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Food in History of the British Isles, Scotland and Ireland

Updated on October 20, 2016
Mosaic, Brading Roman Villa
Mosaic, Brading Roman Villa | Source
Roman bath, Bath, England
Roman bath, Bath, England | Source

Romans in England

British food has had a poor reputation for generations, it’s heavy, tasteless and uninspired, or at least so we are led to believe. Throughout most of history this was an agricultural land with ups and downs. When the Romans invaded and ruled England, agriculture flourished to the point that every day a ship left England for the troops Rome had stationed in Gaul. Those ships were loaded with British wheat because the farms were so productive. At the time the wealthier natives in England were trying to observe a Roman diet as best they could. England was still on the far reaches of the Roman Empire, so all of the foods available in Rome were not to be found not even in the best English villas.

During the decline of the Roman Empire, when Rome was being invaded, their garrisons were recalled to Rome and the British were left on their own. A long period passed when the English countryside was invaded repeatedly. During this period the improvements made by Rome were gradually abandoned, villas were empty; fields left fallow and domesticated animals escaped to the forests and became native. Geese, pheasants, dormice, pigeons and peacocks were all Roman animals that became feral and became parts of the peasant diet. There were periods of famine and some times of feast too, but the good times were over for about 500 years. The peasantry reverted to old ways and cooks had to rely on only what could be found, harvested or hunted locally. With the loss of so many roads after the Romans left, transportation became far more difficult and there was less communication between villages. The result of this de-Romanization has had an influence all the way down to our time. The lack of communication and transportation led to many different variations of cuisine in the British Isles, considerably more than would be expected of a similarly sized area elsewhere.

The Romans never did succeed in ruling Caledonia (the Latin name for Scotland), rather, Hadrian built his wall to keep the Scots out of southern England but the Romans did exert some influence. By the time the Romans left southern England in the fifth century the Picts were the dominant tribe in Scotland and they are the ancestors of the Clans of Scotland which we know today. The word Pict means painted people and you may remember Mel Gibson in Braveheart being painted blue, Braveheart was a Pict.

Haggis and Andrew


Scotland offers us a few important dishes that still exist in the lexicon of well versed chefs and at least one that possibly you have to be born into to appreciate.

Cock-a-Leekie is a famed Scottish soup and quite simple to prepare. Take a whole (Organic, see why here!) chicken and cut it into 8 pieces, put them in a large soup pot with a pound of beef shins cut into 1 inch pieces (or just beef for stew, not as flavorful but more available) Add 6 cups of chicken stock (canned is ok) a Bay leaf and a tsp of thyme and 3 slices of chopped bacon. Cook at a simmer for 30 minutes or more. Remove the chicken and beef from the broth and remove all bones and skin, chop the meat roughly and return to the broth. Add 1+1/2 cups of cleaned sliced leeks and ¾ cup of pearl barley, return to a simmer and cook until the barley is tender, about another half hour. Season to taste and serve.

Bannocks Another well known dish from Scotland are these oatcakes
¼ lb medium oatmeal, 2 teaspoons melted bacon fat (or vegetable oil if need be) 1 teaspoon of baking soda
Pinch of salt, 3/4 tablespoons hot water, Additional oatmeal for kneading
Mix the oatmeal with the salt and baking soda next pour the melted fat into the centre of the mixture. Stir well, and add enough water to make into a stiff paste. Cover a surface in oatmeal and turn the mixture onto this board.
Work quickly, divide the dough into two and roll each half into a ball. Knead with hands covered in oatmeal to stop it sticking. Use a rolling pin and roll out to a quarter inch thick. Use a plate which is slightly smaller than the size of your pan to guide you into cutting a circular oatcake. Cut into quarters and place in a heated pan which has been lightly greased. Cook for about 3 minutes per side until the edges curl slightly. This will make two dinner plate sized Bannocks. Serve Bannock as you might serve biscuits, butter and jam, honey, chutney or even cheeses. Bannocks also make a nice dumpling cooked in a stew.

We can’t leave Scotland without mentioning Haggis, this delightful dish is made with sheep innards, windpipe, heart, lungs and liver mixed with oatmeal, salt and black pepper which are stuffed in a sheep’s stomach or in a cow’s intestines (called beef bungs, very descriptive!). The authentic version has been illegal in the US for quite some time. It seems that someone in the FDA doesn’t approve of us eating sheep’s lungs, go figure! Nevertheless on Robert Burns night celebration the Scots will always serve a bit of Haggis. Haggis has very early roots in history, before the introduction of iron pots, cooking in animal skins was common and Haggis has derived from that very tradition. Perhaps when you have a local Scotch distillery you can wash anything down.

To be fair to the Scots we have to mention Salmon, some of the best Atlantic salmon in the world can be found in Scotland.

