by Polly Berkeley PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIRSTY THOMPSON

Every year Little Moreton Hall near Congleton displays a seasonal Tudor feast that reminds visitors it isn’t just the temptations of the 21st century consumer society that makes us overindulge at Christmas.

But while there are similarities between the modern festivities and those of the wealthy family who inhabited the distinguished half-timbered manor house from the 1500s, there are differences too.

There was no tinsel and no Christmas tree – the latter was introduced by Prince Albert in Victorian times - instead holly, ivy and mistletoe were wound around posts and made into wreaths.

And the Tudor Yuletide was very different to the celebration we know today. It was a highly religious occasion with the period of Advent – four weeks leading up to Christmas Day - a time of strict fasting when no meat, cheese or eggs were eaten. But fish was allowed and the very wealthy, such as the Moretons who built the hall in 1504-8, could get around the restrictions by eating beaver or puffin which were classed as fish. Apparently the beaver’s tail looked like a fish and puffins were said to be created at sea!

On Christmas Day three church services were held and then the Advent fast was broken and the feasting began. The Tudors celebrated for 12 days. The most lavish were held on Christmas Day, January 1st and on the Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night).

Christmas Day was the first time for weeks that an unrestricted meal could be enjoyed. In the mid-16th century the kitchen at Little Moreton Hall was where the restaurant is today and here the cook and staff would have prepared all the food that would be taken into the hall and served on the long board.

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At the board or table, guests either sat above or below the salt according to status. The family, of course, had the privileged position. Above and lower status guests and upper servants sat below, while lesser servants had to be content with the leftovers which they would eat later.

Like today, there were special treats associated with the celebrations. The Tudors liked a boar’s head, which would have formed a centrepiece, its snout stuffed with an orange which represented the sun.

Frumenty was also a traditional Christmas dish. It was made from crushed grain, such as wheat or barley ground to extract the starch, which was used to thicken the mix. To this they added meat stock and sage. A sweet version was also created with cream, honey and raisins which would have been eaten just after the Christmas Day fast was broken.

Other dishes which may have been on the table at a Tudor Christmas include Manchet, a white fine bread, roast pigeons, smoked eel, salt cod, salmon, oysters, grand or great salad, made up of green and red cabbage and leeks topped with dried fruit and some nuts. Coffin pies would contain beef or pork, although you didn’t eat the pastry, which was too hard and thick for the posh family although the crusts would be given to the household members. Any left would be given to the poor.

Quince and medlar jelly, mixed vegetable chutneys which would contain carrots, cabbage, beetroot, mustard and verjuice – a vinegar substitute - were also on the table. Pickles were a sign of wealth containing spices which were expensive to obtain and there would be wine or strong ale to wash it all down.

The sweet banquet was served separately and laid out on a table in the Great Parlour. The array of delights demonstrated that the host family could afford to use expensive ingredients such as sugar and spice and included gingerbread biscuits, hazelnut shortbread, almond biscuits, fudge, raisins and dates covered in marzipan, saffron buns, gold leaf sugared almonds and sugar shapes and Manchet Buns which were similar to a teacake.

Mince pies or ‘shred pies’ were filled with shredded meat and dried fruit. They included an image of Christ, possibly to remind people of the religious significance of the feast.

A Marchpane cake was also an important part of the banquet. It was a flat tart or cake of marzipan weighing three-four pounds or more. The Twelfth Night Cake was another showstopper, sumptuously gilded to represent wealth, it contained a bean and a pea and whoever got either in their slice were King and Queen for the day regardless of their status. They would get to decide who did what that day, what everyone ate, the entertainment and how the house was run. But after all that feasting, the question is , could they really be bothered to wield their power?