Food through the ages

We evolved from animal ancestors who searched the countryside and survived by gathering plants or berries and hunting small animals or fish. Man lived a cave dwelling or nomadic existence for many millions of years. The discovery of fire made an enormous impact on this way of life and the discovery of cooking meant that many foodstuffs which would have been unpalatable or indigestible could now be used. Food was first cooked directly in the fire or on a stick. Pieces of food accidentally splashed or spilt onto hot stones near the fire, probably gave rise to the idea of baking with heated utensils. Flat baking stones and brick ovens were used for baking biscuits and loaves. The Iron Age saw the introduction of iron cooking utensils which contributed significant quantities of mineral to the diet.

Like many animals, man found security in numbers and therefore tribal life provided a better chance of survival. By observing the seasonal fruiting of plants, a regular pattern of collecting, or harvesting, could be established. Land which had been stripped the previous year could be revisited when the plants had grown again.

Some of the first settlements were well established in the Middle East by 8000 BC. This was a highly fertile area where many highyielding wild grasses could be planted grown and stored; enough to feed people until the following crop. These grasses were the ancestors of our modern cereals and were crucial to the establishment of civilizations. Settlements attracted wild animals who found more regular supplies of food from man’s refuse. Man learnt to rear such animals for his own benefit.

The conquering influence

Once growing and tending food became a specialist operation, it left more people in the settlement free to take up other trades and crafts. Regular exchanges of trade were introduced to Britain by the Romans, who brought wheat, leavened bread, wine, preservatives, like salt and spices, and improved methods of food handling and cooking. For many centuries people in Britain followed a subsistence economy where they depended entirely on the yields of crops from small strips of land. The Norman invasion had an impact on this system by the introduction of manorial life and better organized farming methods of crop rotation. Areas of common land were used by peasants for grazing their livestock. Rents were claimed as services, or as produce from the peasant’s own land. Food for the peasants was meagre and consisted of coarse milled cereals like barley, wheat or oats with other vegetables, and some herbs. Animal food was rare and highly prized. Monasteries and manorial gardens grew more sumptuous and exotic food, even vines for wine production. As early as the thirteenth century, there were laws about the price of bread as it was a vital component of the diet.

The early explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama returned from their voyages with many new foods and spices, which were prized for centuries. Foods from the Americas, maize, tomatoes and potatoes, were previously unknown but now form a major part of our diet. New sources of sugar were discovered in the Pacific and tropical fruits were enjoyed. Tea, coffee and cocoa were originally scorned but have now become a traditional part of life.

The Agrarian Revolution brought about a vast change in the organization of farming lands and increased yields of arable products and animal husbandry. Despite the longterm advantage of the new systems the Enclosure Acts took the common land away from the people and caused much hardship.