Saturday, 4 January 2014

An Anglo-Saxon Banquet: Tucking in with Beowulf

Anglo-Saxon literature (ie. literature written in the earliest recognizable form of English between approximately the 7th century AD and the Norman Conquest of 1066) provides little material for the interested cook.  Emphasising, as it does, the heroic deeds of men, little space is devoted to the lives of women or to the domestic sphere.  

Beowulf, the best-known literary text from this period (which survives in a sole manuscript probably from the 11th century, although the poem itself could have been composed up to 500 years earlier), tells of the heroic feats of Beowulf, a Geatish prince (the Geats were the tribe who occupied the Southern part of Sweden).  Hearing of the devastation that is being wrought on the Geats’ neighbours, the Danes, by the monster Grendel, Beowulf decides to act.  He travels with a small group of men to the land of the Danes, where after having been welcomed by the Danish king, Hrothgar, he fights and defeats Grendel.  When Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death by killing a Danish noble, Beowulf seeks her out in her underwater lair and fights her to the death.  Following these victories which bring peace and safety to the Danes, Beowulf returns to Geatland where, in time, he becomes king and rules successfully for more than 50 years.  But his prosperous reign is disrupted by a dragon that begins tormenting the Geats.  Despite his age, Beowulf decides to fight the dragon; whilst he is successful in killing the dragon, he is himself fatally wounded in the encounter but goes to his death as a hero and saviour of his nation.  

Whilst no mention is made of any specific food or meals in Beowulf, the warriors do spend significant periods of time drinking and feasting.  At the centre of their society is the mead-hall, the building where the community eats and drinks, and where some of them even sleep.  The narrator notes that the Danes’ mead-hall was built under the orders of the king, Hrothgar, following great success in battle:

It came into his [Hrothgar’s] mind that he would instruct men to build a greater mead-hall than the children of men had ever heard of, and therein he would distribute to young and old everything which God had given him...(lines 67 – 72; p. 37 – all quotations taken from Michael Swanton’s translation for Manchester University Press, 1978)

The hall is named Heorot, which means hart or stag, a symbol of nobility at this time.  It is the place where the king bestows gifts, where there is music and singing, and it is the place that Grendel attacks because he cannot endure the sound of “loud rejoicing in the hall” (line 89; p. 39).  The mead-hall thus functions symbolically as an image of success and of community, an image that the embittered and solitary Grendel seeks to destroy.  

All the eating and drinking in Beowulf takes place communally in the mead-hall.  No mention is made of the food consumed, though the many references to feasts and banquets suggest food is in abundance.  But it is the drinking that takes centre-stage; beer, wine and mead are all mentioned in Beowulf.  But the fact that the building is called a mead hall suggests the primacy of this particular alcoholic drink.  Mead, an ancient drink, first referred to in Indian writings from c. 1700-1100 BC, is made by fermenting a honey and water solution.  It is described in Beowulf as “the sweet drink” (line 496, p. 57), and the mead drinking takes place communally and in a ceremonial manner.  On Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot, Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, is the cup-bearer and, “mindful of etiquette” (line 614; p. 63), she offers the cup first to her husband, Hrothgar, then to the Danish warriors, before carrying it to the guest of honour, Beowulf.  When Beowulf returns safely to his country following his victories in Geatland, there is feasting at the court of his uncle, the king Hygelac, and Hygelac’s wife “moved through the spacious building with mead-cups, cared for the people, carried flagons of drink” (lines 1980-82; p. 129).  

The few references to food and drink in Beowulf paint a picture of a society where eating and drinking are communal activities which serve to bind together its members and to integrate new-comers and visitors.  What is eaten and drunk is of less importance than the symbolic value accorded to food and drink.


The many references to mead-drinking in Beowulf inspired me to try my hand at cooking with it.  Having read that honey was used to glaze meat in the Anglo-Saxon period, I thought that the honey in the mead would provide a tasty complement to pork.  The availability of mead does depend on where you live; it doesn’t seem to be readily available in supermarkets, and it also seems to be easier to find it in the South West.  I bought it from Gerry’s in Old Compton Street (W1D 4UW) - - which seems to stock every type of alcoholic drink you can think of.  But if you can’t find it, or don’t want to splash out on a whole bottle for one recipe (though it’s a nice drink to have on its own!), I would suggest just using some honey instead.  

The first time I made this I only marinated the pork for a couple of hours; the next time I tried overnight and it really made a difference.  The honey flavours of the mead had permeated the pork; that, coupled with the slow-roasting, led to a very tender, moist joint.  The only downside I found was that after all that marinating in liquid it was difficult to get crackling on the pork; I did dry off and salt the fat before roasting the pork, but it still didn’t really come off.  But I think the flavours of the pork make this a worthwhile way to try out cooking meat. 

Ingredients (serves 4):
1 kilogram pork joint (I used pork belly)
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 bay leaves
100 ml mead
100 ml olive oil
1 tablespoon of juniper berries, lightly crushed (optional)
Salt and pepper

Marinate the pork for a few hours – ideally overnight – in a marinade composed of all the other ingredients listed. 
Roast at 150C for 2 ½ hours, and then raise the heat to 220C for 20 minutes.  Alter timings depending on the size of the joint. 


I had friends around for dinner to try out the pork and made a barley risotto as an accompaniment.  Obviously potatoes would not have been available in Anglo-Saxon England; nor would rice.  But grains such as barley would have been widely eaten.  There is a renewal of interest in grains such as barley, rye and spelt nowadays – at least partly owing to increased gluten-intolerance amongst people –and pearl barley is readily available.  This ‘risotto’ makes a tasty and authentic enough accompaniment to the pork.  This could be cooked as a main meal in its own right; perhaps just add some grated Parmesan at the end in that case. 

Ingredients (serves 4 as a side-dish, or 2 as a main dish):

1 medium-onion (finely chopped)
1 clove of garlic (finely chopped)
2 leeks (sliced)
100g chestnut mushrooms (chopped)
150g pearl barley
Water / vegetable stock (500ml should be sufficient)
Walnuts to garnish (optional)
Grated parmesan (if being made as a main course)

Fry the onion in 1 tablespoon oil until translucent.  Add the chopped garlic and cook briefly to soften.  Add the leeks and mushrooms and cook until they begin to soften (5-10 minutes).  Add the pearl barley and stir around so it gets a good coating of oil.  Then begin adding the stock or water bit by bit, stirring frequently (as if making a risotto).  When the pearl barley is cooked – it should be tender, but with some bite, and will take 20 - 25 minutes – check for seasoning, adding pepper, and salt if necessary (the amount will depend on whether you have used water or stock).  Garnish with walnuts if so desired. If you are making this as a main course, then stir in the grated Parmesan at this point.


  1. both pork and risotto sound delicious x

  2. Sounds lovely, and I love the premise of your blog! Did you have a small dagger with which to eat as well? I'd feel cheated otherwise!

    1. No Lucy, I tore it apart with my bare hands in the style of a true Anglo-Saxon hero! Thanks for the positive comments too!