I have recently been reading a lot about English food history. It started with an interest in the Victorian era and has developed on from there, and I have now finished my second book about English food history from medieval times to modern day. I find it truly fascinating and I am reminded time and again that nothing is new; no recipe is ever 100% original: we may revise, remodel, recreate, we may update, rediscover old recipes, forgotten ingredients and lost methods, and we apply new methods, modern appliances and ideas, but nothing is ever truly brand new. Food’s been around for too long.
I am loving making these ‘new’ discoveries and learning about our food heritage, so I’d like to share a few fascinating facts in amongst my posts and I hope you enjoy them.
For example, as you know, I love Middle Eastern cuisine and in the UK the recent boom in interest in Middle Eastern cuisine may be responsible for introducing many people to having pomegranate seeds being strewn across salads and savoury dishes, above is an example of one of my past dishes doing just that, as opposed to merely eating them as fruit or in a sweet recipe; I had no idea that we actually grew pomegranates in the UK in medieval times. Likewise, Middle Eastern fare has also introduced many people to the delights of dried barberries, like below, and again, we grew barberries in the UK in medieval times and they were used widely in recipes.
Sweet potatoes have been riding a huge wave in recent years, we’ve baked them, made them into fries and wedges, they’ve been put into cakes and breads and desserts, slices have been toasted, anything that can be done to a potato has been, but the reality is that they’re not new. The methods are new, but not the potatoes. Sweet potatoes are actually the first potatoes that we ate in the UK in the late 1500’s, (and even then they were being cooked with spices and added sugar), white potatoes were introduced soon after but their full popularity didn’t catch on until the early years of the 17th century.
Almond flour, almond paste, almond milk, almond butter – so much the remit of healthy eating these days – again, nothing new here; in medieval times all of these were used widely in cooking, not for boosting health, but for ease. Almond flour was used widely to thicken sauces or in place of breadcrumbs; almond milk was a safer bet than some dairy milk, it also kept for longer, and was sometimes more easily accessible; likewise with almond butter, instead of dairy butter during a period when storing fresh foodstuffs for any period of time was impossible.
For this post, I’d like to focus a bit more on bread…anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, or follows me on Instagram, will know that I am an avid and regular sourdough baker so the ‘rise and fall’ of bread in our food history always interests me…
Bread has featured heavily in every era of British food history, in various forms, as with most cultures and their food histories. In England in medieval times, and for several centuries following, white bread was considered king. The best loaves were considered to be white ‘manchet’ loaves and would have been readily enjoyed by the gentry and aristocracy, and aspired to by those with less means. To achieve this though, bread was often being whitened by unscrupulous bakers for centuries, adding lime, chalk and particularly alum as a bleach. And as industrial knowledge grew and milling capabilities advanced, the wheat germ was being milled out of the grain to make it even whiter, but therefore vastly reducing the breads nutritional value at a time when bread was a key staple of the nations diet.
Down the social scale, breads were often made up of a mix of wheats and grains, depending on what was available, and when their availability was limited, loaves could be boosted by pea powders. When wheat and grain harvests were very poor, whole loaves might be made from peas and beans, so whilst white bread was considered the height of sophistication, it lacked the nutrition, and I imagine flavour, that the bread that the poorer people were being given.
When you think of the rise of artisan bread makers we currently have, and the supposedly experimental breads that are being made with ancient grains, you realise again, that nothing is new. The mixed grain loaves that were considered as breads for the poor would now be considered the better choice by many – I know I’d happily choose a brown or mixed grain loaf over a straight white one. And the use of pea powders is very interesting – current interest for pea protein powders, and beans being used to bake cakes and breads seems so innovative, but they’re not. Which makes you realise just how creative cooks were all those hundreds of years ago.
What I also loved learning about, is the use of ‘trenchers’: these are basically bread plates.
Prior to the ceramic plates that we know today, our ancestors used pewter plates; before that, in Tudor times they used thin wooden boards to eat off…but before ALL of them, in Medieval times, people ate off bread trenchers. These were slices of bread cut especially to be used to eat off. Four-day-old coarse wholemeal bread was cut into 2-3 inch thick slices, about 6 inches wide, and diners placed their meat on the trencher. Alternatively, the trenchers could be hollowed out loaves, much like we sometimes see creative people using to serve soup nowadays.
In grander homes, if the trencher became saturated it was replaced with a new one and the sodden one was thrown to the dogs, or they were collected and given as alms to the poor. In poorer homes the diner ate the trencher as well as part of their meal.
Can you imagine how good that bread must have tasted with the juices of the food soaked into them?
Which is why this fascinates me in particular because in the Middle East if you eat in a Lebanese restaurant, for example, you will often be served your food choice sitting atop pieces of thin round Arabic bread. Only last week, my husband was served his chicken shish (kebab) sitting on a piece of lovely thin bread in our local Turkish restaurant. Throughout the Middle East, marinated meat dishes, lovely salads, even chips, will be served on top of a slice of khobez bread. This means that whatever juices, flavours, dressings and/or oils are on/in the food, soak down into the bread and that piece of bread ends up tasting AMAZING and often the best bit of the meal! Just like bruschetta covered in tomatoes roasted in garlic & olive oil, or a slice of sourdough with runny egg oozing into the holes….hmmmmmm….so good! Is there anything that isn’t good on a slice of bread?
I guess that’s what pizza basically is after all…
So, with this in mind, next time you serve up a salad, maybe tabbouleh, or fattoush, or some tasty marinated spiced meat kebabs or vegetables, especially if they are barbecued, lay a thin bread like khobez or open pitta bread underneath them, or, go the whole hog and ditch the ceramics completely – bring back trenchers I say and enjoy all those lovely flavours soaked into tasty bread! AND save on waste and washing up – what’s not to love?!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these little snippets and that you don’t mind me sharing more in the future 🙂
**The information in these books has been collated by historians from letters, diaries and books as well as records, inventories, orders and receipts found or kept from large, grand and royal households, and from the businesses that supplied them. Consequently, much of the information can only be traced back to medieval times, which in the U.K. denotes the period of the mid 1100’s to the late 1400’s, before we entered the reign of Elizabeth I.
EDIT: I’ve been asked by a few people what books I’ve been reading so here is my list so far…
The Art of Dining – A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams
A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright
The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray
How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
The Victorian House: Life from Childbirth to Deathbed by Judith Flanders
If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley