Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Stone Age Cooking in England

The delicious range of foods and drinks to be found in Leicestershire did not suddenly spring into being fully formed. They are the result of generations of experiments in cooking, farming and food production that has seen successes and failures with every passing century. People have lived in this area that was to become Leicester for at least 10,000 years - perhaps longer.

Mammoth steaks were on the earliest menus in Leicestershire, along with grilled aurochs and roasted wild boar. Such hearty meals have long gone, but they have been replaced by new ingredients and more refined cooking methods to produce the delights of today. It has been a long process, one shaped by violence and hardship as much as by the years of plenty and the cooking skills of the people.

When humans first came here, Britain was still joined to the continent of Europe by a land bridge of vast extent. The Soar and Trent emptied not into the North Sea via the Humber Estuary but on to a broad plain that stretched to Germany. The sea did not come in to make Britain an island until around 4,000 bc, by which time a well established culture of hunting game and gathering wild plant foods was well established. The people of Leicestershire were part of a nomadic culture that stretched across northern Europe.

Fishing was a well established part of life with delicate fish hooks being carved out of bone and ivory and attached to lines. Fishing baskets of woven twigs served as effective nets, catching eels, trout and salmon as they did successfully almost into living memory. When a glut of fish was caught the flesh might be smoked to preserve it for a few days, but the nomads had no way of storing food and so they tended to gorge themselves, then rest up for a few days. Similar bouts of feasting affected the hunting of game animals. By around 5,000bc the people in what is now Leicestershire were killing and eating deer, boar, hare and beaver as well as a number of birds such as duck, heron, grebe and swan. The fruit and vegetables eaten by these nomadic folk included blackberries, sloes, crab apples, dewberries, elder berries, nettles and wild celery.

Cooking methods at this date were simple in the extreme. Camp fires were made of wood, and any foods that were not eaten raw had to be cooked by fire. Meats were roasted or grilled over the flames, or they were slapped down on stones next to the fire for a gentler, more prolonged roasting. Some cuts might be placed into a deep pit in the ground, then covered with stone heated in a fire and covered over with leaves and then earth. This produced a longer, slowing cooking method more suitable for tougher cuts when the preservation of moisture within the meat was essential.

This is an extract from Leicestershire Food and Drink by Rupert Matthews

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