The History and Culture of Food and Drink: The British Isles

Colin Spencer. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Prehistory (6000 B.C. to 54 B.C.)

Until very recently, all settled communities have eaten the foods that their geographic contexts offered. Once Britain was cut off from the mainland of the Continent (by 6500 B.C.) and fishing was feasible in the clement weather of the summer, fish became as integral a part of the local diet as meat was in the winter. Yet the bulk of the diet (about 85 percent) was made up of plant foods, as it always had been. Humankind has relied on wild foods for 99.8 percent of its time on the planet. There are over 3,000 species of plants that can be eaten for food, but only 150 of these have ever been cultivated, and today the peoples of the world sustain themselves on just 20 main crops. We underestimate the harvest from the wild that humankind gathered and the detailed knowledge, passed on from generation to generation, about which plants were toxic, which were healing, and which were sharp, bitter, sweet, and sour; such knowledge must have been encyclopedic.

The women and children gathered roots, leaves, fungi, berries, nuts, and seeds. Early in the spring the new shoots of sea kale, sea holly, hogweed, bracken, “Good King Henry,” and asparagus could be picked. Then there were bulbs to be dug up that had stored their energy during the winter. These included the bulbs of lilies and of the Alliums (including wild garlic), the rhizomes of “Solomon’s Seal,” and the tubers of water plants that were dried and then ground to make a flour. Baby pinecones and the buds of trees were also springtime foods, not to mention the cambium, the inner live skin beneath the outside bark of the tree, which in the spring was full of sweet sap and yielded syrup. The new leaves of wild cabbage, sea spinach, chard, and sea purslane could be picked, as could fat hen, orache, nettle, purslane, mallow, and much else. Other edible leaves were those of yellow rocket, ivy-leaved toadflax, lamb’s lettuce, wood sorrel, dandelion, red clover, wild marjoram, and salad burnet (Colin Renfrew, in Black 1993). The flavoring herbs, like wild mustard, coriander, poppies, corn mint, juniper, and tansy, would have been gathered with pleasure. Wild birds’ eggs were also eaten in the spring, with a small hole made in an egg’s shell and the egg sucked out raw. The bigger eggs, however, would have been cooked in their shells in the warm embers of a fire.

In the autumn, there were fruits to be gathered, like crabapples that were sliced and dried for the winter, along with berries (sloes, elderberries, strawberries, and blackberries), mushrooms, large tree fungi (like Fistulina hepatica), and nuts. Hazelnuts, walnuts, sweet chestnuts, pine nuts, beechnuts, acorns, and different kinds of seeds were also stored. In addition, lichens and algae (both very nutritious) were gathered and dried, and cakes were made out of them.

Fishing communities grew up at the mouths of estuaries and along coasts where there were sheltered coves and inlets that could harbor boats and fishing equipment. Dragnets of nettle fiber were held between boats, woven basketlike traps caught crabs and lobsters, and fresh fish (trout, salmon, and pike) were speared with tridents of sharpened bone lashed to a stick. Fish were wind-dried and smoked over peat or wood fires.

Seabirds, killed with clay pellets flung by slings or with arrows having blunt wooden heads, were another source of food (Wilson 1973). Unplucked birds were covered with a thick layer of smeared clay and cooked in the embers of a fire. Large seabirds—oily and strong in flavor—could also have been smoked over a fire and stored for the winter. Smaller game birds in the forest were more difficult to catch, though traps made of nets might have been used. In the late Upper Paleolithic site at Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, the bones of grouse, ptarmigan, greylag goose, and whooper swan were found (Renfrew, in Black 1993).

In the winter, red deer, roe deer, elk, wild oxen, and wild boar were hunted, whereas smaller game like wildcats, foxes, otters, beavers, and hares were frequently caught in traps. Nooses, hung from trees, served as one form of trap. Hounding animals into gullies was another method of capture. Deer-antler mattocks were wielded to hack meat off the carcass, whereas flint knives were employed for skinning. Nothing was wasted: The gut and stomach were used as casing for the soft offal, cut up small and mixed with fat and herbs, then slowly roasted.

The first domestic animals were brought to Britain around 3500 B.C. by the islands’ first farmers, Neolithic immigrants from the coasts of western and northwestern Europe. Following their introduction, herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs grazed in forest clearings. Unwanted male cattle were poleaxed, and many of the bones were split to extract the marrow. That a large number of calves were killed suggests that there would also have been a generous supply of milk with which to make butter and cheese.

The Celts, who began to settle in Britain from the eighth century B.C., added hens, ducks, and geese to the list of Britain’s domesticated animals. They refused to eat the wild horses and instead tamed them for riding and for drawing wagons and chariots. The Celts were the first to recognize that the soil of Britain is more fertile than that of continental Europe, and they cleared forests to plant cereals and to allow pasture to grow for grazing. They preserved meat, fish, and butter in salt and exported British beef to the Continent. The Celts also tilled the soil so successfully that they exported grain to many parts of Europe. In Britain, they built underground grain storage silos.

The Celts processed wheat by setting ears alight, then extinguishing the fire when the husks were burnt. The wheat was then winnowed and baked, and saddle querns were used to grind it into flour. These industrious farmers also began beekeeping, with conical hives made from wickerwork daubed with mud or dung. They employed shallow earthenware pots as drinking vessels, whereas deeper pots were made for cooking pottages (mixtures of meat, grains, leaves, roots, and herbs) slowly over a fire.

