Cooking over an open fire
by Jes


Cooking over an open fire

by Jess Dyde

When cooking for a living history event, it's essential to know what fuel was available to you, and what foodstuffs. Obviously this depends on the era.

I'll assume you're cooking over an open wood fire, as although coal was available, especially at coastlines, there was very little available to most people.

The majority of the population would have been dependant on wood or charcoal until the mid-Victorian period when coal became much more freely available.

And you'll need to be aware of what types of food would have been easy to get. Modern staples such as pasta are obviously not available to a Tudor household, and potatoes weren't available to Medieval people.

If you intend to be really authentic, you'll need to consider the season as well. Nowadays almost everything is available all year round, but until very recently this was not the case. September was the "glut' month for food in general, and May was the best month for cream and June for cheesmaking.

March was a lean month, as the food stored over winter was mostly used up, but the new food had not yet grown, and it's probably no accident that Lent hits the time of year when the least food was available.

The types of food available would have been different too, and getting exactly authentic food, especially vegetables, is almost impossible.

For example, until fairly recently, carrots were white or purple. As a general rule of thumb, assume that if it can't be grown in the UK, it wasn't available, or only to the very rich. So although nuts are on the menu, peanuts are not.

The only sweetener was honey until Tudor times, and when sugar became available, it was so expensive that few people had access to it.

It was also brown, and arrived in a block or cone, rather than white and granulated. The staple food was bread and again white bread was only for the rich.

It was likely that a good deal of fish was eaten. During Elizabethan times there were three fish days a week, as the canny Queen needed trained sailors but didn't want to pay for them.

So she passed a law, enforcing three fish days and the fishermen had to work hard to keep up with demand.

Consequently she had a large number of trained sailors on hand should she need them. It's important to remember that river fish were the preserve of the rich for much of the last thousand years, and the common people ate sea fish.

A wood fire does not burn very hot. This makes frying difficult although it's possible with care, but a stir-fry or a fried egg would be tricky. The usual methods of cooking were boiling and spit roasting, unless you had access to a clay oven.

But although a wood fire burns less hot than a coal fire, at least wood smoke smells and tastes OK, whereas coal smoke is acrid and unpleasant.


Lighting your fire can be done in various ways, depending on how authentic you want to be.

You can sneak a firelighter in, and use small pieces of wood as kindling – once they've caught add progressively larger pieces of wood.

Or, to do the job "properly' you can use something (a fire-steel or a fire-bow) to get a spark, and use that to light some tinder – usually a piece of previously charred linen or wool, or tiny fragments of very dry straw or hay.

Once you've got a handful of hay burning, add tiny pieces of kindling, then bigger pieces, then larger pieces of wood. The embers of a fire are often very hot, so a lack of huge flames is not a bad thing for cooking, but fires need constant watching to make sure they keep going at the sort of intensity you need.

Our ancestors must have spent a lot of time collecting wood, and knew much more about it than we tend to. They knew, for instance, that elm is the only wood which will burn while still green – most wood needs to be dry before it will burn well.

And they knew which sorts of wood were not really worth burning, or were better used for something else. Oak is wonderful on a fire, and apple gives off a lovely scent. Try to know your woods, and experiment.

Stews, soups and roasted meats were very much the order of the day. But from experience I recommend that whatever you're cooking, start by putting on a large pan of water to boil.

It takes so long to boil, you'll have plenty of time to decide what you're going to cook and the water can always be used for washing up if you don't boil anything.

In fact all cooking takes far longer than you might expect. And you can't leave something to boil for half an hour, as you'll need to keep an eye on the fire.

And if you're being really authentic, you won't have a watch, so you'll have to test what you're cooking to see if it's done.

The whole process is much more time consuming than modern cooking.

There are some ingredients that aren't available to you, for which you'll need to think of alternatives. For example, when I make a beef stew today, I use Worcester Sauce, a beef stock cube, pepper, and maybe gravy granules.

Obviously I can't use those things when I'm cooking Medieval-style, although home-made stock would have been available.

To provide some flavour, the answer is to get inventive with herbs. And use a little flour to thicken.

