From the Romans to the Normans, through the medieval period and up to the reign of Elizabeth I, our foods were influenced by European trends, and heavily affected by the seasons. In the 17th century, glasshouse technology [the use of glass to control temperature and humidity for the cultivation or protection of plants] enabled the rich to buck the seasons, and products from the New World began to be imported. The rich could choose to eat almost anything they fancied, and the range of animals and birds consumed in Georgian Britain was astounding – nothing that moved was safe from the cooking pot.
With that in mind, here is a selection of foods from history at which we might balk today…
Yes, the Romans really did eat dormice. At least, some people did, but we don’t really know how many, or how popular dormice were. The dormice the Romans ate weren’t the tiny, huge-eyed things we are familiar with today, but a much larger type called – unsurprisingly – the edible dormouse. They are common across the Mediterranean and most of Western Europe, and there’s a British colony around Tring in the Chilterns – they escaped from a Victorian gentleman’s menagerie and have procreated there ever since.
The Romans would capture the mice and fatten them for the table, much in the same way turkeys are fattened up for Christmas today. They would either keep them in pens or in large jars studded with airholes and feed them walnuts, chestnuts and acorns. They were then either roasted with honey or stuffed with pine nuts, pork and spices and baked – this was a fiddly job.
As with so many of the dishes eaten by the rich in history, the show-off factor lay, not in consuming vast quantities of meat or food in general, but by taking something apparently pointless to eat, and making it delicious. Lavishing time and expense on something so small showed that the person serving it had the money to find, keep, and prepare the mice, as well as the good taste to showcase a delicate titbit instead of a gargantuan mountain of flesh.
The rich in medieval England would have eaten a wide variety of animals and birds, usually served intact, with heads, feet and tails all indicating what the meat was, and adding to its visual appeal. A decapitated roast bird would probably have seemed as strange to the average 15th-century knight as one with its head intact to us today.
Medieval feasts could comprise tens of different dishes, roughly grouped together into courses that could be interspersed with entertainment, including amazing edible concoctions. Sotelties, as they were called, were often sugar work, but there was another type of extravagant medieval culinary diversion: fantastic beasts.
The cockentryce is probably the best known of these, and comprised half a pig sewn to half of a capon (a castrated and fattened chicken). Modern recreations often involve the front of the bird and back of the pig, but both were done. Once sewn and stuffed, it was roasted and covered with batter. It was almost certainly then decorated richly with anything the inventive medieval cook could lay his (and professional medieval cooks were always men) hands on.
There are also recipes in medieval manuscripts for capons [a castrated domestic cock] riding suckling pig steeds, and ‘yrchouns’ (hedgehogs) made of pigs’ stomachs stuffed with spiced pork, with almonds to resemble spines. Again, these dishes would have been time-consuming to make and required a lot of skill (and space).
Until the Reformation in 1533, many of England’s eating habits were dictated by the rules laid down by the Catholic Church. For Catholics in the Middle Ages – that is, most of western Europe – around half of the year was set aside as fast days. This included, as we might imagine, Lent, but it also included Advent, along with Fridays, Wednesdays and various other days.
Fast days didn’t simply mean no eating – it meant no animal products. Fish was acceptable, however, and some exquisite fish recipes were served on fast days. However, there also developed some extremely broad definitions of fish, with beavers’ tails among them. They were scaly, often in the water, and the flesh was also said to taste like fish.
Common garden plants such as scabious [aka the butterfly blue or the pincushion flower], comfrey [a popular herb], hawthorn [a shrub] and tansy [a plant with yellow, button-like flowers] were all eaten in previous centuries, both for their taste and their perceived medicinal value.
Tansy, which is today usually seen as an invasive weed, was in the 17th century used as an insect repellent and as a ‘strewing herb’ to freshen the air in musty rooms. If you smell the crushed leaf, you can see why: it is a bitter herb with a very distinctive smell.
