Earlier this summer I leapt at the chance to see Jacqui Wood demonstrating prehistoric cooking techniques at Buckland Rings Iron Age hillfort on the outskirts of Lymington, Hampshire. The event was organised by St. Barbe Museum and is part of a programme of events and activities associated with a year-long project exploring the history of food and farming in and around Lymington. The project will culminate in an exhibition at St. Barbe Museum, ‘A Taste of History – Local Food and Farming’ which opens on 6th October and continues until 17th November.
This exhibition will examine the changes to our diet, eating and cooking habits as well as farming and shopping practices over the centuries in a feast of sensory pleasures. In particular food links us to the land around us and in the past, the majority of us would have had some role in the production of food, perhaps as labourers, smallholders or commoners.
(Extract from St. Barbe Museum Website)
Jacqui Wood is a food historian, researcher and Experimental Archaeologist whose work you may be familiar with if you are a fan of Time Team. Jacqui also featured recently on the Channel 5 documentary, ‘The Kings War on Witches’ about James I and the infamous late fifteenth century witch hunts. Jacqui owns the world-famous archaeological research settlement in Cornwall, Saveock Water Archaeology.
Buckland Rings was once open countryside but is now covered with trees. During the Iron Age the inhabitants would have lived in roundhouses and cooked on a central hearth. According to historian Dr Joanna Close-Brooks, who is an expert on the history of Buckland Rings:
The houses were built of timber with thatched roofs and walls made of stakes and wattle covered with daub, or of planks. Inside there was usually a hearth over which food was cooked in a cauldron hanging from a beam, and sometimes a clay oven was constructed for baking bread. The houses were from 20 to 30 feet (6-9 metres) in diameter, with plenty of room to accommodate a large family…..Iron Age people were farmers, keeping cows, sheep, pigs and some horses and raising crops on fields near their settlements. The cattle yielded milk for drinking and making into butter and cheese; skin and sinew for leather and thongs; horn and bone for making into tools and ornament and, of course, meat to eat. Sheep provided the same (like cows they can be milked), but were probably more important for their wool which was woven into cloth, sometimes chequered or patterned in some other design.
(Dr Joanna Close-Brooks, Buckland Rings and Ampress Camp, published by St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, 2000, pp. 3 & 4)
The Celts lived at the settlement during the Iron Age and would have eaten a fairly simple diet consisting of meat, fish, bread, butter and cheese. The main cooking implements around the central hearth would have been a cauldron and a fire-dog. The fire-dog had a lower bar which supported the wooden logs in the hearth and an upper bar used for supporting the meat on the spits. The cauldron was suspended from an iron tripod and simple unglazed pottery vessels would have been used to cook with.
Jacqui, assisted by her son, cooked us from scratch a delicious smoked fish stew, sweet bean cakes, oat and barley bread which was accompanied by home-made butter. In prehistoric times a whisk, bowl, strainer, loose-weave cloth and two wooden spoons were needed to make butter. If you want to make an authentic prehistoric butter whisk, Jacqui suggests:
…try to make the whisk first from some green hazel or willow sticks. To begin with strip the bark off the sticks…if this is done in the spring the bark will strip off in one piece as the sap is rising in the plant at that time of year – keep this bark for binding the whisk together. Then very carefully bend three of the sticks and secure them all at the cut end with the strips of bark or string. You have now made a very effective balloon whisk with which to make butter.
(Wood, J., Prehistoric Cooking, 2011, p. 81)
The smoked fish stew was delicious. It contained bacon, leeks, smoked fish, milk, cream, chives and salt. Simple to make but surprisingly hearty.
The sweet bean cakes had a more unusual taste, sweet, quite dense but very filling. They contained butter, whole wheat flour, processed beans, honey and chopped hazelnuts.
The oat and barley bread was made from medium oatmeal, barley flour, butter, sea salt and milk and cooked by wrapping the mixture around hot stones. A very clever and effective technique.
I am an advocate of Experimental Archaeology even though it does raise a few eyebrows amongst traditional archaeologists. Jacqui’s extensive understanding of prehistoric cooking techniques has developed out of her experimental practices, coupled with an in-depth, archaeological knowledge, of the period. Her writing is all the more rich for a combination of these two factors. There is nothing like watching a recipe, from several thousands years ago, being brought back to life and enjoyed once more in the twenty-first century by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
I also picked-up, at the event, a signed copy of her cookery book, Prehistoric Cooking. It not only contains well-written chapters on life and society in prehistoric times but is jam-packed with easy-to-follow recipes, many of which produce dishes that would not look out-of-place on the modern dining-table. Beautifully illustrated throughout, a must-have for all devotees of food history. Jacqui has also written another historical cookbook, Tasting The Past: Recipes From The Stone Age to the Present.
- For more information about ‘A Taste of History – Local Food and Farming’ (6th October-17th November) at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, CLICK HERE.