'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'
So said the author L. P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between, and it’s especially true of the food people used to eat. From roasted dormice to what might as well be whale excrement for all intents and purposes, what our ancestors used to enthusiastically gobble up has to be seen to be believed. Here we look back on ten of the weirdest foodstuffs from history and ask the question: What on earth were they thinking?
Fish Bladder Jam
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? The Victorians certainly thought so. The gooey substance they squeezed out of the bladders of sturgeon fish was called ‘isinglass’, and it was a commonly used thickening agent back in the 19th Century, having first been used as one of the ingredients for making glue. How someone looked at glue and thought, 'We could make jam out of this' is a mystery, but that’s exactly what happened and people merrily munched their way through gallons of fish bladder jam and confectionary until gelatin became a cheaper alternative. Nowadays, isinglass is used in the brewing industry to speed up the sedimentation process, which might come as a bit of a shock to all those vegans and vegetarians out there who might have been blissfully aware they’ve been supping away at pints of delicious fish bladder ale for years. Cheers!
Looking at a mouse, you wouldn’t think there’s much on it to turn into a meal, but that didn’t stop the Romans. They ate a type of dormouse which was a lot bigger and fatter than the ones we say today. Dormice were considered a delicacy back in Ancient Rome, and it was very much a matter of one-upmanship amongst the well to do of Roman society to serve up the biggest, fattest, juiciest dormice at the endless feats and banquets the upper crust liked to indulge in back then. To achieve the fattest dormice, the poor unfortunate creatures were kept in the dark in special pots and fed on a diet of walnuts, acorns and chestnuts. With very little else to do other than run around a bit, sleep and eat vast quantities of food, the dormice grew fat, and on reaching optimum fatness, the mice were plucked from their pot prisons, killed and cooked up for Roman feasts and banquets.
Back in Medieval times, Lent was a miserable affair where Christians ate stuff like lentils and dried fish for a month. The English came up with a solution to this tiresome diet – the tansy. The tansy was a sweet and savoury dish that was somewhere between a pancake and an omelette. Tansies took their name from the tanacetum vulgare herb that grew across the country in great abundance. This yellow flowered herb had long been used in traditional medicine where it was seen as of particular use in treating kidney problems, despite the fact it later transpired that the tansy is slightly poisonous. The herb was mixed in with a batter mix and baked in the oven. The result was a large eggy herby pancake that was particularly favoured during Lent and the Easter feast that brings Lent to a close. Eventually, lots more ingredients were added to tansies such as parsley, feverfew, almonds, breadcrumbs, nutmeg and lashes of cream and butter. The one ingredient that fell by the wayside was the tansy herb and tansies themselves all but disappeared by the early 20th Century.
Known for their discipline, warrior culture, fearsomeness in battle and, if the film 300 is to be believed, for killing thousands of Persians while wearing only cloaks, helmets and leather underpants, the Spartans were a race apart back in the days of Ancient Greece. When they weren’t butchering their enemies or throwing unworthy infants off cliffs, the Spartans liked to sit down to a dish of ‘melas zomas’, or ‘black soup’. Consisting of boiled pig meat and pig blood, black soup was flavoured only with salt and vinegar and was by all accounts inedible to anyone who wasn’t a Spartan. 'I know now why the Spartans do not fear death,' was the verdict of one outsider who had the misfortune to try this disgusting sounding dish.
The rudest entry on this list by a country mile, openarses were a commonly consumed variety of apple in the Middle Ages. Looking like a slightly more withered russet apple when viewed from the side, the apple got its rather vulgar nickname from the appearance of its underside. The calyces – those little tightly packed puckered bits at the bottom of an apple – are very large and spread apart on an openarse, giving the underside of the apple a distinctly anus-like appearance. Gradually the name fell out of use in favour of ‘medlar’, the much less fun French name. The openarse remained a popular cooking apple well into the 17th Century. Openarses fell by the wayside like so many native English apples and are now one of many thousands of heritage varieties grown in small quantities. A shame, as people would probably never tire of walking into a Costa and asking for a coffee and an openarse tart.
