Henry VIII!

Somehow, this play feels as though it deserves a bit more thought and commentary than some of the other Shakespeare posts I’ve done.  So, since the lovely Melissa Siah (also known as Gardiner, the Evil Catholic Bishop of Winchester) took a lot of photos of the food yesterday, some of which are remarkably stunning and arty, I think I shall take advantage of this and use some of  the more artistic ones to illustrate my Shakespearean thoughts, and the more straightforward ones to illustrate the important bragging about food…

Lemon salad like you’ve never seen it before…

So, as you may have gathered by now, Shakespeare wrote this play called Henry VIII (which also goes by the name of All Is True).  He wrote it in the reign of James I, Henry’s great-nephew, which makes a certain amount of sense – no matter how careful you are, writing a play about the father of a reigning monarch is probably not a longevity-enhancing plan – and it has to be said, it does contain more than one Message From Our Sponsors.

Close-up of Elizabethan Garden salad, looking nearly as overgrown as our garden.

Cranmer prophesies the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, and then hints that her successor (James) will be even greater.  Anne Boleyn is such a perfect model of womanhood that even Shakespeare gets bored with her and doesn’t give her any lines after she becomes Marchioness of Pembroke Henry in Act 2 (protesting all the while that she does not want to be Queen, oh no, she certainly does not).

Maids of Honour, ginger hearts and Old English Matrimonials

Even Henry manages to be a more sympathetic character than one might expect, if you don’t mind his tendency to go along with whoever he spoke to most recently, no matter how inconsistent he is.  Though he does start developing one or two statesmanly qualities once he is out of the shadow of Wolsey and, perhaps, Katherine of Aragon.

Meatballs disguised as pears. This was a meat-heavy feast by my standards, but the theme seemed to call for it.

On the other hand, by mid-play, we were all feeling as though the word ‘conscience’ had developed a double meaning.  Henry’s is very tender, apparently.  (These days, you can get pills for that).

There’s a really dodgy visual pun lurking here, but really I just wanted to show off the pretty magenta carrots I grew.

Though, on a slightly more serious note, I just went through looking for some of Henry’s dodgier lines about his conscience, and boy does that word get used a lot in this play – between all the politically-minded clergy and the religious and political upheavals and the consciences of Henry, Katherine and Anne, there’s a lot of anxiety going around on this score.

Artichokes. Apparently, Henry found them very helpful for stiffening his conscience…

The big surprise in this play is how sympathetic Katherine is as a character.   I didn’t think Shakespeare would be able to make her that impressive, given the whole Protestant vs Catholic thing.  In addition to being the brains of the family, she has a wonderfully dignified, Queenly manner, and manages to steal every scene she is in.  She has a magnificent way of really tearing strips of Henry and Wolsey, all the while being a humble, meek and obedient wife, a poor ignorant woman, and a stranger in this land – who argues better than any of the supposedly educated and brilliant men in the play.  And the core of emotion underneath it – the terrible fear for what will become of her, the sense of betrayal after more than twenty years of marriage, and the absolute conviction that her marriage is real and cannot simply be unmade for convenience, with the anger that this produces… Honestly, I think she’s one of Shakespeare’s best characters.

Or at least, that’s my excuse for continually forgetting which other characters I was playing because I was so immersed in Katherine.

Wolsey is a lot of fun, largely because he is convinced that he is the hero of this play, and he manages to convince the play of this for a while – his final scenes in Act III feel like the hero’s final speeches at the end of a tragedy, and it feels quite disconcerting when the play continues on without him.  And Gardiner (Bishop of Winchester) gets to spend a lot of time being Catholic And Evil.

Cardinal cake – as tender as Wolsey’s conscience?

