“On the contrary! I had two flagons of claret and a double helping of curried turtle! I can assure you: it’s no holds barred with us at the annual communion-wine tasting.”
So says Lord Melchett in an episode of Blackadder. The claret was obviously readily available, but where would you have gone to purchase the main ingredient for the curry?
I took a look through reference works for Billingsgate market, the fish market in the City of London and I could find no mention of turtles whatsoever. If you’re not aware of the history of Billingsgate I mention it in a post called Market Day. Digging a bit further I started to look through some copies of 16th & 17th century cookery books that I have and surprisingly there are several recipes that require you to “Take a turtle that is wholesome and swims well” These are mostly for boiled or roasted turtles, I don’t think curry was a thing back in Melchett’s day. So with the certainty that they were being eaten in London back in Tudor times the question is, who was purveying them?
The answer shows how enterprising some people were. The man who seems to have cornered the market in turtles didn’t have a stall at Billingsgate, or any other market for that matter and he was not even a fishmonger. It’s pretty certain that he was a pub landlord and ran the Kings Head Tavern that stood at the bottom of Poultry near to where the Bank of England stands today. Although his name cannot be verified, a good guess would have been William Bowyer who ran the tavern up until 1649.
In a work called London Topographical Records it describes the tavern, “this house enjoyed the distinction Of being the oldest tavern in London , and the principal emporium of turtle in the whole metropolis .”
In the middle of the tavern was a hexagonal shaped stone-floored courtyard and in large metal tanks of water swam scores of turtles. The courtyard was also the place where the turtles were killed and a chronicle of the time describes long rows of dead turtles laid on their backs ready for filleting. It appears that not only was this the go to place to purchase your turtle for any self respecting dinner party, it was also on the menu in the tavern and could be bought and eaten there. It would seem to have been a popular choice and many of the Worshipful Companies would hold their annual dinners there. Charles II called in on the day of the Restoration in 1660 to, “Salute the Landlady” but it doesn’t say if he indulged in the house speciality.
The pub burnt down during the Great Fire in 1666 and I can’t help thinking that when people returned after the conflagration they found that their first meal was already laid out for them; large tanks of piping hot turtle soup.