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Traditional British Foods

(Presented by Peter Bradford at The Community Health Foundation in London  c 1979)

Purpose of Study
1. Encourage self reliance on local foods.
2. To build up resource of traditional survival skills.
3. Appreciation of environmental influences on diet s lifestyle.

1. The Kitchen Garden, a historical guide to traditional crops by David C Stuart, Robert Hale Ltd, London '1984
2. Medieval English Gardens by Teresa Maclean, Barrie & Jenkins
London, l989
3. Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, Macdonald, London 1954
4. Food and Drink in Britain by C Anne Wilson, Penguin 1986.


Old Recipes can paint a misleading picture of the past.
My view is that recipes were generally only recorded by the well-to-do and then only of their special meals and dishes. For example, seeing Tudor and Elizabethan recipes that use imported spices and sugar can easily make us believe that those foods were commonly used by society at that time. Whereas, in fact, their use was probably in fact restricted to a very small proportion of the population.

I have found that historical gardening and farming records can give a far more accurate view of our traditional foods and diet than cookery books can. After all, what people traditionally grew and in the relative amounts (so precisely recorded in many instances) must be what they actually ate !

Four basis fuels have been used,varying according to the resources of a region.

WOOD especially Southern & Central England.
It takes I acre of wood to heat one person. Ash is optimum wood, dense and hard, tholding a lot of heat. Oak, Elm etc also good. Birch and Poplar: too soft (OK for matches). Pines, too sappy.

When burned upright - fast t hot.
When burned flat - slow and steady.

standard over large tracts of Britain. esp. SW, W and N.
Slow, gentle heat. Peat fires rarely go out.
Earthenware and heavy iron pots do well on peat.

Reeds, Furze etc.
Fast burning, Roasting not possible. (As in Norfolk).

Actually used since ancient times. Open cast mining where seams came to the
surface, Deep mining came much later, spurred on by tree clearing and poor management of woodlands.  Coal led to the development of built-in boilers in cookers, and vertical roasting (not horizontal) spits (as with wood). Coal fires, unlike wood, need strong updrafts.


lron Cauldron was a complete cooker and hot water system combined.
One pot cooking. Separate earthenware pots and boiling bags (of oats or beans) inside. Cauldron offered stewing, fast or slow boiling, steaming, casserole style cooking all in one.

Originally on flat hearthstones, e.g. Oatcakes
Earliest ovens were inverted earthenware or Cast Iron cauldrons inverted over a hearthstone, surrounded by logs, or covered by burning peat.
Separate enclosed ovens came later.

The SPIT enabled grilling and roasting a wide range of foods. Not only Meats, Poultry and Fish, also fruits, vegetables and breads could be threaded onto the spit. e.g. cored apples with sweet batter poured gently on as they turned. Cooked until firm and brown on outside.

Were very common preparations and methods of preserving food that simply
tapped into an existing resource, a hot smoky chimney!
Peat smoking gave special flavour and quality to food.
Simple smoking was also carried out in oak barrels with the bung hole allowing the smoke to escape.
Women were never allowed to carry out salting during their periods.
Animals were killed for curing and storing when moon is in the wane (light feeders would have more weight after the full moon.)
Salting and Smoking together - Salt preserves, Smoke adds flavour. Smoking and Salting are characteristic of damp climates. (Northern and Western Europe).
Drying (and Salting) characteristic of dry sunny climates. (Mediterranean etc. )

Remember - No fresh produce to buy around the corner each day as in towns. Also no Fridges. Freezers. Problem of how to store the years harvest.
Most modern storage techniques had a traditional antecedent.

CANNlNG, BOTTLlNG etc. - Glass bottle stoppered with waxed cork and sterilised  in the bread oven.

PLASTIC JAR COVERS - Food boiled in jar and covered with waxed cloth. Cooling pulled in cloth and depression was filled with melted wax. (Later recycled)

THERMOS  Wooden hoggin used for keeping drinks cool for fieldworkers
the summer, or hot for shepherds or fishermen during winter nights.

NET STORACE - suspended from ceiling for Onions, Pumpkins, Citrus Fruits or
any food that needed to “breathe”'.

ATTIC STORACE - for dried and smokecl fish, or buried in keg of sawdust.

FRIDGE - Slate slab (several inches tlrickJ set in dense wall on tl side house
FREEZER - large wealthy homes had an ice house, built deep underground in a permanently shaded area. ice only available in deep winter, straw covered.

