What foods are native to Britain

Every so often, somebody starts a campaign to run some non-native plant out of Britain. With a few, that makes sense–when they got loose in this new climate they turned hazardous, choking out native growth, growing through the foundations of houses, running for parliament so they can run other non-native plants out of the country. But setting those few aside, the rest of it, I suspect, is about returning Britain to some imagined state of purity. 

But what really is native? For the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with food.

This comes with a warning: The further back in time we go, the sketchier the notes people left behind. So I can’t guarantee 600% accuracy. Take it–as is appropriate for food–with a grain of salt.

 

A rare relevant photo: St. John’s Wort, which isn’t used as a food but is traditionally medicinal. It’s native to Britain but a couple of varieties were introduced in the 17th century. So it’s native but also not. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

Imports

The first chicken bones show up in the Bronze Age–around 800 B.C.E. That makes them–not to mention their eggs–foreigners.

The Romans (start counting in 43 C.E.) brought rabbits, pheasants, and brown hare (not to be confused with brown hair, which was already present). Also cabbages, leeks, onions, garlic, basil, thyme, turnips, walnuts, and grapes. And alexanders, which went wild. Foragers still eat them and everyone else pretty much ignores them. They’re sometimes called wild celery. 

Incomers, the lot of them.

As an aside, by the time we get to the medieval era, cabbage was peasants’ food and not fit for the upper classes. It was thought to cause melancholy and nightmares but also to cure drunkenness. 

According to one source the Saxon word for February was Sprout Kale–the month when the cabbages sprout. If you’re not a fan of kale, you can blame it on the Saxons. It won’t be fair, but it’ll keep your mind off worse things. (Another source says it was April, but it’s outvoted. Let’s go with February. It’s shorter, and I’m not a big fan of kale.)

You won’t find sugar until 1099–or at least you won’t find it mentioned until then–and for a long time it was the wildest of luxuries. From the 12th century through the 15th, you’ll find monasteries cultivating apples and pears. Or you’d find them if you could get back there. They would’ve been luxuries.

Turkeys and rice showed up in the Tudor period, and potatoes, corn, and tomatoes didn’t arrive until Europeans started bothering the New World. 

Beets–or as the British call them, beetroot–probably came from the Mediterranean. Broccoli showed up around 1700, chocolate bars around 1847, and baked beans in 1886.

Yes, I did switch from raw ingredients to processed food. You’ve got to keep an eye on me every minute. I’ll pull a fast one on you every time.

 

Native foods

Wild carrots do grow in Britain and as far as I can untangle things they’re native, but a foraging guide describes them as tough and stringy. You’d want to put these in stews, not eat them raw. The plant they come from is also called Queen Anne’s lace and looks a lot like hemlock, which is toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend munching your way through the hedgerows hoping to figure out which is which. 

Cultivated carrots seem to have wandered into England in Elizabethan times, so they’re not exactly native. Emphasis on seems. I got that from a site whose information appears to be solid but whose writing is murky. 

Peas? Probably native, although some people argue that the Romans brought them. 

Of course, someone out there would surely argue that the Romans brought Nintendo. I’d make the argument myself, but I’m trying to keep this brief. 

Cultivated peas are related to vetches, a category of wildflower that does well in Britain without human interference. The early ones would’ve been smaller than the peas we know, and probably bitterer. And if we’re to judge from that last adjective, harder to pronounce. The best thing to do with them would’ve been to put them in pottage–something eaten widely in medieval Britain and varied enough that if you think of it as anything that can be tossed in a pot and cooked with liquid, you won’t go too far wrong. 

It’s not until you get into Tudor times that peas become sweeter and the elite start eating them as a delicacy.

Oats, rye, wheat, and barley are all native. As is brewing alcohol from at least some of them and getting shitfaced. 

Native fruits would’ve been small purple plums, sloes, wild currants, brambles (that means blackberries), raspberries, wood strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, redberries (no idea what this is; they’re probably red), heather berries (Lord Google tells me they’re edible but nasty), elderberries, rowan berries (edible if cooked; toxic when raw), haws, and hips (that’s probably rose hips). To summarize, the native fruits ran the gamut from delicious to nasty.

The wild apple, crabapple, and cherry would might have been rare or absent, although the British apple seems to have predated the Romans. You notice how much of a workout the word probably is getting? Not as much as it should’, I expect. 

