Sunday, August 24, 2014

Venison Pie and Honey Cakes

by Octavia Randolph

Run before you become a pie!
Woodcut from Tubervile’s Boke (sic) of Hunting, 1576

Writing about food and cooking and eating in my novels has always been a pleasure, one I hope it has been to read as well. Eating in Britain in the late ninth century, the age of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga, was circumscribed by at least two factors: The limited ability to preserve any foodstuffs for long, and the comparatively narrow range of edibles available to our ninth century forefathers and foremothers. Think about it: not only were there no out-of season tomatoes; there were no tomatoes at all, as these New World natives had to wait until the Conquistadors of the early 16th century carried them back to Europe from the mountain foothills of South America. The same goes with that later European staple, the potato, brought back to Europe from the Incan empire in the later 16th century. Ditto maize, the American corn. Rice, native to Asia and parts of Africa, was also largely unknown in Europe until its use and cultivation spread from Sicily northward beginning in the 15th century. (The third factor, that of economics, we will address below.)

Yet even without such common foodstuffs as tomatoes, potatoes, and rice there was a perhaps surprising variety in the staples that were eaten. The growing of grain was vitally important, for grains were used not only in the baking of bread (which the poor oftentimes subsisted on) but served as the thickening base for nearly every kind of stew-like browis, pottage, or frumenty. Bread even gives us the words for “Lady” and “Lord”, for the Old English hlæfdige, ‘kneader of bread’, became Lady, and hlafward, ‘keeper of the bread’, became Lord.

And grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and oats were the basis for the brewing of ale. (Brewing used malted grains; grains such as barley which had been air dried, sprouted, then oven-dried.) Wheaten bread graced the tables of the high-born; coarser loaves of oat, barley, and rye (oftentimes adulterated with less-palatable seeds and even ground tree bark) fed the poor. We need to recall that 9th century ears of grain were far smaller than their modern counterparts which have been bred over many generations for large, plump, full heads.

Similarly, some domestic animals were smaller than those today. Many breeds of chickens were the size of today’s bantam fowl, their eggs correspondingly smaller. Yet certain wild animals were larger. Solitary and very ill-tempered wild bulls roamed the hills beyond London as late as the 12th century. Wild boars were fierce, tough, and savvy fighters, claiming many a dog and huntsman with their sharp tusks.

Most diets were by necessity plant-based, and for the majority of folk meat was used sparingly as a flavouring agent. The slaughtering and roasting of a fatted calf or even an entire oxen which I depict in celebratory feasts were rare occasions even for the rich. Most meat was boiled or fried to capture every drop of precious fat and flavour; and roasting large animals consumed huge amounts of firewood. This is why the common morning and evening meal was browis, a combination of oats or barley with some meat broth, a kind of hearty porridge. This could be enlivened with the common vegetables of the day: shredded or cubed turnips, parsnips, radishes, beets, carrots and its relation, the little known today skirrets, onions, cabbage, and peas.

Skirrets, from the Restoration Seeds catalogue

Greens such as lamb’s lettuce, docks, parsley, purslane, bugloss, mallows, mints, and leeks were grown, gathered, and enjoyed in season, as were tonic Spring teas such as that made from the young leaves of the birch tree. Tansy leaves were ground in a mortar and pestle and stirred into beaten eggs and cooked like a frittata or omelette (just add Ham for a breakfast suitable for Dr. Seuss). Beans, chick-peas, and lentils were also grown during the period.

Butter, when available, was stirred into the browis to enrich it, and bread-and-butter is an ages-old enjoyment. Milk spoils quickly and went almost at once into butter or soft cheeses. Ewes’ milk was commonly used for milk and to make both butter and cheese. The use of rennet (derived from the vell, or salted stomach lining, of calves) was understood, and that invaluable commodity salt was also used to cure and preserve cheese, as well as added to butter to increase its keeping qualities.