BUGS IN CEREALS - periodically stored grains spread out in cooling bread
oven to “de-bug” them.

Traditionally, a far simpler range of Grain, Bean, Vegetable & Fruit types - but far greater variety of each type.
Our image of the past can easily be one of a severe lack of variety of food. However, consider these points -
l. If you don't know of any wider choice, you don't miss it.
2. Actually far greater variety within the limited range than nowadays.

There were up to 80 apple varieties by C17th, then serious plant breeding began, so there were several hundred by early C19th. This probably gave people a far richer selection than we have today with our standardised exotic imports.
Although tropical and mediterranean herbs and spices were generally unavailable to the average person in middle ages, (e.g, no pepper yet),
Tusser (C16th) notes there were 42 native herbs available for culinary use, in addition to over 300 medicinals )

Farming and gardening records show that cereals took up most acreage,
Followed not far behind by large amounts of peas and beans. Several varieties of each
Vegetables centred mainly around the Onion Family and the Cabbage Family.
Apples were nrain fruits, also pears, Walnuts and Hazels as other tree fruits and nuts
Ales were main drinks - many kinds and of many varying strengths.
Livestock were normally restricted to more marginal land. (except sheep).

Remember, there were no Nightshades -Potatoes, Tomatoes, Aubergines, Peppers- until C16th-18th. No Tea or Coffee until C18th-19th, No Sugar and Spices widely available until Cl8th-19th. No Maize, Rice and Millet common until C17th-18th.
This was standard for the whole of Europe.
It may seem hard to imagine Italian or Greek cuisine without Tomatoes, Aubergines, Peppers and Coffee !
Fish and Chips was a late Cl9th invention, the idea of fried fish came from France, and the Chips from Belgium.

Let's look at each food group in closer detail.


Originally Emmer and Einkorn (types of primitive wheat) Also both Hulled and Naked Barleys.

Rye and Oats arrived as seeds of cultivation in pre-Roman Iron Age.

Right up until C19th mixed grains crops were very common:
Maslin (wheat and rye)
Dredge Corn - (Barley and Oats)

Right up until the Industrial Revolution Barley was the predominant grain.
It had the widest range of uses -
1. Malting for Ale.
2. Grinding and Baking for Breads
3. Cooking whole or ground for Pottage.

Next most widely used was Oats - good for both humans and livestock.
Each of the 4 cereal grains found their ideal home.
Wheat - likes rich heavy lowland soils - the best soils - only for wealthy!
Barley - versatile, can survive in poor upland soils.
Oats - versatile, loves poor soils in damp N and W.
Rye - likes sandy dry soils of East.

Two basic traditional ways of using grains:
1. Grinding and baking on hearthstone or in oven.
2. Pot Boiling - Pottage (Porridge), whole or ground, maybe soaked first.

Originally mixed grains (and some “weed” seed) coarsely ground.
Flat batked on Hearthstone.
Barley Bannocks, Oaty Hearthcakes (Oatcakes)
These were not necessarily thin -”as broad as from elbow to wrist, and so thick as not to bend when held by the edges.”
ln poor harvest years, peas and beans would be added to breads.
Maslin bread common.
Bread (presumably stale) often used in Soups and in Ales.

Originally one pot cooking based around cereal grain.
Grain + Fish/Meat + wild Seeds (in the grain) + Seaweed.

Variations -
l. + Fats t Oils to make richer. From Fish/Meat or Linseed (flax), Wild Cabbage seed, Rape seed, Bindweed, Goosefoot, Knotgrass seeds.
'2. + Creens - seasonal t wild - Nettles, Plantains, Docks, etc.
3. + Aromatic Herbs - wild Garlic, Leeks. Onions, Chives.

Fruits and nuts in season.

Pot Barley - Pottage Barley.
Barley Water - nourishing water from roasted, soaked, cooked barley. Favoured for invalids. Can have licorice, herbs and raisins added.
Frumenty - soaked and cooked wheat or barley with dried fruit (& eggs,spice)
Can ber “sugared and spiced” and contain eggs. Served thick or thin.
Oatmeal Gruel (Crowdie in Scotland) - + optional shredded onions or leeks.
Flummery - (Wash Brew in the West) fine oatmeal steeped in water for a long time, strained, boiled and left to stand to set (like blancmange). Often made with “the leavings”- husks.
Brose - oatmeal broth, sometimes fine oatmeal simply put in leather hoggin
and carried by shepherds. Warmth and bacteria fermented and aerated the porridge.