So yes, a surprisingly interesting play – after watching the BBC version, I had been rather dreading this one, but it came together well.  It didn’t hurt that our King Henry is an extremely good musician, who kept wandering over to the piano to provide incidental music for visions, processions, etc (though the less said about ‘Stand By Your Man’ as a funeral march, the better, and we aren’t even going to discuss all the trumpets, which had a tendency to turn into 20th Century Fox, or the ABC News theme).  This was surprisingly effective.

Groaning tables…

As for the food (which is, after all, what you’re here for), it went well, and there was enough of it, despite my oft-laughed at concerns to the contrary.  We had bread and King Island cheese and Chicken à la King for King Henry.

Only King Island cheese would do.

It turns out that I find chicken à la King a bit dull, but apparently the flavour was fairly authentic (it’s basically chicken with mushrooms and pimentos and almonds in a sauce made of butter, flour, stock and sherry – we had it in vol au vents for easier eating).

Vol au vents with Chicken à la King

We also had little meatball ‘pears’, each with a grape in the middle, because it’s not an Elizabethan feast if you don’t have something disguised as something else and if you don’t have sweet and savoury mixed together.  They looked rather adorable, if I say so myself.

Meatball pears.  Possibly the cutest Renaissance food ever.

Then there were arancini, which apparently were traditionally coloured purple or yellow in Renaissance times.  This was almost irresistible, but I decided to restrain myself on this occasion, not least because I was hoping that if I put enough saffron in, they would end up bright yellow anyway.  No such luck, I fear, but they were delicious nonetheless.

Slightly squishy arancini, but who’s complaining? Nobody at my Shakespeare feast, that’s for sure.

I found a recipe for ‘Lemon Sallet’ in one of my Elizabethan books.  It’s basically lemon slices and blanched lemon zest tossed with a little sugar and left to marinate for an hour.  Then you sprinkle coloured sugar over the top (that, i did not resist) and serve it, allegedly with olives and bread.

Lemon ‘sallet’. Very pretty, but I’m still not convinced about the olive idea.

I wasn’t convinced by the olives and bread part, but I’m told it was great with the arancini.  I rather liked it on its own – it was very lemony and just barely not too sour to eat.

Sadly unconvincing olives

We also had an Elizabethan Garden Salad, which was a little less picturesque and a little more completely insane than normal, as I underestimated how high the pile would get on that plate.  It’s still a rather lovely salad though, with lots of greens from our garden, croutons, dried fruit and dates and a vinegary dressing.

My garden actually does look a bit like this.  And the rosemary and lemons are in fact things I grew myself.

I was feeling as though there was a lot of rich, heavy food going on here, so we also had the traditional vegetable platter, with colourful radishes and little magenta carrots from our own garden!

Aren’t those little magenta carrots the cutest carrots you have ever seen? Of course they are.

And then I couldn’t resist making that lovely roman cheese and herb dip again, because all those vegetables needed a dip of some kind, don’t you think?

Roman herb and cheese puree. Not just for Roman plays!

For sweets, the most important thing, naturally, was the Queen Cakes, which is just an old-fashioned name for cupcakes.   Being the purveyor of bad taste that I am, I had to decorate the cakes with the initials of Henry’s queens and symbols of their fate – annulled (not divorced!), beheaded, died, annulled (they just didn’t do divorce, OK?), beheaded, survived.  And of course some fresh fruit makes everything nicer.

I am still ridiculously proud of these cakes.

Cardinal Wolsey had to have his Cardinal Cake, which is basically a sponge, and a very nice one, painted with warm apricot jam.  I used the recipe from Nigella’s website, though I don’t think the recipe is actually hers.  Either way, it was lovely – very tender and tasty.  I had planned to crystallise rose petals from my Rose de Rescht bush (the flowers are used to make rosewater and have a wonderfully deep, intense rose scent), but I ran out of time, so I just let them dry and scattered them over the cake to look pretty.

Cardinal cake. Traditionally, it is loaf-shaped, but I felt it should be more mitre-like.

I meant to serve a ricotta and cherry dip with the cardinal cake, but I forgot.  It ended up on the table more or less untouched, which was a real pity.

