As an experimental archaeologist and independent researcher, I’ve spent the last 30 years investigating the eating habits of ancient civilisations – including their ancient Christmas dinners. Here are some tips and recipes for the perfect xmas dinner that I’ve collected along the way.
I use a technique that I’ve developed over the years to explore the practical aspects of the daily lives of prehistoric Europeans. The approach is based on the theory that the inherent skills and ingenuity of prehistoric European is still latent in the people of Europe today. But the skills of surviving in the northern European landscape have been forgotten because we no longer have a use for them in our modern-day society.
During my researches I have discovered that these skills are very easily acquired particularly if one is not impeded by any training in the skill to be researched. It has to be approached purely by logic. It is essential, though, not to single out any particular skill, but to attempt to do all the required jobs that a prehistoric settlement would have to do to survive.
Applying this Theory to Food
I have often discovered that it is the by-product of one activity that becomes the vital ingredient for the next. Nothing would have been wasted in a prehistoric settlement it is this holistic approach that has been the basis of my researches and the pivot of many of my discoveries.
It is because of this holistic approach that I felt cooking would have been at the very centre of daily life in prehistory. However, until I did my research, the general consensus was that if you did not find a residue of a meal in a pot, then you could not say what they would have eaten.
I looked at the subject in a different way. When we look at a TV documentary on an Amazonian tribe, for example, we all assume that if there is a tasty plant in their forest, they would have known about it and eaten it. Why should the people of Europe be any different, I thought? So I started looking at the pollen record around prehistoric sites to see what plants were growing there, and then started tusing them in combinations that I would like to eat. I used this technique to develop my recipes.
I discovered too that cooking techniques used by primitive peoples around the globe today such as clay-baking food was evident in museum collections from prehistory in Europe. The clay friable fragments found on sites had been misinterpreted as part of daub walls that had been burnt or parts of clome ovens. I knew from my research that this silty clay was perfect for clay baking and, after looking at thousands of fragments in museum stores, found evidence of impressions of bone and grass that I had replicated in my research. I wrote the first full international academic paper on the subject in 2000 and proceeded after that to write Prehistoric Cooking in the hope of inspiring the general public to experiment themselves. My latest book, Tasting the Past: Recipes from the Stone Age to Present, looks in more detail at the history of British cuisine.
Prehistoric Cooking Made Easy
In time for Christmas, here is an overview of some ancient feasting traditions, starting with the Celts.
Throughout northern Europe, the lives of the Celts were split between their four main festivals when everyone would get together for a druidical festival. The average Celt had a big party every three months. The celebration would last for days, during which time all their favourite foods were enjoyed and washed down with large amounts of freshly brewed alcohol. The festival they held in mid-winter was to celebrate winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the return of the light as the days started to get longer.
The Celts had a very simplistic attitude towards food: lots of meat and fish, cheese, butter and bread, and, of course, bacon and ham. They were famous even among the Romans for their fine salt meats, so if you want to have what would have been a favourite Celtic breakfast during your midwinter festival, a bacon sandwich on brown bread and butter would be perfect.
If you want to have a pagan midwinter feast, you can’t go past a whole salmon clay baked. What they did in prehistory even when they had pottery to cook food in was to wrap meat or fish in grass (just like you have in your garden) and then smear it with silty clay (the sort you’d find on a river bank). The grass steams the fish as it is cooked in the fire in its casing of clay and gives it a wonderful flavour. If messing about with clay it just too much trouble, sprinkle salt on the salmon and wrap it in grass, then cover it with foil and bake it in your oven it gets the same delicious effect.
The Celts grew crops mainly grain, but also beans. The nearest equivalent today to their beans are the borlotti beans you can buy in tins at the supermarket. Here is a recipe for sweet bean and nut cakes that are really great to make and take with you on that country walk with the children that we all tend to do during the festivities. It makes not just a sweet treat but a high protein one too and children tend to love them.
Sweet Bean Cakes
250 g butter
500 g whole wheat flour
500 g processed beans
500 g honey
1 cup of chopped hazelnuts
First, drain your beans and rinse them. Then put them on a plate and squash them with a fork (children love doing this!) You have to do this as it breaks down the skin and they mix with the other ingredients better.
Rub the butter into the flour and add the beans. Stir in the honey and hazelnuts. Cook spoonfuls of the mixture on a hot griddle until light brown on both sides. They keep very well in a tin.
By comparison to the simple foods of the Celts, the Romans were almost on another planet as far as their attitude to food was concerned. In a way, they felt they were too sophisticated and refined to just boil a few carrots and eat them with a sprinkling of salt. They had to change the look of their food to make a vegetable look like a fish and vice versa. They would instruct their servants go to considerable lengths to hide the natural forms of their foodstuffs. They would not even sprinkle their food with salt as that was just too simplistic for their palates they had to make a fermented fish sauce called Garum or Liquium to season their food. Thanks to the wealth of literature left by the Romans, it is reasonably easy to find recipes from those ancient times.