Mel Gibson as Braveheart
Mel Gibson as Braveheart
Cock a Leekie Soup
Cock a Leekie Soup

A market in Cork

iIrish Famine Skibbereen_1847_by_James_Mahony
iIrish Famine Skibbereen_1847_by_James_Mahony
Market in Cork
Market in Cork
Irish Stout
Irish Stout


Ireland shares England’s reputation for bland heavy food but they are possibly best known for the potato famine of 1845 > 1852. The potato blight spread across Ireland destroying the crop which most of Ireland depended upon. Great Britain did nothing to help and allowed the Irish to starve leading to the Irish Diaspora. If you think of corned beef and cabbage as the traditional Irish dish you’re quite mistaken. Only the wealthy could afford any kind of meat in Ireland while the peasantry subsisted on a diet of potatoes and milk. Before the English were in charge in Ireland the people had a much more diversified diet based on local foods. Mead, a wine made from honey is in very early records and fulacht fiadh is in several sources, this was a place to cook venison, in holes in the ground, filled with water and with hot rocks being added to provide the heat. In other archaeological sites there is evidence of beef, mutton and pork, poultry and geese as well as fish and shellfish all being part of the diet. Later on oats and barley became the major grains both for animals and people. When the English took control they gradually installed laws that forbade Catholics from passing property to their heirs, thus farms became ever smaller, small farms led the people to rely on potatoes for sustenance because this was the only crop productive enough to feed a family with little land for crops. Relying on a single crop for food is always dangerous and the potato blight led to famine.

Irish whiskey does not have the same reputation as Scotch but they may make up for it with Stout beer. Stout is a dark beer made with malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. Stouts were traditionally the generic term for the strongest or stoutest porters, produced by a brewery. List of Irish breweries here.

Pastures of Ireland are ideal for raising herds of dairy cattle and the dairy industry is, flourishing but almost all cheese made in Ireland is an imitation of 'foreign' cheese and most of it is exported. Blarney is a yellow, waxy cheese with a bright red rind and large holes, otherwise known as Irish Swiss; Killarney is Cheddar, and Wexford is also Cheddar. Cashel Blue cheese is a modern Irish cheese made from cow's milk. It has a wet, crusty rind with gray moulds. When young, Cashel Blue is firm and moist, fruity with a hint of Licorice. With ageing, it becomes a little spicy. Cashel Blue is available pasteurized, unpasteurized, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Only pasteurized cheese is allowed to be brought into this country, so if you want a taste, plan a trip “across the pond”

Sheep have been a valuable resource for Irish farmers for many years and Irish lamb stew is well known all over the world. Traditional Irish stew is not browned the way we brown beef stew.

Irish Stew

Place these ingredients in layers in a large soup pot, potatoes on the bottom, onions next, then carrots etc.
4 potatoes peeled and thickly sliced

2 cups of pearl onions or thickly sliced onions

1 Cup of baby whole carrots

½ pound smoked ham, diced small

3 pounds lamb for stew or lamb chops, 1-inch thick, trimmed, and cut into small pieces

Salt and pepper to taste

Add enough water to cover all of the ingredients, bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook for at least 2 hours. Serve in soup bowls with parsley to garnish

Fresh parsley, finely chopped to garnish

Colcannon – Irish Mashed Potatoes
2 pounds mealy potatoes, (Idaho, Yukon Gold, etc.)
3 cups thinly shredded cabbage
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel potatoes and dice into one inch cubes. Place potatoes into a pot, large enough to hold the potatoes, cabbage and water without overflowing. Cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes or until tender. During the last ten minutes of the potatoes cooking time, add the cabbage so it will cook. Drain all vegetables and place into a bowl or back into the pot. Add heavy cream and butter; mash the potatoes and cabbage together with either a potato masher or a hand held mixer. Season to with salt and pepper to taste, before serving.

Read more about Irish food here


With modern communications and transportation the idiosyncrasies of local cuisine are beginning to disappear to the detriment of us all. It is not just cuisines that are disappearing; it is little bits of history. During and after WWII travel and foreign exchanges were severely curtailed in England so that there was renewed reliance on local foods.Now we are all part of a global community and distinctions are beginning to seem quaint.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Mmmm. Bannocks sound delicious! Very cool Hub.

    • chefsref profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee Raynor 

      8 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Tritrain and Jillian. Thanx for reading, this was a tough one to write, there are thousands of years of history to boil down into a few words and I never even got to England where we have the most records.

    • Jillian Barclay profile image

      Donna Lichtenfels 

      8 years ago from California, USA

      Dear Chef,

      As usual, you have blended the history, that I love, with the food, and how the times were the influence that created the food! Wonderful!

      Again, I must try at least one of these recipes and I think it will be the Cock-a-Leekie. Sounds so good! I love good soups! Thank you for another awesome article!

    • tritrain profile image

      And Drewson 

      8 years ago from United States

      Very interesting and cool Hub! Seriously awesome! :D

      I'm Irish/Scottish.


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