Honey and water, left together in a pot, will ferment, and this drink—mead—was often flavored with wild herbs and fruits. Some cow, ewe, and goat milk might have been drunk fresh, but most of it would have been made into cheese and only the whey drunk. The Celts made an unhopped beer from barley and wheat, first allowing the grain to germinate, then stopping this process with heat and allowing it to ferment. Finally, they also imported wine and, later, began to grow vines themselves.

The Roman Period (54 B.C. to A.D. 407)

The Romans raised vines in southern England and grew peaches, apricots, figs, and almonds in sheltered gardens. Beef and mutton were consumed in large quantities by Roman soldiers, as was pork where it was plentiful in the south and east of England.

The Romans introduced animal farming by enclosing large tracts of land, where they kept red, roe, and fallow deer, and wild boar, as well as bears captured in Wales and Scotland. Moreover, their villas had leporaria for keeping hares and rabbits in estate gardens, along with pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowl, partridges, and wild pigeons—the latter kept in columbaria (dovecotes). The Romans’ pigs were confined in sties in order to fatten them. Snails were confined upon islands, so that they could not escape, and were fattened on milk, wine must, and spelt; when they became so fat that they could not get back into their shells, they were fried in oil. The Romans tamed barnacle geese and mallards and, of course, also raised chickens and capons (castrated male chicks), which (like other food animals) they kept in confinement and fattened.

They considered all kinds of shellfish to be great delicacies, and many of the oyster beds that still exist today were started by the Romans. They also brought into Britain many new spices, as well as the traditions of Greek and Roman cuisine that were as refined and sophisticated as a civilization could demand. Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus), the Roman poet and agronomist, mentioned the use of lamb or kid rennet for making cheese. Previously, plant rennet—wild thistle, nettle, or lady’s bedstraw—may have been used, perhaps discovered by accident when stirring warm milk with a stem or twig of one of these plants.

The Romans also introduced the cultivation of oat and rye, though barley was the predominant crop. They brought their bread ovens and even the cilabus (a portable oven) to Britain and used eggs in cooking, a practice unknown to the Celts. Eggs and milk were heated together to make a custard; eggs were fried in oil and eaten with a sauce poured over them; eggs were mixed with pounded meat or fish to make ris-soles, sausages, and stuffings. With Roman rule came imported pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cassia, and other spices from the East, and white mustard cultivation was introduced. The grains of the white mustard were pounded and mixed with white vinegar to preserve vegetables. For table use, the mustard was mixed with almonds, honey, and oil.

The Romans were obsessed with two flavorings. One was the powdered root of silphium, which no longer exists but is thought to have been a little like asafetida. The other was liquamen, a sauce made from rotting small fish, which was a cross between anchovy essence and the clear fish sauce of the Orient. There were liquamen factories all over the Roman Empire. Honey was also a favorite flavoring, and several writers devoted pages to the craft of bee-keeping in their farming manuals. In addition, cheese was much used in cooking, quite often with fish.

The Romans introduced lentils into Britain and, for the first time, cultivated globe artichokes, asparagus, shallots, and endive. They also popularized wild plants like “Good King Henry,” corn salad, nettles, and penny-cress. In addition, they brought new herbs to Britain, among them borage, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage, sage, and thyme.

There is an assumption that Roman banquets were an excuse for gluttony and vulgarity, even though many of their writers reveal both fine taste and moderation in their selection of foods. Notorious gluttons like the emperor Vitellius Aulus might eat four huge meals a day, but many others, like Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundas), would partake only of meals that were simple and informal. Pliny (1748) condemned a dinner of oysters, sow’s innards, and sea urchins while listing his own notion of an evening meal: lettuce, snails, eggs, barley cake, and snow-chilled wine with honey. A dinner described by Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) (1993) was rather more elaborate, though he called it modest, and it was served in a single course: a kid with meatballs, chicken, ham, beans, lettuce, and leek, flavored with mint and rocket. Such a sense of a modest, well-balanced meal, with plenty of fresh green vegetables and fruits, would not be found in Britain for another 2,000 years.

The Romans encouraged wine making. They had wines flavored with salt water, resinated wines flavored with myrtle or juniper, and medicated wines mixed with herbs and taken for various ailments. Sweet wines were made by adding honey, rose petals, or citron leaves; spiced wine was made by adding wormwood. By contrast, the Britons continued to drink unhopped beer.

The Early Medieval Period (407 to 1066)

After the Romans departed, sheep, pigs, and goats were the main livestock kept, and cattle were raised as plough and draft beasts. Sheep supplied wool and milk; pigs were economical, as they ate waste and foraged in the woodlands. The rabbits escaped from the leporaria and died out in the wild, as did the guinea fowl and the peacocks. But hens and geese were still kept by some for their eggs and flesh, although wild birds were the only kinds available to the majority of people. Fowlers hunted birds with nets, snares, birdlime, traps, and hawks, and falconry became the sport of kings.

Germanic tribesmen added ale to the alcoholic beverages of Britain. Ale is a drink made from fermented barley or wheat, and alehouses sprang up in every village and hamlet. The beer of Britain tended to be sweeter and darker, whereas ale could be both light and mild. Mead, however, remained the drink of the elite.

After the rites of the Catholic church had taken hold in Britain (by the sixth century A.D.), fast days numbered half of the year and, later on, even more than half. This encouraged fishing, which had declined under the Germanic settlers, who were mainly farmers. But now fishermen had larger boats and longer lines and could venture farther out to sea. Drift nets grew larger, so that shoals of herrings might be caught, and the herring industry on the east coast of Britain had become important to the economy by the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. Stranded whales belonged to the Crown, but except for the tongue (thought to be a delicacy), they were generally granted to the tenant who owned that piece of shoreline. Whale meat was salted and preserved for Lenten food.

