Feature: Taste of Britain

Journalist and Blue Badge Guide, Marc Zakian explores the History of Food in the UK.


What did the ancient Britons eat? If you were invited to a Stone Age feast, the menu would have included wild boar, red deer with hazelnuts, salmon, trout, frogs’ legs, blackberries and – possibly – you.

14,000 year old remains from Gough’s Cave in Somerset have shown that our ancestors used human skulls as drinking cups – and that they may have indulged in cannibalism.

The communities who built Stonehenge were also enthusiastic carnivores. In 2500BC the stone circle was the focal point for communal feasts where thousands of animals were slaughtered to mark the winter solstice. People travelled from as far away as highland Scotland for a celebration that included up to a tenth of Britain’s population.


The communities who built Stonehenge were also enthusiastic carnivores. In 2500BC the stone circle was the focal point for communal feasts where thousands of animals were slaughtered to mark the winter solstice.


Cattle was king in the Iron Age when a man’s wealth was measured by the size of his herd, but the Celts also planted grain for bread. Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire investigates what and how these ancient Britons cooked and ate.

“There were no written recipes two thousand years ago,” says Butser’s food historian Liz Barnes-Downing. “The only evidence we have comes from traces of food on pottery and bog bodies – ancient mummies whose last dinner is preserved in their gut”.

Liz demonstrates Celtic cookery at Butser using seasonal ingredients. “Following a long, barren winter, people would have been screaming for greens. So in spring we make Iron Age salad with foraged nettles, goose grass, broom flower and rats’ tails [a native plantain, not a rodent’s appendage]. This is seasoned with vinegar, linseed or hazel oil.

“The main course is a stew with fava beans, spelt and barley with dried pork or mutton. For a ‘pudding’ we fry a fritter in oil or lard and flavour it with honey, birch or maple sap.

“Whenever I prepare food in one of Butser’s Iron Age roundhouses, smoke from the fire is so overbearing that I am convinced they cooked in the open air – probably eating in groups, sharing wooden eating troughs and communal ovens.

“The ovens were dug from holes in the ground and heated with fire stones. These were also used for boiling. You can stew a whole joint of meat in a pot heated with hot stones, the skill is in making sure they don’t explode. The pot was stirred with tools made from wood, stone or bone. An ox’s shoulder blade makes a great spatula.”

Butser Farm keeps several ancient farm breeds, including Tamworth pigs and a small four-horn sheep called Manx Loaghtan. Their meat is sold from the farm shop and Liz has prepared recipe cards for anyone who wants to try ‘Celtic’ cooking at home –




The Roman invasion in AD 43 brought vegetables to Britain including garlic, onion, leek, cabbage, peas and turnip. They also introduced rabbit, chicken and pheasant and sated sweet palates with chestnuts, apples, grapes and cherries.

Roman delicacies included snails fattened on milk, peacocks’ brains, flamingos’ tongues and stuffed, baked dormice. The peasant population lived on a diet of bread, vegetable soup, and porridge. This would be the sorry diet of poor people right up to the 20th century.


Roman Britain gave way to Anglo-Saxon England, where most people made a living from the land. English is full of words inherited from Anglo- Saxon peasant life: an acre was an area of land that could be ploughed in one day; a hide was sufficient land to support a family; a tun denoted a farm or estate; a cote was an animal shelter.

The Anglo-Saxons also gave us the words pig, sheep and cow. But following the Norman Conquest in 1066, ruling aristocrats used French names: mutton (mouton), venison (venaison), pork (porc) and beef (boeuf).

Society was divided: Anglo-Saxon peasants in the fields, Normans dining at the table. That legacy is reflected in modern English, with the name of the animal changing as it moves from farm to food.

Peasants lived off Mother Nature’s larder. Forests were full of edible animals: hedgehogs, whose white flesh resembled pork; red squirrels that were hunted with weighted sticks; badgers were smoked over birchwood fires; thrush, black-bird, skylark and sparrow were caught in nets; and even dormice and rats were eaten.

Poor people rarely ate their livestock. As long as a sheep was producing wool and milk, it was too valuable to become mutton; chickens were only killed when they stopped laying eggs; oxen were the medieval tractor and cow’s milk was turned into butter or cheese. Fear of contamination meant that people didn’t drink milk unless it came straight from the cow.

