How do you taste London’s past? That’s an easy one and a subject close to my heart; food and drink. Of the two, drink is the trickier to get to grips with. Nobody that I know of in the city brews anything that resembles the medieval ale that Londoners would have drunk. All the ancient wells and drinking fountains have been put beyond use, and I wouldn’t advocate drinking water from the River Thames, which to some Londoners in the past was a necessity. So that leaves us with food.
In a past life I was a chef and so the topic of what our ancestors would eat is of interest. If you take the diet of the normal Londoner from six hundred years ago it would be a very bland affair, mainly consisting of a dish called Pottage, a type of vegetable stew. The most common ingredients for pottage making included cabbage, onions, leeks, celery and garden peas, don’t forget the potato didn’t appear in Britain until 1586. At certain times of the year grains like barley or dried beans would have been added. For the average peasant, extra flavouring for the pottage came from fresh herbs such as parsley, sage, thyme and rosemary. If you were just that little bit more well off you may have added some saffron or cloves, but as spices had to be imported they were expensive. Salt was widely used, but pepper was in the same class as the spices. This would have been eaten with bread, probably made from a blend of wholemeal, barley and rye flours. White flour would have been reserved only for the wealthiest Londoners due to the additional costs of grinding and sieving. This combination of pottage and bread would have been eaten as the main meal every single day. There may have been the occasional piece of meat, but generally this bland diet was the mainstay. Give it a try, it’s quite nice, once or twice, but every day!
As the quality of life improved for most Londoners, meat became a larger part of their diet, but it would be hard to define an everyday dish other than roast meat to give you a flavour of London in the past. I would imagine reading this, that you would think you know what roast meat tastes like, but I’d say that you have probably never tasted a true roasted meat. Our modern day ovens don’t roast, they bake. The only way to get the true taste is to roast your joint in front of an open wood fire, continually basting it with the dripping that comes off of it. Our ancestors when cooking this way would have also coated their roast with something called Dredge, a blend of oat or barley flour and stale breadcrumbs. This combined with the basting would give the meat a crisp exterior. Barbecuing is close, but still not as good as open fire roasting.
Putting a bland bowl of vegetables or having to dig a fire pit to one side, let’s take a look at a more convenient taste of London, the Oyster. Since the Roman settlement of Londinium was establish nearly two thousand years ago, the Native Oyster has been fished from UK waters such as, Whitstable Bay in Kent and the Blackwater River Estuary in Essex, which are close to London. In excavations of concerning Londinium, Oyster shells are found in abundance. After the Romans left these shores in around 450 AD the Oyster seems to fall out of favour until a resurgence some three hundred years later. Between the 8th and 16th centuries, the oyster became popular with the rich and poor Londoner alike. Oysters were often cooked in their liquor (the small pool of clear seawater found in the oysters’ cupped shells) with a splash of ale and black pepper.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, oysters were used in many varied dishes. Smaller oysters were often eaten raw, and larger oysters were often used in stews or cooked in pies. They were used with pork or mutton to make sausages and were stuffed inside fowl, such as turkey or duck, and then roasted; and the oysters’ liquor would be poured over the fowl. They were also pickled to preserve them. So next time you eat an oyster, you will be getting the same taste and texture sensations as generations of Londoners experienced before you.
A couple of traditional London dishes that can still be sampled to this day and can transport you back to 19th Century London are Pie ‘n’ Mash, liquor and Jellied Eel, widely eaten by everyday Londoners. I’ve already written a piece about the cult of Pie ‘n’ Mash and to save time, you can find it here if you’re interested, Ambrosia
Want to give them a try, but can’t get to London to sample their delights? Never fear, the recipes for the pies, the liquor and the jellied Eels are on my Pinterest board along with some other London inspired recipes and places I would recommend to eat at. Enjoy!