The use of olive oil disappeared with the Romans to be replaced with butter (much of it made from ewes’ milk), which found its way into all cooking. The majority of the population lived, as they always had, on daily pottage, which was a stew of cereal grains with green leaves and herbs (generally orache, cabbage, or wild beet) flavored with thyme, rosemary, and onion. The starches in the cereal thickened the stew, but a richer meal was made by adding fat from a carcass or animal bones. Plants with seeds that have a high oil content were particularly treasured, and linseed was eaten extensively in rural communities from prehistory until very recently.

The seasons dramatically influenced what people could eat. Winter was a time of scarcity. From November to April there was no pasture, and the little hay that could be cut had to be saved for the draft animals, the warhorses, and the breeding stock. Thus, most of the animals were slaughtered before the winter began. The slaughter of hogs began in September, whereas cows were killed for the Feast of St. Martin (November 11). On this day all the offal was cooked and eaten, for it could not be preserved (like the carcass meat) by salting, drying, or smoking. Chitterlings, tripe, black puddings, pasties of liver, and dishes of kidneys were all eaten during this feast that was called Yule. Later, the offal was also pickled in spiced ale for a short time to make “’umble pie” for Christmas.

Beginning in the sixth century, the Slavs introduced a new type of plow in Europe, which made it possible to bring new expanses of land under cultivation. It needed six to eight oxen to pull it, but it cut deeply into the soil and turned the furrow over at the same time. One result was that a three-field system of crop rotation came into being; one field was planted with wheat or rye, the second with peas, lentils, or beans, and the third was left fallow. The countryside fed the towns, where people also kept hens, cows, and pigs. The latter are excellent scavengers. They frequented the dark, narrow alleys where the refuse from the houses was discharged; without pigs, the people of medieval towns would have been practically buried under their own sewage and rubbish, especially after those towns began to grow in population. Certainly, epidemics like the plague would have decimated towns and their peoples long before they did.

The Medieval Period (1066 to 1485)

In the thirteenth century, herrings were gutted, salted, then smoked. The industry grew, and a century later, the fish were also salted and packed into barrels. Smoked and pickled herring became a major source of protein for the poor throughout the winter.

Fish played a large role in medieval banquets as well. They were baked in pies, made into shapes or jellies, and large creatures like the porpoise were cooked whole and carved as if they were big roasts. But because of the great number of fast days, the nobles ate three courses of meat—beef or mutton, fowl, and game—on those days when meat was permitted.

The invading Normans brought with them new varieties of apples and pears and other fruits such as peaches, cherries, gooseberries, plums, medlars, and quinces. Returning Crusaders introduced citrus fruits and pomegranates to Britain from the Middle East, though these remained rare and expensive. Dried fruits were imported from the Mediterranean and were considered medicinally better for the body than fresh fruits.

The medieval garden was well stocked with a great variety of herbs and salad plants that appeared in herbals with instructions on what ailments they would cure. Salads were eaten with oil, vinegar, and salt. The earliest salad recipe, from around 1390, called for such plants as parsley, sage, onions, leek, borage, fennel, cress, rosemary, rue, and purslane to be mixed together. Over a hundred herbs are listed as necessary to the garden in a fifteenth-century list.

The Crusaders also brought back with them a great range of spices, along with many ideas about the dishes that they were used in. Meat and fish dishes were flavored with such things as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and grains of paradise. Indeed, in the thirteenth century, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, galingale, mace, nutmeg, cubebs, coriander, and cumin were listed as occupants of at least one English cupboard. The old Roman trade routes, which began in southern China, the Moluccas, Malaya, and India, and extended to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, were flourishing again. The Crusaders had discovered sugarcane growing on the plains of Tripoli, and by the end of the eleventh century, sugar had begun creeping into British recipes. Even then, sugar came in the same hard, pyramid-shaped loaves (which had to be scraped or hacked at) that were still around at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Cider making was introduced to Britain from Normandy in the middle of the twelfth century and, at first, was confined to Kent and Sussex in the southeast. But it soon spread to East Anglia and Yorkshire. If cider was made from pears, it was called “perry.” Whey and buttermilk were drunk by peasants. Sweet wines, which became immensely popular, were imported from southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, another result of the Crusades. Wines from Crete, southern Italy, Tuscany, Spain, and Provence were also highly valued. Madeira malmsey was exported by the Portuguese after 1421, following the planting of malvasia grapes from Crete.

Wheat was cultivated for the fine white bread of the nobility, whereas barley was grown for brewing. Oats (that withstood both cold and rain) were raised in northern Britain to be used in pottages, porridges, and thick soups. Rye was grown to make bread for the majority, who lived off their daily pottages, supplemented by curd cheese, eggs, and whey. Poaching was a capital offense, as the forests belonged to the king. Nonetheless, much netting of game birds and trapping of deer and boar continued because, for the people, starvation was never far away. If the weather destroyed a harvest, then famine was likely that winter. Beginning around 1315, at the start of the Little Ice Age (caused by an advance of polar and alpine glaciers that lasted until 1700), Britain suffered years of famine that brought on revolts and rebellion (Tuchman 1978).

Cheese was made from the milk of goats, ewes, and cows, sometimes mixed together, at other times separated to make particular cheeses. Milk was seldom drunk fresh; the nobility thought it was unhealthy as it curdled in the stomach. Besides, the popularity of butter, cheese, whey, curds, cream, and buttermilk was such that fresh milk was thought too valuable to be used simply for drinking. In the summer, strawberries and cream constituted a rural banquet. Drinks called possets were fashioned with milk curdled by ale. Often flavored with fruits and honey, possets could also be drained and made into a dessert to be cut into slices.

