Gaye Mack’s Blog

Food on Offer in Medieval Scotland’s 16th Century

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work Leave a comment

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 

Readers in the UK may or may not be concerned about the current ‘horse meat labeled as beef’ scandal.  For those of you in the US or elsewhere who might not have heard, there is currently a Europe-wide crisis with horse meat DNA having been found in many supposedly beef ready-meals, burgers, etc., with Food Standards Agencies running rings round themselves, testing everything in sight to discover the scale of the fraud.  For the record, I’m not worried, though I would prefer to know what I’m eating.  And if I’m not currently enjoying any burgers, I am at least enjoying the host of jokes that the crisis has spawned–my (suitably historic) favourite:  “After finding Richard III in a Leicester Car Park, scientists have found his horse in a Tesco burger.”
 
Is the mislabeling and adulteration of food a new problem?  Definitely not.  I imagine it’s been an issue for millennia, but I personally haven’t delved further back than the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was certainly a problem then, however, and to protect the customer and avoid disorder there were strict market regulations governing what could be sold, where, and in what form.  

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.

 
Most bread was made from wheat, though the poorest households probably made their own flat and fairly indigestible barley bannocks.  The price and weight of bread was set but fluctuated according to the price of wheat.  Burgh records describe the bailies taking flour ground from a firlot (roughly equivalent to an imperial bushel) of wheat to a baker and watching as the bread was baked.
 The resulting loaf was the standard against which all other loaves were measured.  Any baker selling underweight bread risked, at best, a fine and confiscation of his stock, and at worst, his oven being broken. 
Often the sale of bread, as of other foodstuffs, was restricted to freemen or women – those with Burgess status. ‘Outlanders’, coming into the burgh from outside, were sometimes allowed to trade, but only if they paid the burgh for the privilege. Quality was also controlled, different grades of bread being classified as ‘white’ or ‘gray’ – not the most appealing of names – but all was to be ‘good’ and ‘dry’, which probably meant well-fired and well-risen – nothing worse than a damp and soggy loaf! 
Ale was also strictly regulated – the price dependent both on the price of malt and the quality of the ale. Tasters, or ‘conners’ were appointed on annual contracts, and having graded the ales they chalked the set prices on the shutters or door of the brewsters so that they could be clearly seen. Anyone found to be over-charging could have the bottom knocked out of his brewing vessels. (Interesting that 16th century burgh authorities were concerned with imposing a maximum price for alcohol, while the current debate relates to minimum pricing.)

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

 

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AND YOU THOUGHT ESPRESSO WAS COFFEE–ENTER THE PRINT-ON-DEMAND ESPRESSO BOOK MACHINE COMING SOON TO YOUR FAVORITE CAFE

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Writer's Work Leave a comment

In a very Uranian manner, the wonder of technology has hit the realm of publishers and writers alike with the arrival of On Demand Books’ Espresso Book Machine!  Now, while you wait for your favorite café drink to be made, the book you’ve wanted to read can be printed for you in paperback format with lightening speed at the cost of approximately a penny per page. 

Just imagine, for those of us who still like to hold the real deal in our hands but have acquiesced to the age of ‘readers’,  no more trying to squint your way through pages on your Kindle, IPad or Nook while you sip.  And there’s more good news.   For authors desiring to go the self publishing route, On Demand Books offers this option as well. Print-ready PDF files (with cover) are uploaded to ODB.  Almost immediately the book is available for sale through the Espresso Book Machine’s global network. Full ownership and control over the digital files is retained by the author along with the rights to modify or delete titles from the system at any time.  As for payment, sales are tracked by ODB’s EspressNet software, which secures the author’s titles and provides all payments to the author as self-publisher.  Distribution is non-exclusive. 

 Additionally, even traditional houses such as Harper Collins, Hachette Group, MacMillan and Random house, just to name a few, have taken advantage as a way to increase their sales in partnership with the brick and mortar bookstores.  All in all it seems a win/win situation for everyone.   When I first read about this, I wondered where I’d been as evidently the system has been around for a few years.  Upon further exploration I discovered that current  locations for public access are not plentiful…yet.  Many are within university libraries and some bookstores.  Nevertheless I suspect the demand will grow through readers like myself. Check out ODB’s  website to find locations here and abroad.

As an author who has resisted self-publishing, I have to admit the advantages seem substantial when you consider them, especially for authors who haven’t been able to get in the door of the traditional publishing houses or for even those  of us who have.  Of course as always with self-publishing and even through a traditional publisher in these times, the onus of marketing falls on the author.  One can only hope that the wizards at ODB will come up with a marketing gizmo that cuts through the social network marketing jungle!

If all of this seems too good to be true, check out the YouTube Video to watch how this works as you wait for that latte…I’ll bet you shake your head!