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How modern is the modern British menu?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005

Chef Gordon Ramsay is very sceptical about historical recipes – he just doesn’t believe they actually work! Ever Wondered sent him to find out more at a 15th century farmstead, a part of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum near Chichester

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Richard Fitch is a professional freelance food historian, currently involved in the Victorian cookery projects for the National Trust and Tudor cookery for the Weald and Downland Museum

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Gordon: Richard – do these recipes work?

Richard Fitch: They certainly do, and there’s plenty to be learned from medieval and Tudor recipes, even for a modern chef such as yourself. The first dish we’re going to make is beef pottage.

Recipe: Beef pottage with whole herbs

2 lb joint of beef
4 oz each of the whole leaves of spinach, endive and white cabbage or cauliflower
1-2 tsp salt
4 tbsp wine vinegar
2 oz fine or medium oatmeal
3 English onions, sliced
Small squares or triangles of white bread

Half fill a large cooking pot with water, bring it to the boil, plunge in the meat, and remove the scum as it rises. Then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer.

Mix the oatmeal with 1/2 pint of cold water, and stir it into the pot.

Add the vegetables, and continue simmering for 1 1/2 hours, until the meat is tender. Then add the salt and wine vinegar.

Lift the meat out on to a dish, lift out the vegetables with a skimmer, lay them on top, and decorate the edges with the pieces of bread. Then keep them warm until the remaining stock has been served first as a pottage.

Gordon Ramsay and Richard Fitch Richard Fitch: There’s no stated cooking time – the beef is basically poached until it’s done. The dish that comes out is boiled beef. Served sliced and accompanied by a thickened vegetable stew like a broth, but a little bit thinner. In modern terms it’s two courses in one pot.

Gordon: Do you season it before cooking?

Gordon adds the vegetables Richard Fitch: No. The thing you have to realise is the limited quantity and availability of seasoning at the time. A small amount of salt, a very expensive commodity then, would have been added toward the end of the cooking process. The most common seasoning in Britain in the Middle Ages was mustard. Pepper was also used, but to give you an idea of how precious it was, in a household of 20 staff consumption of pepper would have been less than a quarter of a teaspoon per person per week!

Gordon: Unbelievable! What about vegetables….surely they can’t have changed very much over 400 years?

Richard Fitch: No. Basic vegetables are basic vegetables. The kind of things they didn’t have would have been imports from the New World and the Americas. In the 15th century and earlier, vegetables were seen as the preserve of the poor. The rich, if they did cook vegetables, would have boiled them to death and thrown away the water, losing all their goodness.

What we also find 400 years ago is that we were very reliant on what we’d stored over the winter. The household would have smoked a large amount of meat – slaughtering the pigs in the autumn, keeping a little bit of fresh meat, but preserving as much as possible as it had to last all the way through until the next year.

Though the meat is very tender Gordon finds the taste and texture pretty disgusting – like cold porridge with a slight seasoning of salt! In the hopes of finding something more suitable to the modern palate he moves on to find out about mid-17th century puddings…

Richard Fitch: We’re going to make quite a sweet dish – sack posset, or thick alcoholic pudding. The dish includes certain spices – some mace, cinnamon and nutmeg. These spices become more common the closer you come to the present day.

In the 15th century they would have been purely the preserve of the social elite. By the time we reach the mid-1600s they’re becoming more available to the town class. A pot in the flames

Recipe: Sack Posset

4 egg yolks
2 egg whites
1/4 pint dry sherry
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1 pint single cream
3 oz sugar

Beat together the egg yolks, egg whites, sherry and spices, and gently heat in a large pan, stirring constantly, until warm, but still not thickened.

Heat the cream and sugar together and as it rises to the full boil pour from a good height into the warm eggs and sherry mixture.

Allow the posset to stand in a warm place for a few minutes, sprinkle a little sugar across its surface, and serve.

Gordon thinks this is the best thing he’s tasted all day! Inspired to find out more about herbs and their uses in cooking he visits the Chelsea Physic Garden to get the expert opinions of herbal pharmacologist Andrew Chevallier…

If you would like to more about the arts in general than have a look at course A103 Introduction to the Humanities

Andrew Chevalier Andrew Chevallier is a lecturer on Herbal Medicine at Middlesex University. He is also a member of the National Institute of medical herbalists.

Andrew Chevallier: Food and herbs were very important in recipes at the time. All they had was their fields, their gardens – food and medicine went hand in hand, and people were using food and herbs to treat infection from Roman times right up to the middle ages. People then thought there were four humours which were responsible for health in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. You stayed healthy as long as those four humours were in balance.

Gordon: So which herbs do what? Andrew, if I had an upset stomach, how would I have been treated?

Andrew Chevallier: That would be too much yellow or black bile. Globe artichoke is very good to protect the liver and lower blood fat levels. Sage is very good for digestion and helps to strengthen the stomach’s action.

Gordon: If I had a bad chest…coughs and colds?

Andrew Chevallier: Too much phlegm. Thyme is very good for the chest and soothes dry, irritating, tickly coughs. Garlic as everyone will know is a natural antibiotic and is very good for chest infections.

Gordon: What if I’m stressed out and uptight – not difficult in my job?

Andrew Chevallier: Hops are a good strong sedative. Rosemary is best known as a culinary plant these days – but its also a good invigorating tonic and promotes energy. If you’re full of nervous energy it’ll help you relax.

If you would like to find out more about the history of food you might try these suggestions :


The Art of Dining
Sara Paston Williams, The National Trust

Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain
Jane Renfrew, English Heritage

Food and Feast in Medieval England
P.W Hammond, Sutton Publishing

Herbs for Common Ailments
Anne McIntyre, Gaia Books

The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses
Deni Brown, Dorling Kindersley

English Herb Gardens
Guy Copper, Weindenfield & Nicolson General


For more information on the Herb Society

For more information on medieval cooking and recipes

Also from Ever Wondered : You can join Cherie Lunghi as she asks why are some foods so addictive? or join agriculturalist Sean Beer as he asks what do your food choices say about you?

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what The Open University has to offer.


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