Eating Like the Ancestors | An Experiment in Irish Iron-Age Cuisine
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
The things I make my family do, and all in the name of research for my books and blog! Fortunately for me, they tolerate my whims and fancies quite well, even humour me a little, thinking I don’t notice their exchanged glances and rolled eyes.
Not so long ago, I discussed the diet of the ancients, which aroused much interest. So, I decided to try it out for myself. Here are my results.
This was the first thing that I made, and it was so easy, and so delicious, that I decided I was going to make it more often. All you need is some double cream (I think in US it’s called heavy cream), and something to shake it in. I used 150mls of cream, because that’s all I had left, and shook it for about 15 minutes. It made a small amount of butter, which we ate in a couple of days.
At this point, you could add salt, herbs, garlic or berries if you want to flavour your butter, and you can press it into ice-cube trays for individual portions, or shape it into a nice, neat little rectangle, like the butter you buy in the shops. I left mine as is, like the ancestors would have enjoyed it, and it was amazing!
Fresh butter was highly prized by the ancestors, but as they had no fridges to keep it in, they preserved it with salt. Huge caches of butter have been found buried in bogs in Ireland, leading to the belief that perhaps it was a means of preserving or flavouring the butter. In my humble opinion, it is neither; I believe, since it was such a highly prized food-stuff, that the bog-butter was placed there as a votive offering, along with all the other things that have been found in bogs.
I made two types of bread. In Iron-Age times, there were no ovens. Bread was made by shaping small balls of dough into rounds and baking them on a stone, or later on, an iron griddle pan placed in the flames of the hearth fire until it was hot enough. There was no rising agent, although I did find a recipe for creating one from fermenting flour and water over the course of a week, I guess a bit like sourdough, but decided that was a bit adventurous for my first experiment.
How to make Griddle Cakes.
Rub 100g lard or butter into 250 g wholemeal flour, adding a pinch of salt. Add 1 egg and enough milk (3-6 tablespoons) to make a firm dough. Pinch off small pieces and roll into balls, then flatten with your hands, and place on a hot, greased griddle. Cook each side for approximately 5 minutes.
I used wholemeal spelt flour, as wheat didn’t grow very well in Ireland at that time. Spelt is an ancient ‘cousin’ of modern day wheat. Without a raising agent, the bread was quite dense in texture, but tasty. It needs to be eaten on the day it is made. I realised that this bread is perfect for scooping up food in place of a spoon, and for soaking up the juices of meat or gravy in stews.
How to make Barley Bread
The beer gives this bread a slightly lighter texture, and a strong but surprisingly delicious flavour. I liked this bread better than the Griddle Cakes. I also ground the barley into flour myself, but as I didn’t have access to a quern (there is one in the County Cavan Museum down the road, but I didn’t think they’d take kindly to my borrowing it!) I had to make do with grinding it in my blender… not a very authentic process, I know, but it worked.
Combine 500g barley flour, and 500g wheat flour with a teaspoon salt and rub in 250g butter. Add enough beer to make a soft dough. Shape and cook as per Griddle Cakes above.
Dish of the Day
My day of Iron-Age eating concluded with a Wild Boar Stew. Not a whole roast hog, as you might have been expecting. Not even a meal cooked a la Fianna, Fullachta Fiadh style.
I quite fancied making Clay-Baked Birds, stuffed with wild garlic, onions and leeks, as I imagine all the juices and flavours get sealed in, producing very tender, tasty meat. The advantage this presents to the Iron-Age cook, is that they don’t need to pluck the birds first; removing the hard-baked clay after roasting pulls off all the feathers, a real time and labour saving device, I’m guessing.
But the clay in my soil is full of bugs and creepy crawlies I’d rather not add to my diet, so that option was quickly discarded.
Sadly (not!) I couldn’t go hunting my own wild boar, as… well… there aren’t any in Ireland any more, and anyway, although I can handle a foil, I’d be no good with a spear and a Celtic style sword. My butcher laughed me out of his shop, so I made do with two pork steaks instead.
This stew is marinated overnight and then cooked in mead or ale, juniper berries and honey. These flavours are strong and sweet. It occurred to me that they would have been ideal favourings to combat the salting with which meat was probably stored and preserved in.
Juniper is a native tree in Ireland, which produces bluish-black berries which are dried and used to flavour beef, lamb and pork dishes. Its aromatic wood is very soft and burned for its scent. The ancient Irish burned it at Samhain for purification purposes, and also as a means to aid in contacting and communicating with the ancestors. Nowadays, it can be used instead of mothballs to keep away pesky moths and insects.
How to make Wild Boar Stew
Marinate overnight 1kg cubed wild boar/pork in 800mls mead or ale, a handful of fresh thyme, parsley and bay, and add 10 crushed juniper berries.
