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Food and diet – in the early medieval period (a.d. 400-1200), historical and archaeological evidence indicates that bread and milk were the basic foodstuffs consumed and that these were supplemented for proteins, minerals and flavoring by meat, vegetables, and fruit. Early Irish laws indicate that the range of cereals grown and eaten included oats, barley, wheat, and rye, used for making bread, porridges, cakes, and beer. Different grains were accorded different status, and according to early Irish laws (typically seventh to eighth century a.d.) wheaten bread was a high-status food. There is abundant archaeological evidence for drying of cereal grain in corn-drying kilns and the grinding of grain in both domestic rotary querns and horizontal mills. Vegetables for soups were grown in small gardens around the dwelling, and included cainnenn (probably onions), celery, and possibly parsnips or carrots, peas, beans and kale. Wild garlic and herbs may also have been gathered in the woods, along with apples (which were grown in orchards), wild berries, and nuts.

Between the seventh and the tenth century a.d. (and after), cattle were primarily kept to provide milk and all its products: cream, butter, curds, and cheeses, as well as thickened, soured, and skimmed milk drinks, all referred to in old Irish as banbfd (white foods). As argued by McCormick, faunal analyses of cattle bones from the large middens found on early medieval crannogs such as Moynagh Lough and Lagore (Co. Meath) and Sroove (Co. Sligo) also indicate that cattle herds were carefully managed for dairying. Rennet from calves and sheep was used in making cheese, while butter was clearly made in large amounts. Wooden buckets, tubs, and churns recovered from early medieval Crannogs also indicate the preparation and storage of such produce, while tubs of “bog butter” may have been placed in bogs for preservation.

However, meat was also important and evidently eaten by both rich and poor (to judge from the ubiquitous amounts of animal bone found on settlement sites). There is a strong sense, though, that meat was more commonly consumed by the prosperous members of society. Beef was eaten in large amounts, typically being from the unwanted, slaughtered male calves and aged milch cows. Pigs were the source of fresh pork and salt bacon, sausages, and black puddings. Sheep were kept for mutton, lamb meat, and milk. Wild animals that were hunted and trapped (mostly for sport by the nobility) included deer, wild boar, and badger. It is also evident that Ireland’s relatively restricted range of freshwater fish species (e.g, salmon, trout, and eels) were caught in fishweirs. In coastal regions, shellfish (limpets, periwinkles, oysters, mussels, cockles, and scallops) were gathered on rocky foreshores, for both food and industrial purposes. The shells were frequently discarded in large middens, perhaps adjacent to unenclosed coastal settlements. Seals and wildfowl may have been occasionally hunted, while stranded porpoises and whales may also have been used when the opportunity arose. Edible seaweeds, such as dulse, were also gathered for food. Some potential foods were regarded as taboo. Therefore, carrion and dog were avoided, while the church banned the eating of horse meat (although there is archaeological evidence for its occasional consumption).

The feast (fled) was an important institution in early Irish society, being held, for example, during seasonal festivals or to commemorate a royal inauguration. At an early medieval feast, the distribution of different cuts of meat was probably made on the basis of social rank (McCormick 2002). Early Irish historical sources (e.g., laws, wisdom texts, narrative literature) also suggest that social ranking had a profound influence on the foods that people generally ate, with the nobility eating more meats, honey, onions, and wheat. Wine was also imported by Gaulish and Frankish traders, while more exotic spices and condiments may also have been brought into the island in glass and pottery vessels. If the early Irish diet was balanced and healthy, there were also periods of famine and hunger (particularly at stages in the sixth and seventh centuries), and the occasional long winters would have led to food supplies running out.

From an article by Aidan O’Sullivan in Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopaedia edited by Seán Duffy

The now President of China Xi Jinping enjoying an Irish medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle on a visit to Ireland in 2012 when he was Vice President.

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