A meal of hedgehog or stinging nettle sounds little more than a recipe for the world's worst mouth ulcer. According to new research, however, these were the appetising ingredients of choice for some of our ancient forebears.
The country's 10 oldest recipes have been unveiled today, following extensive research into the history of Britain's eating habits. Nettle pudding, which dates back to 6,000 BC, was declared the oldest recorded recipe in the study from the Food Science department of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.
The stodgy concoction, which was made by combining crushed leaves with flour and water to make a dough, was not the only meal that researchers discovered dated back to the early-Neolithic period. Experts believe Neolithic man had a penchant for chomping through an offal-heavy ancestor of Haggis called meat pudding and even pastry-wrapped roasted hedgehog.
Dr Ruth Fairchild, who headed the research team at the Welsh university, said that despite appearances, these dishes do bear some resemblance to modern cuisine. "Nettle pudding was a forefather to the dumpling, and while people don't really eat hedgehogs anymore, they still eat things like beef Wellington, which is prepared with a pastry in a very similar way," she said.
The discovery that hedgehogs were used in early cooking was based on archaeological findings where cooked spines were found in areas used for compost. But Dr Fairchild said she thought it was unlikely that hedgehogs would be making a reappearance on our dining tables. "They're listed as a protected species now, so I hope people don't start going out and cooking them," said the researcher. "But I suppose if it was roadkill that might be alright.
"Roasted hedgehog was not the only dish on the list to be rejected by modern eaters. An unappetising Roman concoction of fish guts and fish heads, called Garum or Liquamen, also failed to stand the test of time, not to mention smoky stew which combined fish scraps and bacon.
The research team originally thought the oldest recipes would be Roman, but by uncovering existing archaeological evidence they discovered even more ancient cuisine. "Everyone says that the Romans gave us our cuisine," said Dr Fairchild. "But using the research of archaeologist Jacqui Wood, we were able to show our own culinary heritage that pre-dated them.
"But the Romans were responsible for some of the dishes that have stood the test of time, such as pancakes and thick soup. Romans discovered how to use beaten eggs in recipes and cakes, custards, fruit breads and pancakes appeared soon afterwards. They were also the source of stuffed dates, another highlight from the list still used today.
Other British staples, such as custard, meat pies and mince pies, narrowly missed out on making the top 10, despite also dating back to Roman times – although the ancient version of our favourite festive pies actually mixed minced meat with dried fruit and spices as a preservative measure.
The research, which was commissioned by UKTV Food's new series, The People's Cookbook, was conducted over two months to delve into the heritage of the nation's cuisine. The series looks at recipes that have been passed down through generations.
Dr Fairchild said she hoped their findings would spark a resurgence of interest in British cooking. "I hope it will get people more interested in traditional cooking, and if it inspires people to cook then it's got to be a good thing."
Smokey Fish Stew
500g of any smoked fish
1 litre milk
1 cup cream
1 tsp salt
Method:Fry the bacon until the fat comes away from it and add the chopped leeks. Cook until tender. Add the fillets of fish and cover with the milk. Slowly cook in a pot near the fire until the fish is cooked, which is about 30 minutes. Pour in the cream, along with the chopped chives and salt. Among the fish remains found in prehistoric middens (waste pits) in northern Europe are: eel, carp, pike, perch, trout, salmon, plaice, bass, mullet, cod and spurdog.
Taken from Prehistoric Cooking by Jacqui Wood (Tempus, 2002)
Patina of Elderberries
6 bunches of elderberries
1 tsp anchovy essence
4 fl oz (125ml) wine
4 fl oz (125ml) passum
4 fl oz (125ml) olive oil
Remove the fruits from the elderberry bunches. Wash, place in a saucepan with a little water, and simmer gently until just softened. Drain and arrange in a greased shallow pan. Add the pepper, moisten with anchovy essence, then add the wine and passum and mix well. Finally add the olive oil and bring to the boil. When the mixture is boiling, break the eggs into it and stir well to bind. When set, sprinkle pepper over it and serve hot or cold. If you are unsure of any of the plants in these recipes please check before picking in the wild and eating.
Given in Roman Cookery by Jane Renfrew (English Heritage, 1985)
Liquamen or Garum
1 jar of salted anchovies (100g/3 oz
)700ml/24 fl oz water
400g/14 oz sea salt
A pinch of dried oregano
1 tbsp sapa
Dissolve the salt in the water over a low heat. Add the anchovies to the salted water with the oregano and sapa. Simmer gently for 20 minutes and then leave to cool. Strain the garum through a fine sieve or muslin cloth and store in a jar ready for use.
