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Food of the British Isles, England to Henry VIII

Updated on November 27, 2016
Medieval peasant meal
Medieval peasant meal


England has always been an agricultural oasis, fertile and productive for the natives and the Romans. During the Roman period 800 ships laden with English wheat left every year to feed the Roman army in Gaul. The Romans were first to introduce many of the foods which have come to be traditional English fare. Many of the vegetables common in England today started out on Roman plates garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. Pheasants chickens and rabbits were probably introduced as farmyard animals but the Romans were surprised to see the locals fighting roosters without eating the hens. Rabbits are native but the Romans brought a Spanish breed which needed protection from an English winter.

Finally, the Romans left, their troops recalled to guard the homeland, the English were on their own, peasants and upper class alike gradually reverted to old ways. Orderly Roman farms were slowly dismembered as the population went to small family farms and subsistence living. The good times were over for a thousand years. The rich suffered the biggest decline in their standard of living while in the country side the poor Celts kept their old ways, unbroken for generations. There are lessons here for our own time; during a financial collapse it is the rich who suffer the most. Rome was gone and now the Church was in control, the Church had grown up in the Roman Empire and the priesthood were mostly an urban group. There was little interest in this earliest Church for moving to the countryside, this led to the Monasteries and the preservation of what culture was left. A time of repeated invasions befell England, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Danes and Normans all wanted a piece of the pie.Slowly, people began to reorganize into the system we know as feudalism today

Medieval Food

King William lands in England
King William lands in England

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 arguably marks the beginnings of modern England and things began to settle down. The Norman Conquest was the last successful invasion of England. This was the period of the first castles; these were Motte and Bailey castles, consisting of a wooden stockade (the bailey) on a mound (the motte).

After the Normans came the Plantagenet’s, King John and the Magna Carta. For a Christmas feast in 1206 at Winchester Castle, King John's orders to the sheriff included 1,500 chickens, 5,000 eggs, 20 oxen, 100 pigs, and 100 sheep. This is also the time of the Crusades and rare spices were coming into England. The diet of the poor remained static, gruel of boiled grain a few vegetables that they could grow and rarely a piece of meat but the landholders had access to all of the items their estates could produce. The upper classes had little use for vegetables but the appetite for meat and fish was enormous. Gluttony was a sin so the lord of the manor might eat meat for 4 days but then “fast” by eating fish for the remaining 3 days of the week to stay right with God. White bread was something of a luxury and reserved strictly for the wealthy while the poor would eat rye and other coarse grains. In the manor house meals were served on “trenchers” these were slabs of bread which took the place of our plates, a generous lord would give these trenchers, after they were used, to the poor.

Young King Henry VIII
Young King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII

Henry VIII, Jack Horner and Wassail

Henry VIII, king of England from 1509 to 1547 left us quite a legacy, England became Protestant under the English Reformation, he had six wives and he became morbidly obese; his public image is one of a lustful, egotistical, harsh and insecure king. If you celebrate Christmas, this year, offer a toast to old Henry. It was during his reign that Christmas became a period of celebration and feasting, lasting for twelve days, from Christmas Eve to Epiphany. Preparations went on for weeks beforehand, in the countryside you could see oxen dragging giant Yule logs for the fire and children gathering laurel and ivy to deck the halls. In the Nobles kitchens were busy making Yule cakes and Frumenty, a porridge made with wheat, saffron and eggs, then served swimming in honey. You would have good luck if you ate Frumenty on Christmas morning along with brawn, a dish of braised pig’s head, feet and tail braised in ale. Plum pudding and Christmas “Pyes” were being prepared but in those days neither was a dessert. Plum pudding started out as a plum soup, made with mutton stock, currants, raisins, prunes and Sherry, thickened with bread, and it was called plum porridge. Eventually they added meat, suet and spices. Even the stews were sweet and gooey in those days and the taste of the meat was hidden under a layer of spices, this was long before refrigeration so much of the meat would have begun to spoil before it was eaten. Plum puddings were made by the dozen because again it was good luck to eat a plum pudding on every one of the twelve days of Christmas, making a wish with the first mouthful. Better not sneak a taste before the feast began though or bad luck was yours for the whole year.

Jack Horner Remember the nursery rhyme?

Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner eating a Christmas pie,

He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, And said 'What a good boy am I’.

Well, the story, apocryphal as it is, says that Jack Horner was a real person. Actually his name was Thomas Horner, and he was a steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury . The abbot sent Horner to London with a Christmas pie destined for King Henry VIII, the pie had the deeds to a dozen manors hidden within it. Horner opened the pie and extracted the deed of the manor of Mells in Somerset. There are lead mines on this property in the Mendip Hills so the plum may be a pun on the Latin word for lead "plumbum", Thomas Horner actually did become the owner of the manor, but his descendants and subsequent owners of Mells Manor deny any truth to the legend. The nursery rhyme is also the source for our word "plum" being used to describe a prize, reward or desirable thing.

