Meal times for Anglo-Saxons were often communal affairs, with all the members of a village eating at the table of their lord’s hall. The food was usually cooked over the long open fire-pit in the middle of the hall, then shared out between everyone.
The best cuts of meat, the juiciest vegetables and the finest loaves would go to the lord, the next best food to his warriors and other important members of the household and so on until the hierarchy ended with the slaves at the bottom.
This did not characterise all medieval meals though, especially for the peasants away from the villages (who represented the poorest and most numerous section of society). Their diet was dependent on locally available crops and bad harvests could mean long periods of hunger.
War and disease broke out periodically in Anglo-Saxon England and could affect the production of food, with the peasants once again being the first to suffer in such crises.
Pigs were plentiful and the only animal the Anglo-Saxons used solely for eating. As they produce large groups of offspring who mature quickly, these animals were the most efficient form of meat production.
Anglo-Saxons also ate beef, chicken, mutton and goat. Beef was usually reserved for the richer tables and many herds of cattle were looked after predominantly for their milk, a very useful resource. The Saxons also preserved goats for their milk production, while they kept chickens for their eggs and sheep for their wool.
These animals were usually only slaughtered when they became lame, unproductive or for special occasions like the Yule feast. The poor could live their whole lives without meat, although if they did acquire any, it was usually either chicken or pork.
Game was also eaten. Deer, wild boar and wild birds were relatively common in the Anglo-Saxon period. Richer Anglo-Saxons and their household warriors sometimes hunted for sport when their kingdom was at peace and would feast on the animals they caught.
Fish was consumed by many, particularly those who lived by the sea. Shellfish too, like oysters, cockles, lobster and crab were eaten. Fish were a valuable commodity as they could be smoked or salted and stored for winter when other food was scarce.
Salt was mined in Worcestershire and the Anglo-Saxons used it both for preserving food and for flavouring blander dishes like stew. Vegetables including onions, garlic, cabbage, turnips, beetroot, parsnips, carrots (which were white at the time), peas and beans formed the basis of many poorer Anglo-Saxons’ diets.
Vegetables were also used to flavour meals as at that time the Saxons used herbs solely for medicinal purposes.
Fruit was relatively plentiful. Cherries, berries, apples and plums were eaten by many and were often made into alcohol. They were used to flavour meals too as sugar was not available.
The only other sweet food available was honey and artificial bee hives were a common site in many towns and villages. This was also made into an alcoholic drink called mead, favoured by many and often consumed with dinner.
Just as corn and wheat are for us today, barley was the staple grain for the Anglo-Saxons. They ground it to make bread and fermented it to brew ale. It was also used to make one of the most common dishes of the time, pottage (a thick stew of barley grains boiled with vegetables), or ‘briw’ in Anglo-Saxon. This was a staple of the peasant diet.
Ale in different variations was the drink of choice for most of the population. Water in many places, particularly river water, was often polluted as most used rivers for waste disposal. For both adults and children therefore, ale was their main source of hydration. Children were given weak, diluted ale and, if they lived in the right place, spring water. However ale was always more readily available.
In the richer and safer kingdoms like Wessex, food was usually available. Still, this was a period of continual warfare and the winter months were harsh – especially for those not under the protection of a lord. If a harvest failed or a marauding army burnt the crops and stole the livestock, then for many surviving the winter became a big ask.