A Christian holy time, the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts approximately 40 days, ending on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. During Lent, many Christians fast and give up certain luxuries to replicate Jesus’s sacrifices, although the way different denominations both observe and calculate Lent varies.
Food and fasting plays a large part in modern Lenten observation, as it did during the seventeenth century. Many people know the beginning of Lent, not because of Ash Wednesday, but because of Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. In Tudor and Stuart England, people followed this tradition, eating pancakes or fritters to “celebrate” the day before Lent began.
For seventeenth century English men and women, fasting was not unknown. For various religious, political and economic reasons, over half the days of the year were marked as fasting days. Poorer people would run out of food as the winter stores were depleted and would have to eat food that was more readily available, such as fish and shellfish. Queen Elizabeth I also implemented fast days to boost the fishing and seafood industry. There were ways around mandatory fasting—the very old, the very young and the ill were excused from the fast and able to eat meat, milk and eggs. Also, many wealthy citizens were able to find ‘loopholes’ to avoid six weeks of a meat and dairy-free existence.
Some examples of what the wealthier English would eat during Lent include: cracknels (a type of biscuit), fritters, pancakes, potatoes, roasted fruit, fried rice cakes, almond tarts and a vast array of seafood: plaice, porpoise, seal, salmon, eels, carp, trout, crab, lobster and sea bream, for example.
Jumbles, a sweet, spiced biscuit twisted into knots or pretzels, were quite a popular treat. Another benefit is, once baked, they lasted for a relatively long time. Below, please find a recipe adapted from the one found in the University of Reading/Historic Royal Palaces A History of Royal Food and Feasting online course.
½ c. sugar
1 Tablespoon aniseed or caraway
As much flour as required to make all of this into strong and malleable dough
Mix all ingredients. Shape dough into small pretzel shaped pieces and place into boiling water. When they rise to the surface, remove from water and place on greased baking sheet. Bake at a low temperature, flipping often, until golden brown.
Please come take a tour to see learn more about the seventeenth century Lenten season.