Cooking in Anglo-Saxon England
People Who Cook
Cooking in Anglo-Saxon England was not merely the task of housewives, nor was it a purely private activity.
Peasants usually cooked for themselves, instead of hiring specialist cooks. Cooking methods were limited because other work demanded a lot of people's time. Stewing, for instance, might have been preferred for the minimal attention it required. Aside from the actual cooking, household members were required to perform other food preparations like grinding grains into flour. This was particularly true in poorer families, as they could not afford sending their grains to the miller. Such a task would have been shared by anyone capable of using the quern, men and women alike.
Monks took turns performing kitchen responsibilities in the monasteries, although some occasions did call for help from outside cooks.
And there were professional cooks. Records show that there were people who owned or rented properties to set up cookshops, some of which catered to the needs of pilgrims. Others belonged to establishments such as a royal court. The wealthy and powerful showed off their status by giving great feasts. Skillful cooks could produce specialty dishes with admirable taste and sight, which would have impressed the honored guests.
The Anglo-Saxons made use of whatever foodstuffs they could find. They grew grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye, and had access to vegetables such as peas, beans, carrots, wild cabbages and wild parsnips. The quality of these edible plants, however, was very different from their present-day counterparts. Besides being smaller in size and inferior in taste, these food plants often grew with poisonous weeds that could make their consumers ill.
People ate a variety of fruits including small apples, peaches, cherries, pears, several types of berries, etc. Also important were walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts, and almonds. Fruits and flowers were used to decorate and season dishes, while almond could be made into almond milk, an important substitute for animal milk during fasting days.
Meats constituted a major part of the Anglo-Saxon diet. Whereas the rich could afford a constant supply of meats, and even select choicer, tenderer cuts, the poor could only use small quantities of meat to give their food flavoring. All classes seemed to share a taste for meat, though, and would eat as much as they could afford to. Animals butchered included pigs, sheep, goats, oxen and cows, as well as chicken, geese, ducks, and other available wild games in the vicinity. Animal by-products such as milk, fat, and eggs were also important. Cheese, butter, and other dairy products were already common foods.
Fish and shellfish were widely consumed, perhaps even more so than today. Edible species resided in salt water, fresh water, or either environment. Fish was a major substitute for meat during fasting days, although there were so many days of fasting in a year that people could get bored of the fish diet. This is when a skilled cook had to creatively employ different cooking methods and produce a variety of sauces. Species such as dolphins, which are no longer a part of the modern diet, appeared on the Anglo-Saxon menu too.
Local herbs and spices like garlic, wild onion and thyme added taste to the cuisine, but for the most part, spices were rare in the Anglo-Saxon world, usually only available to the rich. The only sweetener available to all was honey, and this was consumed in large quantities. Sugar was prestigious and believed to have medicinal powers, as did cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and other exotic spices. These ingredients, therefore, were served as delicacies at great feasts, and prescribed to the sick as medication.
The Anglo-Saxons cooking methods did not always require utensils. One could wrap food in leaves and clay, and cook it in the embers of a fire. Spit roasting over an open fire was expensive because it required metal instrument, large quantity of meat, as well as a long time to cook. Other applications of direct heat included roasting, grilling, and toasting.
Bread was a constant of the daily diet, and they were made in large ovens-either earth ovens or hot-air ovens. These ovens could also be used for meat or other foods that needed a long time to cook.
The household hearth usually served as both a heating and cooking device, in order to conserve fuel. Pots, griddles or frying pans were sustained over or suspended above the fire. Sometimes the set is moved outside, weather permitting, to keep the house cool and smoke-free. Boiling and stewing were the most economical cooking methods-they required little attention or time, and wasted little material. Meat stews, soups, broths and pottages were all familiar dishes on the Anglo-Saxon dining table.
For Further Reading
Hagen, Ann. A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption. Pinner, Eng.: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1992.
Hagen, Ann. A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink: Production and Distribution. Hockwold cum Wilton, Eng.: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995.
Hammond, Peter W. Food and Feast in Medieval England. Phoenix Mill, Eng.: Alan Sutton, 1993.
Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Eng.: Boydell Press, 1995.
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain: from the Stone Age to Recent Times. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
Anglorum. 2 Feb. 2000. Regia Anglorum Publications. 12 Oct. 2000