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What people ate

What people ate

As a child growing up in Latin America, I always found it strange when my parents now and then sighed and spoke of food they were missing. “Herring,” my father would say. “Crayfish,” my mother would add. “Cheese, ryebread …” My father almost smacked his lips. Inevitably this would lead to a long list of all the foodstuffs they missed, now that they were so far from home.

It’s strange, how much of “home” is defined by food. Milk abroad never tastes like it does at home, and really, has anyone outside of Sweden caught on to how to make a good cheese sandwich? (YES, a resounding majority of the world’s population would say. Us Swedes aren’t convinced; most of you don’t even have the implement with which to slice the cheese in appropriately thin slices.) Anyway, the point is that should you be yanked out of context, away from home, you’d definitely miss food!

And there you are, happy landing on a chocolate bar … sang Shirley Temple, her face dimpling into a glittering smile. Except that if you’re transported back to the seventeenth century you can forget about chocolate. Ha, says the well informed reader, chocolate originates from Mexico and had therefore already been “discovered” by the Europeans. Dear reader; I’d like to see you drink a mug or two of this chocolate drink without having your mouth shrivel into a desiccated raisin. Chocolate in the seventeenth century was very rare – even in Spain. And where it was used, it was prepared as a drink so bitter it would make modern day chocolate freaks weep. In general, anything with sugar in it was rare; sugar was a luxury commodity, so whatever comfort food the people of the seventeenth century resorted to in periods of angst it was probably far healthier than what we binge on today.

For the coffee and tea addicts among us, I have bad news. Coffee was a futuristic dream outside the larger cities and tea had only recently begun to make its way to Europe, this thanks to the Portuguese. Not until the Restoration would tea become a common beverage in England.

But hey; most of us can live without chocolate, or coffee or tea. Absolutely (however depressing the thought) but how about a life without potatoes? Or pasta? Pizza? Tomatoes? Oranges and bananas? Avocados – can anyone live without avocados? Once again, the well informed reader might protest; the Spaniards came upon both the tomato and the potato in South America back in the fifteenth century. Yes, they did, but for some strange reason these plants were often considered poisonous – well, to be quite fair some members of the solanum family ARE poisonous. Not until the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the potato to become a staple crop in Northern Europe, and halfway through the seventeenth century what little potato was cultivated on the British Isles was grown as an exotic crop in private gardens.

So what did they eat then, these people that were deprived of so much of what we enjoy and like today? Was it all porridge and pea soup? The quick answer to that is … yes. For the majority of the population, porridge was the cornerstone of their diet. And what was left over at one meal was reused in the next – or the day after. Their diet was complemented by bread, beer – very much beer – cheese, smoked and salted meats & fish, eggs, pies, even more beer.

Yes, they ate vegetables such as onions and carrots, turnips and beetroot, garlic, cabbage and kale. I like kale – a lot. But not enough to want to eat it every day during the long, long winter. (Kale is a versatile crop. It survives frost and can be harvested throughout the winter season, making it one of the few fresh greens available.) There were upsides; asparagus is a vegetable that has been around since Socrates committed suicide, artichokes and spinach were cultivated already by the Egyptians. All of these were available on the British Isles – but probably very uncommon outside the kitchen gardens that served the estates of the rich and powerful.

Some of you may be wondering about fruit – surely they ate fruit? Of course they did – when in season. As far as I know, that means that the fruit eating period was restricted to autumn, the selection available being apples, quinces, pears, plums, here and there an apricot or a peach. No oranges – not in Northern Europe. Apples were put into winter storage, carefully placed in root cellars with space enough between the fruit to avoid the apples bruising each other. Those apples could be eaten all the way to March or so, but have you ever bitten into a wrinkled winter apple? It doesn’t exactly crunch under your teeth…
But what about berries, someone says. The berry season is short. Strawberries don’t grow in January. Yes, both berries and fruit were preserved – but this required some sort of sweetening, and sugar was an expensive product.

While it might be difficult to comprehend, it is important to remember that the majority of the people living in Europe in the seventeenth century could not afford to be picky about food. You ate what you had, and if that meant surviving on porridge then so be it. While the aristocracy dined on venison and pastry, on fine white bread and roasted fowl, the vast majority downed porridge and soup with the odd bit of salted meat.

Menu du jour, February 1660

Breakfast: (served after the beasts have been watered and fed)
Porridge made of oats that have been left to soak overnight – the milled variety is as yet not invented. Some honey to drizzle on top. No milk (the cow is with calf, no milk there…) No eggs – the hens haven’t begun laying yet.  Bread – the dark variety made of rye. Some smoked fish. All of this washed down with ale. If very cold, the beer is served warm.

Dinner: Cabbage soup made with one of the last cabbage heads, onions, a couple of wrinkled carrots. Boiled slowly over the hearth with the last of the smoked pork shank to give the broth some flavour. Served with pork sausages. Ale. Bread.

Supper: Fried salted herring. (The last in the barrel that was bought last October. The fish have soaked for two days in water to reduce the saltiness)   Kale and the left over porridge, also fried.