A Toast!
Still in Henry’s day, during the Christmas celebration, the poor in the towns would wander the streets, carrying big wooden bowls, singing
“Wassail, wassail, all over town,
Our toast it is white,
Our ale it is brown”
Wassail is Anglo-Saxon for “be well” and the right answer was “Drink hael” or “drink well” and to fill the bowl, the recipe was for ale, eggs, sugar and nutmeg, served warm ant topped with toast floating in the warm custard. To this day, we still drink a toast at a celebration.

For Henry VIII, it took 400 servants to prepare and serve the Christmas feast. Henry and his guests were summoned to dinner with a blare of trumpets and once seated a procession began. First came the Lord High Steward, on horseback and clad in red, then Heralds of Arms, then the chief cook carrying a roasted boar’s head, not to be eaten. Next the Earl of Essex came bearing the bloody sword used to sever the boar’s head. This process continued with dozens of people carrying foods into the great hall before anyone could eat a morsel. The Lord High Steward was in charge of carving the roasts and tiny pieces had to be carved, this was a time before forks and people ate with their fingers.

Mary I, Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary

Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII, became the first female to succeed at claiming the throne and she ruled England after Henry VIII died; she is remembered for reinstituting Catholicism and ordering the execution of many Protestants for the charge of heresy. To her subjects she became known as “Bloody Mary”, we’ve all but forgotten the meaning behind the name of the cocktail but here we are; offer a toast with a Bloody Mary in honor of two English monarchs. Mary married King Phillip of Spain, briefly uniting the two crowns but Phillip soon abandoned Mary. Phillips cooks left behind one lasting legacy, Spanish cake, now known as sponge cake. Phillip liked a version made by soaking the cake with Sherry and topping it with custard, this cake was called bizcocho boracho or drunken cake. Later when Phillip was on the Spanish throne he ordered the Spanish Armada to attack England. The English repelled the invasion and like out “Freedom Fries” his favorite cake became tipsy cake, and now we know it as English Trifle.

Modern House of Windsor

Interesting fact: With the marriage in 1840 of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, son of Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha the name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha came to the British Royal Family. Queen Victoria herself remained a member of the House of Hanover. In 1917, due to the anti-German feelings of the time when George V came to the throne, he changed the family name to Windsor.

Fish and Chips Vid

Fish and Chips Recipe Serves 4

Please read the entire recipe before proceeding, there are waiting times built in for best results.

2 Pounds russet or other mealy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 by 1/2-inch thick sticks
2 quarts peanut oil, other vegetable oils will work but peanut oil takes the most heat
Salt and pepper

Instructions, the important part of making French fries or Chips is the advance processing of the potatoes, when you remove as much starch as possible and par-cook potatoes, the results are crispy and mealy. Ignore these steps and the results are almost always soggy and greasy fries.

Rinse cut potatoes in a large bowl with lots of cold running water until water becomes clear, stir them up a bit so all parts of the potatoes are washed. Cover with water by 1-inch and add lots of ice to crisp the potatoes. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

In a 5-quart pot fitted with a candy or deep-frying thermometer, (or in an electric deep fryer), heat oil over medium- heat until the thermometer registers 325 degrees F. Make sure that you have at least 3 inches of space between the top of the oil and the top of the pan, you need space for the potatoes and the bubbling fat when the potatoes are cooking.

Drain ice water from cut fries and pat dry, this is VERY important, hot grease and water are almost explosive, so make sure the spuds are DRY. Add potatoes, a handful at a time, to the hot oil. Fry, until potatoes are soft and beginning to color, blond, not brown, about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove fries from the oil and set aside to drain on paper towels. Let rest for at least 10 minutes or up to 2 hours. This resting period is important, it allows some of the moisture to escape the potatoes which otherwise would make the fries soggy, it also allows you to make better use of the last minute time.

When ready to serve the Chips, reheat the oil to 350 degrees F. Transfer the blanched potatoes to the hot oil and fry again, stirring frequently, until golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes. Transfer to paper lined platter and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.

Fish: batter:
¾ Cup flour, all purpose
¼ Cup Corn Starch
3 Tablespoons beer
1 Egg yolk
¼ Teaspoon salt
¼ Teaspoon baking powder
1 Egg white
3 Tablespoons milk
2 Tablespoons water

Instructions Blend the flour, corn starch, beer, egg yolk, salt, baking powder, with the milk and water, set this in the refrigerator for a half hour. This relaxes the gluten and yields a lighter and more tender batter although it can be used right away. When you are ready to start frying, beat the egg white to a stiff peak and fold into the batter gently but thoroughly.

2 Pounds firm white fish fillets, Cod, Sole, Flounder, Orange Roughy etc. Be Green and remember we have almost eaten the North Atlantic Cod into extinction

Instructions, Cut the fish into serving sized pieces, 3 by 5 inches by ½ inch thick or as desired. Wash the fillets under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Fish must be very dry for the batter to stick, if needed dust the fish with flour before dipping in the batter. Dip the fish in batter and when well coated plunge them in the hot cooking oil, don’t crowd them or the fish will stick to each other. In about 5 minutes the fish should be golden brown, remove, drain on paper towels and transfer to serving platter.


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    • thehemu profile image


      9 years ago from New Delhi, India

      very informative hub


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