Until very recently, all settled communities have eaten the foods that their geographic contexts offered. Once Britain was cut off from the mainland of the Continent (by 6500 B. C.) and fishing was feasible in the clement weather of the summer, fish became as integral a part of the local diet as meat was in the winter. Yet the bulk of the diet (about 85 percent) was made up of plant foods, as it always had been. Humankind has relied on wild foods for 99.8 percent of its time on the planet. There are over 3,000 species of plants that can be eaten for food, but only 150 of these have ever been cultivated, and today the peoples of the world sustain themselves on just 20 main crops. We underestimate the harvest from the wild that humankind gathered and the detailed knowledge, passed on from generation to generation, about which plants were toxic, which were healing, and which were sharp, bitter, sweet, and sour; such knowledge must have been encyclopedic.
The women and children gathered roots, leaves, fungi, berries, nuts, and seeds. Early in the spring the new shoots of sea kale, sea holly, hogweed, bracken, “Good King Henry,” and asparagus could be picked. Then there were bulbs to be dug up that had stored their energy during the winter. These included the bulbs of lilies and of the Alliums (including wild garlic), the rhizomes of “Solomon’s Seal,” and the tubers of water plants that were dried and then ground to make a flour. Baby pinecones and the buds of trees were also springtime foods, not to mention the cambium, the inner live skin beneath the outside bark of the tree, which in the spring was full of sweet sap and yielded syrup. The new leaves of wild cabbage, sea spinach, chard, and sea purslane could be picked, as could fat hen, orache, nettle, purslane, mallow, and much else. Other edible leaves were those of yellow rocket, ivy-leaved toadflax, lamb’s lettuce, wood sorrel, dandelion, red clover, wild marjoram, and salad burnet (Colin Renfrew, in Black 1993). The flavoring herbs, like wild mustard, coriander, poppies, corn mint, juniper, and tansy, would have been gathered with pleasure. Wild birds’ eggs were also eaten in the spring, with a small hole made in an egg’s shell and the egg sucked out raw. The bigger eggs, however, would have been cooked in their shells in the warm embers of a fire.
In the autumn, there were fruits to be gathered, like crabapples that were sliced and dried for the winter, along with berries (sloes, elderberries, strawberries, and blackberries), mushrooms, large tree fungi (like Fistulina hepatica), and nuts. Hazelnuts, walnuts, sweet chestnuts, pine nuts, beechnuts, acorns, and different kinds of seeds were also stored. In addition, lichens and algae (both very nutritious) were gathered and dried, and cakes were made out of them.
Fishing communities grew up at the mouths of estuaries and along coasts where there were sheltered coves and inlets that could harbor boats and fishing equipment. Dragnets of nettle fiber were held between boats, woven basketlike traps caught crabs and lobsters, and fresh fish (trout, salmon, and pike) were speared with tridents of sharpened bone lashed to a stick. Fish were wind-dried and smoked over peat or wood fires.
Seabirds, killed with clay pellets flung by slings or with arrows having blunt wooden heads, were another source of food (Wilson 1973). Unplucked birds were covered with a thick layer of smeared clay and cooked in the embers of a fire. Large seabirds - oily and strong in flavor - could also have been smoked over a fire and stored for the winter. Smaller game birds in the forest were more difficult to catch, though traps made of nets might have been used. In the late Upper Paleolithic site at Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, the bones of grouse, ptarmigan, greylag goose, and whooper swan were found (Renfrew, in Black 1993).
In the winter, red deer, roe deer, elk, wild oxen, and wild boar were hunted, whereas smaller game like wildcats, foxes, otters, beavers, and hares were frequently caught in traps. Nooses, hung from trees, served as one form of trap. Hounding animals into gullies was another method of capture. Deer-antler mattocks were wielded to hack meat off the carcass, whereas flint knives were employed for skinning. Nothing was wasted: The gut and stomach were used as casing for the soft offal, cut up small and mixed with fat and herbs, then slowly roasted.
The first domestic animals were brought to Britain around 3500 B. C. by the islands’ first farmers, Neolithic immigrants from the coasts of western and northwestern Europe. Following their introduction, herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs grazed in forest clearings. Unwanted male cattle were poleaxed, and many of the bones were split to extract the marrow. That a large number of calves were killed suggests that there would also have been a generous supply of milk with which to make butter and cheese.
The Celts, who began to settle in Britain from the eighth century B. C., added hens, ducks, and geese to the list of Britain’s domesticated animals. They refused to eat the wild horses and instead tamed them for riding and for drawing wagons and chariots. The Celts were the first to recognize that the soil of Britain is more fertile than that of continental Europe, and they cleared forests to plant cereals and to allow pasture to grow for grazing. They preserved meat, fish, and butter in salt and exported British beef to the Continent. The Celts also tilled the soil so successfully that they exported grain to many parts of Europe. In Britain, they built underground grain storage silos.
The Celts processed wheat by setting ears alight, then extinguishing the fire when the husks were burnt. The wheat was then winnowed and baked, and saddle querns were used to grind it into flour. These industrious farmers also began beekeeping, with conical hives made from wickerwork daubed with mud or dung. They employed shallow earthenware pots as drinking vessels, whereas deeper pots were made for cooking pottages (mixtures of meat, grains, leaves, roots, and herbs) slowly over a fire.
Honey and water, left together in a pot, will ferment, and this drink - mead - was often flavored with wild herbs and fruits. Some cow, ewe, and goat milk might have been drunk fresh, but most of it would have been made into cheese and only the whey drunk. The Celts made an unhopped beer from barley and wheat, first allowing the grain to germinate, then stopping this process with heat and allowing it to ferment. Finally, they also imported wine and, later, began to grow vines themselves.