Bread was hard to make in the early middle ages. If you didn’t have a water mill (and people in sixth-century England didn’t), you had to grind it by hand. The flour to bake a single day’s bread might take four hours to grind. If you were wealthy and could afford to task a few slaves with this job, that was well and good. If you were an ordinary peasant farmer, however, bread was a sometimes food.
The rest of the time, you ate a brew. Or more specifically, a briw, or in modern English, ‘pottage’.
Pottage is something between a stew and a casserole. Its base ingredient is coarse-ground wheat, approximately the consistency of grits or a hearty bowl of oatmeal. To this base, other ingredients are added for nutrition and flavor.
The key to the dish was the coarseness of the wheat. Grinding flour for bread is hard, but cracking wheat berries to make briw doesn’t take nearly as much effort. Briw is, comparatively speaking, food on the go.
It sounded weird until I tried it. Once I did, I fell in love.
- Bulgar wheat (or any other cracked wheat berries)
- Lardons (ie, bacon clippings)
- Salt to flavor
Chop the leeks into small pieces and mince the garlic. This is your flavor.
Chop up the lardons, if they’re not already cut into small pieces.
Fill a pot with water, bring it to a boil in the fire, and add the lardons, garlic, and leeks. Simmer until the meat is fully cooked and beginning to fall apart (maybe an hour).
Add the wheat, and simmer until it is fully cooked (about 15-20 minutes).
Add salt if necessary.
This is a remarkably flavorful dish, for how simple the ingredients are.
I chose to use lardons because cured pork is easily preserved, and a well-off peasant might well cut off a small piece of a cured ham to toss into the pot for flavor and a bit of protein.
Leeks and garlic were among the favorite flavorings of the early Anglo-Saxon period. The word for ‘garden’ in Old English is leactun, ‘enclosure for leeks’ — that’s how popular they were.
Together, pork fat, leeks, and garlic combine into a subtle, pleasant, savory flavor. Add the wheat, and it became a delightfully satisfying dish.
I cooked my batch in the pots I made many years ago.
The next time I attempt this (at Ragnarok!), I’ll use beef and cabbage — two other mainstays of the Early Anglo-Saxon period.
To read more about briws and other foods of the Early Anglo-Saxon period, see Debby Banham’s wonderfully informative little book, Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (Tempus, 2004).