One spit still turns in the Great Roasting Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace, the essence of this remarkable Tudor kitchen still lingers, heightened by the smell of chickens roasting. The kitchens fifty rooms, once staffed by two hundred people, have changed little over five hundred years. Only a small portion of the sixteenth century kitchens are open to the public, but they are among the finest of their time. 

Today the kitchens are laid out as though a feast is being prepared, it would be impossible to show the scale involved but the process is demonstrated. The kitchen, previously built by Cardinal Wolsey was forty eight feet long, but deemed to small to cater for a king and his court. Henry VIII enlarged the kitchens to hold six massive, iron spits their fires stoked daily with six to eight tons of dry English oak. Wagon loads of meat, fish and game was delivered each day to feed eight hundred members of the king’s court and his guests twice a day. Dinner was at ten o’clock in the morning and supper at four o’clock in the afternoon.

Tourist footsteps now ring and echo across the cold, stone floor. They walk quickly, arms extended, towards the warmth of a blazing wood fire that crackles and bursts in showers of  sparks behind an enormous iron spit. A slightly built young man, dressed in sixteenth century kitchen clothing, effortlessly turns six chickens on the spit with one hand while explaining to the visitors the intricacies of spit roasting. Haunches of beef or several dozen chickens could be cooked on a single spit, the spit turners were called Spit Boys, but it took a strong man to keep a fully laden spit turning for many hours. In a lavish feast to impress the king of France Henry VIII purchased two thousand sheep, one thousand chickens, and a dolphin, keeping the spit turners in the Great Roasting Kitchen very busy. Spices were a vital part of any cooking process.

A historian, responsible for researching food cooked in the kitchens, wears a doublet and hose. He explains that many spices used in Tudor kitchens are recognizable today such as black peppercorns, ginger, cloves and mace, the mortar and pestle was an important tool in the Spice Kitchen. Exotic spices were imported, dried ginger from China, Grains of Paradise, a fiery pepper, from West Africa, Long peppers, similar to Chili peppers, from Indonesia and aromatic peppers from India. These rare spices cost a large amount of money and were the preserve of kings and the very wealthy.

A crowd gathers to watch a confectioner create a Tudor Rose out of marzipan, a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. He paints the petals red with cochineal and sprinkles the center with saffron. Sterling silver and twenty four carat gold are used for embellishment. The confectioner’s job is to try and recreate the special sugary items for the banquet that followed the main meal. Hardly any of King Henry’s guests saw these special and expensive creations they were whisked out of the kitchen for the lucky few to admire and eat. Feasts and banquets were used by Henry VIII as a political tool to display wealth and power to visiting ambassadors and European kings.

To visit Hampton Court Palace and enter The Great Roasting Kitchen, even with only a single spit turning, is a fascinating and rewarding experience, a glimpse into the life of master cooks in the sixteenth century.

Copyright 2017 by Computer Consultants of America