Milking the Puddings: What was Sweet in the Dark Ages

Full moon in May means rice pudding in our house. It is the Buddhist festival of Wesak, or Buddha Day, and rice pudding symbolises Buddha’s first meal following his Enlightenment, which was a sortof rice pudding.

I also favour this tradition as it fits in well with the Anglo-Saxon month of May. The full moon in May was known as the Milk Moon and May was, according to Bede, the “month of three milkings”.  He went on to explain: “So called because in this month the cattle were milked three times a day,”  Bede commented on the fertility of the land that resulted in the abundance of dairy cows production. As well as milkings, the Anglo-Saxon calendar The Labours of the Months, depicted the folk looking after the sheep. So the people of the Dark Ages were a bunch of farmers, obviously.

Records show that the people from the Early Medieval period had healthy diets and grew quite tall. But surely they must have had pudding? Man cannot live by turnips alone, as they say. So I did some research for Anglo-Saxon pudding recipes.

One of the sweet foods I often find during my research is a type of cake made from oats. The result of these cakes would be a cross between a cake and a flapjack. Other ingredients included honey, which was the source of sweetness as sugar was unknown in Britain at that time. There was also chopped fruit such as apples and, for the rich people, imported spices like cinnamon.

Trade with merchants from the far east was buoyant. It was surrounded in exotic mystery and no ordinary person understood the secrets of the foreign lands. The travellers would tell tales collected from their journeys. There would be magic and stories of strange beasts. Cinnamon, for example, came from the weird and wonderful Cinnamon bird. The birds made their nests from the twigs of the Cinnamon Tree and the spice sticks were collected from the nests. At the risk of losing one’s life to the fiery dragon protector, no doubt.

But for most people the cost of cinnamon would have been beyond them. Instead, their puddings would have relied on native fruits such as apples, pears, currants, strawberries, bilberries, cherries, plums and gooseberries, served with honey or cream. Baked apples were popular and I love these too, especially when they are cooked with currants stuffed inside. Mmm… Other puddings were shortbread, soft cheese pastries and fruit crumbles.

Most of the ‘recipes’ from this time are not the traditional sort – written. They rely on archaeological evidence such as old beehives, nut shells, ovens and remnants of other foodstuffs. Then we put the information together and guess the results. We could tell stories as exciting as the Cinnamon birds and their nests, but we don’t. We just recreate the Anglo-Saxon puddings. Sort of.

Anglo-Saxon recipes are available from The British Museum Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, 1987, British Museum Publications.

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