Feasting and Fasting: The Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral

A new exhibition in Open Treasure, Durham Cathedral’s multi award-winning museum experience, examines the role that food and drink played in the life of the cathedral and its inhabitants through the centuries. Focused on the famous Great Kitchen, the exhibition explores everything from medieval monastic rules on fasting to the kitchen’s present day role as home of the treasures of St Cuthbert as part of Open Treasure.

The innovative architecture of the Great Kitchen, designed by John Lewyn.

Designed by architect John Lewyn, and built to provide daily meals for a community of 60 monks and their guests, construction of a large kitchen began in 1366 at the substantial cost of £180 17s 7d (more than £120,000 in today’s money). Featuring an innovative vaulted ceiling, the Prior’s Kitchen (now known as the Great Kitchen) provided the monks with an array of dishes prepared according to the 6th century ‘Rule of St Benedict’.
Stating that meals should consist of “two kinds of cooked food”, the rule called upon monks to abstain from eating meat unless they were ill, and encouraged abstinence from drink despite allowing “half a bottle of wine a day” as sufficient for each monk.

A copy of ‘The Rule of St Benedict’, a set of rules governing monastic life in the 14 century.

Despite this, the medieval Cathedral spent almost half of its yearly expenditure on food and wine. A striking example of the vast quantities eaten by the monks is shown in records from the year 1474-75, which note that they consumed 56,000 red herring, 633 sheep, 359 piglets, 175 lambs, 60 gallons of oil, 30 gallons of honey and 171kg of fat. Wine too was in copious supply, with records showing that between 1464 and 1520, an average of 1,965 gallons of wine was purchased each year at a cost of £48. This suggests the monks were drinking an average of 1-4 pints each, per day!

A 1446 Cellar Roll detailing just some of the Cathedral’s food consumption.

Although a large staff manned the kitchen on a daily basis (including dedicated ‘seethers’ to boil food, a ‘turnbroach’ to work the spit, and a ‘pastillator’ to prepare pastry), visiting royalty and noblemen would also bring their own cooks with them to prepare the immense feasts the cathedral was known for. Over the years the kitchen would play host to the cooks of the Earls of Northumberland, Warwick and Westmorland, the Duke of Exeter, the Archbishop of York and the Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. Catering both everyday meals and lavish banquets, the bustling kitchen saw a tremendous variety of dishes being prepared, with Cathedral records showing over 1000 suppliers providing an array of foodstuffs including sugar, ginger, saffron, currants, almonds, plums and grapes. Excavations of the kitchen in 2011 also revealed evidence of cattle, sheep, pig, goose and chicken bones; along with 21 different species of fish; oyster, cockle and mussel shells; as well as some more unusual examples including a frog and even a porpoise!

Fish bones and oyster shells excavated on site, demonstrating the kinds of food enjoyed by the monks.

The porpoise was likely used in a recipe similar to the one in the 14th century cookbook ‘The forme of cury’ (‘cury’ is a medieval word for ‘cookery’), which called for it to be poached in wheat milk. Other recipes included how to make a fake hedgehog (a pig stomach filled with spiced pork and decorated with almonds), and how to create edible plant pots.

A copy of ‘The forme of cury’, a 14th century cookbook.

Other recipes for dishes served at the Cathedral over the centuries can be found in ‘The Art of Cookery’ written by John Thacker, who was cook to the Dean and Chapter between 1739 and 1758. To supplement his £10 annual income, he opened a cookery school in 1745 and began publishing recipes as a monthly magazine in 1746, with a complete book following in 1758. Containing over 650 recipes and drawings on how to present the dishes, Thacker’s cookbook includes many recipes you could easily recreate at home, including beef steak pie, chocolate cream, almond cakes, and ‘Queen’s Biscuits’.

A 1758 edition of ‘The Art of Cookery’ by John Thacker, showing the elaborate presentation recommended for a rabbit pie.

The Great Kitchen continued to function as a working kitchen up until the 1940s when practicality saw the preparation of food moved closer to the Deanery. Used to house the cathedral archive between 1951 and 1992, the kitchen was converted into the cathedral’s bookshop in 1997 and adapted again when work on Open Treasure began in 2012. Although the Great Kitchen may no longer play a central role in feeding the Cathedral’s community, even today the tradition of cookery remains important at the Cathedral, with the Durham Cathedral Choir Association publishing their own recipe book called ‘Choristers! The Cookbook’ in 2012. Inviting submissions from staff and the families of past and present choristers, recipes include Greek Sticky Ribs and Moroccan Lamb Tagine, as well as contributions from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (formerly Bishop of Durham).

2012 edition of ‘Choristers! The Cookbook’ featuring recipes by the Durham Cathedral Choir Association and others connected with the Chorister School and Cathedral.

With centuries of food history and even more delicious tidbits to whet your appetite, be sure to come and visit Open Treasure’s ‘Feasting and Fasting: The Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral’ before it closes on Saturday 1 June 2019.

Tickets to Open Treasure cost £2.50-£7.50 with family tickets available and a 50% discount for National Art Pass holders. Tickets available at the Cathedral Visitor Desk on arrival or online at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure

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