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Farm Animals in Medieval Times

Ducks, hens, goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and deer have all been reared domestically since the late Bronze Age; and with the arrival of the Romans agriculture became very organised.

There is much evidence to suggest that the Roman legions marched on beef. Traditional Roman cooking relying heavily on sauces - developed over time to disguise off-flavours caused by their South European climate. Their food would have been prepared on tripods, which supported pans over charcoal fires.

Beef animals in those far-off days would have been much scrawnier than those of our times, and would have to double-up as working animals - pulling carts and ploughs (as indeed they did in rural Europe until very recent times - see "Memories of Gascony" by Pierre Koffmann).

Right up until the end of mediaeval times all animals were expected to forage for themselves for most of the year, under the guidance of a neatherd, shepherd, swineherd or goatherd; and keeping them through the winter was also an expensive business.

During these bleak months, horses might receive oats, but cattle had to make do with hay or straw sometimes supplemented by pease. Fodder was costly, and out of the question for all but the wealthiest landowners.

Each year the middle-aged and more elderly animals would be slaughtered and their meat salted for use in the winter months. Those spared would be milch (those producing milk) and breeding animals plus those fit enough to give another years work in the fields.

In medieval times, beef soon emerged as the Englishman"s favourite fleshmeat, and drovers developed trade routes bringing cattle from Wales and lush West Country pastures to the larger cities of the south-east and midlands.

It has to be remembered that until cattle were interbred (at a much later date) to become larger milk yielders, butter and cheese would have been luxuries - mainly made by religious orders - as cows barely produced enough milk to support their young.

Pork was almost as popular as beef , the Normans had designated woodlands for swine where they would root about and, for 9 months of the year, fend for themselves.

Sheep were raised primarily for their wool, only the weaker ones being fattened for the table; while goats were kept on steep or scrubby land and were either eaten young or became prime suppliers of milk.

Game was a much more important part of the diet than it is today, but where the Saxons had allowed hunting by the rich and poor. The Romans had introduced methods of rearing game and other delicate birds in captivity - before releasing them into the countryside to develop flavour - these would have included partridge, pheasant, peacock and guinea-fowl, all of which they introduced to this country. Rabbits were also brought by the Romans - originally being natives of what is now Spain - they were bred for their meat and fur; our wild rabbits of today were originally all escapees.

The Normans and their successors enforced their own personal ownership of all forests and their game. Poachers caught were often blinded or maimed in some other way!

In 1217 the most stringent game laws were repealed and peasants could once again pursue forest animals. The poor were generally restricted to hares and rabbits, which could be coursed on foot with dogs. Wild pigeons were encouraged to roost in man-made pigeon houses, while chickens, ducks and geese were all reared domestically - although ducks proved hard to tame!

If you enjoy cooking take a minute to look at ‘Simon Scrutton French Cookery Classes’ on Google – and learn how to make top class bistro-style dishes. Suitable for beginners upwards. Small classes.

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Tue 24th February 2015 by Tyler G


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