Junk Food Past and Present; The Diet of Our Ancient Irish Ancestors

junk food“The menu for this evening is pasta or chicken nuggets and chips,” I announced, smiling smugly to myself. Two ten year old boys in the house; it was obvious what they’d choose.

“Pasta!” they both chorused, much to my surprise. Dammit, I thought. That means I actually have to make a real pasta sauce. Whoever heard of kids who didn’t love junk food?

Not that that was a problem. We don’t tend to eat much junk food in our family. In fact, I never ate junk food as a child myself, perhaps due to the fact that much of my childhood was spent abroad. I don’t think I even stepped into a MacDonalds until I was nineteen.

Nowadays, after Carys’s Troubles, we tend to eat according to our blood type. Which, as we are ‘O’s, is very similar to the paleo diet. And that got me thinking; What did our ancient Irish ancestors actually eat?

Irish stew
Irish stew

What is the first thing which springs to mind when we think of Irish food? Yep, the potato! It appears in everything, Colcannon, Irish Stew, Boxty, Champ, Shepherd’s Pie, to name but a few. There’s no getting away from it, the Irish love their spuds. But the potato didn’t make its appearance until the 17th century, so how on earth did we manage before?

Well, it seems the Irish diet did not change much from Neolithic times until the potato. Meat was their preferred staple.To anyone who’s ever read any Irish mythology, there are two huge clues as to their diet; their fondness for hunting, and the value they placed on their cattle. We know that they chose to hunt on foot with their beloved wolf hounds; they were after deer, maybe even the giant Irish elk, and wild boar. These animals would be roasted on spits made from peeled and pointed hazel rods, or butchered and boiled in their outdoor cooking troughs known as fullacht fiadh. They also hunted and ate animals we wouldn’t dream of eating today, such as badgers and seals.

Donn CúilngeAs for the cattle, in the mythology of the Ulster Cycle, Queen Medb (Meyv) famously went to war over ownership of the great bull Donn Cúailnge , to disastrous consequence. The Tuatha de Denann were renowned for their graceful milk-white cattle, and even in historical times, the various clans often invaded their neighbours territories to steal their herds, or demand cattle-tribute for previous wrongdoings. Why were cattle so highly prized? Undoubtedly, they were a sign of wealth, but more than that, they ensured survival.

How so? Well, they were a readily available meat source, of course, but in actual fact, if something is precious to you, you are unlikely to kill and eat it. No, it was all about their produce, in other words, banbidh, or ‘white foods’. They ate a lot of dairy. Butter was highly prized, especially fresh unsalted butter. Sometimes, they flavoured it with onions or wild garlic. They even had the strange tradition of burying it in bogs, some say to develop the flavour, some say for storage; the true reason is not clear, but examples of ‘bog-butter’ have been recovered, and may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. They drank milk, sometimes fresh or mixed with honey, sometimes soured, even something they called bainne clabair, meaning ‘thick milk’, which was a cross between regular milk and thick sour cream. They mixed it with grains to form porridge, and used it in the baking of bread. They also made many varieties of cheese. They also consumed the colustrum produced by cows after calving. Another strange practice was that of bleeding the cattle, then mixing the blood with barley and seasoning to make black puddings.

quern stoneThe Neolithic people were great farmers. As well as keeping livestock, mainly sheep, goats and pigs in addition to cattle, they cultivated their own crops. Wheat was difficult to grow in the damp Irish climate, but barley and oats were more successful. All grains were ground by hand on quern stones, and then sifted through nets to produce finer flours for baking. It was back breaking and time consuming work. There were no ovens, so flat cakes and breads were cooked on flag stones heated up in the fireplace. These grains did not make very good bread, so they were used in porridge mostly. Barley, however, had a more popular use; it brewed a fairly acceptable ale. called cuirm.

Honey was a very important food, as it was their only source of sweetness. It was taken so seriously, that it had a whole Brehon Law devoted to it, called bechbretha. meaning ‘bee judgements’. It concerned such rules as, if a hive swarmed onto another man’s land, what portion of the honey produced should be allotted to each man, and was quite detailed and complicated. Honey was used to sweeten porridge, in baking, to baste roasting meats and fish, and to flavour drinks. It was also used to produce the alcoholic beverage mead, known as mid in Irish (mee).

Apart from apples, fruit and vegetables were not cultivated in Ireland before the 8th century. Much of their fresh foods were gathered in on a regular basis, such as wild berries of all kinds, nuts, watercress, garlic, seaweed such as dulse in coastal areas, about which there were also serious laws, kale, onions and strawberries. Later on, they grew cabbages, carrots, leeks, parsnips and turnips.

salmonThe hazel nut was particularly prized for its nutritional qualities. In mythology, Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge became so wise and highly sought after from eating the hazel nuts which fell into the river from the nine sacred hazel bushes. He swam down the Boyne and was caught by Fionn mac Cumhall for his mentor, the druid Finegas, yet burned his thumb while cooking it. Although warned not to eat the fish by Finegas, he put his burned thumb into his mouth to cool it, thereby accidentally ingesting the morsel of flesh which clung there, so cheating poor old Finegas out of the knowledge he so desperately craved.

