First up on the menu was the tasting, which included three different types of alcoholic beverage that were common during the Elizabethan era: mead, gruet, and small beer.
“You simply couldn’t risk drinking water,” said Chris Gill, an affable, bearded young man who was serving the samples in small tasting glasses. “So most people drank some form of ale, even the children, as the process to turn water into ale helped to make it more potable.”
A senior in HFT, Gill took a brewing class on a whim last spring and within a year turned his hobby into a passion, eventually working at the Biscayne Bay Brewing Company as an up-and-coming professional mead maker. The light golden mead, which is brewed from honey, was remarkably delicate and crisp. If ales had personas, this would be beer’s coquettish little sister, with just a hint of sweetness behind its playful sparkle. Its refined smoothness showed why this brew was reserved for the nobility of the time.
The spicy gruit, brewed with a combination of herbs and spices such as rosemary, myrtle and heather rather than the hops traditionally used for ales, was mostly served in the taverns of the time. The small beer was brewed to contain very little alcohol, mainly as a means to purify water. It was the drink of choice for servants, commoners and children, although Queen Elizabeth I herself was known to enjoy the beverage. All three beverages, brewed on campus based on research done by the HFT students themselves, were smooth and flavorful.
The tasting continued during a series of brief lectures centering on the Elizabethan age from a culinary perspective. After Gill spoke, HFT Professor Nancy Scanlon gave a spirited talk on the Elizabethan kitchen, accompanied by a slide show of manors and castles where these beverages and other delicacies, like venison or lampreys with hot sauce, were created to feed the appetites of the upper class in banquet halls. English Professor Vernon Dickson presented an intriguing look at the attitudes and beliefs surrounding food during that era, and how these concepts influenced the representation of food in works of the time, including Shakespeare’s writings.
The sweet ending to the afternoon’s feast of events was a reading of Shakespeare-inspired works, emceed by Professor Lynne Barrett of FIU’s Creative Writing program. Creative Writing Professors Denise Duhamel and Julie Wade started things off with a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 which begins, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” followed by a refreshing remake in today’s vernacular. Then graduate and undergraduate students as well as alumni of the MFA program including poets Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and Nicholas Vagnoni, and novelist Neil Plakcy, presented contemporary takes on Shakespeare in poetry, fiction, and prose. For me, the highlight of the reading was "On Quoting Shakespeare," by Bernard Levin, read Professor Dickson, which featured a litany of sayings and phrases that Shakespeare used and popularized which are part of our language to this day.
All in all, the afternoon was at once culturally satisfying and left attendees hungry to discover even more about Shakespeare and his era. As any chef, or brewer, worth his salt will tell you, whether it’s a creation of the culinary or cultural kind, that is the true recipe for success.