Ceramic floor tile from Westminster Abbey depicting fish,
a sustaining food source for the resident monks

Regarding fish and shellfish, the many fast days of the early Church meant that even those who could afford meat often ate fish. (Lent was particularly challenging, as not even eggs could be eaten, and at a time of year when egg-laying was on the rise, and folk were hungry for any source of protein.) Certain types of fish which were wildly popular then have fallen out of favour – lampreys, and the river eel, for example. Baby eels were so relished that taxes and rent were paid in them. Fish were captured through the use of weirs (underwater traps consisting of stakes and netting), nets cast from boats, line fishing, and simply dipping a hooped fishing net into likely waters.

Successful line fishing, from the Boke (sic)
of St Albans. Equipment and technique could
not have changed much between the
9th and the 15th century.

All manner of things were collected or dug at low tide: winkles, whelks, sea snails, oysters (and Anglo-Saxon England was a rich source of pearls), mussels, clams, crayfish, crab. And the occasional leviathan washed ashore as well.

A stranded whale became the property of the king,
especially the tongue, considered a delicacy.

Fresh meat needed to be consumed quickly, and was most abundant during the slaughter month of Blodmonath,”blood-month”, November, when livestock not strong or fit enough to be kept over Winter on limited fodder was killed and consumed in an orgy of feasting, the surplus being laid up for the lean months ahead. Meats were smoked, dried, salted, or laid up in brine (highly salted water). Farm animals were typically lean, and fat was highly prized. Sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, deer, and wild birds were all consumed by those who had the means to indulge; but almost every family kept a few hen-fowl and a pig, that invaluable garbage-disposal which assured that nothing at all went to waste. Bacon was as cherished then as it is now. Anglo-Saxons enjoyed the right to hunt upon their own lands; it was not until the advent of the Normans following the disaster of 1066 that all forest game became the property of the King and his henchmen. Poachers were regularly blinded or had their hands cut off in punishment. But let us turn our attention to something more pleasant: Sweets.

Natural sweeteners were few and far between. Fruits, fresh or dried, provided longed-for sweetness in earlier centuries, as did the naturally sweet vegetables parsnips, carrots, and skirrets. (But do remember that both parsnips and carrots have been bred to be as sweet as they are now.) Sugar from cane, grown originally in the tropical climes of Southeast Asia, would not spread to Britain until the 17th century slave plantations of the Caribbean produced cane in abundance; prior to this it was a luxury item on elite Elizabethan tables, consumed in lump form. Honey, beloved by all, was a treat, and in many parts a valuable trade commodity. Beeswax was just as valued for the naturally scented and clean-burning tapers that could be made from it, far superior to the ill-smelling and smoky tallow candles, made from animal fat, that the less-well-off used. (The truly poor had neither, and either sat in darkness – surely encouraging an ‘early to bed’ ethos – or used rush torches.) Honey was also the source of the potent and delicious alcoholic drink mead, made using the “washed” honey comb. Honey’s preservative qualities were understood, and it was used, where available, to slather upon meat to keep it fresh longer, just as it was slathered on burns to soothe them. Honey has a natural antiseptic property which could not have been understood but was none the less known.

Bees heading out of their skeps, made by
plaiting and sewing together straw coils.

Citrus, indispensable to us today, was unknown to our Anglo-Saxon forebears, but other fruit happily abounded: apples, pears, quinces, medlars, cherries, stone fruits like plums, all kinds of grapes and berries. Nutmeats such as walnuts and chestnuts were grown and gathered, and provided a health-some and hearty source of vegetable fat and protein.

Spices were fabulously valuable; the early 8th century English cleric the Venerable Bede died owning a small store of black pepper corns, which he carefully left to the grateful brother-monk recipients in his will. (Look kindly on that pepper mill when next you enter your own kitchen…it holds what was once a fortune!) Nearly all spices were held to have medicinal as well as culinary uses, increasingly their usefulness and value.