Many types of fish and shellfish were eaten, including salmon. Fionn mac Cumhall and his Fianna were said to have regularly visited Belleek in the autumn to feast on the annual salmon run, and sharpen their weapons there. He is also associated with the River Finn in Co Monaghan, where he caught bream, roach and pike.

Various condiments, known as annlann in Irish, were used to flavour their foods, such as lard, olar ( a rich gravy), inmar (dripping), butter, salt, honey, herbs, in fact, anything not considered the main constituent of the meal was called annlann.

Producing food and then cooking it was not a quick and easy task in ancient Ireland. There were no convenience foods, no junk foods. Interestingly, they seem to have been a fairly healthy bunch, on the whole; as far as we can tell, there seems to have been relatively little evidence of obesity and other lifestyle/diet related illnesses. Perhaps we could learn more from the people of ancient Ireland than stone masonry and star gazing…and by the way, it took me half a pack of S&V stackers  two glasses of prosecco to write this post! Oh well, tomorrow is another day…

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20 thoughts on “Junk Food Past and Present; The Diet of Our Ancient Irish Ancestors

  1. I’m Canadian with Irish and Welsh ancestry on my father’s side, French on my mother’s side. Would the ancient Irish diet and Welsh diet be similar?

    p.s. I knew there was a good reason I love oatmeal (steel-cut) so much! ;o)

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    1. Hi Auggiedoggy! I should imagine it was pretty much the same, with perhaps regional differences according to what grew and flourished there. Also, there was far more trade between regions and even countries than we realise, so there were probably quite a lot of ‘exotic’ foods around… if you were wealthy enough to afford them!

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      1. It was brought over by the English, and pretty much became a staple in the Irish diet. Its because of potato blight that we had the famine, along with political problems etc With the potato crops failed, there wasn’t much else to eat.

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  2. Hi Ali, LOL, well I am definitely as interested as you in the topic, thanks for sharing! If I’m ever really hungry and waiting for something to cook in the oven, I start thinking about just how easy it is for me to cook a meal as opposed to someone from the second century. I guess it’s not your typical consideration, but I’ve been known to wonder about it. If you post an ironage recipe I’ll definitely give a try making it and let you know how it goes, as long as it doesn’t involve blood or me having to hunt anything myself. 🙂 I’ve been told that being totally blind my aim is really really bad. We do feed ourselves but especially kids some really weird modern food, no? I’m glad pudding with blood is out of fashion, but sometimes I think fruitloops, spam, or corn dogs are pretty scary.

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    1. Youre right there Eilish!!! Modern food is pretty scary stuff. Half the time we dont know whats in it…last year it came to light here and in UK that we thought we were eating beef products but in fact they were composed of a high percentage of horsemeat! At least in the 2nd century they knew what they were eating because they mostly grew or killed it themselves! Btw blood sausage is still really popular over here. Its eaten at breakfast as part of a ‘fry’. There are 2 types white pudding and black pudding. I have never liked either of them myself although I am quite a carnivore lol!

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    1. Thanks Harliqueen! I come across so much interesting stuff when researching for my books that it seems a shame not to share it! Having said that, I must admit to being guilty of assuming that everyone else must find it as interesting as I do lol!

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  3. Ah the vagaries of children – just when we think we know what they want – they change their minds LOL But it’s worth remembering WE were like that too 😀
    Our diets have changed so much in recent times – I think we would be hard pressed to live on the old diets – in the Middle East, the present generations (born from about the 1980’s), the kids cannot drink Camel Milk without feeling ill – and in Korea, China and Japan, the older generation cannot tolerate milk products, but the new generations can.
    PS I love Dulse – it’s very different from the Japanese and Welsh versions and packed full of iodine – hence you always knew there was some about when you walked into a room where it was – that smell mmmmm 😀

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    1. I lived in the Middle East as a kid…in Kuwait actually. This was in the 70’s, the oil business was taking off big style then and we used to go off roading in the desert. The nomads still lived in their big black tents but they were so wealthy they had their Mercedes Benz parked out front! I remember watching camel races and camel milk…yuk! And how much of a novelty my sister and I were with our white skin and blonde hair. Tbe women used to take us and dress us up in their clothes drape us with gold tinkling jewelry and make us dance for them. No word of a lie but one of the men wanted to cement our families friendship by betrothing me to his younger brother…I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time! Luckily my Dad refused, or my life would have been very different by now!!!

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    1. Dulse is meant to be very good for my blood type diet as we O’s are apparrantly low in iodine. But living here in rural Cavan its not that readily available! Mind you I lived in Skerries for years and never once saw it in the menu there! They had a local seal colony too but they never appeared on the menu either…massive things they were.

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    2. Hi Susan. I was amazed at the diversity of their diet. I had assumed it was far more restricted. I thought they ate a lot of bread but soda bread wasnt introduced until 19th century believe it or not. Wheat did not grow well here and the other grains did not bake well…as I have discovered recently in my experiments. There was so much otber interesting stuff I couldnt fit into the post. Ill have to look up some ancient recipes for another post I think…that would be fun! Getting you all cooking iron age style and posting pics of your creations…Id love that!

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