Geese laid eggs and their feathers were used to stuff beds and flight the arrows that destroyed the French army at Agincourt. The bird’s fat was used in cooking and peasants kept warm by covering themselves in goose grease.

Pigs were eaten regularly. Sows and piglets fed on household slops and scavenged the forest in spring, clearing the undergrowth. In autumn, boars were slaughtered and their meat salted or smoked ready for winter. It was said you could ‘eat everything of a pig except the squeak’.

Bread was the food of the masses in the Middle Ages and its cost was controlled by law. A loaf sold for a penny, its size varying according to the price of grain and quality of flour. Bakers who cheated were fined and it may be that they would add an extra loaf to an order to avoid punishment – leading to the phrase ‘a baker’s dozen’ (meaning 13).

Pottage  is a thick soup that sustained people from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages. It was made from anything available to put in the pot – typically carrots, beans, oats, leeks and peas – then kept over the fire for days and topped up when needed. It is remembered in the children’s rhyme: ‘Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old’.



The finest meat was reserved for the aristocracy. By the 13th century the monarch owned vast areas of England and peasants accused of poaching on royal land were punished by hanging, blinding or being sewn into a deerskin and hunted by dogs.

When a deer was caught it was butchered on the spot. Huntsmen and beaters were allowed to keep the offal and tripe, known as ‘umbles’ and these were baked in a pie – giving us the modern idiom: ‘to eat humble pie’. Another offal dish was haggis – first recorded in England in 1430.

Fishponds were popular at palaces and abbeys, as red meat was forbidden on fast days. A single pike cost as much as two pigs. Whale was reserved for the royals and when an animal was beached, locals were obliged to send the head to the king and the tail to queen.

The Fenlands were famous for eels, so much so that the city of Ely is said to be named after the fish. The best eel was lamprey, prized for its meaty taste. Henry I enjoyed them so much he died after eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. Salmon, however, was plentiful and cheap. Merchants fed their apprentices with it so frequently that they rioted and a law had to be passed limiting salmon lunches to three a week.

The first English cookbook was The Forme of Cury. Published in 1390 it included 205 recipes. It’s not instructions for a medieval vindaloo, cury derives from the French word ‘to cook’.


During the 1530s Henry VIII rebuilt the Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court Palace. The king’s new cookhouse had more than 50 rooms, where some 200 servants would butcher, boil, and bake in what one visitor described as ‘veritable hells, such is the stir and bustle in them’.

They fed Henry’s 600 courtiers twice a day. In one year alone, king’s nobles noshed 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,300 deer, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boar. On feast days they were served 10 dishes, on a normal day five. By 1540 Henry VIII’s girth had expanded to 53 inches.

The image endures of a gluttonous Henry stuffing his ever-growing belly, but as Hampton Court’s food historian Marc Meltonville explains: “We have no idea what he ate, because aristocrats ate buffets. The host crammed the table with as much food as possible and the diners chose what they wanted. The message was: I am rich and choice is luxury.

“One of the luxuries was a roast. In a world where most people could not afford fresh meat, in Henry VIII’s kitchens five fires burned a ton of wood every day, roasting beef for 300 people. That is why today a ‘roast’ is still an important meal, but it is baked in an oven, not turned on a spit”.

Royal feasts demonstrated your power. When a special guest was invited, the kitchen would devise grand concoctions to impress the visitor. A cockentrice was made by sewing the upper part of a pig to the bottom part of a capon or turkey. Another fancy was roasted peacock decorated with the bird’s bright blue feathers that were plucked then replaced after cooking – its beak gilded with gold leaf.

“The king’s cooks were creating a sort of mythical beast,” explains Marc Meltonville, “flavoured with expensive sauces and spices such as ginger and cinnamon and announced with a fanfare. It was dinner as entertainment, full of symbolism and power. This was followed by a ‘subtlety’, such as a giant decorated marzipan boat, the Tudor equivalent of an ice sculpture.

“There was no dessert in this period, but on special occasions the most important diners would retire to the banqueting house; a separate building where they were presented with confectioneries including boiled sweets, caramels, sugared aniseeds and marzipans. The centrepiece was a giant sugar model such as St George fighting the dragon.

