Anglo-Saxon Food and cooking
By Hlafdige Arastorm
aka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor ©2009/2010
For most of the Anglo-Saxon period no recipes were recorded (with the exception of medical formulas), instead we have to combine what we know about which foods were available, which cooking techniques were known, and cooking technologies.
The basic cooking technology was fire- over a fire, one could roast a meat on a spit, or boil grain, herbs, or vegetables with it in a pot. Hanging over the fire, or in a nice covered pot set in the embers, it could be cooked gently without much attention. (The lack of corners created by flat bottoms in many ceramic pots reduced the tendency to burn on.) The next step from this is an oven- an enclosed area heated rather than from the outside, from the inside, when it was hot, the cinders and coals swept out, and food to be cooked placed inside. Ovens were known both inside and outside the home, the inside form was a small beehive type of oven- outside they could be big enough to be shared by many families. They were made of clay or turf lined with clay, and availability depended upon the period and wealth.
Anglo-Saxons primary cooking pots were made of pottery, unglazed in the early period and glazed in the late period. Metal cauldrons- generally riveted, were signs of wealth.
The usual eating gear was made of wood (treen)- which was sometimes ornamented with gold, and silver, gold and other metal plates were used by the rich. Glassware was imported, mostly from northern Europe, an early common form was the claw beaker. Horns were also drinking vessels. Forks were known but uncommon. Ceramics were unglazed until the end of the millennium and glazing started with ornamental additions, not full glazing.
Grains: primarily wheat and barley, as well as spelt, rye, oats and possibly millet. Wheat for bread, barley for brewing ale, agricultural methods meant that most were at least partially mixed.
Vegetables (worts): most commonly eaten were coles (cabbage), beans, and onions. They had leeks, garlic, round onions, shallots, chives, and welsh leeks, kidney beans, broad beans, peas, carrots (red, black and purple), parsnips, skerrits, radishes, turnips, lettuce, cress, mustard, celery, rape, spinach, cucumbers, and artichokes. Many of the literary references that have survived are probably from the later periods, and not all of these may have been available in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Herbs used include dill, parsley, chervil, sage, mints, bay, saffron and poppy, pennyroyal, horseradish, lovage, rosemary, basil, mustard seed, thyme, sorrel, parsley, tarragon, rue, southernwood, fennel, rocket, savory, tansy, cumin, black cumin, lovage, houseleek, fenugreek, betony, agrimony, coriander, chamomile, wormwood, mugwort, white horehound, comfrey, various mushrooms, including truffles.
Fruits included many varieties of apples: crab apples, sour apples, wood apples, sweet apples, and green apples. pears, plums, cherries, peaches, quince, medlars, service tree berries, and possibly figs or dates, grapes, elderberries, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, blackberries, bilberries, myrtle and sloes.
Nuts included Hazelnuts, Walnuts were known by the 10th century, Almonds were also known- some Chestnuts.
Meat eaten included beef, pork, mutton (more common than lamb), goats, chickens, geese, ducks, and peafowl (which taste like turkey), they also hunted various wild birds. They also used milk products (from cows, sheep, and goats): butter, various cheeses (NOT cheddar), whey, buttermilk…
Wild game was hunted and fished: “Eels & pike, minnows & turbot, trout & lampreys, & whatever swims in the water. From the sea: herrings & salmon, porpoises & sturgeon, oysters & crabs, mussels, winkles, cockles, plaice & flounders & lobsters, & many similar things”. Hart & buck, wild boar, bear, as well as smaller animals like badgers & hares. Wild birds were also hunted with hawks or nets, small ones often not differentiated by name.
Honey was the only available sweetener other than fruits.
Drinks: ale, beer, mead, cider, perry, and some imported wine. Hops were known from the 10th century as a beer adititive.
Spices were imported: anise, cinnamon cloves, cubebs, cumin, coriander, cardamom, galingale, ginger, licorice, pepper and sugar.
Food that was not eaten when fresh was often preserved by drying, salting, smoking, or pickling.
The usual meal consisted of a meat and two vegetables, and sometimes dessert. In the early periods nobles were often buried with drinking supplies- drinking horns and buckets with ornate metal embellishments, glass beakers, horns and cups.
Other high status items found in graves include fire steels and tweezers, bellows, tongs, shovels, griddles, and riveted cauldrons. In the northern areas like York, they also had some imported soapstone vessels. Other cooking and eating ware was made of wood or leather, and they had metal frying pans from the 9th century.
Banham, Debby, Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England Tempus 2004
Cook, Jean M., Early Anglo-Saxon Buckets, Oxford U Monograph, 2004
Hagan, Ann, Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006
Hagan, Ann, Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption, Anglo-Saxon Books, 1998
Hagan, Ann, A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink: Production and Distribution, 1999
Kennett, David, H. Anglo-Saxon Pottery, Shire Archaeology, 1978
Magennis, Hugh, Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and Their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature, Four Courts Press 1998
Pollington, Stephen, The Mead Hall, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003
Savelli, Mary, Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2002 (don’t use this)
Scully, Terence, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages Studies in Anglo-Saxon History, Boydell, 1997
Cosman, Madeleine, Fabulous Feasts, George Braziler, 1976
Cosman, Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Scribner, 1981
Black, Maggie, The Medieval Cookbook, Thames and Hudson, 1996
Hieatt, Constance, Plyne Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks , U Toronto Press, 2006
Henisch, Ann, Fast and Feast, Penn State, 1986
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