Saturday, 10 May 2014

Shakespeare the Vegetarian

I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare – or indeed any of his characters – was a vegetarian, but having a number of veggie friends and family-members who follow my blog, and being rather partial to meat-free days myself, I decided to research what Shakespeare has to say about the eating of vegetables.  The answer was very little!  Meat – including Falstaff’s beloved capon – is in abundance, prawns and eel are referenced in Henry IV, Part Two, and then there are references to cakes and spices, as noted in some of earlier posts. The only savoury food item mentioned that counts as vegetarian is toasted cheese – referred to in Henry V, Henry VI and King Lear - but I didn’t think a recipe for cheese on toast would be that impressive!  Having said that, vegetables are referred to in some plays – albeit not as food items - and there are recipes from the period for vegetable-based dishes, so I feel I can still justify writing this post.


I begin with the leek, the national symbol of Wales, a vegetable which is thought to have been introduced into Britain by the Phoenicians who traded it for tin with the Welsh.  One legend says that in the 7th century AD, when the Welsh were fighting the Saxons, the Welsh king, Cadwallader, instructed his soldiers to wear a leek as a badge to distinguish themselves from the enemy.  And the cultural value of leeks is what Shakespeare writes about in Henry V (c. 1599).  This history play sees the dissolute Hal from the Henry IV plays – see - in his new guise as King of England, leading an army into France in order to reclaim parts of France that he believes technically belong to England.  Henry and his men are eventually victorious, sealing an unexpected victory on the battle field at Agincourt despite being vastly outnumbered by the French troops.  Henry’s winning army contains – for symbolic purposes – officers from all regions of the British Isles: Captain MacMorris hails from Ireland, Captain Jamy is the Scottish representative, and from Wales there is Captain Fluellen.  Shakespeare has fun reproducing their accents, but the fun extends further with Fluellen, who proudly boasts his Welsh heritage –and that of his King (Henry V was born in Monmouth in 1386) - at any opportunity, and who is derided by Pistol, another soldier, for that.  Fluellen proudly notes (dubious) parallels between Macedon, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and Monmouth – “There is a river in Macedon, and there is / also moreover a river at Monmouth” (IV, 7, 28-29).  Then, when Henry announces the battle victory and names the battle Agincourt, after the castle nearby, Fluellen reminds him of his ancestors’ great battle victories and the role played by the Welsh: 

If your / majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen / did good service in a garden where leeks did / grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; / which, your majesty know, to this hour is an /honourable badge of the service; and I do be-/lieve, your majesty takes no scorn to wear the / leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.  (IV, 7, 102-09)

To Fluellen’s delight Henry proclaims his national pride in wearing the leek – “I wear it for a memorable honour; / For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman” (IV, 7, 110-11).  Boosted by the King’s comments, Fluellen gets his own back on Pistol’s disrespect for his nationality and forces the verbose, boastful commoner to eat a leek.  

Fluellen forces Pistol to eat a leek. 
(a 19th century illustration by H. C. Selous)

If the leek is good enough for the king, then it’s good enough for me.  Recipes from the period – and earlier - include White Leek Sauce, and Leek pottage, but I wanted to make something that would showcase the leek in all its glory, as Fluellen would want.  So when I found a recipe for Spinach Tart in The Good Huswifes Jewell (1596) -  the recipe can be found transcribed online by Daniel Myers (2008) at - that inspired me to make my own leek tart, adapted from a recipe by John Torode (BBC Good Food).

HENRY V’S LEEK TART (makes 8 pieces)


For the pastry: 
200g plain flour
100g cold, diced butter
Pinch of salt
Cold water

For the filling:  
800g leeks, trimmed, washed thoroughly and sliced.
50g butter
½ tablespoon plain flour
300ml milk
200ml double cream
4 eggs beaten
100g grated cheese – I used gruyere
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Make shortcrust pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour (seasoned with salt) in a large mixing bowl, until it resembles breadcrumbs.  Using a knife, stir in sufficient cold water until the mixture begins to clump together.  Gather into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for at least one hour.

While the pastry is resting, start the filling.  Cook the leeks in butter in a large saucepan over a low heat for about 20 minutes until soft.  Then stir in the flour and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Stir in the milk and cream and simmer for about 15 minutes.  Season well and cool slightly before stirring in the beaten eggs, grated cheese and mustard.  .

Pre-heat the oven to 190C, Gas 5.  Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a thickness of about 5mm.  Use it to line a large greased tart dish.  Line the pastry with baking paper or foil and fill with baking beans – or dried beans, rice and pasta.  Bake blind for 15 minutes, and then remove the paper and beans and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes until the case is a pale golden colour.  Remove from the oven, and reduce the temperature to 180C, Gas 4.  Spoon the leek mixture into the pastry case and bake for approximately 30 minutes until set and golden.

Peas and beans: 

As noted above, leeks are mentioned in recipes for pottage, a vegetable soup or broth thickened with oats or other grains, that might also include meat, depending on the wealth of the household.  Pottage is a very old dish that would have been commonly eaten by poorer households in Shakespeare's time.  When I found a reference in Henry IV Part One to “peas and beans” (II, 1, 8-9), albeit t used metaphorically, it inspired me to make a 21st century twist on this ancient dish to accompany Henry V's Leek Tart.

PEA AND BEAN “POTTAGE” (spoken with a French accent to sound more sophisticated!) (Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a side dish)

1 onion chopped finely
1 clove garlic chopped finely
1 tablespoon olive oil
70g peas (fresh or frozen)
50g broad beans (fresh or frozen)
150g pearl barley
Water or veg stock
Grated parmesan (optional)

Fry the onion in olive oil over a moderate heat until translucent, and then add the garlic and cook for another minute or so.
Add the barley, stir around to cover in oil and then – as if you were cooking a risotto – begin adding the water or stock a ladleful at a time.  Keep stirring the “pottage”, adding more liquid as necessary.
Boil the peas and broad beans for about 5 minutes in boiling water; drain and plunge into cold water to stop them continuing to cook.
After the barley has been cooking for about 20-25 minutes it should be approaching completion: it needs to be soft with a bit of bite.  Add the cooked peas and broad beans to the barley to warm through and finish cooking.  Season the barley mixture to taste – it will probably need a fair amount of salt – and, if you wish, add some grated parmesan to taste.


  1. Oo, that looks delicious!

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