Another Roman recipe, mentioned in Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens by Mark Grant (Serif, 1999)
Mussels in Mitulis
Liquamen (see above)
Passum (very sweet wine sauce made by boiling the must – could use sapa above)
Mix the liquamen, chopped leek, cumin and passum or sweet wine.
Add water. Cook until the mussels are tender.
Roasted Meats (Hedgehog)
According to medieval experts: "Hedgehog should have its throat cut, be singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water." This is, however, a dish based on traditional methods of cooking meat going back to prehistoric times.
2–2.5kg joint of meat (or leg of lamb)
Sufficient long grass to cover the meat
Season the meat. Wrap it in long grass, first lengthways and then tying more grass crossways to secure the green wrapping in place. Prepare your barbecue and place a large pot filled with water on it. Cook the meat for about two hours. Once the meat has cooked, remove the grass then place the meat back in the barbecue to sear. Then carve and serve. (Nettle pudding can be boiled in the same pot and served as an accompaniment.)
Prepare some stock. It can contain meat or be vegetarian. Use stock cubes or leftover bones boiled and chopped up meat. Use about as much stock as the quantity of pottage you wish to end up with. In this stock cook as many different kinds of vegetables and herbs as you like. (Tomatoes and potatoes would not have been used.)
Suggestion of ingredients:
Onions of all varieties
Cabbage of any kind (sorrel, cabbage)
Green beans or dried beans
Thyme, sage, parsley, marjoram, rosemary
When all the vegetables are cooked, add some porridge oats. If you want your pottage to be runny, like soup, add a couple of tablespoons of oats. If you want it to be extra thick and filling add a large cupful. Continue to simmer until the porridge is cooked. Adjust the seasoning and serve with bread and cheese.
Porridge – a Roman speciality – was made not just from oats but wheat, millet and barley with milk or water salt or honey. Variants included Breakfast Porridge and Carthaginian Porridge.
In ancient times these would have been a seasonal delicacy as eggs would not have been available all year round. Perhaps that's why they have become associated with the season of Lent and Easter, when eggs would have been in abundance as the birds would be laying.
125g wholewheat flour
500ml milk (from any domestic animal)
2 eggs (duck eggs get you closer to ancient times but hen eggs will do)
pinch of salt
butter to cook
To make pancakes simply whisk all the ingredients together then leave to stand for at least 90 minutes. At the end of this time heat a pan or a griddle, add a knob of butter and cook small spoonfuls of the mixture. The pancakes work well hot with honey or can be served cold spread with butter and jam.
Alternatives: Finely chop wood sorrel (has a lemony flavour) and mix into some honey and spread over the pancakes.
Mix about 100g of toasted, chopped hazelnuts into the pancake mixture.Mix some fruit such as blackcurrants, blackberries, wild strawberries or elderberries into the mix.
1 bunch of sorrel
1 bunch of watercress
1 bunch of dandelion leaves
2 bunches of young nettle leaves
1 cup of barley flour
1 tsp salt
Chop the herbs and mix in the barley flour and salt. Add enough water to bind and place in the centre of a linen or muslin cloth. Tie the cloth and add to a pot of simmering venison or wild boar (a pork joint will do just as well). Leave in the pot until meat is cooked.
This dish is thought to date back to 6,000BC. It is described in Prehistoric Cooking by Jacqui Wood (Tempus, 2002)
1 sheep's stomach or ox secum, cleaned and scalded, turned inside out and soaked overnight in cold salted water
heart and lungs of one lamb450g/1lb beef or lamb trimmings, fat and lean
2 onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground dried coriander
1 tsp mace
1 tsp nutmeg
water, enough to cook the haggis stock from lungs and trimmings
Wash the lungs and heart. Place in large pan of cold water with the meat trimmings and bring to the boil. Cook for about 2 hours. When cooked, strain off the stock and set aside.
Mince the lungs, heart and trimmings. Put the minced mixture in a bowl and add the finely chopped onions, oatmeal and seasoning. Mix well and add enough stock to moisten the mixture. It should have a soft crumbly consistency.
Spoon the mixture into the sheep's stomach, so that it's just over half full. Sew up the stomach with strong thread and prick a couple of times so it doesn't explode while cooking.
Put the haggis in a pan of boiling water (enough to cover it) and cook for 3 hours without a lid. Keep adding water to keep it covered. To serve, cut open the haggis and spoon out the filling.
Barley Bread with Beer
500g barley flour
500g stone-ground wheat flour
1 tsp salt
Beer to mix
Mix the flours and salt together and rub in the butter. Add enough beer to make a soft dough and shape into small cakes. Cook on a hot stone (or griddle) until firm. This is a very light bread because of the addition of the beer and is good with cheese.
This is another ancient recipe described in Prehistoric Cooking by Jacqui Wood (Tempus, 2002)