The history of Britain has been full of invaders and settlers, most of whom made their way from Continental Europe via the English Channel. From the Romans onwards, many of these peoples made their way through Kent on their way north. As they passed by, or settled in the 'Garden of England' (so called because of its mild climate, low rainfall and rich soil) they planted crops and herded animals which were not native to the country but which we now think of as part of our national diet.
1. Grapevines: the Romans brought vines to England and the tradition of winemaking flourishes here to this day.
2. Cherries: the wild cherry tree was native to Britain but it is the Romans who are credited with
introducing the sweet cherry tree to Kent where it flourished. Later Henry VIII ordered his head fruiterer, Richard Harris to propagate hardier varieties from Flanders in the Teynham area, that lead Kent to emerge as the premiere cherry growing region in England.
3. Hops: although the Romans brought hops to Britain it was not until the 16th century that they started being used in brewing beer. Before that ale was made with malt and honey. Flemish merchants brought the tradition of using hops in brewing to the country and it became hugely popular. The oldest brewery in England is Shepherd Neame based in Faversham, Kent.
4. Sheep: it is said that the Phoenicians brought the first sheep to England but archaeology shows that this is not quite true. Native sheep called soay existed in this country during the Neolithic period but cross breeding with strains from the Middle East led to better wool. But it was the Romans who brought the sheep which developed into the white faced breeds which we know today. It could be that the famous Romney Marsh breed is a mix of all three types.
5. Apples: apple tree existed in Britain before the Roman invasion but these were quickly replaced by sweeter and tastier apple varieties during the 5th century. Through the ages the range of fruit was expanded by the Normans and the Victorians. Nowadays you can see the huge variety of apples at Brogdale, the National Fruit Collection, in Faversham.
6. Pheasants: not native to Britain, the pheasant was introduced to the country by the Romans and has thrived ever since. By the 15th century it was one of the most common game birds and an important source of meat.
7. Asparagus: cultivation of asparagus began in the Eastern Mediterranean about 2,000 years ago. It was the Romans who brought it to Britain, where it flourished in our temperate climate. English asparagus is now thought to be the best in the world and is now grown widely in Kent.
8. Chickens: hard to believe that chickens, such a staple of the British diet, is not native to this country. The Romans introduced them and the army, amongst others, feasted on chicken. In the 19th century the famous Orpington breed was developed in Kent, a prolific egg layer and still popular today.
9. Garlic: of course garlic was introduced by the Romans! Now this celebrated flavour ingredient is available everywhere and in Kent they produce organic varieties in abundance. Wet garlic is now available from many farms, adding another dimension to British cuisine.
10. Rosemary: this aromatic herb was brought, with many others, to the shores of England by the Romans. It was mainly used for medicinal use at that time rather than as a flavouring for food. Since those times it has been used by bridal wreathes, as a protection against prison fever and a defence against the plague. It has even been used as ornamental topiary during Tudor times. Nowadays we are more likely to use this herb on our roast lamb.
So we have to thank the Romans for many things, straight roads, aqueducts, but mostly for the improvements they made to the British diet - a lasting legacy.
If you've found this blog post interesting why not learn more about the fascinating food history of the UK on one of Tasteful Travel's culinary and culture tours.