Not tarama. This surprised a few people.

Then, of course, we had to have the Maids of Honour, which are a tart shell filled with jam and then a mix of almond meal, eggs, sherry and sugar (frangipane?).  I believe they are also sometimes known as Ladies in Waiting, making them doubly appropriate for Anne Boleyn.

Maid of Honour. Just like Anne.

Ginger hearts seemed somehow necessary, too. There had to be some sort of spice-based dessert in this meal, and hearts just seemed right for this play.

Not that hearts are really the subject of this play…

And who could resist a name like Old English Matrimonials for a play like this one?  These are a mixture of flour, oats, coconut, sugar and butter, half of which is pressed together to make a base and spread with jam, and the other half of which is sprinkled on top.  Apparently the matrimonial part is because they are rough in texture and one has to take the rough with the smooth.

Actually, these are fantastic.

And that was about it, actually.  I do find it rather ironic to be cooking this much cake for a play about a king who actually made laws regulating the amount of sugar that could be used in cakes, but hey, he’s no king of mine.  And, as my alter-ego Katherine, I think I deserve a little bit of rebellion.

The little axes shouldn’t make me this happy, but they really, really do.

Especially after cooking for two days straight.

Note the glazed eyes and hair coming down.  Zombie Shakespeare Chef Catherine strikes again!

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11 comments for “Henry VIII!

  1. November 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    oh I am tired just reading about it all – fascinating stuff – a lot of work for 2 days but so many interesting recipes and such lovely symbolism – I thought I made what a friend called matrimonial slice last year and then I looked it up and found it was slightly different but still very good and I too loved the name

    • November 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

      These Shakespeare feasts are pretty labour-intensive, yes, but so much fun when it’s all served up.

      And thank you!

  2. filkferengi
    November 29, 2011 at 12:59 am

    Fascinating insights about Catherine of Aragon! In Michael Woods’ 2004 series “In Search of Shakespeare”, he postulated that Shakespeare’s family may have been secret catholics. What do you think?

    Ze spouse was very impressed by your axes of evil. 😉

    • November 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm

      Thank you! I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Catherine, and I think Shakespeare did too.

      I don’t know about the secret Catholic thing. His other Catholics are really quite unsympathetic (especially in his other history plays – never trust a Bishop or a Cardinal is his motto). And, of course, his Shylock was quite sympathetic, and nobody has ever claimed Shakespeare was secretly Jewish.

      He might well be, but I don’t think there’s really enough evidence one way or another.

  3. November 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Utterly brilliant Cate! This post appeals to me on so many levels- food, literature, history, Shakespeare, research, passion, friends… and makes me want to go home and pull out my very special Complete Works. Though I might watch Ellen first 😛

    • November 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      Thank you! I must admit, I am rather sad to see the last of the History plays (we only have five plays left – three tragedies and two comedies). Despite their rather tenuous connection with actual history, it’s been fun re-awakening my teenage obsession with the Wars of the Roses.


      PS – you know that if you are ever in Melbourne when we are doing one of these, you are absolutely invited, right?

  4. Iestyn
    November 30, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I thought that Henry was fond of a “Hearty Joke”, not an “Artichoke”……
    but I may be wrong.

    • December 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      That’s really appalling.

  5. 5-tails
    December 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Oh, my. Now I’m hungry – and missing you, and Shakespeares. Particularly those with random musical interludes. *grin*

    Looks to me like you’ve outdone yourself with this one, and justified the lack of sleep. I hope you’re recovering, though…

    I would compliment your carrots, but between their place in this post and earlier comments about turgid vegetables, I’m not sure it would be entirely seemly to do so!

    (Also, it’s hardly like your table needs more food, but had I been there, I totally would’ve had to bring a castle cake to continue the theme. And because, well, castle cake…)

    • December 1, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      I don’t suppose you can make it back in April for As You Like It?

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