Food in the Early Middle Ages, Celtic Ireland—Part II
In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at food in the early Middle Ages, specifically at what people ate and drank in early medieval Ireland—Part II. (Click here for Part I.)
Food in the Early Middle Ages
We’ve seen how the Celts’ main diet was composed of beef, pork, stew, game, or some kind of stew. Often they ate pottage, a stew of meat, vegetables, barley and whatever that simmered on the cauldron for days, with new ingredients constantly being added.
Forks and Knives?
But what culinary equipment did the early medieval diner employ? Not much. Forks did not come into existence until after the 11th century, imported from the Byzantine empire. The first forks only had two tines and some viewed these strange devices with great suspicion. Surely there’s a diabolical similarity here to the Devil’s own pitchfork? And you want to stick that in your mouth?
But the basic tool for attacking your dinner was the knife, and you might have used two of them. Hard to stab a pea with, but useful for most foods. For soup only a spoon would do, and spoons have been around from the very beginning. The first spoons were probably seashells. And the early imagination, pondering such a useful natural instrument, would naturally add a handle.
For many, basic dinner utensils consisted of bare fingers. Since your meal was likely roasting on the spit before you, what else did you need? Simply grab a hunk of meat carved from a joint and stick in your mouth. And the tongue works great for cleaning. What’s the fuss?
Trenchers and Plates
Well into the 16th century, many Europeans served their dinners on trenchers of flat, stale bread. Imagine your meat and buttered turnips sitting on the bread, leaking their juices into the bread below. After the main course, you could follow it with a second one of soggy bread soaked in meat and vegetable juice. Yum! Some folk had wooden or clay trenchers, but it was the bread bowl that ruled most early medieval dinner tables.
Milk and Honey
Since the early Irish economy was cattle-based, they had plenty of milk. Milk was an important drink for everyone. From milk they developed cheese and butter. They also tended great hives of bees from which to make honey. So if you were lucky, your breakfast might also have been a porridge of barley, topped with honey, milk, and butter. The Irish had plenty of each.
Barley Beer—Every Table Had It
Since the water was often unsafe, what else besides milk did they drink? The answer, of course, is beer, mead, or wine. Beer was the easiest to make and since barley was ubiquitous, every Celtic roundhouse would have had a vat in which they brewed barley beer or ale. At table they often preferred to drink their beer from a drinking horn. But think about it. Once filled, you couldn’t set down your horn until the contents were either finished or the horn was passed to another.
Mead—the Celtic Drink of Choice
We mentioned the hives kept for honey. From honey the early Irish also fermented mead, or honey-wine. How do you make it? Get a large brass flagon. Fill it a third full of honey from your hives. Add spring water and some yeast. Put a lambskin cover on it and bind it tightly with rope. Wait three weeks and siphon off the mead into another flagon, leaving the residue behind. Place your flagon in a cool, dark place and wait six months to a year. Now it’s ready to drink.
Grapes do not grow well in Ireland. But if you had trade with Gaul, you could get your hands on some amphorae of good wine from Gaul and even Spain. So wine was mainly for wealthy nobles.
Next time we’ll look at social classes in early medieval Ireland. Of nobles, druids, bards, and bothach.