Fast days provoked much ingenuity (among the rich) in replacing forbidden foods with alternative concoctions. Almond milk, an expensive substitute for cows’ milk, was curdled, pressed, drained, and transformed into cream cheese. Eggs were modeled from fish roe, and ham and bacon were made from salmon masquerading as lean meat, with pike as the fat (Wheaton 1985). St. Thomas Aquinas, at one point, stipulated that chickens were aquatic in origin; therefore, because they counted as fish, they could be eaten on fast days. At rich monasteries, rabbits were bred for their embryos, as these did not count as meat either.

Those who could afford it ate from “trenchers,” which were thick slices of coarse rye and wheat bread with a little of the center scooped out. After the meal, these were collected and given to the poor. During a meal, the nobility used several trenchers, made from a better class of bread. Much of the meat consumed by the rich came from hunting, and so a great variety of fresh game could be eaten throughout the winter. In addition to wild boar and deer, there were also birds, ranging from herons, swans, and peacocks to curlews, partridges, pigeons, quail, snipe, and woodcocks.

Medieval feasts could be as elaborate as those of Roman times. Illustrative is the banquet of three courses given upon the coronation of Henry IV in 1399. The first course had 10 different dishes: slices of meat, cooked in a spiced sweet-and-sour sauce; a puree of rice and mulberries, sweetened with honey and flavored with wine and spices; a boar’s head; baby swans; a capon; pheasants; herons; and a pie made from cream, eggs, dates, prunes, and sugar. Then the “subtlety,” a highly decorated dish of pastry, jelly, almond paste, and sugar, was brought in to indicate the end of the first course.

A second course, of nine dishes, comprised venison, calf’s-foot jelly, stuffed suckling pigs, peacocks, cranes, rabbits, pies, chickens, and fritters. Another subtlety was followed by the third course of 16 dishes, which included a lot of small game birds as well as jellied eggs and custard tarts. What is interesting about medieval menus is the similarity of the courses. There was no sense of a first course being an appetizer to whet the palate or of the last course being something to refresh or pacify the diner. Those ideas were lost with the Romans, and it was many centuries before they returned. Meanwhile, simple gluttony and gorging prevailed.

Pie makers were familiar figures in medieval England. The pie was a development of the Roman idea of using a flour and water paste to seal the cooked juices of a piece of meat. But because in England butter and lard were mixed in with the flour, it was possible to make a free-standing paste container that could be packed full of a mixture of meat, game, fish, and vegetables. In 1378, a special ordinance of Richard II regulated the prices cooks and pie bakers in London could charge for their roasted and baked meats (Wilson 1973).

Except for the peasants, who still gathered much wild food, people did not eat many vegetables, which were believed to be sources of disease, especially when raw. The Book of Keruynge (1508), for example, warned its readers to “beware of green sallettes.” But onions, leeks, garlic, and cabbage were thought not to be harmful so long as they were cooked thoroughly. This was usually the case after stewing for long hours with meat or carcass bones to make soup.

Craftsmen and workers in the towns enjoyed a better diet than peasants in the countryside. An act passed in 1363 ordered that servants of noblemen, as well as artisans and tradesmen, were to have meat or fish once a day, as well as milk and cheese. Breakfast was bread and ale, with possibly some pickled herrings or cheese. A midday meal bought at a tavern or cookshop could be roast meat, stew or soup, bread, cheese, and ale. Supper was bread and cheese again, perhaps with cold meats, and ale or wine. The law’s concern with the welfare of servants was a direct result of the Black Death, which had severely pruned the population, making the survivors substantially more valuable.

In the few decades that came before the onset of the plague, however, a rise in population outpaced agricultural production, which meant overpopulation, undernutrition, and a people more vulnerable to disease. Agricultural methods and tools had not advanced for 800 years; the clearing of productive land had been pushed to its limits, and poor soils could not be made more productive nor crop yields raised. When the plague appeared, in 1348, people starved by the thousands, and the peasantry bore the brunt. The chronicler Henry Knighton, canon of Leicester Abbey, reported 5,000 dead in one field alone, “their bodies so corrupted by the plague that neither beast nor bird would touch them” (Tuchman 1978: 103). Fields went uncultivated, seeds were unsown, dikes crumbled, and salt water soured the land. “So few servants and labourers were left,” wrote Knighton, “that no one knew where to turn for help.”

The plague killed 40 percent of Europe’s population by 1380 and halved it by the end of the century. Yet as with servants, the catastrophic event improved the lives of those peasants who survived. Landowners reduced rents and sometimes even forgave them altogether. The acreage sowed in grain 30 years after the onset of the plague was only half what it had been before the calamity. But the plague did mean that some peasants became tenant farmers, and the size of their holdings continued to grow in ensuing centuries.

Tudor, Elizabethan, and Stuart England (1485 to 1688)

Many of the foods and dishes eaten during the Middle Ages remained popular into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although new and exotic American foodstuffs could be obtained, many of these took centuries to become part of the diet. An exception was the turkey, which had found its place upon English tables by the 1540s. However, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and haricot beans took 200 years or more before they were ever eaten, except as rare, exotic ingredients on the tables of the wealthy.

As Iberian sugar production on islands off Africa and in the Americas increased, the national consumption of sugar rose. Queen Elizabeth was inordinately fond of sweetmeats, and the wealthy all suffered from tooth decay. Sugar was used to make the most intricate shapes and sculptures for banquets. Birds, beasts, and fruits were contrived from spun sugar, placed in baskets of marzipan, and sometimes made even more lifelike by painting and gilding.

