What did they eat in 1400s Scotland?

A few months ago, I signed up for three months of Ancestry.com for $1. I’m a genealogy junkie, but have never really known a whole lot about my father’s side of the family, other than a couple generations back.

My paternal grandfather came from industrious Swedish and Norwegian parents who arrived in the US before 1900 and lived in Galveston and Houston.

My paternal grandmother always said she was Irish, Scottish and Cherokee. I was fortunate to know my great-grandfather, who was a Scotch-Irish man with the last name of McIntosh and lived in Arkansas, before he passed in 1979. His wife, my grandmother’s mother, passed a quarter of a century before I was born. That about summed things up.

In the three months that I had a full subscription to online genealogy records of every kind, I was a researching maniac and found on my father’s side, back as far as my 19th great-grandparents who had castles in Scotland and were born in the middle part of the 1400s.

This line contains lords, ladies, clan war chiefs, lairds, knights, generals, and my 9th great-grandfather who was sent from Scotland to a plantation in “the colonies” as punishment for his leadership in an uprising in the 1700s. The history reads like one of my favorite novels.

More followed to America, and fought with both the North and the South in the American Revolution, and settled much of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. They fought in the Civil War and both World Wars, too. I can’t get enough of this newly unearthed Scottish heritage. I still haven’t found the Cherokee.

With all of the new information swirling around in my head, of course I started wondering what kind of food my people ate in Scotland back in the 1450s.

During the medieval times in Scotland, diets were pretty wholesome, if not “boring” for the “regular” folk. They ate oat breads, porridge, stews and thick soups called “pottage.” If they lived near the sea, fish and other sea creatures were eaten. If they had cows and chickens, they had milk and eggs. Their vegetables included beans, peas, onions and kale, and they ate nuts and fruit from trees. Sounds good to me.

The upper classes ate a much more colorful and varied diet. They ate fish from their estate rivers, and meat such a wild boar, rabbit, pigeon, game birds, swan, peacocks and seals. At banquets, guests were often served porpoise and eel alongside the fruit fritters they were served.

Nobles and lairds enjoyed meals that were influenced by France, Spain and Italy and often ate salt on their food. Salt was expensive and quite luxurious and was only reserved for the noble folk.

Food was seasoned with wild garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, peppercorns, mint, ginger root, cloves and nutmeg, often brought back by crusaders who’d been to the Middle East.

I think I’d prefer this way of eating like the “regular folk” rather than the fancy meals served to the nobles.
Traditional Scottish foods such as Scotch Broth (a thick soup with whatever vegetables were in season like rutabagas, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and leek, with lamb or beef), Black pudding (a type of sausage made from pork blood, with pork fat or beef suet, and a cereal, usually oatmeal, oat groats or barley groats), Haggis (a pudding made of animal liver and oats), Cullen Skink (a thick smoked fish soup made with potatoes and onions) and other classics may have originated in these times.

I’m so grateful for the diligence of other genealogy lovers that I’ll never even meet, that took the time to pave the way for the rest of us descendants to have easy access to family histories with a few clicks. I’m also grateful that my predecessors were able to survive eating diets based on cereal-grains, kale, beans and peacock. I’d have to pass on the peacock.

Scotch Broth
(despite the name, there’s no whiskey and it’s a thick soup)

1-1/2 pounds lamb shoulder or shanks (or beef with bones – like short ribs)
2 tablespoons quality butter
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup pearl barley
1/3 cup dried green split peas
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups quality chicken broth
1 large carrot, diced
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1 rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
1/2 cup shredded green cabbage
1 medium leek, chopped, rinsed and drained
Fresh chopped parsley for garnish

Cook the onions and garlic in the butter until softened, 4-6 minutes.  Add the lamb (or beef), herbs, barley, split peas, salt and broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 hours.  Skim off any foam.

Add the carrot, turnip, rutabaga and parsnip.  Simmer for another hour.

Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.  Remove the meat, shred it and discard the bones.  Return the shredded meat to the pot along with the leek and cabbage.  Simmer for another 30 minutes.  Add salt to taste.  Serve garnished with fresh chopped parsley.


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