If you’ve seen a sword-fight scene lately, you may have seen the Palace Kitchen Boys. As a way of understanding palace kitchens and their times, they’ve studied swordsmanship, so these days they’re also on call for movies and TV.
If being cooks-sword fighters sounds like a stretch, it won’t be the only thing about Marc Meltonville and Richard Fitch that does. What these two Englishmen do as coordinators of the Historic Kitchens Project goes way beyond dressing up for a Renaissance Faire. For the last decade or so, they’ve been restoring historic English royal kitchens in all their former functionality. Which means not only learning to fence but also reviving 16th century recipes.
We caught up with them at the end of January when they were in Pasadena researching 16th century English cookbooks at the Huntington Library.
Why did they come to California for that? “It turned out the Huntington Library had all but two of the books we were looking for,” said Meltonville. “It was actually easier than chasing all around Europe to find them.” In fact, they found a few books here they didn’t even know existed.
Their home base is Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII’s huge “party palace” on the Thames, built in 1525. “Its kitchen now looks exactly as it did in Henry’s time,” boasted Meltonville, “as if the cooks had walked out a few moments ago.”
This year is the 400th anniversary of the Hampton Court Conference, the gathering of religious scholars presided over by James I that led to the King James translation of the Bible. In 1604, James had just ascended to the English throne after the death of his aunt, Elizabeth I. He had already been king of Scotland for 35 years.
“So the question is,” said Meltonville, “did James bring any changes to English cookery? Did he introduce Scottish dishes? Did he bring French influences, because of the old alliance of France and Scotland? Did he make no changes?”
In England, James I is remembered as a dour, pompous bore. “But it turns out that when he came to England, he became a party boy,” Meltonville said. “He had many banquets.”
The Palace Kitchen Boys test period dishes at Hampton Court -- using heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties, archaic cheeses and so forth, of course. Unfortunately for the public, they don’t serve the food at the kitchen (which is open to visitors only a few weeks a year, this year from April 9 to 19, followed by weekends through the end of May), though they’ll probably end up publishing a cookbook. Trying out recipes is just part of their job of finding exactly how the kitchens worked.
In their quest for authenticity, they use utensils modeled after period examples, made out of the exact materials available at the time and by the exact techniques. All their glasses are made in Prague, Czech Republic, for instance, because Renaissance Italian techniques are still used there.
They decided to start wearing period clothes when cooking, making them from traditional woolen broadcloth colored with period dyes. “One thing we’ve found,” says Fitch, “is that old dyes weren’t colorfast. Beer turns the purple into violet; heat makes some colors fade. Some clothes get permanent stains that can’t be removed.” They were excited to discover an old book on taking out stains at the Huntington.
This nerdy purism has led to real discoveries.
“We’ve found that bronze utensils cook beautifully,” said Meltonville. “Certainly, they’re immensely heavy, but if you were the king, that was no concern of yours.
“And when you need to fry onions really dark brown, you have to do it in iron. Stainless steel pans never get them as dark. And mincing meat really fine with a knife gives meatballs a much finer texture than grinding.
“The oddest thing we’ve found was an instruction in a Victorian cookbook to rub a chicken through a sieve -- a raw chicken. It turns out that when you do it, you get a perfectly smooth puree for making quenelles, and all the skin and fat and tendons end up in a neat ball inside the sieve.”
That discovery shows one reason why Meltonville -- a historian of ceramics -- and Fitch -- a leather worker -- were chosen to research recipes: They aren’t trained cooks. So they aren’t tempted to assume an ancient recipe couldn’t possibly mean what it says. They follow recipes literally, no matter how crazy they may look.
And they pay attention to the kind of detail a practical cook would ignore as a matter of course. For instance, 18th century cookbooks include very detailed diagrams of how dishes should be arranged on the table. “There would be footmen standing behind you to make sure everything was made symmetrical again after anybody served himself,” Meltonville said.
“But when the table was 6 or 7 feet across to hold all this food -- how did the diners possibly reach it? We still haven’t figured this out.”
So what are the best dishes their research has turned up so far?
“One of our greatest discoveries is the luxury of real roasted meat,” said Meltonville. “Meat roasted on a spit over a wood fire comes out wonderfully moist, with a nice brown crust. And it works with cuts you wouldn’t expect, such as flank steak.
“Of course, it was a way of showing off how rich you were. It needed fresh meat and a big, wasteful wood fire with plenty of people to tend it.”
Another one of the Palace Kitchen Boys’ favorites is split peas boiled for three or four hours, then enriched with a whole lot of butter. “It’s better than mashed potatoes,” Meltonville said.
In fact, it tastes a bit like mashed potatoes, particularly with all that butter. Ground celery seed (if indeed that is what is meant by “fine powder of March” -- “march” is an old name for wild celery) adds a wild, herbal flavor that cuts the stodginess of split peas.
Perhaps this is, at last, the proverbial pease porridge hot.