Hunting—still the most popular pastime of the nobility—also provided occasions for ornate al fresco breakfast banquets. The gentry ate dinner at 11:00 in the morning and supper between 5:00 and 6:00 in the evening. Meals were now served on plates, and trenchers were unknown, although they lived on in the practice of serving cubes of bread beneath boiled or stewed meats. Potteries producing tin-glazed earthenware were established in Norwich and London at the end of the sixteenth century by Andries and Jacob Jansen from Antwerp (Peter Brears, in Black 1993), and glass became fashionable for drinking vessels, although silver and gold cups remained popular with the nobility.

An act of Parliament in 1548 made Saturday a fish day so as to encourage both shipbuilding and fishing. The English fishing fleet on the east coast was in constant competition with the Dutch, who fished openly in England’s coastal waters and sold their catch in English ports. Salted fish was never very popular in Britain, and more effort was made to bring in fresh fish for sale. Shellfish remained the most popular seafoods; lobsters, crabs, shrimps, and prawns were boiled and eaten cold, and sometimes lobsters were boiled, then wrapped in brine-soaked rags and kept for a few months buried in sand. Oysters were eaten both fresh and pickled in vinegar. Anchovies from the Mediterranean became increasingly popular; pickled in brine, they served as appetizers before meals and were added to meat and fish dishes for flavor. Fish pies were a common dish in Lenten fare. These were filled with a mixture of herrings, salmon, eels, and sturgeon and made with butter, egg yolks, spices, and dried fruits. There were various recipes for an Elizabethan fish-day salad that usually included herbs and periwinkles, along with white endive and alexander buds, with whelks to garnish the whole.

Local cheeses became widely known through the popularity of cheese fairs that were visited by merchants, factors, and peddlers, who bought cheeses for resale elsewhere. The best were selected for the rich. Highly thought of were Banbury and Cheshire cheeses, in which, it was said, neither the rennet nor the salt could be tasted. Cheeses were also imported from abroad; Parmesan was the most popular, although Dutch cheeses were also appreciated.

In the seventeenth century, a much greater range of salad plants were grown in the walled gardens of the great estates. John Evelyn (1620-1706), in his Acetaria, a Discourse on Sallets, enthused over the health-giving properties of the “Herby-Diet.” Yet vegetables were still frowned upon by the majority of people, with the lack of fresh vegetables in the diet evidenced by the prominence of scurvy. Gideon Harvey, physician to Charles II, spoke of it in 1675 as the “Disease of London” (Spencer 1993: 214).

Distillation of plant juices became a public activity following the dissolution of the monasteries, as monks found new vocations as apothecaries and distillers, and English soldiers, returning from the Dutch wars, spread the popularity of strong liquors. Nonetheless, beer and ale remained the most popular beverages.

Early Modern England: The Agricultural Revolution (1688-1750)

Farming technology had progressed little between the sixth and eighteenth centuries. Because there was no winter pasture, the animals were still killed at the beginning of winter. But new ways of feeding cattle began to change this situation. It was discovered that cattle could be fattened very nicely on turnips, and a manual, The Practical Farmer by William Ellis (1732), advised giving cattle rapeseed cakes and turnips for winter provision, as was done in Holland. There, it had been discovered that cattle would thrive on the residue left after the oil (used for lighting) had been pressed from crushed rapeseed. Later, other vegetables, such as swedes, mangelwurzels, clover, and cabbages, were also used for winter cattle feeding.

At the same time, more efficient farm tools were being invented. Jethro Tull devised the first horse-drawn hoe and field drill, which wasted less seed and allowed more grain to be harvested. Farm tools were now made of cast iron and could be mass produced; the Rotherham plow was invented, and the first threshing machine appeared before 1800. Other machines were designed that could prepare animal feed, chop turnips, and cut chaff. Because animals could at last be maintained throughout the winter, those with the most valuable traits could be retained and used to breed in the spring. Robert Blackwell (1725-95), a Derbyshire breeder, introduced the long-horn, a cow that gave a high milk yield, and John Ellman (1755-1832) introduced a new breed of sheep, the Southdown, that fattened in half the time of other breeds. The growing size of animals not only increased yields of carcass meat and milk but also ensured finer-quality fleece from sheep and more hide from cows.

At the end of the seventeenth century came the creation of the Norfolk four-course system, whereby wheat was grown in the first year, turnips in the second, then barley with clover and ryegrass undersown in the third. In the fourth year the clover and ryegrass were either cut or used for grazing.

With this new farming technology came a need for larger fields, unimpeded by hedges. Gradually, the common land, where farmworkers traditionally had kept a cow, a pig, and a few hens, and where they gathered wood for cooking fires, was removed from public use by a series of Enclosures Acts. In the reign of George III (1760-1820) alone, 3 million acres of common land were added to private farming estates, hindering the ability of thousands of farmworkers to feed their families. Many emigrated to America, whereas others went into the factories in the new and burgeoning industrial cities.

The effect of the Enclosures Acts was far-reaching. Rural life was radically altered and partially destroyed, and whole villages were abandoned. Within a generation, cooking skills and traditional recipes were lost forever, as the creative interrelationship between soil and table (the source of all good cuisine) had been severed.