In the 17th century it was popular to add flavour to a set of dishes called ‘tansies’, which were usually either a sort of baked sweet omelette, a boiled or baked biscuit, or bread-based pudding. Spinach juice was also often added, to give the final dish a green tinge – something we’d probably find very off-putting today.
Tansy is mildly toxic, or can be (the same applies to comfrey), and too much of it can add an eye-watering flavour to the final dish. Tansy was also said to aid the digestion of salt fish.
A solid, waxy, dull grey substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, ambergris only reaches the table after it’s been either vomited or excreted out. It then has to survive months or even years in the sea, before being washed up on shore or recovered by a lucky passing boat.
Ambergris has a delicate, musky flavour, and is incredibly scarce. Like most rare and relatively tasty, edible products, it gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac and a much-sought-after food for the super-rich in the 17th century. Charles II was said to enjoy ambergris with eggs, and it was used to flavour pies and cakes.
Ambergris is largely banned today, as part of attempts to curb the exploitation of whales for human consumption. Where it is sold, it commands extortionate prices.
Mock turtle soup
Turtle soup became popular in Britain in the 18th century. Most recipes start with instructions on how to kill and butcher the turtle, which would have been brought in live from the West Indies. The most elaborate way to serve it was as calipash and calipee: two soups, served in the upper and lower shell, one with the upper (green) and the other with the lower (yellow) meat. It was popular for banquets, and became something of a craze in late Georgian Britain. It was incredibly time-consuming and expensive to prepare, and by the 19th century tinned or dried turtle was often used instead.
Another 19th-century alternative was the peculiarly British mock turtle soup, which used a calf’s head. The character of the mock turtle in Alice in Wonderland, which has the body of a turtle and the head of a calf, sums this up nicely.
It was an ingenious substitute for turtle – affordable, available, and not dissimilar in flavour – and was typical of the way in which British cookery book writers at the time democratised haute cuisine. By the end of the 19th century, mock turtle soup was so closely associated with the upper and middle classes that French cooks called it turtle soup ‘à l’anglaise’.
The range of fruit and vegetables we eat today is tiny compared to that available at various times in the past. The Victorians, especially, were avid plant-breeders. There were around 1,500 varieties of apples alone available to the late Victorian gardener – compare that to the five or so commonly on sale in shops today. The Victorians were also more adventurous when it came to fruit – much of which would be unsellable in the modern world.
Medlars, which are related to the rose and the apple, were known to the Greeks and Romans, but were really exploited by the Victorians. The fruit is small, brown, and open at the bottom – the French call it cul de chien, or ‘dog’s bottom fruit’. It’s rock hard and inedible unless it’s left to ‘blet’, or partially rot, either on the tree or in bran. The Victorians would serve them in the bran and scrape out the flesh to eat with sugar and cream. They would also make tarts and fruit cheese with it.
You can still buy medlar jelly and it is exquisite.
Vegetarianism has a long history, though the word itself is comparatively new. Early vegetarians were called pythagoreans, after the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (b 571 BC).
Until the 19th century, giving up meat voluntarily was largely associated with religious belief. It was often said by non-meat eaters that those who ate meat ingested with it notions of slaughter and blood-letting, and that meat-eating contributed to wars and violence. For some, giving up meat was a form of protest against societal norms, which valued meat eating as prestigious and as a mark of the ruling elite.
In the late 19th century, vegetarianism finally became a movement, associated closely with animal welfare. Its proponents were often women and, for that reason, it became associated for a while with suffrage. Vegetarian restaurants opened to cater for the growing numbers of non-meat eaters, and provided a safe haven for women wishing to meet in socially acceptable surroundings.
There was in the Victorian period a leap forward in developing vegetarian food, which was delicious and creative in its own right, and not merely a collection of side dishes or meat-based dishes with the meat removed. Furthermore, those who ate them were proud to show their adherence to a vegetarian diet.
To Victorians, our modern ideas of making protein into something that looks and tries to taste like meat would probably seem decidedly weird.
Dr Annie Gray is a research associate at the University of York and a freelance food history consultant. To find out more, visit www.anniegray.co.uk.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in June 2015.