Traditionally consumed in quantity and grown in rotation with cereal grains
in the field. Not lust a garden crop. All meals included peas or beans, as
a staple starch, much like potatoes today.
Almost entirely dried and used as staple starch, rather than as fresh green
vegetable (a quite recent practice). 3 types - Green Peas, White Peas, and
Grey Peas.
Pease Pottage - fundamental to life. Often oatmeal thickened t with leeks.

Celtic Bean (Faba vulgaris) small, almost like a pea is our native bean.
Larger versions, culminating in the Broad Bean, have evolved over centuries.
English Medieval Bean Pottage travelled across the Atlantic and became
Boston Baked Beans.
Bacon and Bean stews are classic, as is Bean and Onion Pottage.
Some records of Chickpeas and Lentils having been grown in a small experimental way, although the Celtic Bean and its variants is really our only bean until recent imports.

2 basic families of vegetables dominate our culinary history.
Leek (Onion) family, and Cabbage Family.
Their dominance can be seen in numerous references.

In Anglo Saxon times a vegetable garden was called a “Leek-garth
A gardener was the Leek-keeper.
Leyton, Leighton etc. - common town names/ mean “leek-town”.
Advantages of Leeks -
1. Easy to grow. A relative wild leek - hence climatically suited.
2. Hardy. - frost and storm resistant.
3.Pungent Flavour. Relished as a perk to 'plain food.
Leek. was also a general word for the Onion family,
and because these were the dominant vegetables in many places,
“Leek” also became the general word for “garden vegetable”.

CAR-LEAC - Garlic
PUR-LEAC - Garden Leek (Pot Leek).
CROP -LEAC - Chives

Order of importance - LEEK (up to 6 kinds), ONlONS, CARLIC, other veg.
In.1333, the manor kitchen garden for Glastonbury Abbey grew in this order -
Beans, Leeks, Onions, Garlic, Hemp, Flax, Madder, Herbs.
Leeks were cooked with everything, to add flavour.
Standard labourers soup (probably every day) was Peas or Beans with Leeks.
PORRAY from Latin - Porrum - Leek, was thick pottage of green stuff. Leeks had other uses - juice and seed for toothpaste.
Also medicinally Leeks used for colds and fevers (lifting, releasing, energy)

Known as “CEPS", like Leeks they went into everything - soups, pottage, etc.
often with Leeks. Also used as painkiller for stings and skin as a dye.

Very popular in medieval times. The Abbots kitchen alone at Clastonbury Abbey used 2,000 cloves in l333. Almost every savoury dish included Garlic. Garlic sauce etc.

With Leeks, the other great Britsh staple vegetable.
The word Kale in Scotland used to mean “Dinner”.
“Kale Yard” was a Garden.
“Kale Yard Keeper” was the Gardener.
As with Leeks, Kale was also used as a general name for the Cabbage family. COLE was the open leafed Kale as we know it. WORTS was the other name for the Cabbage family.
This was a Pottage vegetable until Cl5th. Later individually cooked or as salad'.

Classic Pottage -
Peas or Beans
Seeds ( Barley, Linseed, Knotgrass)
Wild Herbs (Nettles, Mallows, Docks, Plantain)

Broccoli C16th, and Brussels Sprouts C19th, were later introductions.

widely grown for green leaves and seeds for Oil. (Colza, Canola)
“Neeps” of Scotland.
Traditional types were small rooted and mainly grown for their green tops.
“Pars-neeps” Large and sweet, not for pottage. A valuable dessert ,sweet'.
Cooked alone or with apples in Fritters. Swede (type of Turnip) came from
Sweden in late C18th.
The orange coloured, conical shaped Carrot is an Cl8th invention. Earlier
white or purple forms were never that important. Really a modern staple.

Mainly hedgerow crops and common garden weeds (chickweed, bittercress etc.

SMALLAGE - Wild Celery, SCARIOLE - Wild Lettuce, also Chicory, Endive, Cress
Unlike today, Lettuce was a minor crop.