From then on, the diet of the workers rapidly declined, although in the north of England the potato had, at last, been accepted. In the south, wheat, the source of fashionable white bread, had taken over the land. A farm laborer with a wife and four children averaged £46 in annual earnings, but the cost of the same family’s food amounted to £52 a year. Each week, such a family typically consumed 8 loaves of bread, 2 pounds of cheese, 2 pounds of butter, 2 ounces of tea, a half-pound of boiled bacon, and 2 pints of milk. By contrast, dinner for a late-eighteenth-century middle-class family of six has been depicted as consisting of three boiled chickens, a haunch of venison, a ham, a flour-and-suet pudding, and beans, followed by gooseberries and apricots (Drummond and Wilbraham 1959). Jonas Hanway, the reformer, said of the poor in Stevenage in 1767: “The food of the poor is good bread, cheese, pease and turnips in winter with a little pork or other meat, when they can afford it; but from the high price of meat, it has not lately been within their reach. As to milk, they have hardly sufficient for their use” (Drummond and Wilbraham 1959: 208).

The eighteenth century, however, was one in which vast amounts of meat were eaten by those who could afford it. Sydney Smith, canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, calculated that during his 77 years, he had consumed 44 wagonloads of meat and drink, which had starved to death fully 100 persons. In Smith’s letters, and in Parson James Woodforde’s diaries, accounts of meals are laden with meats: game, fowl, cold tongue and hams, roasted sweetbreads, giblet soup, pigeons, veal, and marrow sauces. Obesity was caricatured by artists like William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, and huge weights, up to 40 stone (about 560 pounds), were attained by some people. Among meat eaters, meat consumption averaged about 147 pounds per person annually, about the per capita amount eaten today in the United States.

Throughout the century, market gardens had been started around growing cities and towns. London had gardens at Lewisham, Blackheath, Wanstead, and Ilford. A vegetable market at Liverpool arose because an influx of French Canadians wanted cheap vegetables for their soups. Most vegetables, however, were of poor quality and little variety (cabbages, carrots, spinach, sprouts, and turnips), although special vegetables were still grown in the walled gardens of great estates. Unfortunately, eighteenth-century practices of hygiene were not very advanced, and many of the barges that brought fruit and vegetables to the city of London took away the contents of the city’s cesspits on their return journey.

Not only did overeating typify the times, so did an excess of fats used in cooking. Hannah Glasse (1971: 5) commented in her cookery book: “I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs, when everybody knows (that understands cooking) that half a pound is full enough.” Fashionable food centered around huge pies made from turkey and swan, or mixtures of game with veal, sweet-breads, mushrooms, and potatoes. Dr. Samuel John-son’s favorite dinner was “a leg of pork boiled till it dropped from the bone, a veal pie with plums and sugar and the outside cut of a salt buttock of beef” (Pullar 1970: 170).

Beer and ale remained the most popular drinks in Britain until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when home-brewed distilled spirits took over. Dutch genever, or gin, had begun to appear in England as early as Stuart times, and ginlike liquors, flavored with juniper berries, were made from beer dregs, lees of wine or cider, and soaked dried fruits. With the addition of extra yeast, large quantities of spirit could be distilled from any of these mixtures. Molasses fermented with barm (the yeasty froth on fermenting malt liquors) made a crude rum, and “grains of paradise” made the spirits hot and fiery in the mouth. British brandy was a spirit drawn from newly fermented barley malt.

Dutch-cultivated coffee beans spread from East Indian colonies to the West Indies and then to England. Coffeehouses became fashionable places to meet and gossip, and coffee was taken up by the nobility. It grew in popularity until the Georgian era, when tea began to compete with it. Drinking chocolate was perhaps not quite as popular, as the manner of making it was a chore. Cocoa beans were exported to England, where they were dried, peeled, and powdered. Next, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and ambergris were added, and then the mixture was rolled, made into cakes, and cast into molds. It was these cakes that had to be scraped and grated for use in drinks and puddings.

The foods eaten by the majority (the working and lower-middle classes) were all either grown locally or preserved by pickling and smoking. Jane Austen’s father—a modest country clergyman—farmed a smallholding where he kept cows, pigs, and sheep and grew wheat for making bread. His wife kept fowl and looked after the vegetables, herb garden, and orchard. She taught her daughters how to supervise the making of butter, cheese, preserves, pickles, and homemade wines, as well as how to brew beer and cure bacon and hams (Black 1993). But such a life and its lessons were lost as the century grew older, the towns larger, and the world smaller.

Later Modern England: The Industrial Revolution (1700 to 1900)

As more and more factories were built for the mass production of goods, so towns and cities grew to serve the factories. The population of London quadrupled in the nineteenth century. In 1800, Manchester had 75,000 inhabitants; some 50 years later, there were 400,000. Social reformers were astonished that although riches grew and a new bourgeoisie of affluence appeared, the most abject poverty afflicted the majority of workers. Potatoes, bread, and tea constituted the main diet of the poor; about once a week there was some milk and sugar and, perhaps once a year, a piece of bacon. Almost half of the children born in towns died before they were 5 years old, whereas those who survived were severely under-nourished, low in stature, physically weak, and frequently grew up deformed by rickets.

Nearly all food was adulterated with illegal additions to make it stretch further. Alum was added to bleach flour for white bread; various drugs and flavorings, even sulfuric acid, were put into hops. The leaves of ash, sloe, and elder were mixed into tea. Copper was used to color pickles green, red lead colored the rind of Gloucester cheese, and coffee contained roasted corn and red ocher.

