Food in Leicester

A short history of food

in Leicester

by Trevor Locke

In this series of article, published in 2016, we look at food and how its production, cooking and consumption has defined Leicester from the earliest times to the present day.

Food is important. Understanding how people cook and eat is important for historians. In order to appreciate the history and heritage of a community you must look at how they grow, prepare and consume their food.

The beginnings of farming in Leicester

I would argue that Leicester became the city that it is now because of food. Leicester was not put where it is randomly; Leicester is where it is because of two important factors: first it is positioned with good road links to outlying areas and  secondly, it lies on the banks of a river which would have been a source of food and which is surrounded by fertile land. The bronze age settlement that was founded where the city of Leicester now stands was not then called Leicester; that name was introduced much later, in Roman times, but for convenience I refer to Leicester as the place considered in this article.

You could say the same  about most cities anywhere in the world but it is a concept that is often neglected in the writings of those who have looked at the birth and origins of Leicester.

Rivers have been, of course, prime resources for early people: they provided water, a means of transport and a source of fish. The River Soar existed in pre-historic times, when people first settled around here. When people first made settlements and ceased to be nomadic hunter-gatherers they frequently chose  places on the banks of  rivers and built homes there. They fished, gathered wood and domesticated animals. Access to water for farming and transport was a vital element in choosing where to place settlements.

Rivers often provide fertility to the land; framers chose locations close to rivers where they could find the best soils and a supply of fresh water for their crops. In times before roads were built, rivers provided the best available means of transporting goods for trade both the other local settlements and to the sea where ships could take produce to other countries.

The introduction of farming was the biggest change to the lifestyle of common people and represented a fundamental change in the way of life of early people. In order to grow crops and keep animals, people had to change from being nomadic hunter-gathers to living in settlements. In took about two thousand years for farming to spread right across the British Isles. Instead of hunting wild animals, such as cattle and goats, people kept them in enclosures and domesticated them. Wild boar, living in the forests, were also domesticated and bred to become pigs that could be kept in enclosures, fed and slaughtered for their meat.

It was during the bronze age that people built domestic houses and began to live in settlements. This was a widespread trend on the continent of Europe and in the British Isles.

Farming in the Iron age.

The Iron age lasted from about 750 BC to the period of the Romans, starting in 43 AD. During this period food production was organised into many small farmsteads. Life in what we now call England revolved around farming and agriculture. These small communities were able to produce enough for their own subsistence and some for trade and exchange in good years.

Crops such as barley, rye, oats and emmer wheat (a variety that was common in the ancient world) would have been grown. Sheep and cattle were kept as well as pigs that had been domesticated from wild boar. Cattle were used to pull ploughs and provided manure and hide. Horses were also kept and used to pull wagons and carts and domesticated dogs were used to help herd animals. Cows would also provide milk at the time of calving. Cattle were not eaten until they had served their life as working farm animals.

Iron age houses often hard garden plots in which vegetables were grown. These dwelling houses were largely round in shape and has conical roofs made of thatch. Inside the round house a fire would have burnt continuously provided heat for cooking and warmth for the occupants. Sometimes food was cooked in a cauldron suspended over the fire. Pots were made from clay or sometimes traded if people visited from communities where pot making was a specialist craft.

Bread was made from wheat and barley and baked in an oven. Barley would have been made into a kind of porridge. It could also be fermented to make beer. In addition to vegetables grown in the round house garden, people would have gathered wild berries, nuts and roots. In communities near to the sea or fresh water lakes or rivers, fish would be caught to add to the diet. Occasionally wild birds might have been caught for food. People at this time would have obtained honey from the nests of bees and they also used the wax for a variety of purposes. Beeswax was used in bronze casting. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Iron Age countryside was well stocked with animals, the rivers provided a plentiful supply of fish and, if the weather was good, the farmsteads and gardens produced more than enough for the local community. This abundance of food allowed people to build houses and other structures, such as barrows and hill forts. Being well fed allowed the development of rituals and ceremonies. Having a sufficient and reliable source of food allowed people to engage in religious activities and hone their hunting or building skills. Some individuals became specialists in the working of wood or metal and could do this only if there was enough surplus food to sustain them. Evidence that people of this time were making clothes, engaging in leisure pursuits, constructing structures such as henges and barrows and becoming specialist craftsmen, indicates that food production was able to support these activities.

