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Anglo-Saxon Cotswold Food

PUBLISHED: 10:55 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:35 20 February 2013

Strawberries, perhaps little larger than wild ones, were one of our ancestors' summer delights.

Strawberries, perhaps little larger than wild ones, were one of our ancestors' summer delights.

From plot to plate, the Cotswolds has a fine record of food production. By June Lewis

He bringeth forth grass for the cattle: and green herb for the service of men;


That he may bring food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man: and oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man's heart.


Psalm 104, v 14




Cotswold Life marks its fifth anniversary of its prestigious Food and Drink Awards next month with even more categories gaining recognition for outstanding contribution to the food and drink industry. From plot to pot to plate, those producing, preparing, promoting and presenting our local fare to the highest standards, that have been nominated and judged by those who use their services, will be accorded their due acclaim and endorse the Cotswolds rightful place on the culinary map.


The Cotswolds, in fact, have a long and honoured history of producing excellent food, firmly established long before the fashionable labels of 'organic, country fresh, and environmentally friendly' were affixed to commercialise what, to us, is the way we have been doing things for at least a millennium and a half. Any intermittent ventures into chemical aids for high yields and pest resistance have been politically forced upon our folk who farm and cultivate the land. However, by whatever means and motives have inspired the present day consideration of working with nature instead of contriving to alter the natural balance of our environment and our place in the whole scheme of things, it has created an important awareness of place and people with excellent results.


Successive settlers in the region have left some evidence of their way of life, as revealed by archaeological excavations, and it would appear that the early Anglo-Saxons took over many existing settlements of the Roman occupation, particularly of those sited close to the major roads as they were the main arteries of travel and communication. The Anglo-Saxons were great administrators, for it is to their time that we can trace the drawing up of the ancient shires. Cotswold place names are predominantly of Anglo-Saxon origin, and it is estimated that some one hundred and thirty-three parishes in the Cotswolds may be identified as centres of settlement dating back at least a thousand years. The Shiptons - Moyne, Solers and under Wychwood - owe their name to the vast flocks of sheep that were once kept on the wolds; the corruption of sheep to 'ship' is an example of dialectal speech rather than any nautical connection. There was, however, a thriving trade with the Continent in wool long before the Norman Conquest. The suffix 'ham' meaning homestead, and 'tun' (now written as 'ton') derive from Anglo-Saxon names for 'enclosure, farmstead or village'. Cranham and Cheltenham, Farmington, Poulton and Naunton come readily to mind as examples.


It is reasonable, therefore, to trace our regional food and drink heritage back to our Anglo-Saxon roots to glean some idea of how many aspects of our present day fare have grown from them over the centuries. Perhaps little has changed basically from the ancient Greeks' philosophy when Sophocles recommended bread, meat, vegetables and beer as an ideal diet - many people might easily find no great fault with that today. Beer has a long, time-honoured pedigree - it is generally agreed that the Egyptians instructed the Greeks in the brewing process; the Greeks taught the Romans who, during their occupation here, educated the British and beer became the most common drink for the Anglo-Saxons - they may have preferred wine and mead, but both were expensive and so mainly confined to the more noble tables. Most Anglo-Saxon beer was almost certainly based on barley - a crop that grew slowly on the thin brash soil of the Cotswolds; but beer for medicinal purposes was made from malted wheat. Beer, or the malt to make it, is the most common item in food rents, after bread, confirming its value and importance in the Anglo-Saxon diet. And, as today, beer had a strong social role forging and confirming bonds between host and guest, lord and serfs, family and friends. A direct link with that ancient past is proposing a toast with the wassail cup at Christmastide - the word wassail coming from the Anglo-Saxon term waes hael 'be healthy', interpreted now as 'Good Health'.


Wine was probably produced in much the same way as the Romans had made theirs, and, like the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons liked their wine sweet and featured in their spiritual and special social occasions.


