Part banquet, part theatre, Feast of the Dead promises a melange of medieval treats
Surely one of the most immersive, and indeed tasty, events that form part of Hastings’ ROOT1066 International Festival will be Feast of the Dead.
In order to commemorate “the most cataclysmic moment of our history” – the Battle of Hastings – local artists Den and Signals have teamed up with innovative chefs Blanch and Shock to take participants on “an anarchic ride through the aftermath of a battle which still affects our daily lives.”
Den and Signals’ Ben Pacey says: “Expect an entertaining communal experience about the past, the present and the future. We’ll serve a delicious and unique meal, inspired by eleventh century food, sourced from local suppliers and created by Blanch and Shock.”
He adds: “The inspiration for Feast of the Dead came from conversations with people who strongly felt that the events of 1066 still vividly resonate today. The idea for the event is that we – both performers and audience – are ghosts of the Battle of Hastings. On the night after the battle, we meet and eat together as ghosts.”
“A further influence came from our town’s enthusiasm for dressing up! We’re inviting our audiences to attend dressed as ghosts of the 1066 battlefield. Of course, we’ll extend just-as-warm-a-welcome to anyone who doesn’t want to dress-up, too.”
Creating a medieval menu, however, is a lot easier said than done, as Blanch and Shock’s Mike Knowlden reveals: “The Normans and Anglo-Saxons had few recorded recipes. What to put into and how to cook particular dishes were handed down the generations using the oral tradition, so a recipe book that we would go to as a resource today simply didn’t exist. Consequently, we’ve done a fair bit of research into the ingredients that were available and the cooking processes people used during the Middle Ages.”
Remarkably, Mike suggests that many of the dishes and ingredients that are popular today would be familiar nearly a thousand years ago. “What we think of as a modern British or Scandinavian diet leads back to that time,” he says.
The Normans were descended from Vikings and Britain was frequently raided and settled by Norse raiders during the Dark Ages. However, in the popular imagination the Normans were French and therefore brought an entirely new and alien culture to these shores with their victory over the Saxons. Mike thinks that, apart from the different languages, the two nations were already more closely united through their stomachs.
“After the invasion, our diet didn’t change that much. Admittedly, the poor would have become poorer under Norman feudalism and there wasn’t a sudden bounty of new ingredients imported from France, apart from the renewed emphasis on eating rabbit.”
Rabbits were considered rare and expensive, bred and kept in special warrens and were generally available only to the wealthy. Similarly, pears and fallow deer were brought over, essentially for the conquerors to enjoy. However, the Norman diet of oats, green vegetables, dairy produce and small amounts of meat, mainly pork, was similar to that of the vanquished Saxons.
And beer would have been familiar to both sides. Ale was an extremely important part of daily life, as water was often dirty and therefore dangerous. The brewing process killed off waterbound germs and different types of ale were brewed. ‘Small beer’ was drunk at breakfast and had a relatively low alcohol content. Extra flavour and sweetness was given by adding honey, which created mead. The abundance of apples in Normandy and among the English orchards meant that a form of cider was also a popular tipple.
Although the Normans appear to have had a utilitarian view of food, they still enjoyed it, as Mike explains: “Both nations probably regarded what they ate as little more than fuel for the body. For the poor, life was a daily battle for calories but food played an important role in bringing people together.”
Feast of the Dead will be held at Stade Hall at 7pm on Weds 21 to Sun 25 September. For it, Mike and his Blanch and Shock colleagues are devising an authentic, three-course menu that the Normans and Anglo-Saxons would be familiar with.
“The first course will incorporate fish brought in by the day boats at Hastings and put into a broth infused with wild herbs and flowers. That will be followed by a sharing dish of pork. Although I haven’t completely decided just yet, it will probably be belly rolled with wild herbs, spices and grains. Bread will also feature but will be made from ingredients such as pea flour, to make things more interesting for our guests. Dessert will, I’m sure, involve honey and apples with custard and egg-based puddings also. Bread and Butter Pudding as we know it today isn’t wildly different to the version they ate then.”
Just as people would have done 950 years ago, Mike and his team are focusing on locally available, seasonal produce. As part of his research for Feast of the Dead, he says that they have become excited about working with wild mushrooms, herbs and spices foraged from local fields and hedgerows and perfecting ancient cooking techniques, such as using hot stones, open fires and Dutch ovens. There will also be vegetarian and vegan options available.
“It is a wonderful way to explore history and our early culture. The Romans’ vast empire meant that they had food security and enormous variety in their diet whilst, in stark contrast, the Normans and Saxons were limited to what was available around them and largely on a subsistence basis. Yet they were very creative and experimental with flavours, while also exploring the aesthetics of food. Something we do today and will bring to the table, figuratively and literally, at Feast of the Dead.”
You can download a full festival programme now at www.1066contemporary.com