The growing, well-off middle class in the towns and cities did not possess large estates, as the old landed gentry still did, which meant that the middle classes owned no source of natural foods. Thus, the nineteenth century produced the modern grocer, and railroads made it possible for milk and produce from the country to be delivered to the center of any great metropolis. Steam trawlers replaced sailing boats, and the railways also carried fresh fish, well-chilled in ice, to inland areas. Cod became commonplace, and the first fish-and-chips shops opened. The invention of bottling and canning methods of food preservation put many cheaper items onto grocers’ shelves, where bottled sauces, along with canned foods—vegetables, meats, fish, and fruits—were now essential provisions. Aberdeen, although 515 miles away, became the abattoir of London because of the ability to send carcasses overnight by rail. The world had become one huge food market. After 1880, Australian beef could be sent by sea in refrigerated ships. Tea from India was no longer expensive, nor was wheat from America; hence, not only was a greater range of cheaper food now available, but much of it was packaged beguilingly, with certain brand names becoming household words.

The middle-class Victorian housewife had most of her fresh foods delivered. The baker, muffin man, and milkman made their rounds daily. The fishmonger brought cod, hake, salmon, skate, eels, herring, and shellfish; the greengrocer called with a wide range of seasonal vegetables delivered to him early from the market gardens. If a housewife left her basement kitchen to shop, it was only to buy from the butcher and the poulterer. Veal was the cheapest meat; calf’s-feet jelly and a pig’s-head brawn would both be appreciated by the family. Capons and pheasants were thought of as party dishes, and small game birds were kept to be served as savories (Black 1993).

A German chemist, Justus von Liebig, helped increase food production with his advocacy of artificial fertilizers at the same time that his research in nutrition attempted to classify foods scientifically. His main discovery in this endeavor was that of the food chain—the interdependence of plants and animals—and his research into plant nutrients led to his identification of protein, which resulted, during the next century, in fundamental changes in the ways that food was thought of, grown, and eaten.

The diet of the poor, however, did not improve; their wages were still low and malnutrition was widespread. In 1847, the Vegetarian Society was founded in the midst of industrial Britain. It was very much a social reforming movement, dedicated to temperance and the improvement of the working classes. Vegetarianism also flourished for a time among members of the affluent middle classes, who saw themselves as social reformers. They were shocked at the inadequacy of the diets of working people. Bread and jam (with the jam made from colored, sweetened fruit or vegetable pulp) was all that some children ate throughout the day. This scandal was at last drawn to the government’s attention when cannon fodder was needed; in the enlistment for the Boer War (1899-1902), it was discovered that 37 percent of the volunteers were so unfit for service that they had to be invalided out.

The Twentieth Century

British society and its food did not change until after the end of World War I (1914-18). The postwar period was one of intense trading and competition in the world market. For the first time, people could eat tropical fruits (imported from the East) in winter; shipments of chilled apples and pears came all the way from New Zealand. Canada, Australia, and the Argentine grew wheat and exported it to Britain, and in addition to fruits, butter and lamb from New Zealand competed with Danish butter, eggs, and bacon. But the British farmer, too, had to compete with these cheaper imports.

More foods were now packaged under brand names that soon became familiar, and consumers grew to expect an improved quality of service from retailers and food producers. Many of the household cooking chores had already been eliminated, as much of the food—custard, blancmange, jellies, gravy, and porridge—now came out of packages. Breakfast revolved around corn flakes or other cereal products, and the range of canned foods included not only soups but salmon, corned beef, vegetables, fruits like pineapple, and even game birds and condensed milk. Many of the favorite dishes for special occasions might come from a variety of containers, which was a boon for many, as servants were rapidly becoming nonexistent, except in extremely wealthy households. Food retailing in Britain in the 1930s absorbed nearly one-third of the national income.

What consumers failed to realize was that many additives entered these new foods. Food manufacturers added preservatives and improvers—anticaking agents to stop flour, milk, salt, and sugar from forming lumps; emulsifying agents, to blend substances that tended to separate; sequestrants, to keep fats from going rancid—none of which were disclosed on the labels.

Evidence of vitamins and how they contribute to health was published in 1911, and the subject, from then on, was never far from the public eye. It was gradually realized that afflictions like pellagra, rickets, scurvy, and beriberi, once believed to be contagious, were actually the result of deficiencies in vital elements of the diet. Of course, some of the new knowledge required generations to take hold. For example, the idea that brown flour, which contained all the bran and minerals, was more healthful than white flour was first mooted in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but required a full hundred years to be accepted.

In 1914, as in the Boer War, it was once more noted that volunteers for the armed services were grossly undernourished, and at last, the government took action by stressing the importance of the health of munitions workers and the importance of adequate nutrition to the workforce as a whole. By the end of World War I, a thousand industrial canteens were supplying a million meals a day, and workers in British industry, now for the first time had hot, well-cooked meals at reasonable prices (Burnett 1966).

By the time of World War II (1939-45), the government was far better prepared than before to ration food while increasing its production. A Food (Defence Plans) Department had been set up in 1936, but in 1939 Britain was only 30 percent self-sufficient in food compared with 86 percent for Germany. Rationing, however, was begun immediately because all the details had been worked out and the ration books printed. The science of nutrition was now so advanced that the nation’s diet could be planned informatively and wisely. Food technology, it was also seen, could play a vital part in economizing on shipping space by dehydrating vegetables, drying eggs and bananas, importing boneless meat, and compressing carcasses. A good example is “Spam”—the bane of the wartime kitchen. A Food Advice Division was set up to give nutrition information to the public through radio and newspapers.

