When we visit the shopstoday, we are presented with a wealth of fruit and vegetables from all corners of the planet from which to choose. For people in this country in the tenth and eleventh century this could not happen. They had only such foods as could be cultivated seasonally or found wild. Exotic foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, pineapples - fruits and vegetables of the New World, were unknown here. Mediterranean fruits, such as lemons and oranges were, as far as we know, not imported, although we have documentary proof for the importation of such things as figs and grapes (Viking Age England, Julian Richards, p94).
We know that they grew wheat, rye, oats and barley. Wheat for bread, barley for brewing and oats for animal fodder and porridge. Along with these crops grew various weeds of cultivation - some of them poisonous. The harvesting methods made it difficult to separate the cereal from the weed, and many illnesses must have been caused in this way.
It is known that they had carrots, but these were not the large, orange coloured vegetables that we are used to today. They were much closer to their wild ancestors - purplish red and small. 'Welsh carrots'; or parsnips were also availablae (S Pollington - 'Leechdom'). Cabbages were also of a wild variety, with smaller tougher leaves. They cultivated legumes such as peas and beans. Various 'wild'; roots were probably collected, such as burdock and rape. Onions and leeks were cultivated as flavourings and wild garlic may have been used.
One way in which the people made up for the poor quality of these vegetables would have been to flavour them with native and imported herbs and spices. In Aelfric's Colloquy, the merchant speaks of importing spices, and in the Leechbooks, some imported spices are mentioned. Among them may have been ginger, cinnamon, cloves mace and pepper. We have no way of knowing how these spices were used , as the earliest recipe book only dates from the 14th century. Home grown herbs would have included coriander, dill, thyme, opium poppy and summer savoury. (Eighth-Eleventh Century Economy and Environment in York in J Rackham Environment and Economy in A/S England. CBA Res Rep 89.)
Many fruits were eaten and seeds from excavations tell us that they also had small apples (crab apples) plums, cherries and sloes. A large deposit of apple pips, from a pit in Gloucester probably points to the making of cider. These would have been sweetened with honey. Sugar was virtually unknown in the West of Europe, and at this period was used only as a medicine, as a laxative and for bladder disorders, for the kidneys and for eye disorders. (Dangerous Tastes, the Story of Spices. Andrew Dalby). It does not. however, appear in any Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks.
Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead, which was usually flavoured with some form of herb such as meadowsweet (O.E. meduwyrt - meaning mead plant). However, even today it is still not clear whether the mead they knew was no more than honey beer that we may encounter occasionally today. The confusion here lies with the fact that they refer to 'frothing horns of mead', and mead as we make it does not have a head to it. Barley was used to make beer which may have been flavoured with wild hops. Whether these were wild or cultivated is not known, but the Graveney boat, a 10th Century clinker built inshore trading boat may have been carrying a cargo which included hops up the Thames Estuary. (The GraveneyBoat: a tenth century find from Kent. V Fenwick ed Brit Archaeol Re Brit Ser 53 Oxford 1978).
Wine was drunk, but this was generally imported although fruit wines may have been home-produced. There are also written references to 'apple-wine', probably a form of cider. Many fruit juices including apple, pear and plum were drunk as were herbal 'teas' and infusions. Whilst acorns are plentiful most years, they can only be eaten with sufficient preparation. There is no mention in the Anglo-Saxon record of them ever being used as a food stuff - with the closest instances of Oak 'products' being the leaves as a remedy in the Ormont fragment and the bark as an astringent in Bald's Leechbook. There may have been many instances where a needs must approach may have occurred which was not normal practice when food was in short supply. Evidence of such practices has been observed at sites where grain was used for bread production, but the bulk inclusion of random grass seeds suggests that the flour was being padded out - either to make it stretch further because there was actually little wheat, or simply because someone was being ripped off.
Spirits and fortified wines were not known although the apple wine may have had quite a high alcohol content.