For today’s post I’m pleased to welcome Margaret Skea, author of the debut novel Turn of the Tide, the Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins People’s Novelist Competition, released in Nov 2012 by Capercaillie Books. You can find Margaret on Facebook and on her website www.margaretskea.com. For her guest post today, Margaret offers us an ‘interesting’ perspective of 16th century foodstuffs and guidelines… surprisingly there seems to have been agencies remotely mimicking our own USDA or FDA ! However, not all of the offerings would be appealing to our 21st century palates…in which case, for those that view the Medieval culture as ‘romantic’, you might rethink this. Bon Appetit!
Food Standards Agency 16th century style…Or…What’s in this meat pie?
by Margaret Skea
In Scotland, some regulations came from the burghs themselves, some by statute, and the penalties for breaching them were suitably harsh. Take bread, for example. Scotland, in common with most of Europe suffered from ‘bread riots’, with one notable difference–the rioters in Scotland were not the poor, desperate for reasonably priced food, but the bakers or ‘baxters’ themselves, protesting about price restrictions imposed by the burgh authorities in response to regular Acts of Parliament.
As now, horse was not a normal part of the 16th century Scottish diet – they were in any case much too valuable to eat. There is however plenty of evidence of the consumption of beef, mutton, pork and goat in the burghs, along with salmon, and seawater fish in coastal areas. Meat regulation was primarily concerned with quality and, as in the current horse meat scandal, with ensuring that customers knew exactly what they were buying.
There has been much discussion on the length of our food chain, with meat being shipped all round Europe before it lands on a British table. Back then the food chain was extremely short, animals were to be slaughtered outside, in public view, and importantly, at the point of sale . One way to ensure that a customer knows what animal they’re about to eat. There were other issues too – the sale of meat from ‘longsoucht’ (lung-diseased) animals was banned, as was the sale of damaged or poorly butchered meat.
Efforts were made to outlaw dishonest practices designed to improve the appearance of meat, for example blowing air into a entire carcass, which plumped it up – to much the same effect, I imagine, as the modern practice of the addition of water, or the bleeding of animals before slaughter, which masked last minute feeding. Not everyone was so well protected though – a rather shocking regulation stated that putrid pork or fish should be removed from sale and given to lepers.
But to come back to the meat pie of the title.
One of the most interesting restrictions of all on the activities of butchers or ‘fleshers’ is found in the Ancient Laws and Customs of the Burghs of Scotland–prohibiting them from trading as pastry cooks–an attempt to stop them putting poor quality meat into pies? Perhaps, which begs the sobering thought – three hundred years on nothing much seems to have changed…There are many sources available for further information, here’s just one for starters for anyone who might be interested:
March M S (1914) ‘The trade regulations of Edinburgh during the 15th and 16th centuries.’Scot Geogr Mag 30 (1914) 483 – 88