Ambergris has been used as an ingredient in food and drink for hundreds of years. England’s King Charles II’s favourite dish was a mixture of eggs and ambergris, and it has been used to flavour everything from cigarettes, Turkish coffee and even hot chocolate. But what is ambergris? Formed in the intestinal tracts of sperm whales over many years, ambergris is a greyish-brown, waxy substance that some scientists believe is produced by the whales to help ease the passage of objects they have eaten that they can’t digest before being expelled the same way whales expel faecal waste. Usually found floating in the sea or washed up on beaches, ambergris has not only been the foodstuff of choice for royalty, but also has been a firm favourite of the perfume industry thanks its strong and long lingering scent.
Nowadays, ambergris has fallen out of favour as a food additive – possibly because people found out what it was and where it came from – but it’s still used in the perfume industry apart from in countries where the substance is banned such as Australia and the United States.
There was once a time when not just real animals, but also imaginary ones were served up in the palaces of the mighty. The cockentrice was one such creation that became popular at the courts of the Tudor kings and queens. Two varieties were ‘bred’ in the kitchens of Hampton Court and Whitehall Palace. One was the upper body of a suckling pig sewn onto the bottom half of a capon or turkey; the other was the front end of a capon sewed onto the bottom half of a pig. The resulting creature was then roasted on an open spit and presented as the star of the show at Tudor banquets, no doubt to squeals of delight from the assembled aristocrats. This unusual delicacy eventually fell out of fashion, but it’s pretty safe to assume that cockentrice tasted like chicken. And pork.
In the England of the Middle Ages, half of the year was taken up with fast days where people weren’t allowed to eat meat. There was, however, a loophole. Fish was not considered meat back in those days, so fast days, which included all of Lent, Wednesdays and Fridays and even the run-up to Christmas, came to be days when fish was the dish of the day. Indeed, the tradition of eating fish and chips on a Friday is said to stem from the fact Friday used to be a fast day. Not everyone could get their hands on fish, but there was an alternative – beaver tails. Beaver tails were similar in shape to flat fish if you used your imagination, they looked like they were covered in scales and they spent quite a lot of time underwater. Therefore, they were actually fish and proved a cheap stand in for the country’s fishless masses. Sadly, the consumption of beaver tails was a contributing factor in the animal becoming extinct in the 17th Century. Now the beaver is thriving once again in England, Wales and Scotland thanks to a successful reintroduction program.
The hilariously named cock beer was made by tossing a dead cockerel and a selection of strong-smelling herbs into a bag and depositing the bag into a barrel of beer. Sometimes, a live cockerel was used instead, which seems a bit off. Why was this done to lovely, delicious beer? Well, it wasn’t to produce dead chicken-flavoured beer, which is why strong herbs to overpower the chicken. The reason for ruining perfectly good beer with a giant chicken teabag stemmed from the belief that the beer would be imparted with the cockerel’s characteristics of strength, vigour and courage. It was therefore mainly drunk by big manly men who wanted to become even bigger, even more manlier men. Cock beer eventually fell out of favour and now people drink ales that taste of beer instead of dead chickens. That said, don’t put it past the Willy Wonkas of the craft brewing industry to bring cock beer back from the dead where it belongs and charge a fiver for a third of a pint.
Now a firm favourite of twitchers up and down the land, there was a time when the grey heron adorned the banqueting tables of the well-to-do, second only to swan as the most high-status table bird. It wasn’t unusual for the monarchs and noblemen of old to eat all manner of creatures that we now would consider beyond the pale to serve up to guests, but what singled grey herons out was the cruel manner in which they were raised before being slaughtered and cooked. Stolen from their nest before they had fledged, the herons were kept shuttered up in barns where their usual diet of fish was replaced with livers and other entrails to fatten them up. Once killed, cooks had to make sure none of the bones of the birds were broken as a fluid inside the bones leaked into the meat and made the flash taste of fish, which sounds just lovely, Eventually, eating heron went the same way as the cockentrice and ambergris and black soup – a relic of a time when people would eat just about anything regardless of what it was or where it came from.