Next day, remove the meat from the marinade and fry in 10 tablespoons dripping or lard, adding 4 chopped carrots, 1/2 a shredded cabbage and 200g baby onions. Return the reserved liquid, bring to the boil, adding 2 tablespoons honey and 200g pearl barley.
When the liquid has reduced by a third, simmer half-covered for approximately 2 hours, until the sauce has thickened. Serve with barley bread or griddle cakes. I noticed the barley soaks up the liquid pretty quick, and had to add extra to mine.
The finished result was tender meat and veg, very filling with the barley, which my family did not particularly like the texture of. It was also very sweet. Although subtle in this dish, juniper for me is an acquired taste which takes some getting used to.
Our ancient Irish ancestors ate healthily, heartily and well! I enjoyed the experience, it really opened my eyes to one small aspect of their daily lives. and I’ll definitely be making the butter and the bread again. If you have a go at any of these recipes, be sure and let me know how you got on, maybe even email me some pictures which I can include here.
These recipes came from the following sites, where you can find out more about cooking in history, if you’re interested.
I first published this post some years ago on my old blog. Since then, I have discovered there are many people who not only cook and eat like the ancestors but follow their whole way of living. I highly recommend the work of Lucy O'Hagan of Wildawakeireland, whom you can also follow on Instagram, and Dajana Heremic, who is also on Instagram.
#fullachtafiadh #ironagefood #Irishhistory #ironagecooking #bogbutter #irisharchaeology #cookingexperiment #ancientIrishcooking #barleybread #ironagediet #buttermaking #Ireland #butter #irish #wildboar #wildawakeireland #dajanaheremic
Comments on “Eating Like the Ancestors | An Experiment in Irish Iron-Age Cuisine”
Jamie L. Apr 21, 2019 Awesome post about Celtic food! I love the fantasy/history genres and I also love baking, but I haven’t been able to find much info about basic “Irish/Gaelic bread” besides Irish mythology where everything’s focused on the nobles/gods, or the ubiquitous (but tasty) soda-bread. I figured Ireland must have had SOME native counterpart to Scottish bannocks before yeast or baking soda came along, and turns out it’s literally just a different type of flat-bread. Simple answer right in front of me, lol.
Ali Isaac Apr 23, 2019 Thanks, Jamie! It was a lot of fun to do. There isn’t a lot of information out there about how our ancient ancestors cooked and ate their food. Yes, exactly, there were no ovens so they baked flat bread, and as the climate was too wet for wheat they used other grains. The texture is different, and its quite dense, but great for soaking up liquids from stews. I think adding the beer may have given it some lift, but I don’t know for sure. Tasted good though! 😄 Thanks for your comment.
Ali Isaac Jan 7, 2019 Have fun with them! Maybe you are cooking them a tiny bit too long? They wont be soft as the bread we’re used to, and defo not as light, but they turned out surprisingly well. I think the beer in the barley bread helped it rise a little. 😊
C L Deards May 26, 2014 Love this, Ali. Eating like the characters in your book is an excellent way to get to know them. Personally I think we would all benefit from eating more like our ancestors, since our bodies evolved to eat that type of food.
Domino Park Comics May 26, 2014 I’m Swedish, English and Dutch. My husband is Native American. I like heavy grain breads with rye in them. He won’t touch the stuff. He loves corn in all it’s bread forms. He also makes a lot of Tamales. Tale a corn husk, spread corn dough on it, called Masa. Add spicy meat and roll it up. Then steam them for an hour. Don’t eat the husk – it’s just packaging. It’s something his ancestors have been making for thousands of years. Just don’t try to feed him Pickled Herring! Our taste buds go much deeper than culture!
Ali Isaac May 26, 2014 Wow you guys are a right mixture! My sister is married to a Dutch man, she has lived in Vlissingen for nearly 20 years. My mother’s mum is German, my father’s dad is Polish, and I’m married to an Irish man…we are pretty mixed up as well, lol! Makes life interesting, huh? I love rye too, but I’m not a fan of corn. Very interesting, thanks for your comment!
Domino Park Comics May 27, 2014 I really should have said that I am American with Swedish, English and Dutch blood. At least my husband and I both speak English (with a wild west drawl). We may not agree on food, but at least we can communicate. I think it would be difficult to have different primary languages. But, yes we are a right mixture (I love that term, I’m going to start using it!) He has much better hair than I do. Mine won’t grow long and I have to braid his every day.
