WEST DEREHAM HERITAGE GROUP
Report on the March meeting of the Wesy derham Heritage group
Meeting on the 19th of March at the Village Hall, 15 members were entertained by Father Paul Kinsey with a talk entitled, 'A Bite Out of History'.
Father Paul is a community Priest at All Saints Church,Hillington Square, Kings Lynn and his subject was a light hearted talk about food through the ages,the changes in diet,how it was cooked and served.
We heard how much of what was consumed throughout history was due to both Church and State manipulation. Certain fruits were considered evil which came from religious teachings which included fasting at certain times during the year and the eating of fish at others.
The Romans introduced foods from the Mediterranean in the grape wine and olives they brought with them two thousand years ago which compared to the Saxon diet at the time which was very poor.. It consited of 'pottage' which was very much like a vegetable stew with the addition of any meat that was obtainable but this was usually beyond the average peasant.
After the Norman Conquest food got a lot better for the privaliged few,the one meal of the day was served cold as the kitchens were so far away from the tables. The top table was where the Earls and Barons took their food helping themselves with what ever was within reach. There were no such thing as plates so it was placed on 'trenchers' which were made of wood or the base of a loaf of bread which had it's upper crust cut off and eaten by those on the top table, thus we get the term 'the upper crust'. Forks were a 14th century innovation so food was eaten using a small knife and ones fingers. What remained of bread trenchers was eaten by the lower ranks which resulted in the saying 'don't take a bit out your bread', this was because it was to be some other poor souls only meal of the day.
By the 16th century food had improved considerably for the upper and now more affluent middle classes. Farmers Markets are not a new idea, they florished right up to the end of the 19th.century and by say 1500 every village and town had market days where counrty folk brought there suplus food to sell or barter.
Elizabeth the 1st loved to travel round the country and came to Norfolk only once in her life by visiting Norwich in the summer of 1578. She left Greenwich in July to spend two months on the road with a vast train of courtiers,soldiers and servants said to number over 400 with all the attendant baggage,carts and horses. She stayed in Norwich from August the 16th to the 22nd. Fancy the bill for feeding that lot,during her travels she bankrupted many of her subjects. The Queen herself never ate in public, she had bad teeth you see and only prentented to take food, Her favourite dish was Cherry Pie and she had an orchard of 25 acres of Cherry trees to provide her with this luxury.
By the 1639 the Puritans were desrcibed as plain in speech,dress and food. Minced meat pies,often coffin shaped, came about at this time and were a savoury dish as opposed to what we eat at Christmas these days which have fillings of dried fruit.
After the restoration of the Monachy in 1660 we see the influence of French food in England and the publication of one of the first cookery books by Hannah Glass.
It's around this time we hear the word 'cake', it was not a new thing,Romans ate cake made with honey and figs. Throughout the past cake has been used as an offering to ensure the next harvest often being ploughed in to the soil on commenmemt of the winter cultivations after harvest.
It was at this time that food started to be served in courses rather that as before, all at once. Dining for the rich became a much more a leisurely affair and could last for hours all influenced by French cooking. No room here then for boiled cabbage and mashed spuds.
Cheese was often used during baptism, confetti at weddings was derived from sugared nuts cast at the Bride and Groom after the ceremony. Sugered Almonds are still used at such events in Italy to this day. Corpse Cake was eaten at funerals and as it's name implies was usually made by the deceased. How, I ask, did they know they were going to die? Then were had the Sin Eater who was employed at the wake to partake of bread and ale thus to 'eat' the sins of the departed.
So called 'fast food' was certainly around in the 1840s , Charles Dickens, the Author, describes small pieces of fish being fried on the street while you waited,then wrapped to be taken away to be eaten at home. Most streets in towns and cities were awfully noisy places with the calls and shouts of street vendors selling all manner of food from trays hug round the neck or small carts and barrows.Some also sold small cakes and biscuits outside Churches on Sundays where the all knowing would buy as some preachers took their sermons very seriously and preached for hours.
During times of war wedding cakes were made from cardboard as ingrediants were rationed and generally unavailable anyway.
Paul also conducted a little quiz, we get Nutmeg from Mace,the most expensive spice is Saffron, The small metal container he showed was a spice box, poor mans asparagus is Samphire,a salt marsh plant, the description of the dessert was Baked Alaska, the Pieman wanted to see your penny,Rubarb is a herb, and Delia Smith said she used a Microwave oven to keep an ash tray in. ( She used to be a smoker you know.)
The meeting ended with questions to the speaker and refreshments.