Meat Tile Anyone? How Nancy Bilyeau used a 16th Century Dish
I like to put food in my writing. People eat. Readers gain from characters’ choices in food, how they respond to it, how they behave with others while they’re dining.
My novel The Crown
is set in 1537-1538. Moreover, much of the action takes place in a priory of Dominican nuns. In other words, simple meals, very little meat, when the sisters are not actually fasting.
But I didn’t want this to deter me from using food as a revelatory, if not sensual, part of my writing.
In the first part of the book, my protagonist Sister Joanna Stafford is arrested at Smithfield for interfering with the king’s justice. She’s taken to the Tower of London and confined in a small cell for five months. The man who frees her is Bishop Stephen Gardiner, but there’s a price. She must return to her priory on a secret—and very dangerous—quest, one that may betray the prioress and other nuns she respects. To force her to do his will, the bishop will keep her father, Sir Richard Stafford, imprisoned in the Tower. He has already been tortured once; Sister Joanna has no choice but to agree.
In Chapter 15, Sister Joanna finally leaves the Tower, in the company of two Dominican friars, Brother Edmund and Brother Richard, that Bishop Gardiner has ordered to go the priory as well, both of them with mysterious agendas. Before the three of them depart, they’re served a meal. Joanna is exhausted and frightened and angry but she’s undeniably hungry too.
From the book:
“Bess laid out food: platters of meat tiles, strips of dried cod, and bread. The rich smell of the tiles—made of chicken, crawfish tail and almonds—filled the room. Brother Richard fell on it as if it were the first meal he’d consumed in days, while Brother Edmund ate little.
“Bess looked around to make sure no one was watching her, and flashed me an excited smile. To her, this must be joyous news—not only was I being released but I was also restored to my former life. I wondered what she’d think if she knew I’d be betraying a prioress’s trust.
“But wait—when had I agreed to anything?
“My thoughts churning, I sipped the warm spiced wine Bess had poured and ate a piece of meat tile—I hadn’t tasted anything like this in many months. We had meat only on feast days at Dartford, and then it was meat pudding.”
And so I used the dish of meat tile to symbolize Sister Joanna’s feelings about leaving the Tower and returning to her priory and being drawn into the power—and the possible temptation–of these new forces.
To talk more about meat tile, it was made of pieces of chicken or veal, simmered, sautéed, served in a spiced sauce of pounded crayfish tails, almonds roasted and toasted bread and garnished with whole crayfish tails. When royalty, noble or wealthy-merchant families dined, there were many courses, a stunning number to our eyes.
Tudorhistory.org has kindly permitted me to share a menu from a 15th century wealthy French household:
Miniature pastries filled either with cod liver or beef marrow
A cameline meat “brewet” (pieces of meat in a thin cinnamon sauce)
Beef marrow fritters
Eels in a thick spicy puree
Loach in a cold green sauce flavored with spices and sage
Large cuts of roast or boiled meat
Broth with bacon
A meat tile
Capon pasties and crisps
Bream and eel pasties
Lampreys with hot sauce
Roast bream and darioles
After the meal would come the sweets and confections, then maybe some spiced wine or even whole spices, which were thought to aid in digestion.
Now THAT is a meal…