Sugars and spices were kept under lock and key. Ordinary people could never afford them. They were living on vegetable stews filled with leeks, beans, peas and cabbages – which, unfortunately for peasants, was one of the few things that grew all year round.”


When Oliver Cromwell abolished the royal parks in the mid-17th century, commoners hunted the ‘king’s meat’ with hungry enthusiasm, decimating Britain’s deer population. But in recent years their number has risen to two million – more than at any time since the Norman Conquest.

Woburn Abbey boasts Britain’s largest deer park with over 1400 deer roaming its 3000 acres. Richmond Park is home to 630 red and fallow deer, descendants of animals Henry VIII hunted in the 16th century.

Twice a year, the park’s qualified stalkers cull the deer to maintain a sustainable number. Wild deer is gralloched on the spot – the Gaelic word for gutting deer – and the venison then sold in farm shops, butchers and supermarkets. Every year 300,000 deer are hunted in Britain and their meat is on the menu in restaurants, pubs and street food markets.


Lobscouse was a sailors’ stew, a mix of boiled, salted meat and ship’s biscuit. In the 18th century, poorer people in the port city of Liverpool started eating it as a cheap dish – leading to Liverpudlians being known to this day as Scousers.

‘Cheap’ was the Old English word for the market. It survives in names such as Chipping Norton and Chipping Campden. Cheapside was a medieval London market, with Bread Street, Poultry and Honey Lane nearby. Stew Lane was also advertising a kind of produce, however it was not casseroles but brothels.


Breakfast was invented in the Elizabethan period. For most people this consisted of bread and butter, sometimes with eggs or sage. The wealthy ate white bread, the poor brown. The working day started at 5am, with breakfast eaten around seven in the morning.

Dinner was the main meal of the day. The timing depended on your status: nobles, gentlemen and scholars ate dinner at 11am, with some meals lasting up to two hours. Merchants and Londoners ate an hour later.

The last meal was supper at 5pm. Sumptuary laws regulated the number of dishes you were allowed to eat at one meal: a duke was permitted seven, a lord six, a merchant three.

Trade and exploration brought new foods to Elizabethan England. The first tomato was grown in London in the 1590s by John Gerard. Though he knew it was eaten in southern Europe, the herbalist believed it was poisonous and the tomato was not widely used until the mid-18th century.

There is a legend that Sir Walter Raleigh presented a potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I. The royal cooks tossed out the tubers and cooked the poisonous stems and leaves, making everyone so ill that the potato was banned from court. Though this is probably a myth, the potato only became popular in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

Elizabethans could buy foods that had been luxuries a century earlier and merchant’s kitchens were full of peppers, almonds, dates, olives from Greece, French capers, cucumbers, figs and sugar. Some histories record that Good Queen Bess loved sugared food so much that all her teeth fell out.



French cuisine had an enormous influence on English food. George, Prince of Wales employed the UK’s first international celebrity chef, Marie Antoine Carême in the kitchen at his Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Carême introduced the elaborate grande cuisine style of cooking and fancy French dishes became known as ‘kickshaws’, from quelquechose, French for ‘something’.

English food fought back with its signature dish, roast beef. Celebrated in 18th century painting by Hogarth and in the ballad The Roast Beef of Old England it was the symbol of resistance against the ‘old enemy’. The dish became so synonymous with England that a French nickname for the English is les Rosbifs.

Beefsteak Clubs opened – expensive male dining establishments, where dukes and judges gorged on roasts. This diet led to the upper classes becoming rather portly: the politician Charles Fox was so rotund he had to have a circle cut from his table at his club and Prince George – who ate three beefsteaks and two pigeons at breakfast – was mockingly dubbed the ‘Prince of Whales’.

The poor ate at cookshops: steamy cellars on the backstreets and alleys of London that served boiled beef, stews and suet pudding to London’s carriage drivers, porters and footmen.

The 1700s saw a new dish gracing wealthy tables, the dessert. A mini Ice Age ushered in the ice house, a building where frozen pond water could be kept until summer. “Georgian cooks took advantage of this by making fruit and custard ices,” explains Marc Meltonville. “They were made in a sorbetière, a tube of pewter rotated in ice until the mixture froze. This was then tipped into a decorative mould”.