We haven’t talked about the nuts and leaves, but let’s skip them, okay? 

78 thoughts on “What foods are native to Britain

  1. I once sent some poppy seeds to a friend in Germany and deeply regretted it afterwards after someone told me that I could inadvertently bring about a new Ice Age. Never again. U.K. seeds to U.K. places only!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there would’ve been plenty of nettles–cook them even briefly and they’re edible. Anyone who’s lived here long knows they’re plentiful, although they’d’ve been hell to pick. Dock, I think is edible. I saw that at roughly the point where I decided enough was enough. The problem is that vegetable matter doesn’t leave archeologists much to work with. They can find animal bones and the remains of nuts, but beyond that, the record’s blank. So we have some sketchy evidence on what came in but not much on what was already here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Maybe one of the reasons cabbage was blamed for melancholy was that it cured drunkeness.
    Some of these foods remind me of my Uncle Ira’s recipe for preparing carp;
    Nail carp to board.
    Leave out in sun for three days.
    Discard carp. Eat the board.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think I’d have liked your uncle.

      I did wonder how many people wanted to trade a good drunk for a bout of melancholy. It doesn’t sound like a good exchange, but since medieval medical beliefs weren’t a single coherent body of thought, it’s also possible that the two beliefs led entirely separate lives and never met until much later, when no one believed either of them anymore.

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  3. I once learned that the introduction of sugar brought a new (and fortunately, short-lasting) trend to England: black teeth! Since only the very rich could afford sugar at the time, they were the only ones that benefited from rotten teeth… To emulate this rich-only fashion, other would be fashionistas just darkened their teeth artificially. Go figure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, absolutely. And there used to be a dog collar museum in–um, Britain somewhere, but by now I’ve forgotten where. For years, we used to see a sign for a paperweight museum outside Plymouth but the sign’s gone now so I assume someone packed up their paperweights and took them home.

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  4. Aside from food, I just posted about skunks and I had a reader from England ask what it smelled like and was it really that bad? It was then I realized that skunks aren’t native to the UK–lucky you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d a boyfriend briefly who only ate as fuel – he’d absolutely no interest in what stuff tasted like. I suspect he’d be fine with nettles, so long as they came ready for the microwave. Weird…

    Our neighbour’s boxer’s pee sounds like it could compete with a badger. It permeates even closed patio doors. Mind you, it’s been going just inches from our patio… It doesn’t anymore, after I lost my cool & used colourful language to express my views. Shame – I really like boxers, and would love to play & fuss this one – it just the owner’s an ass.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It never ceases to amaze me how people seem to think that what they recall from their childhood defines their sense of ‘normality’. Life existed before you did: get over yourselves, people!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They’ve been on such a campaign to poison Japanese knotweed that I’d be afraid to run around sampling it. but it’s a good point. Just get people eating it and–

      Well, hold on. I don’t think that’s cut down on the number of blackberry plants growing wild in the country. We may need to convince people that eating it will make them young, beautiful, and strong. With wings.

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        • The blackberry’s plan, I believe, is to take over the world, and I’m pretty sure it’ll succeed. When I read that the British tribes who fought the first Roman invaders fought naked, I can’t help thinking about blackberries and wincing. As far as I can figure out, every plant that’s native to this country has thorns.

          I’m with you on Monsanto and that stuff I can’t type reliably.

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    • This is one of those topics I’m on both sides of. Some plants (and animals, while we’re at it) really do turn monstrous once they get loose in a new ecosystem. Others fit in very nicely and after a few generations no one remembers that they’re not native. I’ve heard purists argue for the extinction of one plant or other because it’s not native, but they usually focus on one or two species, forgetting how many others are also imports.

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    • It’s amazing the things people can believe if they want to.

      A few historians are doing some interesting work uncovering how long Black people have been living in Britain, driven in part, I think, by the claim that native Britons are white and always have been. So we go back to the Roman soldiers, who were drawn from all over the empire, and to an assortment of Black people who show up in Tudor documents. We go back, for that matter, to Cheddar Man–an ancient skeleton found in a cave in Cheddar–whose DNA was recently sequenced (apologies if you already know this) and who turns out to have had dark brown skin and blue eyes and whose DNA is still running around in people living in the area today.

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