Here’s a look at how porridge appears in Shakespeare’s work, and a traditional porridge recipe taken from our archives for you to try yourself!
‘He receives comfort like cold porridge.’
The Tempest - Act 2 Scene 1
The word porridge appears eight times in Shakespeare’s plays, so it is evidently a meal that he was familiar with. A dish very similar to what we understand porridge to be would have been known to Shakespeare; made with oats, sweetened with honey and topped with a thick milk similar to yoghurt, seeds, nuts and dried fruit.
But it is also clear that Shakespeare uses the term to describe a savoury dish:
'Your date is better in your pie and in your porridge.'
All’s Well that Ends Well - Act 1 Scene 1
'I had rather pray a month with mutton and porridge.'
Love’s Labour’s Lost - Act 1 Scene 1
The Elizabethans had a taste for sugar and the distinctions between sweet and savoury were not so clear as they are today, with all courses being served at the same time for diners to pick and choose as they pleased. Many recipes from the time contain meat and fruit, both fresh and dried, combined in ways that would be unfamiliar to our palette today; although we should not forget that we still serve turkey with cranberry sauce and pork with apple!
Pea or bean porridge was a common breakfast dish, but with the addition of other vegetables and herbs would also be served alongside mead, bread and cheese at the midday meal, then the main meal of the day.
Pea porridge has a long history as can be seen from the following recipe taken from the Forme of Cury, a collection of some 205 recipes put together about 1390 during the reign of King Richard II.
Pea Porridge with onions
"Take and seeþ white pesoun and take out þe perry; & perboile erbis & hewe hem grete, & caste hem in a pot with the perry. Pulle oynouns & seeþhem whole wel in water, & do hem to þe perry with oile & salt; colour it with safroun & messe it, and cast þeron powdour douce."
Translated literally as:
Take and boil white peas and take out the purée; & parboil herbs & chop them great, & cast them in a pot with the purée. Pluck onions & boil them whole well in water, & do them to the purée with oil & salt; colour it with saffron & serve it, and cast then-on powder douce.
- White peas are very different to what we now think of as a pea. Probably our closest equivalent would be small haricot beans, but any pea would do.
- Fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, mint, sage, sorrel etc – any fresh period herb of choice
- Onions – need to be very small, peeled and left whole, or modern shallots
- Olive oil
- Powder Douce – this was a blend of sweet spices, almost always containing sugar & cinnamon and never pepper, mixed with other spices of choice such a nutmeg, clove etc.
- Boil the peas until very tender, remove from the water and drain well, purée them by either mashing them well or by using a blender or food processor.
- Place the purée in a large pot on a very low heat. Parboil the fresh herb in another pot or by simply pouring boiling water over them in a colander – do not overcook them (modern herbs are generally more tender than what was available in the medieval period). Press the herbs dry in a clean cloth, roughly chop them and add to the purée.
- Boil the onions whole in water until tender; add to the purée, along with about a tablespoon of olive oil, a large pinch of saffron and salt to taste.
- Increase the heat and cook the porridge for several minutes to blend the flavours, stirring often to prevent sticking. Add a little more oil if the mixture becomes too thick.
- Place in a serving bowl and generously sprinkle the powder douce on top and serve hot.
This post was written by Interpretation Projects Manager, Nic Fulcher. Read more from Nic on our Finding Shakespeare blog.