Éilis Niamh May 26, 2014 Yay, I’ve been so waiting for you to blog about this! I’m not the best cook, but butter sounds super easy so I’ll definitely be doing that one. I can try making the bread too as long as I can cheat a bit and use a pan– I sadly don’t possess a griddle. I am now seriously thinking about joining a reenactment group just so I can get my hands on some wild boar and cook stuff on stones! lol 🙂 Well actually my friends have already started a fire with flint and steal and cooked stuff in a pot over the fire using a tripod which is not iron-age, but at least a bit older. Perhaps I can talk them into cooking on stones, or using clay. BTW Ailbhe would be lamenting the lack of wild boar in Ireland and contemplating a poem to commemorate it’s infinite goodness. 🙂
Éilis Niamh May 26, 2014 Feeling super silly today so I just couldn’t pass up the following ridiculousness: Oh super yummy wild boar How sad it is you are no more A common pig could not replace Your absolutely awesome taste. Hehe
coldhandboyack May 26, 2014 I doubt I’ll find a more interesting post today. I love this stuff, and you and I have discussed bog butter before. You ought to try the sourdough starter. Just remember it takes longer than active dry yeast. A week sounds about right to capture a yeast beastie. I have people roasting meat in clay balls in one of my coming releases. I kind of want to try it myself. I need to find a source of clay that will make pottery, because not all of them will. Then I could screen it for bugs and pebbles.
Ali Isaac May 26, 2014 That would be fab! I hope you post about it, I would love to know how it turns out! Of course, the bugs would be roasted to smithereens and baked into the clay, so they would just peel off I’m thinking. Still, I don’t fancy the idea of them crawling around on my food lol! Yeah, you’d have to be sure of the clay. And also, how long you cook the food, because you can’t just have a little look-see to work out if it’s done or not!
coldhandboyack May 26, 2014 I don’t think it’s cheating. It would be more fun to find my own though. I’m sure there is a recipe for whatever the Chinese used to call mud ball chicken. There’s also a similar way to use salt to bake a fish.
Ali Isaac May 26, 2014 I cheated a lot! I didnt use a quern to grind the barley. I didnt use wild boar. And I used a pan over my cooker to make the bread…not a stone in an open fire. Just making use of what we have available…
christineplouvier Aug 24, 2014 The clay that potters use is dug from a river bank, where the meanders of the riverbed have deposited fine clay silt over hundreds to thousands of years. The clay is put into a barrel and enough water is stirred in, to dissolve the earth and loosen any light debris. The clay is allowed to settle, and then the water is poured off the top, taking with it the stuff that floated to the surface. This is repeated until the potter is satisfied that the clay is clean. Stones and sand are then removed by filtering the mud through screens. The mud is left to drain and evaporate until the clay reaches the right consistency. When the clay is to be used, a lump is scooped out and it’s repeatedly thrown upon a hard surface (a process similar to kneading dough), until air pockets are driven out and the molecules of clay are aligned. (I learned all this during an art exploration class. in which we made clay sculptures and threw pots on a wheel. My pot was not successful, so I discarded it, but my portrait head sculpture was the best in the class, and I still own it.)
Ali Isaac Aug 24, 2014 Wow, what a long complicated process! How did the ancient ancestors learn such techniques? Quite amazing, when you think about it. And well done for your sculpting prowess! Any chance of posting a pic?
christineplouvier Aug 24, 2014 Thank you. It’s been more than ten years since The Head’s last public appearance. I’ll tell her she’s wanted for a photo op, this time. She’s aged gracefully, so I’m sure she won’t mind coming out of retirement for that.
The Story Reading Ape May 26, 2014 Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Meet New (to me) Authors Blog and commented: Now THIS is what I call RESEARCH Authors 😀
edmooneyphotography May 26, 2014 I cant believe that I just read that on an empty stomach. I’m starving now. 🙂 We used to do a lot of these recipes during my re-enactment days. Remember one evening I ended up having to gut and skin a deer in the dark, not a pleasant experience. My personal favorite is Boar steaks, cooked n the fire 🙂
Ali Isaac May 26, 2014 Hehe…I’ll leave the gutting and skinning to you! Steaks of any kind cooked in an open fire sounds good to me! I once ate alpaca steaks…they were very strong and gamey. How does wild boar taste in comparison to pork? Those re-enactment days must have been such a blast!!!
edmooneyphotography May 26, 2014 They sure where, Boar is quite a bit stronger in flavor to pork. It also had a strong taste of oak which was nice, but that would have been the smoke from the fire. Another little tasty bit was Oat cakes. Soaked in beer overnight then mixed with honey and cooked on the hot stones, DE-Licious…
edmooneyphotography May 26, 2014 Your dead right, such a waste to use in cooking, my wife is forever using red wine in her sauces and the father-in-law is quite fond of brandy in his steak-diane, such a waste 🙂