Centuries before the importation of sugar, honey was the only form of sweetening and highly valued, again appearing in food rents indicating that the land-owning classes desired it as part of their lifestyle. Beehives and bee-keepers are listed in Domesday Book, another indication of their importance in the social economy.


It is interesting that in the Anglo-Saxon social scale, the lord and lady of the manorial system - manor meaning a parcel of land rather than one large house in extensive grounds - were closely involved in the production of the food they provided for their own household and dependants, which often meant their retainers, labourers and followers as well as members of the family. In her study of food and drink in Anglo-Saxon England, Debby Banham, a lecturer specialising in the medicine, diet and agriculture of that period, explains that the word 'lord', Old English hlaford, is derived from hlaf, 'bread, and weard, 'keeper, guardian'. It was the lady at his side that was known as the 'bread-kneader' from the Old English hlafdige; bread-making, from grinding the corn to kneading to baking, was generally women's work in cultures across the world. Grinding corn was by hand using a quern, in the same way as it had been from biblical times; it was the Anglo-Saxons who perfected mechanical mills, but these were few and far between and by the end of the period there were some 5,000 - mainly watermills - throughout England, and an important asset in the value of each manor to be recorded in the Domesday reckoning.


The Anglo-Saxons had no choice but to eat foods in season - and discerning folk are today aiming to follow that pattern, disillusioned by inferior taste and ever more conscious of the 'food miles' involved in getting fruit and vegetables from across the world to our table. Likewise, with dairy products which, in Anglo-Saxon times were made from milk not only from cows, but also from sheep and goats. Cheese, rather than butter, was the priority to be made and fresh milk was only available in season.


Preserves, such as jam, would have been unknown and impossible to make before sugar was available. There were a surprising number of varieties of fruit, such as strawberries, gooseberries, apples and pears - albeit they may have been smaller in size than we are used to, from which we have grown on to produce today's local harvest.


If only those old Anglo-Saxons could see just what has been achieved by our Cotswold folk in the twenty-first century from those ancient roots they would no doubt raise a glass and wish them all 'waes hael'!


Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England by Debby Banham is published by Tempus Publishing Ltd


He bringeth forth grass for the cattle: and green herb for the service of men;


That he may bring food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man: and oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man's heart.


Psalm 104, v 14




Cotswold Life marks its fifth anniversary of its prestigious Food and Drink Awards next month with even more categories gaining recognition for outstanding contribution to the food and drink industry. From plot to pot to plate, those producing, preparing, promoting and presenting our local fare to the highest standards, that have been nominated and judged by those who use their services, will be accorded their due acclaim and endorse the Cotswolds rightful place on the culinary map.


The Cotswolds, in fact, have a long and honoured history of producing excellent food, firmly established long before the fashionable labels of 'organic, country fresh, and environmentally friendly' were affixed to commercialise what, to us, is the way we have been doing things for at least a millennium and a half. Any intermittent ventures into chemical aids for high yields and pest resistance have been politically forced upon our folk who farm and cultivate the land. However, by whatever means and motives have inspired the present day consideration of working with nature instead of contriving to alter the natural balance of our environment and our place in the whole scheme of things, it has created an important awareness of place and people with excellent results.


Successive settlers in the region have left some evidence of their way of life, as revealed by archaeological excavations, and it would appear that the early Anglo-Saxons took over many existing settlements of the Roman occupation, particularly of those sited close to the major roads as they were the main arteries of travel and communication. The Anglo-Saxons were great administrators, for it is to their time that we can trace the drawing up of the ancient shires. Cotswold place names are predominantly of Anglo-Saxon origin, and it is estimated that some one hundred and thirty-three parishes in the Cotswolds may be identified as centres of settlement dating back at least a thousand years. The Shiptons - Moyne, Solers and under Wychwood - owe their name to the vast flocks of sheep that were once kept on the wolds; the corruption of sheep to 'ship' is an example of dialectal speech rather than any nautical connection. There was, however, a thriving trade with the Continent in wool long before the Norman Conquest. The suffix 'ham' meaning homestead, and 'tun' (now written as 'ton') derive from Anglo-Saxon names for 'enclosure, farmstead or village'. Cranham and Cheltenham, Farmington, Poulton and Naunton come readily to mind as examples.