Vegetables - Several garden varieties of Cabbage, Beet, Lettuce, Endive,
Carrots, Parsnips, Turnips, Radish, Cucumbers, + Grapes and Almonds.
Herbs - Dill, Fennel, Miint, Thyme, Sage, Marjoram, Parsley, Rosemary.
Seasonings - Mustard, Pepper (white and black seed ) , Ginger.

Introduction and acceptance in several cases took until mid C19th
All nightshades - Potatoes, Tomatoes, Aubergines, Peppers.
Pumpkins, Sunflowers, Kidney Beans, Maize Corn, Watercress ( ? )

Considerably fewer vegetables in N and W. Scotland mostly Kales, Wales – Leeks.

Less prejudice than today in serving and mixing vegetables with fruits.
Apple/Onion Pie.
Leek / Apple
Celery/ Apple
Parsnips mainly used for dessert with spice.
Apples and Nuts as savoury - Sour apples, Walnut pickles etc.
Main sweetener was Honey and fermenting of grains.
Honey used to dampen the sharpness of Vinegar.
Sugar, although imported since early times was never fully available to people (too expensive) until C19th. Even then used moderately.
Vine-gar, Apple-gar,and Ale-gar important since early times as preservative.
Could be mild or strong varieties.
VERJUICE  - was early medieval invention using the grapes that never ripened in our cold, damp climate and fermenting them to a sharp taste. Crab apples could also be used. A widely used, mild, sour seasoning (Lemons were never widely available until C19thJ. Added to pottages, pickles, .jams, sauces, salads, and just about any dish that needed a sharp taste or preserving. on the introduction of citrus imports virtually disappeared from use.
Worthy of resurrection ?


Have always been the main fruit. - see old place names: Appleby, Avalon
Up to 80 varieties known by Cl7th, several hundred by C19th.
Costards (c.f. costermongers) were popular, large medieval variety.
Crab and cider apples often grown as part of vegetable garden hedge.
Not only eaten as Apple Pie and Baked Apples, they were pickled and spiced, added to pancakes and puddings, and also sauces and chutneys for fish, game and meat.

Pears, Cherries, Plums (6 related fruits-Damsons. Bullaces, Gages etc) are
traditional as are Quinces and Medlars. Mulberries only came in late Cl6th.
Apricots,'Peaches, and Figs have never been hardy enough to be widely grown.

Strawberries, Raspberries and Gooseberries have long been cultivated
Many other fruits used from wild source - blackberry, sloe, service, elderberry etc.

Two traditional types -
Large Nuts - Walnuts
Small Nuts - Hazels and Cobbs
Almonds were never reliable enough in our climate to be widely used.
Walnuts have always been valued - nuts used for pickles and sauces, also for the oil, and the timber. Leaves for insecticide.
Romans introduced high yielding Hazel cultivars to  supersede use of natives.


1. Grain is sprouted to develop enzymes.
2. Enzymes turn starch into fermentable sugars.
3. Heated to prevent further fermentation.
4. Sugars left to ferment.
Ale is straight malted drink,
Beer has added hops or other herbs.
Celtic Beer is honey sweetened.
Barley is the common fermenting grain in S, Oats in the N and W. (Oatmeal stout etc.)
Ale was the common traditional drink for everyone in Britain.
Made Strong, or Middlings, or Small Beer (weak for children and poor)
Bragot - Ale + Honey and Pepper.
Caudle - Ale + Honey and Egg.
Posset -Ale+Milk.
Herbs and Hedgerow Fruit were often added for flavour and variety.
C14th Flemish brewers brought Beer {hopped ale) to London. Hops gave pleasing bitter taste but more importantly were a preservative.
Unknown in Celtic and Saxon England. Introduced by the Romans from France.
Main areas - Welsh Border counties and South West.
Honey drink wine. Ancient origin, mainly aristocratic drink, later a celebratory
Remember these only arrived in Cl8th and were not widely used until C20th.
Traditionally people made hedgerow herb teas and roasted root coffees.
Recorded medieval mealtimes.
Breakfast - Dawn - bread and Ale
Dinner - 9am - Bread and Ale + Cheese or Fish/Meat
Supper - 4pm (5pm in summer) - Bread and vegetable pottage and Ale.
(This is the only record on country meal times I have found. It may not i)e

This meant - No meat. A typical meal would have been - pottage with Leeks, and salted eels, boiled and grilled.

This meant - full rich grain, bean and vegetable diet. Just no food from animals.

Additional references (added 2018):


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