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Anglo-Saxons and Vikings


With the collapse of Roman administration in Britain, the way was open for the arrival on these shores of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.  These arrivals would eventually create the early kingdoms that eventually would become Anglo-Saxon England.  The picture, however, was complicated by the arrival of Danes and Norwegians (the Vikings if you prefer) who settled and carved out for themselves the "Danelaw".

The history of food in Britain during this period is very scant.  Sandwiched between the influence of the Romans and “The Forme of Cury”, the first cookbook dated to the reign King Richard II (r. AD 1377 - 1399), it is not unreasonable to infer that food and drink was influenced by the former, while also influencing the latter.  Much of what follows must therefore remain conjecture, albeit based on archaeological evidence and what was most likely farmed, cultivated, gathered and eaten between the late 5th century and the 11th century AD.

Bread  Grains such as wheat, rye, oats and barley were clearly cultivated.  Wheat and rye were typically used for making bread, barley for brewing, and oats was made into a porridge or as animal fodder.  Bread, a staple part of the diet of rich and poor, was either baked in a clay oven or cooked on a griddle as flat-bread (or oatcakes).  While grain may have been ground at a water mill, most families would more likely produce flour at home using a hand quern.  Freshly ground flour, especially from recently harvested grain, contains enough natural yeast to produce a sourdough mix and thus leavened bread.

Fruit and Vegetables  Archaeological evidence reveals that many fruits were eaten.  Seeds from crab apples, plums, cherries and sloes, for example, have been recovered from excavations.  A large deposit of apple pips, from a pit in Gloucester, may point to cider making.  If so, and if made using native, tart-tasting, crab apples, the resulting cider was probably sweetened with honey; sugar was virtually unknown in northern Europe at the time.  Indeed, if sugar was used at all, then it was for medicinal purposes; as a laxative or alleviate bladder, kidney or eye disorders.

Onions, leeks, legumes, such as peas and beans, a wild variety of cabbage, and pulses were all cultivated.  Wild garlic, parsnips, and their close kin, the tap root we call the “carrot”, are all native to Britain.  All are thought to have been used for centuries and thus it is highly likely that they continued in the diet of the period, as would any of the various “wild” plants, tubers and roots, such as sorrel, burdock and rape, that could be gathered.

Herbs & Spices  The flavours of dishes would have been improved with the use of natural salt, native herbs or, if sufficiently wealthy, imported spices.  Home grown herbs would have included coriander, dill, thyme, opium poppy and summer savoury.  Among the imported spices may have been ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace and pepper.

Fish  Archaeological excavations routinely find fish bones which provides evidence for the variety of fish eaten.  We can be reasonably confident that salmon, eel and brown trout, as well as some less popular fish today such as pike, perch and roach, were fished from the rivers.  The sea provided a diet of herring, flounder, whiting, plaice, cod and shellfish, especially oysters, mussels and cockles.  Most likely eaten fresh, fish could be preserved by salting, pickling, smoking and drying for less plentiful times of year.  The ancient method of spear-fishing continued, but freshwater fish were mostly caught in nets or in wicker traps.  As today, large sea fish were caught in nets floating below the surface, or with hooks and lines.  Whales and dolphins were also hunted for their meat, as well as other useful by-products such as whalebone, oil and fat.

Meat  Meat was mostly derived from animals with more than one use.  Sheep were kept for their wool and meat, for example, goats for their milk and meat, and cows for their milk, sinews and hides.  As in earlier times, milk would have been used to make butter and cheese.  Only pigs, who produce large litters that quickly mature ready for slaughter, were raised purely for their meat.  That said, nothing was wasted.  Cow horn was particularly useful as fastenings, drinking vessels, combs, and for many other uses.  Likewise, animal bones were used for belt ends, needles, knife handles, pins for hair and clothing.  Even each animal’s fat was reserved for use in cooking, to make tallow lamps, or for use as a waterproofing agent.

Hens provided eggs but once they stop laying, they would join cockerels as meat for the pot.  Various wild birds were also eaten, including ducks, plover, grouse, herons and geese.  The eggs of such birds would also have been gathered as food.  Hunting could also supplement the diet with hares, deer and wild boar.

Although Neolithic people hunted horses for food, the later taboo on eating horse meat has largely persisted.  Since domestication it seems horses have been more valued for riding and as beasts of burden.  In Anglo-Saxon England laws were passed to prevent the consuming of horse meat although, just as today, in time of famine, almost anything is game.

Drink  Fermenting honey with water made a sweet-tasting alcoholic drink called “mead” (from Old English (O.E.) meodu), which was typically flavoured with herbs such as meadowsweet (O.E. meduwyrt, “mead plant”).  Modern mead recipes may be too refined compared to that encountered in the Mead Hall, and it may be that the “mead” drunk in the period was more like honey beer or honey wine.  Regardless, mead has a long history.  In Europe it is first encountered in residual samples present in pottery vessels of the Bell Beaker Culture (c. 2,800 to 1,800 BC).  Much later the ancient Greeks drank mead, it being discussed in Aristotle’s treatise Meteorology (Greek: Μετεωρολογικά; Latin: Meteorologica or Meteora).  Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) referred to mead as militites in his “Natural History” (Naturalis Historia, XIV. XII:85).  Significantly, he differentiated wine sweetened with honey, or "honey-wine", from mead.  The Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica (“On Agriculture”), about AD 60.

Barley was used to make beer which may have been flavoured with hops; whether wild or cultivated is not known.  Wine was drunk, but this was generally imported.  Home grown fruit wines may have been produced as there are written references to “apple-wine”, although this may have been a form of cider.

Cooking  Tastes Of History’s cookery demonstrations re-imagine the recipes and dishes that may have been eaten by Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.  We are confident that most meals took the form of stews, soups or pottages, cooked in a cauldron over the house’s central hearth, using fresh seasonal vegetables, or those preserved by drying or pickling.  We also use other cooking methods, typical of the period, that include grilling, frying in a pan or on a griddle, baking in a clay or turf oven, baked in the embers of a fire while wrapped in leaves or clay, or spit roasting on large rotary spits or smaller skewers.  By and large, however, “one-pot” cooking predominates as it was an economic way of providing nutritious meals.

Most people, especially the poor, were “vegetarian” by necessity not choice.  It is a recurring theme throughout history that meat has been very expensive, until more recent times.  This meant ordinary Anglo-Saxons and Vikings simply had less meat in their diet compared to today.  As a valuable source of protein and energy, everyone would have eaten as much meat as they could afford.  The wealthier a person, the more often meat would figure in their diet.

Meat would have been more plentiful in summer and autumn when game was more readily available.  In late autumn/early winter surplus domestic animals were killed to provide fresh meat and save on winter fodder.  Such meat was preserved by curing with salt or by smoking.  When the animals, especially pigs, were killed, their blood would have been collected to make a form of blood pudding.  There are many recipes for blood puddings or sausages from across Europe.  Most involve stirring the fresh blood to stop it congealing as it cools before adding flour and herbs.  The result is usually made into sausages that can be eaten by itself, like black pudding, or added to stews.