Onions, Fish, and Barley; Anglo-Saxon Food

From the Cornell Library

It probably comes as no surprise that I have at least one Medieval cookbook.  Pleyn Delit is a personal favorite, particularly since it includes a reprinting of the original recipe, not just their version.
For a cookbook from an era before standard measurements is no small thing, since it allows the cook to interpret the recipe based on their own intuition. 

Most Medieval Cookbooks, though, Pleyn Delit included, have a tendency to focus on Norman influences, and with good reason.  The Normans had a much more diverse court, with trendy food, using lots of different sauces, and even showcasing recipes from the Moors in Spain.  There is also a greater emphasis on spices and presentation, with "subtleties", foods that were meant to look like something else, being a big-ticket item.
A King with his witan (council).

We can spend more time on those another time....If it's not as exciting, why do I have a soft spot for Anglo-Saxon food?



1) It's simplicity makes it easy for the lone cook to re-create. Even with modern technology, a late Medieval feast requires months of planning and a committed team to pull off.  I did my first Norman dinner at the age of 14, and for a family of five, it took three weeks prep, and two solid days of cooking.  Most Anglo Saxon food is so simple that with a little searching for items that aren't a regular part of the modern palate(but still sold at the average super-market), you could prepare it for a family dinner at home.


From Saebert's Folc, and Essex reenactment group.  More great pictures at their site. 



2) Anglo-Saxon food is healthy.  The British Museum Cookbook (a treasure that I regret that I do not own) paints a very clear picture of a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fish.  Honey is the primary sweetener.  While Germanic and Viking groups raise images of feasting on wild boar, drinking copious amounts of mead and ale, such behavior was a special event(not to mention wild boar being debatably healthier having lived on a foraging diet, then our modern, hay and grain fed cattle). There was also a more diverse use of grains like spelt wheat, barley and rye...all of which are easier on the digestive system for the average person of Northern European descent. 

3) Including more diversity in your life.  The average person has a set group of foods they buy in the store, that they rarely diverge from (think about what you buy in a month).  Many foods that were common to our ancestors have fallen out of favor, and often have never even been tasted by modern generations!  When was the last time you had nettles, or turnips, or rabbit?  How do you know you don't like them unless you try?

Here's a simple, tasty start, from the above British Museum Cookbook:

Griddled Trout With Herbs
Serves 6

The herbs below are what might have been used in Anglo-Saxon East
Anglia, but use whatever you might fancy. Try to use fresh, although
dried is acceptable.

6 fresh cleaned trout
6 sprigs fresh rosemary, or 1-2 tablespoons dried
75g (3 oz) soft butter
18 fresh mint leaves or 2 teaspoons dried
leaves from 6 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
6 fresh sage leaves or 1 scant teaspoon dried
1-2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
6-9 grinds black pepper

Put one sprig or generous shake of rosemary down the middle of each
fish. Chop all the other herbs and seasonings and mash them into the
soft butter. Use this to coat the fish generously on each side. Griddle,
barbeque or grill it for 4-5 minutes on each side or till the skin is
well browned and the flesh flaking off the bone. Baste now and then with
the butter which runs off. Serve at once with lot of fresh bread and a
salad or a simple green vegetable.


More basic information.
More Saxon and Viking recipes.

2 comments:

Gibson Girl Edwardian Fashion said...

Where would Saxons have gotten pepper? Isn't it from Asia?

J from GG's Kitchen said...

Good question!

The British Museum cookbook does it's homework ( It's the British Museum, for crying out loud, right?). So fewer adjustments are made for the modern pallet then with some of my medieval cookbooks. If I remember correctly, they also expressly point out that it is a rare spice(but the most common of the spices being traded), if you were to read the book in question.

At the same time, people historically had better trade routs then we give them credit for. For example, cardamom from India and silks from China were making it to the vikings, and many of the beads found in Anglo Saxon graves came from as far away as Italy.

http://www.relish.com/articles/what-is-cardamom/

http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/viking/viking-silk-cap

http://diningwithdiplomats.blogspot.com/2011/11/anglo-saxon-culinary-expressions.html

Hope that helps!

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