Rufford Old Hall celebrates dinners of Christmas past
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 December 2014 | UPDATED: 18:14 02 November 2015
A Tudor Christmas dinner in Lancashire included pig's ears and turtle's intestines, writes a slightly queasy Mairead Mahon
Turkey is still the centrepiece of our Christmas Dinner - we manage to eat 10 million of them. However, it wasn’t always the traditional choice and this December a stately home in Lancashire is showing visitors the sort of Christmas food that our ancestors might have expected to see on their festive table.
The sideboards of Rufford Old Hall near Ormskirk, will be groaning with all the culinary delights of a Tudor and Victorian Christmas.
‘We chose these periods because Rufford was built in Tudor times but it also has a fabulous Victorian interior and, besides, the Christmas food in those periods was pretty good,’ says Lynne Mills, the house steward.
It may have been good but in order to take advantage of all that was on offer, a great deal of money was needed, particularly in the earlier period as Christmas feasting for the Tudors lasted for 12 days, from the 25th December to the 6th January. Luckily for the Hesketh family, who lived at the hall, money was no object.
As soon as their guests stepped over the threshold, they would be offered a drink from a wassail cup. Similar to our mulled wine, it would contain heated cider or ale, mixed with spices, herbs and tiny pieces of toast and although, we may not include the toast any longer, we remember this Tudor Christmas tradition when ever we raise a glass to ‘toast’ someone today.
Guests would then be ushered in to the Great Hall, the most important guests sitting close by Lord Hesketh, where they would be greeted by the centrepiece of the meal - usually a boar’s head.
‘Boars were often hunted but their heads would usually be saved for a special occasion, like Christmas. It would be baked and garnished with rosemary and bay and ceremoniously carried in’, says Lynne.
If the boar’s head didn’t appeal, there was no need to worry as the table positively creaked with choice with everything from mutton, veal to a popular speciality called Souse. This was pickled trotters and pig ear. Then, there was always the huge Christmas Pie, so prized it was guarded against theft.
Christmas at Rufford Old Hall
Marchpane 'fruits' - a favourite of the Tudors c Emma Williams
Rufford's House Steward Lynne Mills in the Great Hall
Some of the many dishes which feature in a Tudor Yuletide feast c National Trust & Emma Williams
The Dining Room at Rufford with an ornate table set for a Victorian Christmas meal c National Trust & David Jones
‘It was usually a turkey, stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a partridge, stuffed with a pigeon and then all put in a pastry case known as a coffin. Just in case, a guest still had hunger pangs, the coffin would be surrounded by a jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl. I imagine some of the guests carried the Tudor equivalent of indigestion tablets in their tunics’, says Lynne.
For those though who had hearty appetites, more goodies would follow. One of the ways in which a family like the Heskeths could display just how rich they were, was to use as much expensive sugar as possible at the Christmas table. One of the most popular ways to do this was to provide a selection of treats known as, Marchpanes.
This was a Christmas favourite with the Tudors. Made of sugar and almonds and resembling our marzipan, it was often shaped into fruits and then coloured with things such as beetroot juice and saffron. It was also used to make cake, another opportunity to show just how much money a household could afford to spend, as the cake would be traditionally decorated with masses of real gold leaf!
At first sight, we would recognise the sight of Tudor mince pies, although that’s where the similarity ends, as they were then made from scraps of mutton mixed with dried fruit and spice.
‘It wasn’t until Victorian times, that mince pies became a sweet treat and in fact, there is very little difference between the mince pies that the Victorian Heskeths would have served and the ones we serve at Rufford today’, says Lynne.
However, one Victorian Christmas dish that is no longer served at Rufford is turtle soup. It was expensive and took hours to prepare, with some cooks suggesting that it should be started at least two days in advance, in order to perform tasks such as whitening the intestines with lemon juice.
By this time, turkey was becoming more popular, even Charles Dickens has Scrooge delivering one to Bob Cratchit but beef or goose would also be served as alternatives. However, just like the Tudors, the Victorians also paid a great deal of attention the sweet things that would be served at the Christmas table.
‘The pudding was king. Even the preparations for making Christmas pudding were steeped in ceremony, some of which our visitors recognise today. On stir up Sunday, every Hesketh family member would give the mix a stir, make a wish and then the youngest would throw a in a ring, a coin and a thimble,’ says Lynne.
It would then hang in a sack before being boiled in beef broth and, like the Tudors with their boar’s head, it would then be carried, alight, to the Christmas Table, where Lord Hesketh would carve it.
While the coin meant that the finder would have a very happy life, no young girl though wanted the piece containing the thimble. It was an omen she would never marry.
How to get there
Visitors to Rufford might just be tempted to replicate some historical treats for their own Christmas dinner.
The Tudor Great Hall has fantastic furniture, arms, armour, tapestries and the carved oak screen, a rare survivor from the 1500s. But history springs to life in the dining room, its food-laden table, lit candles and ‘fire in the hearth’ waiting to welcome the family’s dinner guests.
The hall was home to the Hesketh family, who were lords of the manor, and there is reasonable evidence that William Shakespeare performed here while staying at Lea Hall near Preston.
Rufford Hall is on Liverpool Road, Rufford, near Ormskirk, L40 1SG. During December it is open at weekends 11-4pm until Sunday, December 14. For more information phone 01704 821254 or go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk