Wednesday, December 06, 2023

A Brief History of Food: Lobscouse

Next year we will be ‘Sailing the Pirate Round’ once again. As before we will be visiting several English Heritage sites across Britain and introducing visitors to some of the food and drink popular in AD 1700 during the reign of Queen Anne and at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. Those visitors who sample the prepared dishes nearly all agree that our lobscouse is delicious. It being a mixture of fried potatoes, fried onions, corned beef hash, smoked ham and spices – the recipe is below - what is not to like? However, as we got to speak with people from different parts of Great Britain and further afield, we began to realise that versions of this dish, with slightly different names, remain popular over a wide expanse of northern Europe. We quickly realised that this continuity had a long history, so we set out to discover the origins of lobscouse and its variations.


It was immediately evident that lobscouse had a maritime connection. The name lobscouse commonly refers to a stew eaten by sailors throughout northern Europe in the 18th century, a recipe that survives in different forms across northern Europe today. According to Webster's Dictionary the first known use of the term ’lobscouse’ dates to 1706 but, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, its origin is frustratingly unknown. The OED goes on to compare ‘lobscouse’ to ‘loblolly’ where the latter term is a combination of ‘lob’ referring to the thick, heavy bubbling of cooking porridge, and ‘lolly’ an old British dialect word for ‘broth, soup, or any other food boiled in a pot’. To confuse matters, ‘lobscouse’ may be encountered in contemporary sources written as ‘lopscourse’, ‘lobscourse’, ‘lobskous’, ‘lobscouce’, ‘lap's course’ and in its shortened form of ‘scouse’, more of which later.

Although its origins are obscure, variations of the word ‘lobscouse’ also appear in several northern European languages centred around the North and Baltic Seas. That lobscouse or scouse in Britain is so similar to the traditional dishes found in the Scandinavian countries of Norway (lapskaus), Sweden (lapskojs), Finland (lapskoussi), Denmark, (skipperlabskovs), and in northern Germany (Labskaus) strongly suggests these stews or hashes have their roots in the maritime trade across northern Europe. It is difficult to be certain whether ‘lobscouse’ originated in the Baltic ports as some claim or in Britain, however. That said, the first mention of lobscouse (as ‘lobs course’) appears in ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ written by Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett [1] and published in 1751. A derivation of the word first appears in German in 1878, some 127 years later, which tends to suggest that usage spread from Britain to northern Europe rather than vice versa.


Scouse is strongly associated with the port of Liverpool, echoing its maritime roots, and its hinterland, in the north-west of England. While other regions of Britain were slower to begin growing potatoes, they were widely cultivated in Lancashire from the late 17th century onwards. By the late 18th century, the potato-based lobscouse had not only become a traditional dish of the region, but its name had, according to the OED, been shortened to ‘scouse’. There is no rigidly defined recipe for lobscouse (or scouse) since it was traditionally made from leftovers and whatever was in season at the time. A 1797 description records that potatoes were:

‘…peeled, or rather scraped, raw; chopped, and boiled together with a small quantity of meat cut into very small pieces. The whole of this mixture is then formed into a hash, with pepper, salt, onions, etc., and forms a cheap and nutritive dish’ (Pike, 2014, 160).

However, an earlier reference from 1785 reads:

‘LOBS-COUSE, a dish much eaten at sea, composed of salt beef, [ship's] biscuit, and onions, well peppered and stewed together’ (Crowley, 2017, 35).

Clearly being a seaport would explain how scouse, ‘much eaten at sea’, became a favourite in Liverpool and why the inhabitants of the city are often referred to as ‘scousers’.


Being a dish intended to make use of leftovers and seasonal fare, the ingredients can vary according to time, place and budget. As a rule, the essentials are potatoes, carrots, onion and diced meat, which together are slow cooked for several hours. Some recipes suggest including marrowbones to thicken the stew echoing the sailor’s practice of adding ship’s bread (otherwise known as hard-tack or ship’s biscuit). Beef is traditionally preferred over lamb but where the latter is used, then the result is more akin to an Irish Stew or Lancashire Hotpot, both of which favour lamb or mutton. The proportion of meat to vegetables can vary from equal amounts to a one part meat to five parts potato. Purists may argue that any deviation from beef, potatoes, carrots, onion is not scouse, but remember the recipes are intended to produce cheap, nutritious meals that are eminently practical, easy to make in a small kitchen or indeed a ship’s galley, and adaptable to the season or prevailing circumstances. In the poorest areas of Liverpool, when funds ran too low for the purchase of even the cheapest cuts of meat, then a ‘blind scouse’ using only vegetables would be made.

Variations on a theme

Focusing just on Great Britain, lobscouse also appears in other parts of the country. In North Wales the full form is retained as ‘lobsgows’ (Welsh: lapsgóws), whereas in the nearby Potteries of the West Midlands it is known as ‘lobby’. The latter is a traditional North Staffordshire stew eaten by poorly paid potters who were often unable to afford freshly prepared food every day. Lobby typically consists of minced or diced beef or lamb, diced potatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, and root vegetables bulked up with pearl barley, and seasoned. As a cheap, nutritious meal made with seasonal vegetables, it remains on the menus of local pubs and on locals' dinner tables today. Slightly further North, the dish earned the inhabitants of Leigh, Greater Manchester the nickname ‘lobby gobblers’ (in contrast to the ‘pie eaters’ of neighbouring Wigan). Interestingly, one writer from Wigan states that, as well as mutton or tinned stewing steak, lobby can be made using corned beef.

Travelling further North, the good folk of Lancashire make a very similar dish called ‘potato hash’. Also known colloquially as ‘tattie’ash’, ‘tayter’ash’ or ‘potato ‘ash’, this is a classic one pot dish combining minced beef, onions, carrots, potatoes and beef stock. Once again, it is a tasty, simple to make, thrifty and economical family meal. 

Lobscouse fit for Pirates

Returning to its nautical roots, 'one pot cooking' would be an ideal way to feed a large crew on board a ship. Our recipe for lobscouse, which has proven extremely popular with visitors to English Heritage’s pirate-themed events, is a variation on a corned beef hash. The recipe below has been slightly updated from the one published in 'A Banquet Fit for Pirates'. However, in the latter post you will also discover a recipe for Ship's Bread which can be added to thicken the dish or more generally bulk out the ingredients. Bon appétit:


Chotzinoff Grossman, Anne; Grossman Thomas, Lisa (1997). Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. W.W. Norton. pp. 18–19.

Crowley, Tony (2017). The Liverpool English Dictionary: A Record of the Language of Liverpool 1850–2015. Oxford: Oxford University Press., (2010), ‘Lapskaus: a Hearty Norwegian Stew’, Available online (accessed November 25th, 2023).

Olsens, T.H., (2016), ‘Lobscouse’,, Available online (accessed November 25th, 2023).

Pike, E. R., (2014), ‘Human Documents of Adam Smith's Time’, London: Routledge.

Sandvold, Irene O. (2011). Gudrun's Kitchen: Recipes from a Norwegian Family. et al. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. pp. 87–89.


1.  Tobias George Smollett, pictured right, (baptised March 19th, 1721 to September 17th, 1771) was a Scottish novelist, surgeon, critic and playwright. He was best known for picaresque novels such as ‘The Adventures of Roderick Random’ (1748), ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ (1751) and ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’ (1771), which influenced later novelists, including Charles Dickens.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Food History: A Roman soldier’s diet

The diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat, rations of smoked bacon or fresh meat (when available, usually pork), vegetables, legumes, cheese, vinegar, olive oil, and wine. These rations were issued several times per week so that every soldier would have carried food for around three days. The cost of the ration, around 60 Denarii per year, was deducted from each soldier’s pay.


Just like for Roman civilians the bulk of the diet of a Roman soldier consisted of wheat that was usually eaten as either bread or as a porridge known as puls made from emmer wheat. Of the other grains available, oats were seen as fodder and would only be eaten in times of extreme hunger, millet was only grown in small amounts, rye was only grown in areas too cold for wheat, and rations of barley are recorded being issued to soldiers as a punishment for minor offences.

In the second century BC, Roman soldiers received a ration of about 66 pounds of wheat per month. The grain was issued whole so had to be milled and processed by the soldier himself. The men of each Conturbernium [1] were responsible for preparing their meals, either doing so together or with individual soldiers taking turns. Neither temporary military camps nor long-term Roman forts had any sort of mess hall or big kitchens in which meals could be prepared for the entire unit.

As Romans preferred pork (from Latin: porcus ‘pig’) over beef (Latin: bubula) [2] it is safe to say that the bacon was an important part of the Roman soldier’s diet as it provided him with both fat and a lot of calories. When smoked the bacon would be much easier to transport than, for example, olive oil, another source of fat, which had to be transported in either barrels or clay amphorae, the latter being obviously more fragile.

In addition to the wheat and bacon the ration included legumes like lentils and beans that were high in protein. Cheese (Latin: caseus) was also a staple of the soldier’s diet. Since Romans did not really appreciate beef or, by extension, cow’s milk, cheese was primarily made from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. Cheese in the ancient world seems to be mainly of the soft varieties such as cottage cheese and feta. As is the modern practice, the latter was formed into large blocks and aged in brine (being washed before use to reduce its saltiness). Smoked cheeses were also made to preserve them for longer so may well have been favoured by soldiers when available.

Archaeologists have found additional foodstuffs at several Roman army camps suggesting that soldiers, especially officers, could also buy finer imported ingredients like coriander, oysters or spices such as pepper imported from India.


Water was essential as every man might consume between 2 and 8 litres (½ to 2 gallons) per day depending on the climate and the physical demands he had to face. One major logistical problem was the supply of water fresh which could prove unreliable at times, especially on a campaign. Consequently, water was often transported in barrels, but this might easily become tainted. Wine and vinegar, therefore, were mixed with the less than fresh water to counteract any aftertaste. By adding vinegar to water the Romans created Posca, an everyday drink popular in the army and also the urban poor. It has a refreshingly sour taste, but one that would have also disguised the smell and taste of stale water. The Roman’s development of posca was also convenient economically since the faulty storage of wine tends to result in vinegar.

According to Andrew Dalby, the initial unfamiliarity with posca in the Greek-speaking East meant writers such as Plutarch used the Greek term oxos ‘vinegar’. The same word was used in the crucifixion narratives which was rendered acetum in the Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible and ‘vinegar’ or its equivalent in many modern versions (Dalby, 2003, 270). Thus, the drink handed to the crucified Jesus was most likely posca and, contrary to the popular belief, may not have been intended as a torment but a sign of compassion. The Roman soldier gave Jesus his preferred drink, and probably from his own ration.

Alongside water, posca, and beer in the northern provinces, wine (Latin: vinum) was a popular drink. In general, most Romans thought the habit of drinking pure wine was barbaric, although extremely good quality wine was drunk pure albeit only in small quantities. ‘Moderation was promoted by the almost universal Greek and Roman habit of drinking wines mixed with water’ (Dalby. 2003, 350). For soldiers on campaign that had the bonus of limiting their opportunity for drunkenness and any resulting disciplinary issues.

Bon appétit!


Dalby, A. (2003), ‘Food in the Ancient World from A to Z’, London: Routledge.


1. As defined in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, contubernium meant a ‘dwelling together’, as of soldiers or animals, but referred especially to a quasi-marital union between slave and slave or slave and free. Within a century, a contubernium consisted of eight soldiers so ten contubernia formed a century of 80 fighting men commanded by a centurio (centurion).

2. For the most part ancient Roman authors on farming practices assume cattle will be kept as working animals rather than for milk or meat.


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Dispelling Some Myths: Was yellow the colour of prostitution?

Over the years we have periodically encountered claims that prostitutes in the Roman Iron Age and then later in the Mediæval period wore yellow garments or other yellow markings of some sort as signs of their profession. It seems this stems from the idea that people in the past wished to distinguish sex workers from respectable citizens. It is not entirely clear, however, whether a single colour or symbol was ever used to differentiate social class or social roles throughout history. So, in this article we explore what evidence there may be and in the process (hopefully) dispel some myths.

When in Rome

Most scholarship on Roman prostitution implies there was a social hierarchy within the profession. Meretrix (‘woman who earns, paid woman’), for example, seems to refer to a freeborn, higher-class registered prostitute, whereas scrotum (possibly from ‘hides, leather’) denotes an impoverished low-class streetwalker, and amica a purely euphemistic ‘lady-friend’ (Adams, 1983, 321 - 358). Given these distinctions, it is likely that Roman prostitutes dressed differently from respectable citizens. Some modern scholars assert that meretrices wore the toga when in public, either by compulsion or choice, and that the garment may have been imposed on adulteresses as a public signal of their disgrace. Edwards asserts that the toga, when worn by a meretrix set her apart from respectable women, while also suggesting her sexual availability (Edwards, 1997, 81–82). It is worth remembering that the toga was the formal attire of male citizens and not worn by respectable adult freeborn women. The latter, known in Latin as matronae (sing. matrona; ‘matron’), wore stolae (sing. stola) on formal occasions or while out in public. The stola was a long, body-concealing garment typically worn over a long-sleeved tunic, both of which having hemlines at ankle height. Raddicke states that, to indicate their disgraced social position, prostitutes and adulteresses were forbidden to wear stolae (Radicke, 2022, 299–354 & 680–688). Yet, opinions seem divided on the matter of prostitutes wore togas. Some scholars take it literally, while others see toga wearing as a euphemism for a self-assertive, ‘masculine’ woman.

Rather than a toga, references are made to expensive courtesans wearing gaudy, transparent silk garments (Edwards, 1997, 81). Similarly, the wearing of bright colours - ‘Colores meretricii’ - and jewelled anklets also marked them out from respectable women (Balsdon, 1963, 224, 252–4 and p. 327n). Yellow may well have been worn, but the reference to ‘colours’ plural strongly suggests it was not the only colour. We can speculate that what Roman prostitutes wore rather depended on whether they were free or enslaved. As Radicke points out, free prostitutes and adulteresses could wear what they wished, and neither laws nor custom dictated otherwise (Radicke, 2022, 365–374 & 578–581). By contrast, enslaved prostitutes could be made to wear anything their owners or pimps determined, perhaps including a so-called ‘women's toga’. Radicke speculates that this, if it was a ‘thing’, was the toga exigua, a term borrowed from the Roman poet Horace for a short toga worn in the 1st century BC. The assumption being that having less material the short toga would be less costly, more convenient and easier to remove. Moreover, such a garment would have exposed the lower leg and parts of the torso, something no respectable woman would have countenanced. Yet there is little concrete evidence for prostitutes and adulteresses wearing togas. Blanshard draws attention to some Roman authors seemingly indicating that prostitutes displayed themselves naked. In terms of advertising, this does make sense but in the Roman mind nudity and exposure to the public gaze were associated with slavery (Blanshard, 2010, 24). Evidence from wall paintings in the brothels of Pompeii and Herculaneum clearly show men and women naked while actively engaged in sex acts, but they also show some women, presumed to be prostitutes, wearing the Roman equivalent of a bra.

The only suggestion that yellow may have been the colour of Rome’s prostitutes stems from one element of the salacious tales woven about Emperor Claudius’ third wife, Valeria Messalina, who enters history with a reputation for being ruthless, predatory, and sexually insatiable. It should be noted that those recording the stories about her were writing some 70 years after the events in an environment hostile to the imperial line to which Messalina had belonged. Two authors were especially instrumental in promoting Messalina's notoriety, their gossiping being later incorporated into official versions of Roman history. One such story is Pliny the Elder’s account of her all-night sex competition with a prostitute that reputedly lasted ‘night and day’ with Messalina winning with a score of 25 partners (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 10, Chapter 83). More importantly a link to the colour yellow occurs in the poet Juvenal’s sixth satire. The poem contains the infamous description of how the Empress used to work clandestinely all night in a brothel under the name of the She-Wolf (Juvenal, The Satires, VI) [1]: 

‘She would go about with no more than a maid for escort. The Empress dared, at night, to wear the hood of a whore, and she preferred a mat to her bed in the Palatine Palace. Dressed in that way, with a blonde wig hiding her natural hair, she’d enter a brothel that stank of old soiled sheets, and make an empty cubicle, her own; then sell herself, her nipples gilded, naked, taking She-Wolf for a name…’

In his poem, Juvenal not only coined the phrase meretrix augusta (the imperial whore) which was frequently applied to Messalina thereafter, but he also mentions she disguised herself with a blonde wig. Is this then the source of the notion Roman prostitutes wore yellow? Possibly. While prostitution in ancient Rome was legal and licensed, contrary to Maddenholm, there is no reason to believe that Roman prostitutes were distinguished by wearing yellow or that they ‘were required by law to dye their hair blond or wear blond wigs to set themselves apart’ (Maddenholm, 2022, Haaretz Archaeology online). Indeed, Maddenholm’s statement, or a variation thereof, is frequently reproduced in online accounts of Roman prostitution but to date the author cannot identify any specific law requiring prostitute to dye their hair or wear a blonde wig. Where this notion originated is also unclear so for the time being it ought to be considered an urban myth.


Here is one example of how frustrating it can be to obtain a definitive answer. To a question on the US website Reddit ‘Why was the colour red associated with prostitution?’, an unidentified respondent, replying as ‘postmodernpenguin’, stated:

‘In several cultures, prostitutes were forced to wear different colours than most of the populace to distinguish themselves from the 'respectable' women. Various places used different colours; in ancient Athens saffron dyed cloth was used, in Rome prostitutes were required to wear wigs or dye their hair yellow, but the most prevalent colour used was red, probably owing to the story of 'Rahab the harlot' from the book of Joshua in the Bible, a story in which Rahab the harlot was forced to identify her house with a length of scarlet rope in her window.’

As seems normal with most of these forums, no sources or references are given for the claims made. In other words, apart from the easily checked bible reference, ‘postmodernpenguin’s’ answer is pretty much worthless as all the other statements cannot be independently verified or substantiated.

Sumptuary laws in Mediæval Europe

In Europe, from the ancient Greeks and Romans onward, nearly all societies have used sumptuary laws (Latin: sūmptuāriae lēgēs) to control and reinforce social hierarchies and morals by placing restrictions on clothing, food, and conspicuous spending. Sumptuary laws attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods to a town, region or country in favour of supporting the local economy. Such laws were intended to make it easy to identify social rank and privilege or prevent commoners imitating the appearance of aristocrats. Nevertheless, they also could be employed to discriminate against disfavoured groups. One obvious example is the infamous ‘Yellow Badge’, also known as yellow patch, Jewish badge or yellow star (German: Judenstern, lit. 'Jew's star'). Marking the wearer as a religious or ethnic outsider, Jews were ordered to wear it by some Muslim caliphates and European states during the Medieval and early modern periods, and by the fascist dictatorships of Italy and Nazi Germany in World War II.

For the present purpose, however, sumptuary laws introduced in the 13th century established special forms of dress for prostitutes and courtesans. At various times and places, prostitutes were not allowed to wear jewels, embroidery, or other finery, as was often the case for other women of low rank, like domestic servants. In Marseille, a striped cloak was to be worn, while in England a striped hood was the distinguishing garment. Prostitutes and courtesans were explicitly banned from wearing fur-lined hoods in England, or fur-lined clothing in 1360’s France.

Over time, these markers tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. As to colour, laws were passed in 13th century Zurich requiring prostitutes to wear red caps. The website ‘Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog’ rather usefully has collated various sources to produce a list of symbols required by different European cities and regions to distinguish prostitutes from ordinary citizens:

Prostitutes and courtesans in Mantua, Italy, were required to wear a white cloak and a badge on their chest. What the badge consisted of is unclear, but a record in London reveals that, in 1516 at least, a prostitute was punished by being forced to wear a yellow ‘H’ for harlot.

As can be seen, a yellow cloak, a yellow headband, yellow scarves and even a yellow ‘H’ are all mentioned. Interestingly, Danish teacher Sidsel Pederson notes in an article on her website ‘Postej & Stews’ that ‘we do see that yellow scarfs and trims have been a sign of prostitution in Italy, but in Northern Europe it was not the case’ (Pederson, 2019). It is quite apparent that the sumptuary laws across Europe were inconsistent. Just because yellow scarfs were worn by Italian prostitutes does not imply this was the case elsewhere. As far as Pederson can ascertain, at no point in the Mediæval or Renaissance periods did Danish law require prostitutes to don yellow garments or symbols. In fact, the late 15th century King Hans (1496) ‘wrote into law that Danish prostitutes had to wear a cap, half black, half red and only to wear cheap cloth. Uncovered hair was a sign of virginity and so prostitutes were not allowed to wear their hair uncovered’ (Pederson, 2019). As far as late Mediæval Denmark was concerned, prostitutes wore red/black caps and cheap clothing, although what that meant in practice is anyone’s guess.

The ‘Yellow’ Ticket

One country where the colour yellow was officially ascribed to prostitutes is Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘Yellow ticket’, ‘yellow passport’ or ‘yellow card’ are translations of an informal Russian term (жёлтый билет) for a personal identification document carried by prostitutes in the Russian Empire between 1843 and 1909. The document combined an identity card, a residence permit, a license to practice prostitution, and prostitute's medical check-up card. The document was officially referred to as a ‘medical card’ (медицинский билет) or a ‘replacement card’ (заменительный билет) as well as various other titles. Calling it a ‘replacement card’ reflects that upon registration, the prostitute left her original passport or residence permit (вид на жительство) in the local police office, it being replaced with the ‘yellow card’ as a personal identity document. Up until 1909, when the requirement was dropped, card holders were subject to periodic medical check-ups which were recorded on the card (Pravda, 2002).

It is traditionally thought that the term ‘yellow card’ is derived from the document’s colour (see right). Alternatively, the association between yellow and prostitution has been attributed to Tsar Pavel (‘Paul’) I. It is alleged that the Tsar’s passion for uniforms and decorations led him to compel prostitutes to wear special yellow dresses (Pravda, 2002). Whether they did or not is unclear, but it was enough for the yellow colour to become the symbol of the ‘world’s oldest profession’, at least in Russia [2].


Despite repeated assertions that yellow was the distinctive colour worn by prostitutes throughout European history, the evidence is inconclusive at best. Prostitutes in the Middle Ages may well have worn ‘yellow stockings’ or ‘yellow dresses’ or indeed ‘something yellow’, but so did many other people leaving the whole notion of being distinctive rather moot.  Yet, there is some evidence for the wearing of yellow garments or yellow symbols in certain cases as stipulated in sumptuary laws at different times and places. Yet, as we have seen many other colours are known to have been used to distinguish sex workers in Mediæval towns and regions. The evidence for a Roman law stipulating prostitutes had to dye their hair blonde or sport a blonde wig is lacking. Where commentators assert such a law exists, no source or reference is routinely given. Without corroboration, the critical thinker is left with the strong suspicion that this Roman ‘law’ is simply an urban myth.

Until next time, bon appétit!


Adams, J. N., (1983), ‘Words for "prostitute" in Latin’, University of Köln, Available online (accessed June 10th, 2023).

Balsdon, J.P.V.D., (1963), ‘Roman Women. Their History and Habits’, Bodley Head.

Blanshard, A.J.L., (2010), ‘Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity’, Wiley-Blackwell.

Edwards, C., (1997), ‘Unspeakable Professions Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome’, in Hallett, J.P. & Skinner, M.B. (eds.), ‘Roman Sexualities’, Princeton University Press.

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis), The Satires (Saturae), VI (114-135).

Maddenholm, T., (2022), ‘A Brief History of Prostitution in Ancient Greece and Rome’, Haaretz Archaeology, Available online (accessed June 10th, 2023).

Pedersen, S., (2019), ‘The yellow dress – a medieval sign of prostitution?’, Postej & Stews, Available online (accessed June 9th, 2023).

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), The Natural History (Naturalis Historia), Book 10, Chapter 83.

Pravda, (2002), ‘Three Centuries of Russian Prostitution’, Available online (accessed June 9th, 2023).

Radicke, J., (2022), ‘4 stola/vestis longa – a dress of Roman matrons’, in ‘Roman Women's Dress: Literary Sources, Terminology, and Historical Development’, (2023), Berlin: De Gruyter., (2016), ‘Prostitutes’ Symbols’, Available online (accessed June 9th, 2023).


1. The Latin word for wolf is lupus and its derivative lupa also means harlot, prostitute, whore, and she-wolf (Lupus femina), a connection Juvenal clearly intended his readers to make. Similarly, a brothel was known as a lupanar. All of which makes the founding story of Rome rather more interesting. Were the brothers Romulus and Remus raised by a wolf or a prostitute?

2. The epithet ‘world’s oldest profession’ is sometimes equally applied to espionage and spying, yet it is probably more accurate to say the ‘oldest professions’ were hunters, farmers, and shepherds.

Friday, November 03, 2023

A Brief History of Food: Chicken à la Marengo

Chicken à la Marengo is a French dish, similar to chicken à la Provençale, that consists of a chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, and garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. Over the last two hundred years the ingredients have varied considerably. Many modern recipes add olives but omit the eggs and crayfish (or prawns).


According to a popular myth, the dish was first made after the army of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo, located south of Alessandria in Italy, in June 1800. The story goes that because the supply wagons were too distant, Napoleon’s resourceful chef, Dunant, foraged in the town for ingredients and created the dish from whatever he could gather. Napoleon is said to have enjoyed the dish so much that he had it served to him after every battle. It is also said that later, when he was better supplied, Dunant substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe, but Napoleon refused to eat it believing that a change would bring him bad luck. 


One critic of the Dunant version, the late food writer Alan Davidson, argued that the first published recipe for the dish omits tomatoes, but also that there would have been no access to them at the time.  Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. Tomatoes are indeed not native to Europe as they originated in the South American Andes. As a food source, they first used in Mexico before being spread throughout the world after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s, with one of the earliest cultivators being John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard's Herbal published in 1597, which largely plagiarised continental sources, is one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. He knew the fruit was eaten in Spain and Italy, but he nonetheless believed it was poisonous. The plant and raw fruit do have low levels of tomatine but are not generally dangerous. Gerard's views were influential such that the tomato was considered unfit for eating, but perhaps not necessarily thought poisonous, for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the mid-18th century, however, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated the tomato was ‘in daily use’ in soups, broths, and as a garnish. They were not part of the average person's diet although by 1820 tomatoes were described as ‘…seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets’ and to be ‘used by all our best cooks’. Reference was made to their cultivation in gardens albeit ‘for the singularity of their appearance’, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian or Jewish cuisine. In Elizabeth Blackwell's ‘A Curious Herbal’ the tomato is named ‘Love Apple’ (Amoris Pomum) and described as being consumed with oil and vinegar in Italy. So, tomatoes were eaten in Italy at time of the Battle of Marengo. Whether they were available in the area for Dunant to forage is difficult to prove.

In his book ‘Napoleon's Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish’ author Andrew Uffindell examines in detail the military history of the campaign, the Battle of Marengo and the men involved. He also explores Napoleon’s eating habits and preferences and significantly the food stuffs available in the area at the time. The classic ingredients of the dish were not available around Marengo. Moreover, Dunant was not even in Napoleon’s service at the time of the battle. He was in Russia in June 1800 and did not become Napoleon’s chef until 1801 so he simply could not have created the dish after Marengo. Uffindell therefore concludes that the association of the dish with Napoleon after the battle is a myth which probably began with spin perpetrated by the Emperor himself. In the years following the Battle of Marengo Napoleon rewrote the history of the campaign to place himself and his military abilities in a more favourable light.

The recipe…

It is said that Napoleon particularly enjoyed chicken ala Provençale, often eating the dish for breakfast. It is just possible that chicken ala Provençale was the inspiration for the Chicken à la Marengo recipe that Dunant first recorded in 1809. Since then, however, the recipe’s ingredients of have varied considerably. Chefs have re-interpreted the recipe according to personal preference substituting rabbit and veal for the chicken and adding such things as mushrooms, truffles, black olives, white wine, different herbs and spices, and so on. Even the crayfish and fried eggs, once part of the original recipe, have been left out or substituted over the last two hundred years. The following recipe is an attempt to recreate the original, albeit for a modern audience:

Despite the story’s inconsistencies or whether the recipe’s origin stems from a myth, Chicken à la Marengo is worth a try. We hope you are inspired to do so. Bon appétit!


Uffindell, A., (2011), ‘Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish’, Frontline Books.

Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo’,, Available online (accessed October 31st, 2023).

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Food History: What did ancient Egyptians eat?

The longevity of ancient Egyptian society, some 3,500 years, was largely because they had the good fortune to live in a sunny land, well-watered by the river Nile, which was just right for growing a wide variety of vegetables and cereal crops. Throughout human history, however, your wealth dictated the access to and variety of foods available. Poor Egyptians relied on a diet of bread, beans, onions and green vegetables to stave off hunger.

Where do we get our evidence?

Food features prominently in Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs of all periods. Old Kingdom (2613 to 2181 BC) tomb owners are shown overseeing the work of their servants preparing and delivering all manner of foodstuffs. Many tomb paintings showing the production and preparation of food were intended to ensure a plentiful supply for the deceased in the afterlife. Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1782 BC) tomb models reproduce the activities of the bakery, brewery and butcher’s yard. New Kingdom (1570 to 1070 BC) monarchs are portrayed offering to the gods plates of bread, meat and vegetables. Indeed, the simplest offerings on many funeral stelae were bread and beer, the staples of the Egyptian diet whatever a person’s status. But other commodities can also be identified such as meat, fowl, fruit, vegetables, oils and unguents. Food remains from tombs are of great interest, many specimens having survived in a recognisable form. Beer and wine stored in semi-porous jars evaporate quickly and their residues are not easily analysed. Fats, oils and dairy products degenerate to an unappetising collection of basic organic chemicals, but where their residues have soaked into porous storage jars then these can be analysed and identified.

Evidence from non-funerary contexts as to the methods of preparing and cooking food is sparse. There are few settlement sites available for archaeological investigation since most major sites are still occupied, especially in the Nile Delta, which was the agricultural heartland of ancient Egypt. Moreover, those domestic sites that have been investigated are atypical being the villages of the pyramid builders, at Kahun for example, or the royal tomb builders at Deir el-Medina. Such locations were separate from other settlements and had a different social structure.

Changes in climate and ecology within the last 4,000 years must be considered. Plants that once grew wild in Egypt are no longer found there. Likewise, animals and birds which thrived in the Nile Valley have not done so for centuries. Whereas crops now associated with Egypt, such as cotton, sugar cane and potatoes, are modern introductions.


When the grain harvest was abundant, government officials ensured wheat and barley was stored  in granaries that belonged to the pharaoh. Such measures ensured grain could be shared out to everybody in years when the crop was poor. Grain was a staple food and so important in the diet that it constituted a major item in the food rations paid as wages to royal workmen.

Small loaves of barley bread were included in the funerary banquet found in the Second Dynasty tomb 3477 at Saqqara. The gourmet meal, known as the ‘Saqqara Banquet’ (pictured below), was prepared for a noblewomen and had been set out beside the burial pit within her mastaba, a mud-brick tomb.

Ancient Egyptian bread-making was a simple affair that began with crushing grain to flour between a hand stone that was pushed and pulled across a saddle quern. This style of grinding had its roots in the Neolithic period and continued in use through the Bronze Age until the more efficient rotary quern appeared. The latter was probably invented somewhere in the western Mediterranean during the 5th century BC from where it proliferated widely thanks largely to ancient Greek and Roman armies and merchants.

The flour was mixed with water and a little salt to form a dough that was then shaped into loaves. The basic flat loaf resembled pitta bread. Unleavened dough could be shaped by hand and cooked directly on a flat stone placed over a fire, on the baking floor inside a clay oven - think pizza oven - or even by being slapped on to the pottery wall of the oven itself. Some loaves were simply cooked in the ashes of the fire or in ceramic pots stacked over a fire (cf. the Roman testum). Leavening was most probably effected by washing the mixing bowl with water to remove the dough sticking to it from the previous batch. More flour is added and mixed to a paste which is left overnight to sour. The sour dough starter then forms the basis of the next day’s bread mix. Bread, or ta, has been leavened in this way in Egypt for thousands of years.

Loaves were shaped in ovals, triangles and indented squares, all of which appear among offerings. Some are shown with slashes across the crust enabling the bread to rise. Some loaves were modelled in the form of animals, human figures or fancy shapes popular for special occasions such as religious festivals (cf. Horus’ victory over Seth). Honey might be added to the mixture to make a sweeter tasting bread, and some flavoured with nuts and spices. A fruit loaf in the Cairo Agricultural Museum was made by layering mashed dates between two discs of dough.


Another staple of ancient Egyptian diets was beer, which was produced and consumed in large volumes. The discovery of beer was a by-product of the Agricultural Revolution [1] (c. 10,000 BC) when humans began to gather and domesticate wild grains. Ancient Egyptian beer was treated as a type of food being consumed daily, and in great quantities at religious festivals and celebrations. The calories provided by beer were essential for labourers, especially the pyramid builders, who were provided with a daily ration of 1⅓ gallons (over 10 pints).

Wooden models excavated from tombs provide clues as to how ancient Egyptians strained their brewing mash through a cloth into ceramic vessels. In brewing, a mash is the combination of grain and water that is heated to convert the starches in the grain into sugars that can be fermented by yeast to produce beer. It is thought ancient Egyptian brewers used a two-stage mash. A cold mash was made using water at the ambient temperature mixed with a malted, ground grain or crumbled leavened loaves, which were partly baked so as not to destroy the enzymes that promoted fermentation. Either way the mash would have contained all the active enzymes needed to convert starch to sugar. The second mash, which was probably processed at the same time, mixed unmalted, ground grain with hot water and would be further heated. There is evidence of heat exposure on ceramic brewing vessels found in Egypt but while heating the mash allows the starches present to unravel, it has the unintended consequence of killing the enzymes. By preparing the hot and cold mashes separately and then combining them means the accessible starches and the enzymes required to convert them are both present.

Once mixed, the mash was left to cool, at which point the enzymes start to convert the starches in the grains to fermentable sugars. When cool, the mash would need to be sieved of any residual grain directly into a ceramic fermenting vessel. This ceramic vessel is key to the ancient Egyptian fermenting process as its porous interior provided the ideal surface for a wild yeast culture to grow. With the vessel covered, the mix was left to ferment.

The resulting beer would have been drunk while still actively fermenting from the ceramic vessel itself. It was unlikely that the beer was decanted from these large vessels, but we know drinking straws were used. The straws were probably to prevent sediment being consumed by the drinker and a matter of hygiene since many people would have drunk from the same vessel. Egyptian straws would have been made from clay, with holes or a filter at the end to sieve out some of the sediment.

The ancient Egyptian beer brewing method is far simpler than modern methods, but Egyptian beer ferments faster and is materially more efficient. They worked without thermometers and starch tests, without the microbiology of yeast and enzyme conversion, yet created refreshing beer that could have been made continuously in huge volumes.


Though beer was by far the most popular drink wine was made too. Vineyards have been identified in the Nile Delta area and grape vines were grown on trellises in domestic gardens. After harvesting ‘treaders’, supporting their weight by hanging onto ropes specifically for that purpose, used their bare feet to crush the grapes in a large trough. The grape juice. or ‘must’, was collected and poured into ceramic jars to begin the first fermentation. The must may have been left to ferment anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. At the end of the fermentation process, the jars were sealed and the wine left to mature. There is some evidence that amphorae were coated inside with a resinous compound to prevent the wine being lost through porous pottery.

  • The unique flavour of Retsina, a resinated Greek white (or rosé) wine, is said to have originated from the practice of sealing wine vessels, particularly amphorae, with Aleppo pine resin in ancient times. One wonders whether Ancient Egyptian wine may have had a similar flavour.

Many finds of grapes or sun-dried raisins, often indistinguishable, have been made in tombs of all ages, and bunches of blue-black grapes and baskets of similar coloured fruit are common in offering scenes. Dessert grapes were included c. 1325 BC in an attractive bottle-shaped basket in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Cereals, fruit ‘n’ veg

The major part of Egypt’s arable land was given over to cereals and flax, and these are the crops usually featured in agricultural scenes. As today, small plots of domestic crops would have been cultivated between larger fields. Irrigation systems gave the land a chequerboard appearance, each ‘field’ divided into squares by low ridges of earth enabling small areas to be watered individually. The water was lifted from irrigation ditches by hand or by a shaduf, a counterweight beam with a bucket which is still used today.

The river we know as the Nile was called ‘Ar’ by the ancient Egyptians. It means ‘Black River’ because fertile silt carried by the water was deposited on the land when the river flooded each year. Nile comes from the ancient Greek word Neilos, the god of the river. Most Egyptians, therefore, lived along the banks of the Nile next to the fertile farmland created by this rich, silty mud where they could grow lots of food crops. The ancient Egyptians called their land ‘Khemet’, which means ‘Black Land’.

The Egyptian workman’s packed lunch consisted of bread, beer and onions. The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us that quantities of onions and radishes were given as wages to the builders of Pharoah Khufu’s pyramid. Bunches of onions with green stems and round white bulbs are shown draped over offering tables. The small ancient onions were probably sweeter and less eye-watering than their modern equivalent. Garlic was grown from the earliest times. Once again the ancient kind were smaller than the modern cultivated species and were probably milder in flavour.

Lettuces, although included among food offerings, are not immediately recognisable. The shape is elongated like a Cos lettuce. In medical papyri, lettuce is recommended as a cure for impotence and is traditionally held to have aphrodisiac properties.

Cucumbers were small, blunt-ended with fewer seeds than the European variety. Cucumbers with curled over stalks often fill the gaps between other food offerings. Small cucumbers would have been pickled to provide a year-round supply of vegetables.

Despite Herodotus’ claim that the Egyptians hated beans, from very ancient times beans (e.g. black-eyed and yellow), peas and lentils were included in tombs. The latter were being cultivated before 3150 BC. The most easily recognised is the chickpea which could be served as a vegetable or ground into flour used to enrich bread dough. The most popular modern chickpea recipe is hummus, made simply with mashed chickpeas and sesame oil. It is not inconceivable that a form of hummus was part of the Egyptian diet. As for beans, a pale variety of the common broad bean (Vicia faba) has been identified. Pharaonic cooks almost certainly invented ta’amia or felafel, fried rissoles made from mashed beans, onion, garlic and spices.

Besides vegetables grown in garden and field plots, plants were harvested from the wild. The multi-purpose papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) is mentioned by Herodotus as being pulled up, the stalks cut in two and the lower half eaten after being baked in a closed pan. The young shoots of papyrus could also have been eaten like bamboo shoots.

The most popular of ancient Egyptian flowers, the lotus, was a source of food. There are two sorts of lotus or waterlily mentioned by Herodotus:

  • The white lotus (Nymphaea lotus; seshen in Egyptian) known from the Old Kingdom and used for festival garlands, bouquets and offerings. The black-skinned lily root, ‘the size of an apple’ according to Herodotus, was peeled and the inner white part eaten either raw, baked or boiled.
  • The pink lotus (Nelumbium speciosum) produces a seed head containing up to 36 seeds each the size of an olive stone.

The dish of stewed fruit in the Second Dynasty Saqqara Banquet described as ‘possibly figs’ is most likely to be the Wild or Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycomorus). The fruit are smaller, yellower and have more astringent taste than ordinary figs but were a very popular dessert fruit from very early times. The True Fig (Ficus carica) seems to have been introduced into Egypt before the Old Kingdom, i.e. before 2613 BC. The trees were smaller and more bush-like than sycamore figs and probably confined to the gardens of the wealthy. The fig harvest was considered important enough to be portrayed in tombs, where gardeners are shown competing for the fruit with monkeys. Besides being grown for eating, figs were used to make a wine and a liqueur said to have a fiery aftertaste.

A tree of equal importance with the fig was the date palm. Coloured representations of palms laden with fruit show that the predominate species in ancient times bore yellow or brown dates. Finds of date stones have been made at numerous sites from the Predynastic era onwards. Apart from being eaten fresh or dried, dates were made into purée or jam to accompany festival bread and are thought to have been used to enrich and flavour beer.

Other significant fruits include:

  • The pomegranate, probably introduced via Palestine during the 2nd Intermediate Period (c. 1782-1570 BC).
  • The oval yellow berry of the Persea tree (Mimusops laurifolia).
  • The Mandrake fruit are often shown on trays of offerings. The slightly poisonous flesh of the mandrake fruit has a sickly, insipid taste and the stone has high concentrations of toxins with narcotic effects. It is often shown being held to the noses of diners and, as its hallucinatory properties were recognised and it was thought to be an aphrodisiac, the sniffing of the fruit may be the ancient Egyptian equivalent of smoking ‘pot’.

In summary, vegetables of all sorts formed a large and important part of the Egyptian diet and, together with bread, formed the basis of most meals. It is likely that most Egyptian peasants existed on a purely vegetarian diet, only dreaming of meat and relishing the occasional luxury of fish or wildfowl.

Meat, fish and fowl

Beef was the preferred meat for ancient Egyptians but only if they could afford it - throughout most of human history, meat remained the preserve of wealthier people. Beef was expensive because cattle needed fields of grass to eat and that took precious land away from crop production. Most scenes of butchery deal with the preparation of cattle carcases, always oxen. Nothing would have been wasted; the animal’s blood would have been saved to make a blood sausage (black pudding). The carcass was jointed with haunches, racks of ribs, steaks and ox heads all depicted in scenes. Pieces of meat are shown hung up on lines or racks. Some may have been allowed to air cure in the sun to create a sort of biltong.

Other meat sources such as goat and mutton were considered not quite so good, while pork was said by some ancient commentators (Herodotus and Galen) to be unclean and forbidden to Egyptians. Herodotus details the festivities held in memory of Horus’ victory over Seth, to whom the pig was sacred. It was, he said, the only time of the year when people ate pork and those families who could not afford a pig would eat loaves made in the shape of the animal. However, at the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun and the 18th Dynasty workmen’s village at Amarna, large quantities of pig bones have been found indicating that pork played a significant role in the diet of the working-class Egyptian. Fish were also said to be taboo, but this was most likely only applicable to the priesthood.

Egyptians ate a lot of fish, conveniently sourced from the Nile, although oddly the profession of fisherman was apparently despised by all classes even when the fish themselves were considered a lucky charm. Catches were cleaned, gutted and slabbed, that is split open down the backbone and flattened, either on the fishing boat or shortly after being landed on the riverbank. The prepared fish were allowed to hang in the sun from wooden frames or the boat’s rigging to dry. Fish were also salted or pickled in oil to preserve them.

Poultry or wild birds were widely eaten because they were the cheapest meats to buy. A multitude of bird species inhabited the reedbeds along the Nile. Birds such as pigeons, storks, crane, egrets, teal, geese and ducks were all eaten. Such commodities could be bought at market or hunted. Depictions of Egyptians hunting wildfowl (predominantly ducks and geese) in the papyrus reed beds lining the Nile clearly show them using throwing sticks. Ducks and geese were kept in poultry pens and yards where they were fed on grain. The Egyptians had to rely on these birds for eggs as domestic fowl had yet to be introduced in any numbers until Roman times.


Most villagers would have had access to a supply of goat’s or sheep’s milk. Fresh milk would not keep for long in Egypt’s heat so milk may have been cultured into a product like yoghurt. As with most areas, a simple cheese called labna is made in modern Egypt by straining salted yoghurt to a creamy consistency. A firmer cheese, gebna, is made from pressed, salted curds and may be kept for two or three days to dry and harden. Both labna and gebna could have been produced by the ancient Egyptians. Two jars from the First Dynasty tomb of Hor-aha yielded fatty residues which have been identified as the remains of cheese.


The most basic of diets may be enlivened and varied by the careful use of condiments. Certain of these, such as salt, oil and vinegar, are also essential to some common methods of food preservation.

  • It is not known for certain whether the Egyptians used vinegar as its remains would be indistinguishable from the residues of beer and wine. However, given the prevalence of beer and wines and their tendency to go sour in hot climates, it seems inconceivable that the Egyptians did not discover the use of vinegar in flavouring and preserving food.
  • Salt was probably the oldest and most useful condiment available to all classes, but the methods by which the Egyptians extracted a pure form for the table are unknown. It is assumed that sources included naturally occurring salt deposits, particularly from the Western Desert and the oases, or from salt pans on the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. Salt was used for curing and preserving fish and meat.
  • The oldest royal food list, from the Sixth Dynasty pyramid of Unas, includes five kinds of oil. Oil was an important food item as shown by its inclusion in the daily rations issued to royal servants like the King’s Messenger and Standard Bearer from the reign of Seti I. He received, as his wages: ‘…good bread, ox flesh, wine, sweet oil, olive oil (possibly), fat, honey, figs, fish and vegetables every day.’
  • The sweet product valued above all others was honey. The bee was the symbol of Lower Egypt where the extensive pasturelands and beds of flowering reeds provided an ideal environment for apiculture. Honey was stored in different shaped jars, possible an indication of the quality, and the lids sealed with wax. Whole honeycombs are sometimes shown among food offerings. Poorer Egyptians used fruit, particularly figs and dates, as sweeteners. Sauces could be sweetened with fruit purée or a concentrated fruit juice like pomegranate syrup which is still widely used in Middle Eastern cookery.
  • Herbs grown in garden plots or gathered from the wild include flat-leaf parsley and coriander both of which were used to flavour meat. Rosemary grows naturally in Egypt and is assumed to have been available in ancient times. Leaves of mint and sage have been found from later periods but other herbs, like dill, chervil and fennel, may be represented among the list of unattributed plant names. Cumin seeds were included in the burial of the architect Kha. Whole seeds were sprinkled on bread dough before baking and the ground spice was probably used to flavour meat. Fenugreek, with its distinctive curry smell, has been found South of Cairo and dated to 3,000 BC. Black seed mustard has been recovered from New Kingdom tombs and as poppies were cultivated for their flowers and for medicinal uses, they would have been available to cooks.


No Egyptian culinary recipe books are known, although papyri listing medicinal concoctions suggest ways in which foodstuffs could have been prepared. Cooking was often done outdoors as there was not much chance of rain but could also be performed in a kitchen area, often at the back of the house, beneath a lightweight thatch of reeds and sticks that allowed smoke and smells to escape. Within this space would be a mudbrick or clay oven and a mortar set into the floor for pounding or grinding grain. Poorer Egyptians whose home comprised a single room cooked over a fire set in a hole in the floor. Not only would wealthier people have servants to cook for them but said servants might also use charcoal braziers to spit roast and grill meat, or to braise lesser cuts of meat or stew the same in pots.

To light a fire, the hand drill was the most widespread tool. It uses a thin, straightened wooden shaft or reed that is spun by the hands in a notch cut into the softer wood of a ‘hearth-board’ (or hearth). The repeated spinning and downward pressure heats the wood fibres causing black dust to form in the notch of the hearthboard which, in turn, eventually produces a hot, glowing coal. By carefully placing the coal amongst dense, fine tinder and blowing directly onto it will cause the tinder to smoulder and eventually flame. The ancient Egyptians also used the bow drill, which uses the same principle as the hand drill, i.e. generating frictional heat by the rotation of wood on wood. It typically consists of a bearing block or handhold, a drill or spindle, a hearth-board, and a simple bow. The drill or spindle, which is about the diameter of an adult finger, is carved to reduce friction at one end and maximize it at the other. One end is located in a hole in the bottom of the bearing block or handhold, while the other is set in a carved notch the hearth-board. The string of the bow is wrapped once around the drill just tight enough that it does not slip during operation. The drill is driven by a bow, which allows longer, easier strokes and protects the palms. Additional downward pressure is generated by the handhold to increase friction.

The preparation of meat for the table and the cooking techniques employed were much the same for whatever animal, sheep, pig or ox, was to be eaten. There is no evidence for elaborate sauces or of plated meals consisting of meat and two vegetables. Meats were served with various types of bread, which would have been true for the fish and fowl eaten by the peasant or the good roast beef on the nobleman’s table.


At large meals the hosts and important guests who were sat on low chairs. Children and others used cushions or mats. Servants brought in the courses one by one placing them on small tables beside the diners. Dishes might include roast meat perhaps seasoned with garlic, salads, cucumber, lots of bread and sticky cakes, and plates of melon and figs. People ate with their fingers, which were rinsed in water between courses.

And finally…

This piece was inspired by a presentation we gave to a local branch of the Women’s Institute. In researching the topic we learnt a great deal about the ancient Egyptian diet: the importance of bread and beer, the variety of foodstuffs that were cultivated, farming and animal husbandry, and so on. Hopefully it has been of some interest. Until next time, bon appétit!


Marks, T., (2018), ‘A sip of history: ancient Egyptian beer’, The British Museum, available online (accessed July 10th, 2023).


1. The Agricultural Revolution was the wide-scale transition of many human cultures during the Neolithic period from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, making an increasingly large population possible. These settled communities permitted humans to observe and experiment with plants, learning how they grew and developed. This new knowledge led to the domestication of plants into crops.