- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

All the world’s a stage in summer as hundreds of Shakespeare festivals spring up across the country, from small companies playing to an audience of a few dozen to huge festivals catering to 50,000 folks a season.

Most performances are outdoors, many are free, and some are set in jaw-dropping gorgeous settings.

Outdoor theater like this just begs for a pre-show picnic, either modern or Shakespeare-era style, which festival directors encourage.

“I have always associated performing Shakespeare with eating outside,” said Tina Packer, founder and artistic director for Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. “We love people to bring their picnics, light candles, open champagne, nibble delicious chicken and salads, pates and smoked fish, baba ghanouj and hummus. And I especially love it when they invite me to join them.”

“Seeing Shakespeare is all about eating … especially for my kids,” said Jeanne Barrett, a regular at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. “During one performance, a nymph character wrestled with my son, Jimmy, for his bag of Doritos. My son won.”

Bonnie Monte, artistic director for that company and herself an avid picnicker, has observed all manner of picnics. “People come with their picnic chairs and everything from amazing gourmet meals, including mini fondue pots, to folks making a feast out of big bags of Ruffles,” she said.

Part of the charm lies in experiencing art outdoors. “What makes a theater like ours so unique and so popular is the natural setting that allows for picnicking or eating food from our restaurant. People can gather up to two hours before a performance to enjoy a meal and are encouraged to bring wine into the theater,” said Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, near Berkeley.

Without too much “toil and trouble,” a picnic can be assembled from ready-made deli sandwiches with side salads or supermarket hummus and assorted cheeses, fruit and crackers. If you’re feeling really adventurous you can cook. Heck, you can even go over the top and prepare a picnic like Shakespeare and his pals might have eaten before a show.

Small savory pies were a common pre-theater nibble that folks back in the 1500s bought from street vendors outside theaters.

There were savory meat and dried fruit pies, fish pies, and even veggie pies. Vendors also sold fried oysters cheap in those days, and they were widely consumed. As proof, a huge mound of shucked shells was discovered at the excavated site of an old Elizabethan theater in London.

The water wasn’t particularly good in those days, so even children washed down food with beer that street vendors sold by the cup — a communal cup, since they didn’t know about germs back then.

Sugar was too expensive for common theatergoers, so dessert was usually nuts and maybe an apple. For the rich, dessert might include candied orange and lemon peels, apple pies and sugar-coated fennel seeds.

In researching my cookbook “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” (Random House), I uncovered delicious meat pie recipes written in the 1500s.

Using ready-made puff pastry sheets (available in supermarket freezer sections) you can create a stack of delectable Elizabethan mini-pies in less than 30 minutes.

While you’re at the freezer case, pick up a ready-made pie crust so that you can make another popular dish from Shakespeare’s day: Herb tart, similar to a quiche.

Back then, the word “herb” meant any edible leafy vegetable, including vegetable tops and salad lettuces, as well as herbs. Saute your favorite summer greens, toss with cheese and egg, and bake.

Another common picnic dish was dried fruit paste, sort of grown-up jam, that was eaten with bread and cheese. I discovered a delicious dried plum with wine recipe published in Italy in 1570. Dried plums are prunes, but don’t turn up your nose.

This recipe is wonderful. Simmer the dried plums for a few minutes in wine until nice and spreadable. It’s wonderful with chunks of cheddar cheese. When you’re not on a picnic, try this dried plum paste as a sauce for pasta. Just toss a few tablespoons with cooked, buttered pasta for an unforgettable and delicious first course.

Here are some facts to consider while munching on savory meat pies and other Elizabethan delicacies:

• Shakespeare never drank a drop of tea. That traditional English beverage didn’t arrive in England until the 1660s, 50 years after the Bard’s death. He never tasted coffee, either. That also came later.

• Shakespeare never ate corn, tomatoes, chilies, sunflower seeds, white potatoes, vanilla or chocolate. Fussy eater? No. These foods were all from the New World and made their way onto English tables only after Shakespeare’s time.

• “Four and 20 blackbirds” were really baked in a pie in Shakespeare’s time. For amusement at special feasts, live birds were placed in pre-baked crusts and would fly out when unsuspecting guests cut into the pie. For variety, a chef might substitute live frogs or snakes.

• The expression “drink a toast” comes from Medieval times when pieces of toasted bread were added to wine for flavor.

• Artichokes, asparagus, wine, prunes and sweet potatoes were considered aphrodisiacs in the 1500s. So be prepared.

Why not pack some steamed asparagus and artichoke hearts with a side of vinaigrette in your picnic basket.

The following recipes were adapted from “Shakespeare’s Kitchen.”

Savory meat pies

8 ounces cooked and drained ground pork or beef

2 tablespoons currants

2 tablespoons pine nuts

6 dates, pitted and finely chopped

3 prunes, pitted and finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice

½ teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 box frozen puff pastry, thawed

1 large egg, beaten

Place cooked ground meat, currants, pine nuts, dates, prunes, nutmeg, brown sugar, orange liqueur or orange juice, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Roll out puff pastry 1/8-inch thick on a floured work surface. Using a 2½-inch round cookie cutter, press out about 30 dough circles. Place 1 tablespoon of meat mixture on each circle, fold in half and pinch the edges to seal.

Brush tops with beaten egg and place on a nonstick baking sheet. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes about 30 minipies.

Dried plums with wine

1 cup red wine

2 tablespoons sugar

6 ounces pitted dried plums (prunes)

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the wine, sugar, dried plums, ginger root and cinnamon stick in a saucepan. Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened.

Remove cinnamon stick and mash plums with a fork. Stir in olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Herb tart

1 commercially made (9- or 10-inch) pie crust

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pound assorted baby greens, such as beet leaves, spinach, endive and romaine, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped assorted herbs such as parsley, mint, thyme and basil

1 cup grated semisoft cheese such as Taleggio or port salute

1 large egg, beaten

½ cup currants

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bake empty pie crust for 5 minutes in preheated 375-degree oven. Remove from oven and set aside.

Place onion and olive oil in a large saute pan and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Raise heat to high, add greens and herbs and cook for 1 minute, or until just wilted. Remove pan from heat, add cheese, egg, currants and sugar and mix well.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Makes 6 servings.

Besides “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” Francine Segan is the author of “The Philosopher’s Kitchen” and “Movie Menus.”

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