Norman Feasting

by Organikal on April 19, 2006

Food – Warwickshire 11th Century Style

Easter Holidays – Hurrah! Spring lambs. Daffodils. Birds in pairs. Lots of singing and tweeting and warbling I had a conversation with a bird by means of very poor whistling the other day – I think he thought I might have been a likely springtime partner, though as Martin pointed out “he’s hoping you’re a better looker than you are a whistler”! Nice one Martin. Luckily for him, he added swiftly “which of course, you are” before I shot him the most murderous stern look I could muster from spring charmed eyes.

We managed to get a sunburn on Easter Monday, despite windchill factor 25. By chance, and the greatest of luck, we were attending English Heritage’s recreation of Norman life day at Kenilworth Castle (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/ConProperty.341). It happens that Kenilworth is very near by birthplace, and is also a stones throw away from Martin’s Mums residence at the elegant Stoneleigh Abbey (www.stoneleighabbey.org). We’re lucky enough to be able to stop by here for a few days before we make our way to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales.

What a fabulous day English Heritage organised! The rain stayed off – well, there were a few threatening moments, but all in all we stayed dry. Can you imagine it – it’s a bank holiday in the UK and it didn’t rain: the gods were truly smiling upon us. Firstly we heard tell of the legend of the Lady Godiva – the most interesting part of which was the revelation that the phrase Peeping Tom originates in said tale. The lady telleth not a lie!

Next on the agenda was a visit to the gift shop, where Ruaridh armed himself with a suitably long long sword, with which he proceeded to knock me out a few times – minor bruising here or there – nothing to worry about.

A marvellous display of falconry held our attention for ages. It was touching to see the relationship between bird and handler – the birds themselves were resplendent and of course, in addition to the Deer Hounds we’re planning for our dream home (I don’t even like dogs – but hounds are exquisite) Martin insists we have a hawk or two to wile away the evenings. We’re now trying to figure out how we can make this a vegetarian hobby…

Ruaridh was impressed with the display of all of the armed elements of Norman life displayed at a Castle. There were archers, with a huge wooden implement called a ballista, mounted cavalry, infantry manoeuvres and much much more. We roared and cheered the gallant Normans on horseback and foot alike and revelled in the sheer tomfoolery of it all.

The thing that was most intriguing in terms of organics and food was that of course most people of the times were terribly impoverished. The feudal system was in operation and the wealthy gorged themselves on hens, swans, ducks, boar, rabbits, pigeon etc and got drunk on ale. The majority of folks scraped a living out of the earth, eating a diet of dried fish in the winter and some manky vegetables that had been pulled from the earth many weeks beforehand. Our hosts explained that the diet wouldn’t have been very nutritious, with all the life sapped out of mature veg – no young vibrantly green peas for them: instead a stringy tasteless lump of something that we probably wouldn’t even turn our soup pan on for. And of course, they too reeked of ale – drinking the water could have ended up in cholera, or worse.

The most surprising lesson learnt that day for us was that of course, dairy produce and eggs were also seasonal. The hens laid in the spring. The cows calved and milked at the same time. Probably why butter and cheese came into being was the simple need for preserving a precious ingredient. No refrigerators or pasteurisers then. Salt in your butter – makes it last longer, that’s all.

Just a few obvious facts of life that bring home how very different our lives are to those of our medieval ancestors. How very lucky we are and how very far removed from nature we have become.

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