Excavations have shown that people made looms on which to weave cloth. Thread was made from wool, which was used to make garments as well as animal hides and pelts. According to the Romans, Britons were fairly well dressed. They were able to dye their woven garments, giving them bright colours. They also had brooches, pins and other accessories and these would have been buried with them when they died. People would have also spent much of the day grinding grains with quern stones. Animals had to be fed, herded or protected if they were away from the settlements. Some evidence of gaming pieces has been found during archaeological digs.

Food and drink in the middle ages.

If we want to know the life of a group of people, there is no better way to do this than by looking at what they eat and drink. Food tells us about the identity and status of people. You are what you eat. What you eat tells us something about who you are and your place in the culture of an area. The consumption of food was governed by religious beliefs and the year was divided into days on which feasts occurred and religious rituals were observed.

Medieval dishes courtsey of KingRichardIII website

After buildings to provide shelter, food is the next most important thing to everybody. What people ate, the way in which food was produced, distributed, cooked and eaten, and the drinks that went with it, tells us a great deal about the community and the individuals that were part of it.

Food production provided the largest sector employment for the medieval town of Leicester. Corn would have been ground by the Lords’ millers. The town had several lords who were appointed to protect it and to administer justice. They also controlled key activities, such as the milling of corn by wind and water mills. The earl of Leicester maintained communal ovens and bakehouses from which he derived an income. Tenants were obliged to use them. These were in use up to 1399. Those who wanted to bake bread needed a licence to do so. In 1488 Henry VII ordered the mayor and bailiffs to have removed the ‘divers and many ovens’ which were ‘drawing away our own tenants that ought to bake at our common oven’. There is mention of a bread market in the fifteenth century.

Butchers shops were also found in medieval Leicester. There were 13 butchers shops in 1376. They also sold meat in the Saturday Market, which had developed in the fifteenth century. In 1279 butchers were ordered not to sell meat before noon and not to sell it after three days. Certain kinds of meat could be sold when cooked but not as raw meat. Bakers sold hens in bread and hens in paste (presumably this means pies.)

As the production and distribution of food changed in Medieval times, Leicester would have seen the emergence of markets. In fact, markets would have been a feature of life in the time of the Romans. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a macellum or market hall which now lies beneath today’s Travel Lodge. Initially produce was sold from stalls in the street and these became permanent shops. Highcross Street was a major thoroughfare in medieval Leicester. Archaeological digs have uncovered narrow buildings, some of which may have been ale houses.

How food is grown, manufactured sold, prepared and consumed tells us a lot about the social organisation, economy and culture of any community of people. If we want to get inside the life of the middle ages then we have to find out what people ate and drank.
In early medieval times, Britain was a largely agricultural society. Most of the population worked on farms and toiled the land. After the black death and the plagues, many aspects of life changed a lot and the economic, political and social life of England was fundamentally altered. By the late middle ages, there were more people who worked for wages, less of the serfdom of previous times, a growth in markets and new ways of organising labour and the productions of goods and services. Britain was still a very stratified society – there were still wide divides between the rich and powerful and the poor and weak. Within this structure, The Church, in particular monasteries and abbeys, played a role that was as powerful as it had been for centuries, following the establishment of Christianity in this country.

Leicestershire was a largely agricultural economy in the middle ages. In the city, more and more people were engaging in specific crafts and skills and, as a result, needed to buy food and drink. The era of self-sufficiency had drawn to a close for a large section of the population, most notably those living in the growing urban areas.

In medieval times, markets existed in Leicester where food and drink would have been on sale. One was held on Saturdays, close to the ‘corn wall‘ according to a map of Leicester in the middle ages.

What people ate in the middle ages was very different to the diet we are familiar with today. There were no potatoes. They did not arrive in Europe until 1536. Fish was consumed in large quantities than meat. Items such as eels, herrings (which were pickled) and salmon (which was plentiful and not the luxury we know today) were often stored and transported in barrels, sometimes preserved with salt. Ordinary people would have eaten herrings, eels or, in some places, shell-fish such as Oysters. Beef was a luxury item available only to the wealthy, who might have consumed more venison. Cattle were used to pull ploughs and carts, rather than horses. People would have eaten chicken and eggs and in some areas ducks.