It is reasonable, therefore, to trace our regional food and drink heritage back to our Anglo-Saxon roots to glean some idea of how many aspects of our present day fare have grown from them over the centuries. Perhaps little has changed basically from the ancient Greeks' philosophy when Sophocles recommended bread, meat, vegetables and beer as an ideal diet - many people might easily find no great fault with that today. Beer has a long, time-honoured pedigree - it is generally agreed that the Egyptians instructed the Greeks in the brewing process; the Greeks taught the Romans who, during their occupation here, educated the British and beer became the most common drink for the Anglo-Saxons - they may have preferred wine and mead, but both were expensive and so mainly confined to the more noble tables. Most Anglo-Saxon beer was almost certainly based on barley - a crop that grew slowly on the thin brash soil of the Cotswolds; but beer for medicinal purposes was made from malted wheat. Beer, or the malt to make it, is the most common item in food rents, after bread, confirming its value and importance in the Anglo-Saxon diet. And, as today, beer had a strong social role forging and confirming bonds between host and guest, lord and serfs, family and friends. A direct link with that ancient past is proposing a toast with the wassail cup at Christmastide - the word wassail coming from the Anglo-Saxon term waes hael 'be healthy', interpreted now as 'Good Health'.


Wine was probably produced in much the same way as the Romans had made theirs, and, like the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons liked their wine sweet and featured in their spiritual and special social occasions.


Centuries before the importation of sugar, honey was the only form of sweetening and highly valued, again appearing in food rents indicating that the land-owning classes desired it as part of their lifestyle. Beehives and bee-keepers are listed in Domesday Book, another indication of their importance in the social economy.


It is interesting that in the Anglo-Saxon social scale, the lord and lady of the manorial system - manor meaning a parcel of land rather than one large house in extensive grounds - were closely involved in the production of the food they provided for their own household and dependants, which often meant their retainers, labourers and followers as well as members of the family. In her study of food and drink in Anglo-Saxon England, Debby Banham, a lecturer specialising in the medicine, diet and agriculture of that period, explains that the word 'lord', Old English hlaford, is derived from hlaf, 'bread, and weard, 'keeper, guardian'. It was the lady at his side that was known as the 'bread-kneader' from the Old English hlafdige; bread-making, from grinding the corn to kneading to baking, was generally women's work in cultures across the world. Grinding corn was by hand using a quern, in the same way as it had been from biblical times; it was the Anglo-Saxons who perfected mechanical mills, but these were few and far between and by the end of the period there were some 5,000 - mainly watermills - throughout England, and an important asset in the value of each manor to be recorded in the Domesday reckoning.


The Anglo-Saxons had no choice but to eat foods in season - and discerning folk are today aiming to follow that pattern, disillusioned by inferior taste and ever more conscious of the 'food miles' involved in getting fruit and vegetables from across the world to our table. Likewise, with dairy products which, in Anglo-Saxon times were made from milk not only from cows, but also from sheep and goats. Cheese, rather than butter, was the priority to be made and fresh milk was only available in season.


Preserves, such as jam, would have been unknown and impossible to make before sugar was available. There were a surprising number of varieties of fruit, such as strawberries, gooseberries, apples and pears - albeit they may have been smaller in size than we are used to, from which we have grown on to produce today's local harvest.


If only those old Anglo-Saxons could see just what has been achieved by our Cotswold folk in the twenty-first century from those ancient roots they would no doubt raise a glass and wish them all 'waes hael'!


Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England by Debby Banham is published by Tempus Publishing Ltd


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