After the Romans left British shores in the early 5th century, it left the country open to invasion. Tribes in what is now Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands were faced with war, shortage of land to grow food because of increasing population and flooding of low-lying land. News of England's fertile land and ease of invasion reached the Angle, Saxon and Jute tribes. These tribes were a fearsome warrior people and easily subdued the local Britons.
Added to this the Britons in the north were being threatened by the Picts and Scots now that the Romans were not defending the border. Some Briton chieftains made deals with these European invaders for their mercenary services in return for land. This led to the first establishment of Saxons on the Isle of Thanet. Going forward they settled in large numbers in the south of the British Isles.
Although the leaders continued to be warriors, the rest were predominantly farmers. Their contribution to the history of England was significant, giving the country the bulk of the language we speak today. The Saxon methods of farming were much more efficient than previously and gave a great deal more variety to the diet. It was pretty healthy cuisine, varied if not very fancy.
Saxons farmed the land, kept livestock, foraged, hunted and fished. Barley, spelt, wheat, rye and oats were grown. Spelt and wheat for bread, barley for brewing and oats for animal fodder and porridge. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry were kept and bred. Eggs, milk and cheese added variety to the diet, as well as nuts, fruit and fungi in season. Meat would have been provided mainly by hunting and Saxons would have dried and salted it for preservation. Only pigs were grown and consumed as a source of meat. I guess that from this came the British love of the bacon buttie!
Vegetables were widely used, although it is not clear whether these were cultivated or foraged. Saxons certainly had purple carrots, the ancestors of the large orange ones we have today. A parsnip-like vegetable called white carrot was also available and wild cabbages. Legumes were grown, such as beans. There is some controversy as to whether peas were grown or whether they came to England with the Normans. Wild roots were collected, such as burdock and rape. To give flavour onions and leeks were cultivated and many herbs, such as wild garlic, sorrel and lamb's tongue grew wild. Other herbs like mint and mustard were grown near Saxon houses for daily use.
Fruit was foraged for, such as crab apples, rosehips, sloes and bilberries, plums, cherries, strawberries and blackberries. All of these were seasonal and most probably cultivated as time went on.
Flavourings were not readily available but the Saxons were traders and some spices would have been imported. Honey was the sweetener and also used in mead, an alcoholic beverage. Wine was made from various fruit but grape wine would mostly have been imported and so only available to the rich. Beer was much more widely drunk, especially as water was not always safe to drink. Cider was also made and was widely available. For alcohol free beverages the Saxons made fruit infusions and juices.
Interested in history and gastronomy? Find out more on a bespoke historically themed tour in the UK tailored just for you.