The steam engine led to a food revolution in the Victorian city. Seafood was rushed to London on ‘perishables’ trains; by the 1870s, 300 tons of Cornish fish was arriving in the capital every day. Early morning milk trains brought dairy from Welsh pastures and Buckingham fields to the city’s breakfast tables.

The tin can was invented in England in 1810. Tins of Fray Bentos corned beef crossed the Atlantic from Argentina and the meat was sliced into the working man’s packed lunch. Canned peaches, apricots and pineapples from California meant that many could now eat fruit all year round.

White was in fashion. A Glasgow mill worked out how to make cheap, white flour and the healthy brown loaf was, literally, sifted out. In Liverpool, Henry Tate developed a new refining technique to increase the yield of white sugar that Tate & Lyle sold in profitably dainty cubes.

Convenience food arrived with the invention of self-raising flour, baking and custard powder, gelatine blancmange, dried milk, egg powder, tinned milk, condensed milk, stock cubes and breakfast cereals. Food was no longer made, it was manufactured. Kitchen work became easier, but for authentic, healthy British cuisine, it was a difficult moment. It would take another century for chefs and food enthusiasts to rediscover the best traditions of English food.


“We survive on this planet because of oysters,” says food expert Drew Smith. “They are older than humans, older than grass. The Stone Age diet was 80% oyster and shells were used in building and scattered on the ground as an ancient burglar alarm.

“Oysters were the McDonalds of Victorian Britain. They were cheap and everywhere, the 19th century pub snack, pickled to go with your pint.” London boasted 3000 different oyster sellers hawking them at a penny (1d) for three. Beef and oyster pie was a classic dish.

The poorer you were, the more oysters you put in. Then the see-saw tipped. Meat became less costly, shellfish became a rich man’s food and our overfished English oyster went into decline. But now the only food that is eaten alive is fighting back; one Jersey farm is producing two million flat native-English oysters a year for the new seafood bars and restaurants that are springing up throughout the country.

Whitstable has been the home of the English oyster since Roman times. The 15th century Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company claims to be Europe’s oldest surviving commercial enterprise. In the 1850s they shipped 80 million shellfish a year to London’s Billingsgate Market. On 23rd July, the town will host its annual nine-day Whitstable Oyster Festival, with history walks, crab-catching and oyster-eating  competitions.




Michael, Adam and Dominic are bringing Victorian cookery back to the London. In 2010 these three school friends left their office jobs to start What the Dickens – a novel street food company specialising in 19th century grub.

“Victorians had a taste for ‘devilling’,” says Michael. “Our signature dish is devilled pork: roasted shredded meat, spiced with mustard, chutney and Worcestershire sauce. And we make devilled kidneys, a typical 19th century breakfast dish flavoured with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, butter, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper.

“Kedgeree came to Britain with colonials returning from India. In the days before refrigeration, it was a way of turning yesterday’s leftovers into a filling breakfast. It’s made with fish (traditionally haddock), rice, boiled eggs, butter and curry powder.

“These dishes were served at home. On the streets, Victorians ate boiled pigs’ trotters, eels and oysters – foods that are now expensive or too challenging for modern taste.”

This year, What the Dickens were finalists in BBC’s Food and Farming Awards. The trio are researching new recipes, championing them in street markets across the capital and planning a series of Victorian dining experiences at a number of grand houses. Go to:


In 1860 Joseph Malin, a young Jewish boy, started Britain’s first fish and chip shop in east London. It quickly became Britain’s national dish and by the 1930s there was a fish and chip shop on almost every city street.

Fish and chips were kept off ration in the First and Second World Wars, Prime Minister Churchill referred to them as ‘Good Companions’. During the ‘D-Day’ landings British soldiers identified each other by calling ‘fish’ – the response was ‘chips’.

Today there are over 10,000 fish and chip shops across the country, it’s the biggest selling fast food in Britain. The oldest working restaurant is London’s Rock and Sole Plaice, founded in 1871. This year’s winner of the annual Fish and Chip Shop Awards is Frankie’s Fish & Chips from Brae in Shetland.