28 September 2012

Feasts: Bronze Age Solstice Feast by J.S. Dunn

By J.S. Dunn

“Mead distilled sparkling, its praise is everywhere.”
From Welsh myth, Song to Mead

What did the ancient Irish eat at 4,000 years ago? And, what about the peoples in what is now Spain’s Costa Verde, and up the Bay of Biscay to the Morbihan and Brittany’s coasts? At first, researching prehistoric foods looks daunting.

The Dindshenchas, a medieval text of oral histories, has clues to the early diet: the sacred salmon of knowledge, the hazelnut which also imparts wisdom, cereal grains for porridge and brewing, and various berries. The ancients made milk and butter from their herd animals. To this day, well-formed oak casks holding Bronze Age butter turn up at digs in the Irish bogs, the contents still smelling of dairy---though no one samples!

Meats of early domesticated sheep and cattle, and cuts of wild deer and boar, show in the bone counts from archaeological digs. Fish were trapped in wattle river weirs long before the Bronze Age. The north Atlantic produces a diverse marine life that is richer than the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic peoples consumed shellfish in great numbers per the remains in ancient shell middens: mussels, whelks, periwinkles, oysters, lobster.

Despite an ancient prohibition on killing swans in Irish myths, there is evidence that swans were indeed eaten for food, and swans winter at the river Boyne and other areas in great numbers. The prohibition re: swans was perhaps politically motivated or may have been an early conservation measure.

The ancients’ knowledge of edible seeds, roots, and herbs, would far exceed our own based on paleobotany surveys at excavations. They collected and dried the wild apple, and berries, which were used for beverages in addition to mead from fermented honey.

In warmer latitudes like ancient Spain, the Bronze Age people began to cultivate the olive and other fruiting shrubs. There is evidence they knew which acorn varieties to collect, and ground those into flour. Spain’s meltingly tender acorn-fed ham of today may have begun in antiquity given their early use of the abundant acorns.

The richness of the environment held bounty for those who well knew how to utilize it. For these ancients, a feast was literally a sacrament of life. The reborn winter solstice sun showed the ancients that spring’s bounty would return.

Boyne solstice feast:
Smoked salmon, smoked haddock
Dried apples stewed with fresh or dried swan
Wild boar, venison, joint of beef ; boiled or roasted
Meal cakes of finely ground hazelnuts, seeds, and grains, sweetened with honey
Soft white cheese, sweet butter
Mead, herbal infusions, primitive beer and cider

Juniper reduction sauce for modern roast wild game:

Here is a simple (and relatively low-fat) reduction sauce if you happen to be serving wild boar or venison for winter solstice or a more modern holiday. Juniper berries impart a flavor like rosemary with a citrus hint. The berries should be dried and crushed before use. Note, buy in a shop—don’t try to harvest your own; some juniper varieties are toxic.

Roast or sauté the meat, keep warm. Deglaze the pan with around ½ cup of red wine (or Calvados, or Guinness, or whatever!), and simmer that mixture in a heavy saucepan until the essence reduces by half in volume. The sauce should coat a spoon. Add one chopped shallot ( or wild garlic shoots if you have those at hand ) and  8 fluid ounces of beef consommé ( not bouillon) and reduce again. If desired, butter (3 tbsp) can be added for a smoother, shiny sauce or to correct overcooking! Add the crushed juniper berries when almost ready to serve the sauce. 4-6 portions.  

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and recently  enjoyed wonderful seafood on the Cotes d’Armor, and in Cornwall, and at the famed Lobster Pot restaurant in County Wexford, Ireland.