Winter Solstice Feast at the Boyne, 2200 BCE

"If you’re reading this post before lunch, be prepared to work up an appetite–or at least a very strong craving for salmon! Today J.S. Dunn is here to talk about what a winter solstice feast would have been like in ancient Ireland. I’m fascinated by this for several reasons, but not the least of which is that I’d been led to believe that the ancient Romans and Greeks didn’t use butter, using olive oil instead. If the ancient Irish were using butter, I wonder what accounts for this difference in ancient culture? Read on for a delicious recipe on a Juniper Reduction!" ~ Stephanie Dray

Food is important in Bending The Boyne for a number of reasons. Ireland separated from the Continent earlier than Big East (the UK’s isle) hence it has relatively fewer flora and fauna species for its food chain. Add to that Eire’s capricious weather, and even as of the 1840s the climate + food supply was a recipe for disaster: Famine with a capital F.

What did the ancient Irish eat at 4,200 years ago? And, what about the peoples in what is now Portugal/Spain, the Costa Verde, and up the Bay of Biscay to the Loire/Morbihan coast? At first, researching prehistoric foods for this tale looked daunting.

The Dindshenchas, the medieval text that provided myth fragments for Bending The Boyne, has clues to the early diet: the sacred salmon of knowledge, the hazelnut which also imparts wisdom, cereal grains for porridge, and various berries. The ancients used milk and butter from their herd animals. To this day, well-made oak casks holding Bronze Age butter turn up at digs in the bogs.

Domestic meats of sheep and cattle, and cuts of wild deer and boar, show in the bone counts from archaeological digs. Fish were trapped in wattle river weirs long before 2200 BCE, and shellfish consumed in coastal regions per remains in ancient shell middens.

An ancient prohibition on killing swans, a geis, provided material for the plot. There is evidence that swans were indeed eaten for food, and swans winter at the river Boyne in great numbers. The prohibition re: swans was perhaps politically motivated—this novel shows a plausible reason for that geis.

The ancients’ knowledge of edible seeds, roots, and herbs would far exceed our own based on paleobotany surveys at excavations. They collected and dried the wild apple in the Isles, and berries.

In warmer latitudes like ancient Spain the Bronze Age people began to cultivate the olive and other fruiting shrubs. There is evidence they knew which acorns to collect, and ground those into flour. Spain’s meltingly tender acorn-fed ham shows up in this novel, for that may have begun in antiquity given their early use of abundant acorns.

Ultimately many passages about food became a joy to write to show the richness of the environment for those who well knew how to utilize it. For these ancients, a feast probably was literally a sacrament of life. The reborn winter solstice sun showed the ancients that spring’s bounty would return.

Boyne Solstice Feast

Smoked salmon, smoked haddock
Dried apples stewed with fresh or dried swan
Wild boar, venison, joint of beef ; boiled or roasted
Meal cakes of finely ground hazelnuts, seeds, and grains, sweetened with honey
Soft white cheese, sweet butter
Mead* and herbal infusions

* “Mead distilled sparkling, its praise is everywhere.”

From Welsh myth, Song to Mead

Juniper reduction sauce for modern roast wild game:

Here is a simple (and relatively low-fat) reduction sauce if you happen to be serving wild boar or venison for winter solstice or a more modern holiday. Juniper berries impart a flavor like rosemary with a citrus hint. The berries should be dried and crushed before use. Note, buy in a shop—don’t try to harvest your own; some juniper varieties are toxic.

Roast or sauté the meat, keep warm. Deglaze the pan with around ½ cup of red wine (or Calvados, or Guinness, or whatever!), and simmer that mixture in a heavy saucepan until the essence reduces by half in volume. The sauce should coat a spoon. Add one chopped shallot ( or wild garlic shoots if you have those at hand ) and 8 fluid ounces of beef consommé ( not bouillon) and reduce again. If desired, butter (3 tbsp) can be added for a smoother, shiny sauce or to correct overcooking! Add the crushed juniper berries when almost ready to serve the sauce. 4-6 portions.

About The Author:

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. From there, the author researched and traveled the Atlantic coasts of Wales, Brittany, and Spain, while completing Bending The Boyne.

Bending The Boyne reflects the new paradigm that Gaelic culture and Gaelic language arose in the early Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age. See also the works of William O’Brien, PhD, and Barry Cunliffe, PhD, archaeologists; and John Koch, linguist; eg, Celtic From The West (2010, Oxford Press).


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