Add barley as well, for more flavour, and maybe a little garlic.


It's difficult to get meat that's as fatty as they would have eaten, as the modern trend is for lean meat.

The fat had countless uses, and would have provided something to fry in.

As you can't use oil, you can fry in butter, but for meat dishes try to use dripping or lard.

As for what meat you can eat, well – practically anything that lives in this country.

Rabbits and hares, game birds, venison, fowl, sheep, cattle and pigs were all available although remember that some of these would involve poaching!

And also animals were usually farmed for something other than their meat, so sheep for example would be kept for wool and not slaughtered young.

Mutton was more common, especially for the lower classes.

Getting rabbits, hares and game, nowadays is not easy, especially if you want to do the job "properly' and skin and gut the animal.

It's several years now since I've been able to get rabbits with their fur still on.

Similarly, if you buy a whole pig, you'll find that various parts of the animal are missing – mostly the internal organs.

That's how the butchers get them. So the sweetbreads, intestines, liver, kidneys, heart and lungs will often have been removed.

Most modern cooks prefer this as we are less used to dealing with meat, but it isn't very authentic.

It is said that the only part of a pig that can't be used is the squeal!

To spit roast a pig over a wood fire: get up very early! If you start the fire at 5am, and you're roasting a small to medium sized pig, you should be eating by 8pm.

Get a large fire going well, and make sure you've got plenty to wood to add. If the pig has been lying around on the grass, you might want to give it a wash down.

There will be a cavity where the internal organs were – fill this with roughly chopped up apple and garlic, and stitch the opening shut using a very large needle and string. It flavours the meat beautifully.

Next you need to get the pig on the spit. This is not easy – you'll need the help of a couple of strong men. There's no polite way to put this – the spit must be driven through the pig so that one end comes out of the mouth and the other out of the anus.

It's slightly easier if you start at the mouth end, but more difficult to aim. You're following the line of the spine, but must avoid the bones which is most tricky with the pelvis.

It will usually take two people to lift the spit onto the rack safely, although one person can do it with care.

Remember that after childbirth, fires from cooking were the biggest cause of premature death in women for centuries.

You're likely to be wearing long clothing, and leaning over a fire with a heavy pig isn't sensible.

The pig should be at least a foot above the heat. You can adjust the fire or the height of the pig accordingly and you'll need to watch both throughout the cooking time.

Keep the fire hot, but try to avoid huge flames. And turn the pig every so often so that it cooks right through. Test the meat with a skewer (or a meat thermometer!) to check it's thoroughly cooked and check each piece when you carve. When cooking like this you need to be even more careful than usual to make sure the meat is properly cooked.

Some people cover the trotters with mud to stop them burning, which they are liable to do.

Or you can remove them before you start the roasting process, and boil them up separately. Similarly you can remove the head, and make brawn.

Also the cheek meat is very good and could be chopped up for a stew or to make sausages. These would originally have been made using the cleaned out intestines as skins, but now you'll have to get artificial skins if you want to make sausages (simply "bray' or batter up small pieces of any of the meat, season with herbs and add chopped up apple – stuff the mixture into the skins, and boil or fry.)

You can boil up any bits that no one fancies eating – the ears and tail are usual candidates – for a good rich stock.

Add a bit of salt, and you've got the base for a wonderful soup.

What about other food? Breakfast could be porridge, or frummety which is porridge with dried fruit in it and is a traditional dish. Or you could boil eggs or have bacon butties!

Lunch could be stew or thick soup, or pancakes, followed by biscuits made with nuts and honey. Your evening meal, apart from roast pork, brawn, trotters and sausages could be baked potatoes (if they had been discovered by your era) or boiled vegetables, salads with nuts and grains, soups, stews, steamed suet puddings, fruit with cream, and don't forget you can make white or cheese sauces or onion and herb gravy to go with the meat or vegetables. Not bad!

However you'll spend most of your time cooking if you want all of these.

A note about washing up. A handful of grass will cut through grease easily – it works, but only if you tackle the pots and pans soon after use.

But remember, as you're the cook, someone else should do the washing up!br />

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