Back in the days of the 10th century, an errant leader would simply have been disembowelled with a rusty fork. Much has changed since then; our methods of resolving political disagreements one example. Our diet is another. When folk like ourselves think back on Scotland’s sometimes squalid, often brutish medieval past, we don’t normally consider what people were eating at the time.
A survey by deals website Groupon suggests that Scots’ favourite meal is an old-fashioned Sunday Roast. However, what we understand as a Roast was only possible from the end of the 16th-century onwards, after potatoes arrived in Europe on Spanish ships sailing from newly-colonised South America.
This, along with the fact that consuming beef and lamb was prohibitively costly for those lacking royal lineage, meant that normal folk were not having roast dinners in Scotland until at least the late Renaissance. So, what did we eat? Below is a guide on how to create a truly classic medieval Scottish set menu for yourself and your family.
In France it is traditional to take a drink – normally alcoholic – before a meal, to stimulate companionship and appetite. In Scotland the obvious choice would be whisky. But we’re talking about the 10th century here, and whisky is another modern staple which was not available when the Scottish nation blossomed into life north of the River Forth as the 9th century Kingdom of Alba. The first written record of whisky (or uisge beatha in Gaelic, meaning ‘water of life’) in Scotland is from 1495, when King James IV ordered Friar John Cor to make 1,500 bottles of the stuff. How dining partners began meals back in the 10th century one can only imagine.
Pottage is a simple soup or stew made from vegetables and occasionally meat scraps. It was popular in medieval times as it only used vegetables native to Scotland, which you could grow outside your house. Pottage is still seen as a satisfying plate of food nowadays, though mainly by vegans.
Gather, or have your offspring gather for you from the vegetable patch: 5 carrots, 5 parsnips, 2 large onions, a turnip, a cabbage and a small basket of broad beans or lentils. In your largest pot, over a fire, fry the onions in a bit of animal fat. Then chop and add each ingredient before submerging everything in fresh water and boiling for 30 minutes – or longer if you want a thicker, stewier outcome. Though salt and pepper will be too expensive for common peasants such as yourself, you might want to add some thyme or fennel – two herb plants native to Britain – for flavour.
Le plat principal
Smoked Fish with Fried Kale and Wild Garlic
Haggis, the delicious, nutritious meat pudding made using the parts of a sheep which lesser cultures discard (and in the case of the USA, ban), did not grace Scottish tables until the 15th century. It’s thought that haggis originated out of necessity. For a long time before, people on the move would take some oats with them in a bag made out of a sheep’s stomach. During the late medieval period people began adding offal to this bag, and before long, realised they could mix the offal with oats and spices to make a delicious gunge which they would then pack into the stomach lining and boil.
The Vikings arrived in the 8th century with murder in their hearts and smoked fish in their bellies. Their Scandinavian appetites jumpstarted the Scottish fishing industry, and communities around the coast dined on the spoils of it. Smoked fish continues to be popular in Scotland to this day.
So. Have your fellow villagers help you prepare a smoking box. You’ll need a robust base where the woodchips will go (apple, cherry or alder wood imparts the best flavour) and a few lengths of wood to go above the fire, from which your fish will hang. You’ll want some more wood or a sack to go over the top of your structure to keep the smoke from drifting away.
The fattier the fish, the more flavour it’s able to absorb from the smoke. So, salmon or sea bass would be ideal. However, haddock would also work. Dry the fish overnight and then tie them in pairs with string. Suspend them from the sticks, cover the contraption, wait 2-3 hours and there you have it.
Put those hours to good use picking some kale and foraging for a bit of wild garlic. Boil the kale up over the fire, then fry it with the wild garlic to make a magnificent accompaniment to the smoked fish.
Although crannachan’s been around for a surprisingly long time, we can’t know for sure if it had been invented by the 10th century. But it may well have. All the ingredients – oats, raspberries, honey and cream – were, to varying degrees, parts of our diet at the time. Oats, of course, were and still are used to make porridge, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise they’re good toasted. Honey has been used as a sweetener in Scotland for far longer than sugar has. Cream was a little rarer; cattle being mostly used for meat rather than to make dairy products. Raspberries, native to Britain, are ready to pick each June; making Crannachan the ideal springtime luxury.
Toast the oats for a minute or so above the fire. Whisk the cream until it’s nice and thick, mix it with the fresh raspberries, throw the oats on top and drizzle on some honey.
Spirits such as whisky or brandy may have been thin on the ground in medieval Scotland, but heather beer was not. According to Williams Brothers of Alloa, the only brewery still producing it commercially, heather beer has been brewed in Scotland since around 4,000 years ago. It’s easy to find the main ingredients in the wild even today: heather, which grows all over Britain; yarrow, commonly found on the roadside; and hops – a little rarer – which sometimes occur naturally as a climbing plant. Mixed with malt, some kind of yeast, maybe a bit of honey, and using the correct equipment, you can in the space of a week or two have your own heather ale, in much the same style as the Vikings will have drank in Scotland over 1000 years ago.