May 29, 2024

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Crazy Good Cook

Dairy Products in Anglo Saxon Times (Part of the Anglo Saxon Survival Guide)

3 min read

Milk, butter and cheese represented a significant part of the Anglo Saxon diet. They were also used as payments and dues: making up part of the Feorm handed over to a lord or King. Milk was frequently an ingredient in medicines as the basis for drinks, whilst butter was occasionally used to make oily poultices and cheese consumed to treat asthma.

Cows, Goats and Sheep

In Anglo-Saxon times, milk was frequently used not only from cows, but also sheep and goats. Milk from these animals is mentioned in many sources. One example listed the rights of a cowherd to the milk from a cow for seven days after she had calved; a shepherd to the milk of his herd for a week after the equinox; finally a goatherd could have the milk from his goats for a period after Martinmass and to a share of the whey beforehand

What is clear from this is that not only did milk get used from all these animals, but also just how tightly the Saxon’s lives were regulated by reference to rules laid down by Kings and others, to tradition and to the dates and calendars of the year.

The animals were typically looked after in the fields by men who often milked their beasts.

A sour taste in the mouth

Even in the modern era we struggle to keep milk from going sour, especially in the warm summer months. Over a thousand years ago they had no refrigeration and the problem of sour milk was very pertinent. Indeed, such trouble did it cause, that St Columba once rebuked a follower for not casting out the devil at the bottom of the milking pail!

Various remedies were suggested, including putting bundles of herbs in the pail and hanging the pail up or standing it on a stool for a week. Perhaps the herbs had some antiseptic effect or maybe the pail just dried out

Butter

Making butter and cheese was usually done by the womenfolk. Indeed some charters and codes of law specify the payments these women had to make to sell their products at the markets around Christmas: e.g. a penny. This suggested it was common place for these women to be selling the cheeses at market.

The Saxons did not usually drink cream. Instead this became the basis of butter. The rest of the milk would be separated from the cream and the cream churned to make butter. Butter was usually salted for, as with all dairy products its life was short, so this helped to preserve it. This was accomplished but mixing the salt through the butter then pressing it down between layers of salt in a barrel to keep air away.

Cheese

The Saxons were quite advanced at the production of cheeses.

Walk milk would be curdled to make junket which was then cut up. The lumps of curds would make the cheese. The liquid whey was sometimes used for more butter.

The Saxons relied on different methods to curdle milk. Firstly, as they used wooden utensils which were not sterilised, the build up of bacteria upon them would assist this process. They also had access to a natural curdling agent still used today: rennet. This is produced in the stomachs of mammals e.g. cows. It is also present in certain plants such as thistles and safflower. Vinegar could also be used to help curdle milk.

Fresh cheeses were usually eaten by the poor, whereas mature cheeses, which needed more careful preservation, fetched a higher price making them mostly consumed by the wealthier members of society.

Although blue cheeses are mentioned in French records there is little evidence for them being made in quantity by the Anglo-Saxons.

Further reading

In my articles on Food and Drink I am reliant primarily on the excellent books by Ann Hagen published by Anglo Saxon Books. I mention a number of Anglo-Saxon meals in The Amber Treasure: my novel of Historical Fiction set in Dark Age Northumbria. In my next article I will look at how food was cooked in the Saxon Era. This article is one of a series of articles looking at life in Anglo Saxon times: An Anglo Saxon Survival Guide. This guide was produced In writing The Amber Treasure I have tried to remain faithful to the historical facts.

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