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Food for thought: An interview with food historian Marc Meltonville

2015-02-03 13.25.25

A Stuart curd tart – a cross between an egg tart and a cheesecake

Following my trip to Hampton Court Palace at the beginning of the month, I’ve managed to speak with Historic Royal Palace’s food historian, Marc Meltonville. Marc put together a menu that spanned 500 years when I visited the Palace, including a Georgian French onion soup, Tudor beef, and a Stuart curd tart with 20th-century vanilla ice cream.

He has appeared on many television programmes, talking about historic foods, and regularly gives lectures on the topic. Here’s what he had to say about his job.

Thanks for talking to me Marc. For those wondering about your role, can you explain what you do for HRP?

A few years ago food historians were a bit of an alien thing, but now they’re popping up all over the place.

My job is to help bring everyone, from Kings to cleaners, alive through their food. And it can be specific to a person or century. What I find interesting is that the story of food can be affected by trade routes, religion, politics. It is an easy way into a difficult story, for example with Hampton Court’s 500th birthday this year – most wouldn’t know how things were 500 years ago, but everyone eats and so it starts a dialogue. Even if they don’t like the dish you’re talking about or showing them, you’ve engaged someone. So food is a great way to bring history to life.

I’d never thought of it as a connection with the past! So how did you get involved with the history of food to be where you are now?

It was pure accident – I was trained in ceramic history, so digging lumps out of the ground and telling people what they are. But pots and plates lead quite easily into dining.

Yes, that makes a lot of sense.

I was brought into HRP by the former food historian on a temporary project. It was Peter Briers, who has now ‘retired to write’, but he rang me while I was working in a furniture museum, and asked if I wanted to have a play in a Tudor kitchen. I said no thanks, but he said it’ll only be once and it will be fun. So I agreed and went and helped him on reconstructing the kitchen and since 2006, I’ve done small events with Peter in country homes, having left the museum I worked in.

Does your day consist of poring over old recipe books and trying them out?

Sadly not as often as people would like to think! No, I’m not sitting in an office with dusty old cookery books day after day.

But yes sometimes; it’s the nuts and bolts of research. For example, for the Royal chocolate exhibition we had last year; I had to thoroughly research. And for this year’s birthday, I have been working on a large cross-section of food from the last 500 years, looking for interesting stories. Last year, I was looking into English mustard. And I’m always keen on seeing the original if possible, at least once, to double check things. I once found that someone had only bothered to scan 1/3 of an original text as they didn’t think the rest was important, so it’s always good to see the original.

A lot of my time is presenting and lecturing though; I spend the majority of my time in front of people talking on a specific aspect of food history.

Do you have a favourite era of food?

Well, no. It tends to dot around; when I find something new or have been researching it for a while, it becomes the flavour of the moment, excuse the pun. I have a great interest in Georgian foods though. The very early middle ages, on which there is an awful lot of work to do, is something I want to explore further. Like like the Saxon and Norman Kings, which we don’t do a lot of at the Palace.

I do have an interest in the history of English drinks too; country wines and beers and distilling; I’m heading off to America soon to an 18th century distillery to finish my training off.

Do you have a favourite recipe you’ve stumbled across in your line of work?

No, actually. Again, it’s very dotted around. I like a Tudor cheese tart.

The one you let Matt Baker try on The One Show?

No, not that one. It’s a tart out of Lent – too much cheese and milk in it to be eaten during Lent, but it’s a heartwarming cheese pie that I really enjoy. Last year I enjoyed a lot of Roman street food after researching that for a while. My friends tend to get recipes tested out on them, and I’ve had no complaints yet!

See Marc on BBC’s The One Show, debuting a Tudor ‘Crustard’.

I wouldn’t complain either! What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve seen used in a recipe?

Well, 17th century pies used some odd things that we can no longer use for ethical reasons. We can’t use musk or amber grease, which are perhaps the most odd ingredients.

As I say, they’re used in pies. Musk is a gland secretion from a musk fox – and they’re now a protected species, so, alas, I’ll never know the taste of a musk pie! And amber grease is a by-product of the whaling industry; you can source it ethically now, sometimes people find it washed up on the beach, but its hard to source, with both time and money constraints. I’ve heard there’s an ethical supply in New Zealand, so I want to look into that.

So what is amber grease?

Sperm whales sort-of spit balls of it up – which makes you want to use it less. It’s a secretion from their stomach that looks a bit like rock, but it’s actually a resin. You can find it on the beaks of octopuses or squid, helps prevent them from harming the whale inside when they’re eaten.

Well, I wasn’t expecting that! Thanks for talking to me, and for the food at Hampton Court the other week – it was delicious!

Photo credit: Chloe Howard 2015 ©

  • Jason York

    This is the first time I’ve ever encountered that substance referred to as “amber grease”! I’ve always seen it spelled “ambergris”, as in the substance from a whale that was used in the making of perfumes. Oh, Royal Central! How you do keep me on my toes!

    • PastryGoddess

      LOL I was just coming to say the same thing. It’s ambergris and it’s still used in perfumes.

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