All the food that the pre-Roman British ate was 100% organic - lucky them!
This may seem flippant but it is certainly true. We know quite a lot about their diet, they grew broad beans, barley, and wheat, for bread and beer, we know that they kept wheat in barns and threshed it as required. Before the arrival of the Romans, southern Britain was producing so much wheat that it was being exported to the continent and possibly the Mediterranean too.
It is often said that the Ancient Britons did not make cheese but this is probably based on something that Strabo the Greek geographer had said, the British did not export cheese. Actually it is likely the British had a whole assortment of delicious cheeses, so much so that the Romans seemed to be prepared to die for it!
They also had no shortage of milk as southern Britain at least was teaming with cattle, according to Julius Caesar.
The cheeses the British had then were presumably similar to the traditional varieties now, particularly favoured it would seem, would have been Cheshire cheese. But the problem with these British cheeses is their high fat content as they couldn’t be exported to the Mediterranean as when this cheese is exposed to high temperatures the fat melts and the cheese ‘sweats’ and would be ruined.
What was needed for export was a hard low-fat well-salted cheese like the Parmesan and Grana cheeses of Italy, and it would appear that the Romans did teach the British how to make this type of cheese – the old Cheshire cheese. This is distinct from the normal Cheshire cheese and does seem to have been hard like parmesan. This type of cheese would have need a lot of salt in its manufacture but salt was abundant in Cheshire, indeed the word Cheshire seems to be derived from ‘cheese shire’. It is not clear if this type of cheese was exported or whether it was eaten by home-sick Romans but it never appeared to have caught on.
It is no longer made but it was being used in the early eighteenth century as a type of external plaster designed to cover up old timber framed houses to give them a more fashionable stone appearance – a type of Artex of its day.
This is the recipe from Richard Neve’s ‘The City and Country Purchaser’ 1703
“Take half a pound of old Cheshire cheese, peel, grate very small, put into pot. Then a pint of cow’s milk, let stand all night. Then get whites of 12 or 14 eggs, then 1/2lb of best unslaked or quick lime, and beat to powder in a mortar, then, sift it through a fine-hair sieve into mixture, stir well, breaking knots of cheese, then add whites of egg and temper well together”.
It is almost certain they made and ate ham, and this would not have been rough stuff but probably as good as any we have today. This is because the best hams today are thought to be those that have come from wild boar which have been allowed to forage free range on the forest floor, the Ancient Britons certainly had forests and wild boar and apart from sugar and the New World spices had all the ingredients needed to make good ham. These would include honey, mustard, herbs and other flavourings like juniper berries as well as salt and saltpetre (which could be collected from ancient stables) and no doubt the hams could be hung in the rafters of the round houses.
They also had the usual range of domesticated animals, cows, pig, geese, chickens etc
They also had wooden barrels in which they could store produce and they certainly had beer or more accurately ale which they would flavour with various herbs. There is no doubt that with a wooden spigot and wooded tap they would have been able to have cask conditioned ales as good as any real ales today. The also had mead a honey based drink.
They almost certainly ate oysters as in the Roman period the best oysters were exported to Rome and according to the eighteenth century historian Gibbon one of the reasons for the Roman invasion of Britain was the false promise of pearls. It has also been suggested that the luxury loving Romans chose Colchester as their base because of the excellence of the local oysters.