Britain rationed meat, bacon, cheese, fats, sugar, and preserves on a per person basis. Bread was brown, and vitamins A and D were added to margarine. Additional proteins, vitamins, and minerals were given to small children and to pregnant or nursing mothers. Communal feeding grew in importance; firms employing more than 250 people were required to provide a canteen service, and school canteens began to ensure that all children had at least one well-balanced meal a day. British restaurants in the blitzed areas provided hot, cheap, nutritious meals to the general public and grew to number 2,000 in 1943.

Millions of people “dug for victory.” Flower beds and lawns gave way to vegetable gardens. A great amount of potatoes was eaten, and the consumption of green vegetables and fresh fruit also increased. Throughout the war, there was a decline in infant mortality, and the general health of children improved. On average, they were taller and heavier, and for the first time in British history, the poorest third of the population was eating an adequate and balanced diet. In fact, the British diet has never been more healthful, before or since the war, however much the people complained. They were then consuming a great deal more fiber, much less sugar and refined flours, little meat, and more fresh fruit and vegetables. The war encouraged people to go into the woods and hedgerows to harvest wild foods, to make jams out of sloes and rose hips, and to gather fungi, wild herbs, and greens for flavoring.

Rationing continued until 1953, and for a time there was even less food available than during the war. Women had tasted independence during the war years, and they were not always prepared to return to full-time domesticity. There was a move for women to go out to work, and to encourage this, there was a growth in domestic technology. From the mid-1950s onward, certain trends are noticeable. Less food was bought for home consumption, meals were smaller and lighter, and there was a growing demand for “convenience foods.” This was a new concept: processed foods that are labor-saving because they can be prepared and brought to the table in only a few minutes. In this category, the greatest rise in consumption has been in quick-frozen foods (Burnett 1966), followed by precooked chilled dishes and microwave meals.

Such a change in diet would not have been possible had it not been for a postwar revolution in farming methods throughout the world, occurring on a scale far greater than that of the previous agricultural revolution in the eighteenth century. Intensive factory farming was an idea explored because of the rigors of wartime rationing and the fear that there would not be enough protein for a growing world population. Various factors coming together in the 1950s allowed for new methods. First, there was research in cellular growth and DNA, so that natural hormones could be extracted from livestock, then used to stimulate desired characteristics. Second, the ability was enhanced for chemical companies to research and produce a varied range of drugs, including antibiotics, that allowed farmers to keep greater numbers of animals than ever envisioned before. And third, new building technology could provide cheap housing units for animals, with concrete stalls and automatic feeders and timers that made controlled feeding, watering, and lighting feasible. One result was that fewer and fewer stockmen were needed on the farm to watch over and care for the animals.

Also in the 1950s, agriculture began to spawn a vast number of different but interdependent industries engaged in the development of new equipment, fertilizers, and seeds, as well as new techniques and products for the storage, processing, and preservation of foods. As a consequence, heavily mechanized farms with computer technology made farmers more and more dependent on a host of suppliers. A farmer might often be unable to make a choice on the way he reared his livestock because of the rules laid down by a particular supplier. Large companies, such as those of the pharmaceutical industry, were financing farming with millions of pounds of capital, which meant that the farmer was controlled from a remote city office. Agriculture had become a highly sophisticated energy-intensive system for transforming one series of industrial products into another series of industrial products that just happened to be edible (George 1986).

Selective breeding of livestock also became a new skill, and improvements in the control of selective breeding are certain to continue in the future. But this development also means that we lose genetic diversity (21 British cattle breeds have become extinct since the beginning of the twentieth century). When one bull can sire over a quarter of a million offspring, it allows for enormous inbreeding, which can reveal hitherto unsuspected defects (Johnson 1991). One of the drawbacks for the consumer with these new methods of rearing livestock is that a lack of exercise, combined with a rich protein diet, produces a carcass high in saturated fats. There is also a wide belief that food produced in such a way has less flavor than when natural rearing and feeding is employed. Fully 63 percent of housewives in Britain in the 1980s felt that food had less flavor than it did 20 years earlier (Johnson 1991).

This sense that basic English foods have become blander (Johnson 1991) may partly explain the great popularity of ethnic foods and restaurants. Since the 1950s, Chinese, Indian, Cypriot, Thai, and Mexican restaurants have grown up throughout the towns and cities of Britain. No doubt, the willingness to try new foods was encouraged by postwar travel, although packaged holidays in the popular cheaper resorts of Europe now cater to the most conservative of British tastes with fish and chips, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding. Popular food is also controlled by American companies that produce hamburgers, fried chicken, and the like. This is poor food nutritionally, with a high amount of saturated fat; nonetheless, it symbolizes the American way of life, and by consuming fast food, the eater becomes a part of that way of life. Indeed, this demonstrates how atavistic food consumption still is and how little it has changed from the days of prehistory, when to eat the meat of an ox meant that one was hoping to attain the strength of oxen.

In reaction to factory farming, to the widespread exploitation of animals, and to the high amount of saturated fat in the British diet, the vegetarian movement has grown in the last 40 years. In 1945, there were 100,000 vegetarians in Britain; by the 1990s there were 3 million, the number having doubled during the 1980s. Moreover, 40 percent of British people have reduced their consumption of red meat or entirely eliminated it from their diets (Spencer 1993).

Because of the worldwide market, there is now a far greater range of food available to more people than ever before in history. Yet the diet of the majority tends to be high in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and salt and relies on convenience foods, which lack the fiber and essential vitamins and minerals provided by fresh vegetables and fruits. Food has become blander and more stereotyped over the last 30 years, and the divide between rich and poor has not gotten any smaller. In fact, with a doubling of the population predicted within the next 40 years, it can only grow wider.