And now, two recipes which have graced the tables in The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Don’t worry, I’ve eaten them myself.

Venison Pie with Juniper Berries 
The very same pie that Gunnvor the cook bakes up for Ceridwen 

Oven to 350 F/ 180C/ Gas mark 4

Your favourite pie crust for a two crust pie
12 oz (340 grams, or about 2 cups) cooked ground venison, chicken, turkey, or beef, well drained; (or seasoned tofu crumbles, which is what I use, being vegetarian)
¾ cup sliced carrots
1 Tbsp raisins, chopped
3 juniper berries, crushed slightly in a mortar and pestle
Small sprig each of fresh rosemary and thyme, stems removed
A grinding of black pepper (if you are rich)
1 egg, beaten into ½ cup of ale (or apple juice, or meat broth)

Roll out your pie dough and divide in half. Line a 9” pie plate with one crust, or use two 5” diameter oven-proof ramekins. In a medium size bowl combine the crumbled protein, carrots, raisins, juniper berries, herbs, and pepper. Pour the ale into a small bowl and beat the egg into it with a whisk. Add to protein/vegetable mixture and blend. Spoon into pie pan or ramekins, and top with top crust. Bake in bottom third of oven for 35 minutes or until crust is light golden brown. Delicious warm or at room temperature. Serves four hearty appetites.

Honey Cakes  
Very easy to make, and addictive. Luckily Tindr is always glad to share his honey with friends.

Oven to 350 F/ 180C/ Gas mark 4

Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 3 teaspoons baking powder. Dribble 5 tablespoons of honey over this, then drop in 4 tablespoons of sweet butter, cut into small pieces. Toss so that the honey is covered by the flour mixture, then using your fingertips, rub the honey-butter into the flour so it is crumbly. (It will not be sticky – yet). Beat 2 eggs into ½ cup cream, and add to bowl; stir. (It will be sticky now.) Turn out onto generously floured board, sprinkle with more flour, and pat to about ½” – ¾” thickness. Using a drinking glass, cut into rounds, and lay on parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until light golden brown and firm. Enjoy with butter, jam, or more honey. Makes 7 to 9, depending on your drinking glass.

Wish to dig deeper in the food lore of earlier times? Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century by C. Anne Wilson is a highly readable book you are certain to enjoy.


Octavia Randolph is the author of the Best Selling four volume The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. She is happy to announce the publication of her novella about Lady Godiva, Ride, available now and Free to Kindle Unlimited Members.

Circle of Ceridwen


  1. I did so enjoy your post about the food people ate. I find it endlessly fascinating. Another author who writes in this vein is Margaret Visser. I often wonder why the Irish did not do more fishing and/or gathering of whelks, etc. during the potato famine.
    Thank you Octavia.

  2. Great article. Some nice facts and a yummy recepie to try. I can recommend 2 books A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink and also A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink by Ann Hagen for some really good detail on this period food wise.

    1. Leof Richard, and thank you for the suggestion of Ann Hagen's excellent works. And I'm delighted you might be attempting either the Venison Pie or Honey Cakes, both quite easy to make. I've become so interested in the reality of period food that I'm actually thinking of creating a little Cookery Book(let) of the food eaten in The Circle of Ceridwen Saga...!

    2. I would have to have that book(let) for my daughter--she could cook for me. :) Be sure to let us know when that comes out.

  3. Those honey cakes sound good! The venison pie too if I can find some venison.

    1. Ah, Denise, no venison necessary! The recipe works for any type of ground, cooked meat - or tofu, which is my "venison". It is the spicing - the rosemary, thyme, and juniper berries, which give the pie the rich and smoky game flavour. Oh, and maybe the ale, as well...

  4. You've sent me on a search for juniper berries, and I've found them in a local store. I can't promise I'll make the pie, but I have a good feeling about those honey cakes.

    This is a fascinating post! Thank you!


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