We’re pretty used to our modern kitchen conveniences, including our stoves and ovens. But somehow people from the Anglo-Saxon and medieval period managed to make a wide array of dishes and baked goods without them. How did they do it?
Managing your fuel supply was a key element. Cutting and gathering wood was a summer task, though it might not be split until winter. How much wood was needed throughout the year for cooking and heat depended on how large your household was. A wealthy household or lord would have access to wooded areas that peasants were not allowed to touch.
For cooking, a variety of woods were used. Charcoal analyzed from the Anglo-Saxon period identifies oak, poplar, willow, and hawthorn. In areas where wood was not readily available, charcoal, peat, straw, or reeds could also be used. However, because reeds and straw burn very hot, and very fast, they could only be used for baking, not roasting.
Fires were difficult to set in an era before matches. Fire-steels, flint, or pyrite (struck against iron to produce a spark) might be carried in a leather pouch along with tinder. Tinder could be dried brush, straw, birch bark, rotten wood, pine needles, wood shavings, small twigs, or char-cloth. Char-cloth was made by briefly catching a bit of clean linen on fire, then putting the fire out. The resulting bit of blackened fiber could be saved for later and easily caught fire. Once a fire had been successfully lit, the resulting coals were protected with fire covers or other means. It was easier to revive a fire from still-hot coals than to start one from scratch.
Once you had a source of heat, the easiest cooking method was of course, direct heat; roasting meat over an open flame, or placing food in a container over, on, under or next to the fire. Different types of wood might be used depending on what was being cooked.
“To spit-roast a pig of 120lb dead weight, the ideal fuel is 15 cwt of large oak logs, a foot long and thoroughly seasoned, cloven into halves or thirds and placed on end to form a bed which will burn steadily. On this 15 cwt of ash with a diameter of 4-5 inches and in foot lengths (cut at least a month previously) is used to provide local areas of fiercer heat in line with the quarters of the animal.” – A Handbook of Anglo Saxon Food by Ann Hagen
Indirect heat was another method of cooking. “Pot-boilers” were heated stones that were then dropped into a pot with water or other food. Cooking pits lined with stones could be used if no cooking vessels were available.
“An experiment in pot-boiler cookery showed that a ten-pound leg of mutton wrapped in clean straw tied with a twisted straw rope, as indicated in early Irish literature, was cooked after 3 hours 40 minutes uncontaminated by ash or mud.”
– A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food by Ann Hagen
Anglo-Saxon and medieval people also had their own versions of our modern-day ovens. One type was an earth oven. Hot stones were placed in a pit that had already been pre-heated with brush wood. Meat, wrapped in leaves or even clay, was placed inside, then covered with more hot stones that could be changed out with hot ones as they cooled. The time for meat to cook in an earth oven was approximately the same as our present-day ovens.
Come back next week for more information about different types of medieval ovens and kitchens.