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Interview with Debby Banham

Debby Banham is the author of "Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England" (Tempus Publishing).

Where does your interest for the food of Anglo-Saxons come from?
I’ve always been interested in food - eating it and cooking it, as well as researching it. And as I found out more about the Anglo-Saxon period, I realised that very little work had been done on diet - it wasn’t the kind of topic considered ’serious’ by (mainly male) academics.

Did you discover something absolutely amazing about their food and their habits?
I’m not sure about “amazing”, but one of the most interesting discoveries for me was that carrots haven’t always been orange. This has been questioned recently, but it’s definitely the case that there was almost total confusion from the classical period right through the middle ages between carrots and parsnips. The plants aren’t very similar, but in their wild state the roots of both are an off-white colour. If the cultivated ones were the same colour at the time, that might explain the confusion.
The other main discovery was that the Anglo-Saxons originally ate mainly barley, and only changed to wheat as their main bread-corn by the end of the period. But of course they went on growing barley to
make beer.

Which fruits/vegetables of that period can we find nowadays?
All of them, I would think. They only had a quite small range: leeks, onions and garlic, carrots and maybe parsnips, turnips, beets, cabbage, and some wild vegetables. Nowadays we have a much wider choice. You can even get white or yellow carrots occasionally.

What would you suggest to reproduce an ancient meal?
I’d use whole grains like wheat or barley, either made into bread or cooked in a pot, any of the vegetables mentioned above, meat or fish depending on whether it was feast or fast time, and also on the status of the imagined Anglo-Saxons. Everybody probably had at least bacon or chicken occasionally. Beer to drink, or mead, made from honey, for a real treat. Wine was made in England by the end of the period, and imported, but it was never common. The only sweet foods would be fruit, and strictly in season, since they didn’t have any way of preserving it, except perhaps drying.


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