iron age cooking

( ©Steve Rigby / © Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service - with kind permission )

Ingredients & Diet

The daily diet for most people in Iron Age Britain was a combination of bread, porridges and stews. Wheat and barley were two of the most common crops grown by Iron Age people. They would have been ground into flour to make bread, using quern stones. Barley and wheat could also be used in porridges and stews. Celtic beans and Fat Hen (small succulent flowering plants ) were also a common part of the diet along with early types of brassicas (probably parsnip). Milk from cows and possibly sheep was available at some times of the year and was probably used to make cheeses.

Fresh meat roasted over an open fire, or boiled in large metal cauldrons would then used in stews would probably only have been eaten on rare occasions. Evidence shows that beef, pork and mutton or lamb were the most common types of meat eaten, but deer, rabbit, horse and even dog were also eaten.

Salt

The Iron Age saw the establishment of salt working around Britain coasts, as the salt helped to preserve meat for winter use and especially the pork so well loved by the CeltsThere have been numerous finds of Iron Age salt production in the Fenlands of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, also along the Essex coastline. Sea water would have been concentrated in pottery pans, before the brine was then allowed to evaporate in small pottery vessels supported on pillars to give the lump of salt which was obtained by breaking the vessels.

The basic salt making equipment consisted of large clay-lined brine tanks, hearths for boiling brine and briquetage vessels. “Briquetage” describes all course ceramic equipment used in extracting sea salt in prehistoric and Roman Europe.

Iron Age "Bog Butter"

"Bog Butter" is butter made either from dairy or meat-based products, that is sometimes found when digging up blocks of moss or turf in peat bogs. There have been many such finds in UK and Ireland; for example in April 2011, Brian Clancy and his uncle Joe were cutting turf in Ballard Bogin (Tullamore, County Offaly) found a wooden vessel with carved markings around the edges, buried over 2m deep. It was nearly 60cm tall and 30cm in diameter, with a removable lid with handles and holes, possibly for carrying and inside was over 50kg of bog butter.

Bog butter is usually found in earthenware pots, wooden containers, animal skins, or wrapped in bark. The low temperature , low oxygen and highly acidic environment of a bog preserves the butter, turning it into a waxy substance with a pungent, cheesy odor.

Beverages

A form of beer (more like a gruel) would have been the drink for all members of the family, including children. Strabo (the Greek geographer) wrote about the European Celts:

"They also drink beer: but they are scarce of wine, and what wine they have made they speedily drink up in merry feasting with their kinsfolk"

Beer is considered by some as the most important of human inventions, as it is likely to be one of the key reasons that farming was started, in order to grow hops for brewing. Third century BC Mesopotamian texts list of 19 different types of beer made according to the combinations of grains and herbs used in their manufacture. 

It is likely that the beer would have been brewed using barley grain, water and pottery containers to soak the grain; a flat paved area to spread out and turn the grain during germination; the sprouting grains are dried and cooled it in order to stop germination or "malt" the grain (malting grains develop the enzymes needed to modify the grain's starches into sugars); quern/grindstones were used to coursely grind the malted grain and water added; the dissolved malt is mashed into a pulp and heated in an oven at low temperatures to cause the malt sugars to caramelize and the fermentation process begins; finally the mash is purified by filtering and then stored.

Evidence of Iron Age barley beer production comes from sites including a small setup at  Roquepertuse (Etang de Berre region of France) and a larger brewery Hochdorf in central Germany.

Food Preparation & Cooking

Pots

A new technology to the Iron Age was wheel thrown pottery, before the middle Iron Age pottery was made by hand from pinch pots, coils or paddle and anvil. This meant the pot wall could vary in thickness by some way. Wheel thrown pots were generally far more even and symmetrical and could have a smooth surface easily.

Metal couldrons were also probably used for boiling meat or heating alcoholic drinks, such as beer or mead. These large vessels were constructed from central band and bowl of sheet copper-alloy riveted together; they sometimes had an iron rim and handles to gave strength and rigidity. 

On 16th November 2004 thirteen cauldrons were found in Chiseldon, possibly the remains of an Iron Age feast.

iron age pottery

Grain Preparation ~ Rotary Quern Stones

The rotary quern stone helped to change the lives of the Iron Age people and arrived in Britain in the middle of the Iron Age (about 400-300 BC). It comprises two rounded quern stones, with one placed on top of the other. The top stone would turn around an axle that came up through a hole in its centre, while the lower stone did not move. This was used to speed the processing of wheat, barley or rye into flour to make bread and other foods. The dough would have then been baked in a simple clay-domed oven, of which evidence has been found in Iron Age houses.

