Round(head) table

Food

What did Oliver Cromwell eat? To most of us, drawing on a collective image of killjoys in metal hats, the answer seems obvious. Our prejudices tell us that Puritans ate a horrible diet. Stale bread on pewter plates, or turnips and barley in rusty porringers. After all, Cromwell's regime proclaimed Christmas Day a fast. The Roundhead stereotype says Cromwell must have frowned on any enjoyment of food, let alone the fleshy pleasures of feasting - the velvety gourmandising of the Cavaliers.

The truth is different. Cromwell (1599-1658), whose 400th birthday falls next month, actually liked eating. The fervent Puritan faith of "God's Englishman" did not translate into inedible Puritan food. He was no glutton, yet nor did he believe that butter was the Antichrist. (The Pope filled that role well enough.) Cromwell's warty face and formidable conviction that God was working within him didn't prevent him from supping on good roast meat and ale, hunting for venison, banqueting and even enjoying the occasional food fight.

Cromwell's tastes were those of a gentleman farmer of the Fens - plain, but robust. His rugged soldier's physique was honed from an early age by hawking, hunting and football, none of them sports for the delicate appetite. And he drank, not as a drunk but as a hearty eater drinks. Four generations removed from a Putney brewer, Cromwell relished a beer called Morning Dew. When he became MP for Huntingdon in 1628, he was an active wheat farmer. Later, he rented a farm in St Ives, where he kept, and no doubt ate, grazing animals. It is to this domestic phase of his life that Andrew Marvell was referring when he wrote of Cromwell: "Who, from his private gardens, where/He lived, reserved and austere,/As if his highest plot/To plant the bergamot."

The bergamot was a pear sometimes used for making perry. The image is of a quiet English yeoman. Cromwell's was the moderation of the gardener, as much as the Puritan. Good husbandry was essential, with his seven children to support.

After he became Lord Protector following the execution of Charles I, Cromwell took to the high life with un-Puritan gusto. At Hampton Court he indulged his love of stag hunting, feasting on the bucks he slew. At Whitehall the hospitality left foreign ambassadors reeling. The palace was regally fitted with seven different categories of dining table. When Cromwell's youngest daughter, Frances, got married in November 1657, it was with all the pomp and glitter of a royal wedding. The bride's father boisterously threw sack posset and sweetmeats at the ladies "to soil their rich clothes, which they took as a favour", according to royalist anecdote.

But Cromwell was never allowed to descend into indolent greed. His wife Elizabeth made sure he still breakfasted on "caudle" (a milky drink), followed by a little toast and sugar mid-morning. Mrs Cromwell, moreover, adjusted slowly to the grand ways of Whitehall. When one day Oliver asked for an orange to squeeze over his roast mutton, the Lady Protectoress shouted from the other end of the table that oranges cost a groat each and he must do without. One is reminded of the cheese hoarding of Norma Major, spouse of another MP for Huntingdon. With wives like these, who needs religion to keep extravagance in check?

Cromwell's New Model mutton
A 17th-century recipe for "mutton with orringes". Put chunks or chops of mutton in a casserole. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, orange zest, a few spoonfuls of lemon juice, raisins and a little butter. Cover tightly and stew very slowly. Eat with prayer and beer.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet