Merrie Olde England

Pullets; Boiled capon; Shoulder of mutton; Veal roast; Boiled chickens; Rabbits roast; Shoulder of mutton roast; Chine of beef roast; Pasty of venison; Turkey roast; Pig roast; Venison roast; Ducks boiled; Pullet; Red deer pye cold; Four capons roast; Poults [young chickens] roast; Pheasant; Herons; Mutton boiled; Wild boar pye; Jiggits of mutton boiled; Jiggits of mutton burred [buttered]; Gammon of bacon; Chicken pye; Burred [buttered] capon; Dried hog’s cheek; Umble pye; Tart; Made dish.

Thus read the menu for a Monday morning breakfast served in honor of King James I’s visit to the northern English town of Preston in August of 1607. Dinner the previous evening featured thirty dishes for the first course and twenty-seven in the second.

Travelers of less exalted station did not find such elaborate banquets at the end of their day’s journey but nevertheless expected a variety of meats for their evening meal. John Byng, a guest at the White Swan Inn at Middleham in 1792 made the following inscription in his dairy: “I now felt a haste for dinner, and this is a description of it: Cold ham; A boiled fowl; Yorkshire pudding; Gooseberry pye; Loyn of mutton roast; Cheesecake.”1

Animal foods of every description served as the basis of the English diet for all but the poorest during the Shakesperean period-from game for the aristocrat, including beaver and boar, pheasant and heron, to domestic animals for the less privileged-beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, rabbit, chicken, pigeon, turkey, goose and duck. The diet also included organ meats such as liver, kidneys, tongue, calf heads, sweetbreads, brains, heart, ears and feet. The English Housewife, written during the early part of the 17th century, contains recipes for “puddings of a calf’s mugget [entrails]” and “roast cow’s udder.”2 Umble pie, made from the entrails or umbles of deer, was regarded as peasant food-the nobleman keeping the musclemeats of the deer he hunted, while the umbles went to his huntsman and servants. Haggis, made from finely minced organ meats mixed with oats and aged or fermented in a sheep’s stomach, nourished the hardy yeoman, particularly in the more northern parts of the island and in Scotland. Tripe (cow’s stomach) formed an important part of the diet, especially among the poor. Organ meats began to go out of fashion, particularly among the upper classes, during the Victorian era, but even today tripe is still sold in special shops in some parts of the British Isles.

Various sorts of puddings-black pudding, kidney pudding, marrow pudding, blood pudding, suet pudding and so on-also supplied nutrient-dense organ meats and fat to the English diet. These puddings came to the British Isles from the Romans who made urpuddings by pouring meat or blood, salt, spices and other ingredients into a skin of animal’s intestines. Sometines these puddings were then smoked. At some unknown date, the animal intestines were replaced with a pudding cloth and puddings came to be distinguised from sausages, smaller versions still encased in animal intestines. Later sweet things like raisins began to be added to these puddings, resulting finally in the Christmas pudding, containing sugar, pastry, dried fruits and suet. In some parts of the British Isles, these Christmas puddings still contained meat as late as the early 1800’s.3

Seafood for fast days (which amounted to almost half the days of the year) included trout, turbot, sole, whitebait, carp, cod, mackerel, anchovies, cockles, mussels, oysters, eel and crab. Salmon was brought in fresh from the Northwest of England to the London markets. According to the novelist Daniel Defoe, “This is performed with horses, which changing often go night and day without intermission, and, as they say, very much outgo the post, so that the fish come very sweet and good to London.” Fresh shellfish were available in season in the largest towns, paticularly near the seacoast. However, inhabitants of inland smaller towns had to content themselves with preserved seafoods, such as pickled or salted oysters. Oysters, being cheap, were a favorite food of the poor. “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together,” observes Sam Weller in Pickwick.

Dairy products added to the richness of the diet and, unlike meat and fish, were available to those on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Most peasant families owned a cow, or a cow together with a goat. “Why, sir, alas, my cow is a commonwealth to me,” says a rustic character A Looking Glass for London and England, “for first, sir, she allows me, my wife and son, for to banquet ourselves withal: butter, cheese, whey, curds, cream, sod [boiled] milk, raw milk, sour milk, sweet milk and buttermilk.”4 Eggs were used liberally in omelets, puddings and pastries.

Without refrigeration and cookstoves, food storage and preparation presented challenges to the housewife and innkeeper alike. Fortunately, salt needed for preservation was plentiful in England. Cattle were brought into the market towns in September and October. The beef was salted and then hung up in smoke to preserve it. Pork was likewise both salted and smoked to make bacon and ham. For poorer families, these were practically the only meats eaten during the winter months. Fish such as cod was preserved by salting, or, in the case of salmon, by pickling in salt brine, and transported in tubs to the larger markets. Another preservation method was “potting” in which shrimp and smaller fish such as trout were placed in small containers and covered with butter or other fat, mixed with spices.5

Dinners in the houses of the gentry could be elaborate affairs, with roast meats and “made” dishes-elaborate concoctions featuring dozens of ingredients, including a variety of spices. Chefs for the great lords often used a “cullis,” which was a stock made from large quantities of meat and bone cooked in water over a long period to extract all the goodness, after which the meat and bones were discarded, leaving a rich broth that could be used for sauces and “made dishes.”6

But most English households lacked ovens and utensils necessary for complicated dishes. Food preparation was achieved by slow boiling in pots hung over the hearth fire-the Christmas turkey or goose had to be carried to the baker’s for roasting. This meant that soups formed the mainstay of peasant diet, prepared by boiling bones, meat and vegetables in a pot over the fire. Soups were known either as “running” or “standing” pottages. A running pottage, or broth, was a thin soup containing bits of meat, and vegetable and herbs that were in season. A standing pottage was thickened with breadcrumbs or rice until it was similar in consistency to a present-day mousse.7 Sausages could be cooked on a grill or in a skillet-or even speared with a stick and held over the fire. Preparation of pudding-purchased from the butcher-was a simple matter of seething it in a pot over the hearthfire, resulting is a dish that was satisfying, nutritious and easy to prepare-a kind of Shakesperean take-out.

As for grains, rye, barley and oats were staple crops, made into coarse gruels or cakes. Oats and other grains were prepared as porridges or “frumenty,” by soaking them in warm water for 24 hours. They were served with butter or cream and honey or sugar.8 A Welsh recipe for “Llymru” reads as follows: “Mix oatmeal with sufficient buttermilk and water to make a liquid consistency. Leave for 2 nights then rinse through a hair sieve. Let it stand and pour off the surface water. Simmer for 40 minutes and keep stirring. Serve with sweet milk.”9

Oats and barley were also made into cakes, often cooked on a griddle. Before baking soda made its appearance, in the middle of the 19th century, such cakes would have been prepared using a natural yeast, and allowed plenty of time to rise before they were baked. In the north, dough made from oats was “clapped and driven out as thin as paper on a round board, then transferred to a round iron plate of like size and baked over the coals.” Such “clapbread” was crisp and wafer thin, like modern day crackers, and was eaten with butter and cheese.

Wheat was used for breadmaking among the upper classes and in the large towns. White bread made from refined flour was available from medieval times and held in high prestige. While the lower classes ate dark coarse bread, usually made with rye and often with peas or other pulses mixed into the dough, the upper classes regarded black and brown breads with aversion.10 White flour was also used for making pastries of various sorts-both those that enclosed meat dishes such as umble pie or chicken pasties, and those that served as a basis for dessert tarts and pies. Pastry dough was prepared by mixing butter, lard or suet with “fine white flour.”

Grains were also fermented into various sorts of ales and lagers-either by the housewife or in alehouses that existed in almost every town. These beers were an excellent source of nutrients including B vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Small beer, which contained only a small amount of alcohol but large amounts of lactic acid and beneficial enzymes, was traditionally consumed in the morning, accompanying a heavy breakfast of fish or cold meat, bacon and eggs.11 Strong beers, with their high content of alcohol, were recognized as providing “comfort for the poor.” The poet John Taylor recorded a total of nine different ales served at the same meal, during a visit to Manchester in 1618. Eight of them were herbal ales, flavored with hyssop, wormwood, rosemary, betony and scurvygrass. Wines from France and Spain were imported to England and found their way to almost every region; but they were beyond the means of most.

Farm families drank milk, buttermilk or whey. Whey, in particular, was recognized as a digestive aid and beneficial to the skin.12 It was served at the spas or baths-frequented by the well-to-do for “cures”-often mixed with herbs, fruit or wine.

Cookbooks from the period attest to the availability of a wide variety of vegetables including those of the onion family-onions, leeks and garlic-plus root vegetables, spinach, asparagus and artichokes. These were used in soups and stews, rather than served plain. Most cookbooks list a salad made of lettuces and herbs. In general, the upper classes looked upon vegetables with disdain, as a lower class food, to be eaten by the farmers who grew them.13 Potatoes and tomatoes did not gain acceptance until the Victorian era. As with meats, preservation of vegetables was a problem and most recipes books of the period contain a number of recipes for pickled vegetables-French beans, cucumbers, onions, cabbages, artichokes, mushrooms, asparagus, beet root, cauliflower, radishes, herbs and even walnuts and grapes-prepared with a salt and vinegar brine, then protected from the air with a weighted cover or a layer of butter or tallow. A number of foodstuffs, including mushrooms, walnuts, cucumbers and oysters, were added to “catsup,” originally a pickled fish sauce made from anchovies or other small fish, something like Worcestershire sauce. Writing in 1730, Dean Swift mentions catsup as one of several fermented foods favored by the English: “And for our homebred British cheer, Botargo (fish roe relish), catsup and cabiar (caviar).”

The British considered raw fruits to be “unwholesome.” Medical books of the period warned that fresh fruits “filled the body with crude and waterish humours, that dispose the blood unto putrefaction.”14 Apples, pears, quinces and berries were stewed or made into tarts, pies and other “puddings.”

Not all foodstuffs in wide use were locally produced. Since the Crusades, a variety of spices and other exotic foods had been available to the upper classes and to townspeople. In the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s Perdita instructs the Clown to obtain foods for the sheep-shearing feast. Her shopping list includes rice, saffron, mace, dates, nutmegs, ginger and sugar. Almonds were another imported food, widely used, often made into almond milk which served as a thickener for sauces on feast days when dairy products were forbidden.15 Sugar and spices were used liberally to make piquant sauces, served with the ubiquitous cold meats, and in “made dishes” for the tables of the well-to-do.

Inhabitants of the British Isles enjoyed sweet desserts, sometimes made with honey but more often with sugar, which was available since the time of the Crusades. In fact, it was the British demand for sugar, even more than spices, that fueled the era of exploration and colonization. The English Housewife, published in Shakespeare’s day, calls for sugar in almost every dish-salads, omelets, fritters, pancakes, broth, boiled meat, stewed fish, roast meats, meat pies and of course dessert pies, tarts and puddings.16 Later it became unfashionable to use too much sugar in sauces and meat dishes, but the consumption of sugared foods continued to grow with the advent of confectioners and pastry shops in every town, and the popularity of a new custom-taking tea with sweet cakes in the afternoon. The widespread use of sweet wines added to the amount of sugar in the diet-often sugar was added to wines to make them sweeter.17 Large quantities of sugar in the diet were the cause of the proverbial English bad teeth. A visitor to England in 1598 said of the sixty-four-year-old Queen Elizabeth that her “teeth [were] black, a defect the English seem subject to from their too great use of sugar.”18

Until the Victorian Age, the British diet contained many protective factors that offset the deleterious effects of sugar-most notably organ meats, eggs and butter rich in fat soluble vitamins. Bone broths and whole grain products, including hearty ales, provided minerals in abundance and fermented foods provided enzymes. During the 19th century, these homespun foodstuffs were gradually replaced by factory produced foods-canned and pasteurized. Organ meats fell out of favor and the hearty English breakfast was replaced by toast and tea. In fact, tea became the national drink, replacing buttermilk and whey at the morning meal. The disruption of industrialization left many in extreme poverty. A survey taken in the 1840’s revealed that most factory workers were limited in their choice of food to white bread (now become cheap and available to the poor), cheese, butter, sugar, tea, salt and potatoes, with a small amount of bacon or other meat used for flavoring.19 The decline in the use of traditional foods, accompanied by crowding and unsanitary conditions in the major cities, paralleled the great rise of disease in the 1800’s-cholera, TB, diphtheria, typhoid fever and typhus. Later in the century fresh meat, vegetables and fruit became more available but the trend towards the use of fabricated foods was exacerbated with the introduction of margarine, as a substitute for butter, and bouillon cubes, as a substitute for the rich broths of earlier days.

In recent years, the English have been beguiled by claims for the “Prudent Diet,” one in which vegetable oils are substituted for animal fats and the use of cholesterol-rich foods is minimized. The suet, lard, butter, eggs and shellfish of Shakespeare’s day are spurned as unhealthful. These are the very foods that Weston Price discovered to be so necessary for attractive development, good health and successful reproduction. The diet of Merrie Olde England may not have been perfect, but it nourished a race that was energetic, curious, lusty, capable and strong. “Prudence,” said the English poet William Blake, “is a rich, ugly old maid, courted by incapacity.”


  1. C. Anne Wilson, Traditional food east and west of the Pennines, Page Bros, Ltd, Norwich, England 1991, p 61.
  2. Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986
  3. Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Simon and Schuster, 1993, p 207
  4. Michael R Best, Introduction to The English Housewife, Mc-Gill-Queen’s University Press, 1986, p xlvi
  5. Wilson, op cit, p 49
  6. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, Olde Englishe Recipes, Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Limited of Loughton, Essex, 1981, p 13
  7. Ibid, p 10
  8. Ibid, p 122
  9. Janet Douglas Pennant, More Llandegai Recipes, Sackville Printing Works, p 5
  10. Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food, Illini Books edition, 1996, p 303
  11. Wilson, op cit, 59-60
  12. Virginia Holsinger, et al, “Whey Beverages: A Review,” Journal of Dairy Sciences, Vol 57, August 1974, pp 849-859
  13. Mennell, op cit, p 46
  14. Best, op cit, p xxv
  15. Constance B Heiatt, et al, Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, University of Toronto Press, 1997, p xx
  16. Gervase, op cit
  17. Best, op cit, p xliii
  18. Ibid, p xxxvi
  19. Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1996, p 122

Copyright: © 1999 Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD. All Rights Reserved. First published in Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Health Journal Vol 21, No 4. (619) 574-7763.

Sally Fallon Morell is the founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation and founder of A Campaign for Real Milk. She is the author of the best-selling cookbook, Nourishing Traditions (with Mary G. Enig, PhD) and the Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care (with Thomas S. Cowan, MD). She is also the author of Nourishing Broth (with Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN). ______________________________________________________________________________________________ Mary G. Enig, PhD, FACN, CNS, is an expert of international renown in the field of lipid chemistry. She has headed a number of studies on the content and effects of trans fatty acids in America and Israel and has successfully challenged government assertions that dietary animal fat causes cancer and heart disease. Recent scientific and media attention on the possible adverse health effects of trans fatty acids has brought increased attention to her work. She is a licensed nutritionist, certified by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists; a qualified expert witness; nutrition consultant to individuals, industry and state and federal governments; contributing editor to a number of scientific publications; Fellow of the American College of Nutrition; and President of the Maryland Nutritionists Association. She is the author of over 60 technical papers and presentations, as well as a popular lecturer. She is the author of Know Your Fats, a primer on the biochemistry of dietary fats as well as of Eat Fat Lose Fat (Penguin, Hudson Street Press, 2004). She is the mother of three healthy children.

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