Beehive Quern Stone

The Beehive quern stone (left) was the earliest type of rotary quern to appear in the Britain, arriving in the Middle Iron Age (about 400-120 BC).

The larger and flatter Disc quern stone is believed to have come from  Spain 2,500 around years ago and then arrived in Scotland from about 200 BC with people who built the  brochs.

Cooking

Most of the cooked food would have been cooked on an open fire which would have been done either outside during the summer or inside on a large central open-hearth during the winter. The hearth would cook food, provide warmth and give light and the fire would have been maintained 24 hours a day. 

Roundhouse Hearth - Scottish Crannog Centre

fire dog

Fire Dog - Cambridge  Archaeology and Anthropology Museum

Fire Dogs (iron supports) were thought to be used for spit-roasting meat over the hearth. There were maily double-ended and likely set front-on to the hearth (as shown above right) and more than 12 examples of British Fire Dogs have survived since the Iron Age (all but two having animal heads).


Recipes

Obviously as no Prehistoric Recipe Book exists, ingredients and cooking methods are based on research, experimentation and some guesswork. A research team, commissioned by UKTV Food in 2007 and lead by Dr Ruth Fairchild from the Food Science Department of the University of Wales Institute (Cardiff), spoke to food experts and experimental archaeologists, such as Jacqui Wood (below), to compile a list of Britain's oldest recipes.

Jacqui Wood's books - "Prehistoric Cooking" & "Tasting the Past" and Jane Renfrew's "Prehistoric Cookery: Recipes & History"

(© Chris Saville  - with kind permission)

NOTE: RECIPES ARE FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY ~ NOT INTENDED AS CULINARY GUIDANCE

Bogman's Porridge/Gruel

Anaylsis has shown that the Tollund Man's last meal (between 12 and 24 hours before he died) consisted of a some kind of gruel or porridge made of barley, rye and oat. The Tollund Man's porridge is consistent with the gruel diets of other unearthed bog bodies like Lindow Man, Grauballe Man, Windeby girl and others.


Preparation Time: 10 mins
Cooking Time: 60 mins
Ingredients:

  • 10-15 cups of water (infused with sphagnum moss)
     
  • 2 cups of pearl barley
  • 2 cups of wheat kernels (soak overnight)
  • ¼ cup flax
  • ¼ cup willow herb seeds
  • ¼ cup gold-of-pleasure seeds
  • ¼ cup knotweed seeds (NB: may cause photosensitivity)
  • ½ tsp  fat hen (a relative of quinoa) seeds
  • ½ tsp corn spurrey seeds
  • ½ tsp black bindweed (a relative of buckwheat) seeds
  • ½ tsp violet seeds
  • ½ tsp hemp nettle seeds (potentially poisonous)
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp dock seeds
  • ½ tsp green bristle-grass (related to millet) seeds
  • ½ tsp corn chamomile seeds
  • ½ tsp redshank seeds
  • ½ tsp greater plantain seeds
  • ½ tsp clover seeds
  • ½ tsp rye-grass seeds
  • ½ tsp Yorkshire fog seeds
  • ½ tsp buttercup seeds (NB: may cause blistering of the skin)
  • ½ tsp lady's mantle seeds
  • ½ tsp yarrow (NB: may cause rashes) seeds
  • ½ tsp smooth hawksbeard seeds
  • ½ tsp fine sand

(image provenance / © unknown)

Method:

  1. Mix all ingredients into a bowl
  2. Cook over fire (preferably one using heather as a fuel) for 1 hour, adding moss water as needed until gruel has reached desired consistency
  3. Add salt

On 4th June 1954. the TV show "Buried Treasure: The Peat Bog Murder Mystery" Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Dr. Glyn Daniel recreated and tasted Tollund Man's last meal. While neither of the men enjoyed the food, Sir Mortimer remarked with porridge like that perhaps the bogman had thrown himself into the bog to get away from his wife's cooking! Reports suggest that the dish was rather oily and had a greyish-purple colour, with flecks of orange and black throughout.


Iron Age Stew

Ingredients:

  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 2 white turnips, peeled
  • 100 g mushrooms
  • 800 g iron age pig (cubed)
  • sprigs thyme
  • 900 ml water
  • bread, to serve
iron age pigs

Method:

  1. Cut the carrots and turnips into chunks and slice the mushrooms
  2. Put them all in a large pan and add the cubes of pork
  3. Scatter over some sprigs of thyme and pour over the water
  4. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for an hour and a half, until the meat is really tender
  5. Serve with hot bread to scoop up the juices

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