Marcus Apicius wrote a cookery book that showed in detail what the Roman nobility ate. He was a decadent gourmet during the 1st century AD. He was said to actually teach haute cuisine and his love for fine foods was actually his downfall in the end. His lavish dining extravaganzas made him bankrupt, and he is said to have taken his own life (with poison) during one last fantastic meal rather than eat like a poor person.
A poet of the time, Martial, wrote this about Apiciuss demise:
After yourd spent 60 million on your stomach, Apicius,
10 million still remained,
An embarrassment, you said fit only to satisfy mere hunger and thirst:
So your last and most expensive meal was poison.
Apicius, you never were more than a glutton than at the end.
I think that poor Apicius would have been delighted to know that his own recipes were still being made over 2,000 years later.
First Christmas Dinner
For the first three centuries after the Christian religion began, Christmas was outlawed by the Roman Empire. But what is little known is that the Romans were the first to celebrate the nativity on December 25. The Emperor Constantine I became a Christian himself in 312 AD and from then on it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before to this time, the Romans had celebrated the winter solstice on December 25. The earliest written record of the nativity being celebrated on the 25th was on an illuminated manuscript in Rome in 354 AD. So the first lavish Christian nativity feasts would have been Roman. Apicius lived in the 1st century AD, but his cook book was edited and re-published in the 4th century AD about the time of the first Christmas feasts. This is why Apiciuss recipes were very likely to have been used during those original Christmas dinners.
So if you want to have a really original Christmas dinner, try this Roman one swilled down with Roman punch.
2 kilo ham
500g dried figs
200g runny honey
500g spelt flour
150ml olive oil
3 bay leaves
1. Put the ham in water and bring to the boil and boil for 30 minutes
2. Discard the water and cover again with fresh water and add the whole dried figs and the bay leaves
3. Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour
4. Drain saving the figs and when cold take off the skin of the ham
5. Score the top into diamonds and drizzle the honey into the cracks
6. Make a dough with the flour oil and water to mix
7. Roll it out and cover the ham with it
8. Bake for 30 minutes in a hot oven
Serve in slices with the crust on when cold
Apricot Relish for Ham
450g whole fresh apricots (under ripe are best)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried mint
3 tbs honey
150 ml sweet muscatel wine
150 ml white wine
2 tbs vinegar
2 tbs olive oil
Pepper to taste
1. Wash the apricots and stone them and put them in a pan in halves
2. Mix cinnamon, mint, honey, vinegar and oil in a bowl
3. Mix this with the wines and pour over the apricots
4. Simmer gently for one hour, adding a little more wine if it becomes too dry
5. When cold arrange the whole apricots in a dish surrounded by the sauce
Walnut and Fig Cakes
I made these for a TV programme and the camera crew ate them all as soon as we had finished filming, even though they all said they didnt usually eat very sweet food.Dough
450g spelt flour
200 ml olive oil
Water to mix
200g dried figs
125g olive oil
75g runny honey to serve
1. Mix the dough ingredients until pliable and leave to chill for 1 hour
2. Chop the dates and walnuts finely and mix in the honey to a paste
3. Roll out the dough and cut into small rounds (use a wine glass as a cutter)
4. Place a teaspoon of the filling in the centre of each dough circle
5. Moisten the edges and add another circle on top so you have little flying saucer shapes
6. Put the oil in a frying pan and when hot fry the pastries on both sides until golden brown
7. Put onto a serving platter and drizzle with the rest of the honey. Serve hot or cold
The cooking of these dates really changes the taste of them as it caramelises the skin of the dates and is really delicious.
450g whole dates
200g whole blanched almonds
125g melted butter
Edible gold leaf to make them really special!
1. Brush the almonds with butter and roll immediately in cinnamon
2. Stuff one almond into the cavity of the date after the stone is removed
3. Brush the date with warm honey
4. Bake in a moderate oven for 5-10 minutes until the skin of the dates start bubbling
5. If you wish you can place a strip of edible gold on the dates for a festive look
Lay them on a platter and serve with quarters of fresh figs or green grapes
Spiced Wine Apicius
300 ml white wine
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp cinnamon
4 dates finely chopped
1 bay leaf
3 quarts white wine
1. Mix the 300 ml of wine with the honey in a pan and gently heat stirring continuously
2. Add the dates, pepper and saffron strands in a muslin bag with the bay leaf and the powdered cinnamon.
3. Add the rest of the wine and heat gently and simmer for one hour over a very low heat
4. Take the spice bag out and serve either warm with a starter or hot with a dessert