The main mode of transport for food products in Anglo-Saxon times was water – by sea or rivers. Leicester is situated inland and the river Soar was described as being a slow-moving waterway choked with reeds. It was however, a town situated on the Fosse Way. Food production was largely localised.


Beer and ale would have been consumed in large quantities, rather than water. The supply of fresh, clean water to the people of Leicester would not be available until Victorian times. Water from wells or streams was unsafe to drink and people did not then understand anything about germs and microbes; there was a need to wash clothes and people but when it came to drinking the population was dependent on brewed liquids for its refreshment. This was long before tea and coffee, of course.

Recreation of a Roman kitchen at the Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester

Beer was drunk in preference to water because the process of fermentation killed much of the bacteria and other infestations that would have been present in springs and streams. Beer required supplies of grain and hops and this was an important element of medieval agriculture.

In the middle ages, the normal, daily drink of the working classes was beer or ale, much of which would have been weaker than the beverages known today. Beer and ale were fermented from malted barley, or a mixture of barley and oats or rye. Hops began to be used in the late medieval period and had been known since the time of the Anglo-Saxons. During the sixteenth century, people began to have more leisure time, especially in the urban areas. Taverns offered an alternative venue for social life (alternative to the church that is.) Apart from ale drinking, taverns also were placed where games could be played. Inns provided accommodation for travellers. They were often purpose-built premises, providing accommodation for travellers. From the fourteenth century, inns and ale houses would have a pictorial sign hanging outside (since many could not read.) Before the Battle of Bosworth, it is said that King Richard stayed at the Blue Boar Inn in Leicester. Ale houses began as ordinary dwellings, particularly where the householder made ale or beer at home.

In the fifteenth century, ale houses began to appear in both rural and urban communities. There were taverns in Roman Leicester and they were also in use in Anglo-Saxon times.

High-status people could drink wine as well but this was largely imported from Europe and would have been too expensive for the average man in the street. Grapes were grown in southern England since Roman times. Most of the wine drunk in England would have been imported from Europe, since the Roman conquest and into the middles ages, just as it is today. Wine was transported in barrels or casks. Glass bottles did not appear until the seventeenth century.

Wine would have been drunk by the aristocracy, high-status people in monasteries and wealthy merchants. In some areas cider and mead would have been available. There were vineyards in England, some mentioned in the Doomsday book, but these were largely in the south of the country. Some might have had access to mead, a drink made by fermenting honey with water. This required a plentiful supply of honey at a price that was less than barley or hops. The keeping of bees was widespread but we should not think that England was a land flowing with milk and honey.

Today, Leicester is the destination for the world’s foods, drinks and cuisines. Continental markets are held in the city centre, offering products from many European countries and in the covered market there are stalls offering fruits, vegetables and spices from around the world. some of the herbs and spices found in today’s kitchen cupboards were introduced by the Romans from 43 AD onwards. Spices were imported from the middle east, particularly caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and pepper. It was during the crusades that knights and soldiers from England would have encountered spices whilst in the middle east. With the discovery of the new world, the Americas in particular, during Tudor times, even more herbs and spices started to appear in this country, although they were often things can be afforded only by the very rich. Take sugar for example. Sugar was available to wealthy kitchens. The Romans used sugar as a medicine. It was available in the 14th and 15th centuries, though it was very expensive. The Crusaders brought sugar home with them from the Holy Land. The first record of sugar in England was made in the late 13th century. The trade in sugar lay at the root of British slavery. Plantations opened up in the Caribbean islands by the traders and merchants of the colonial era. Slaves were put to work on these plantations and countless thousands were uprooted from their homelands in Africa to be taken to the new world and a large proportion of them died on the way Sugar and spices were key products in trade from Tudor times and into the colonisation of Indian during Victorian times. These spices were very expensive and would have been kept under lock and key in medieval houses. Spicy foods were popular in the royal courts and represented one way in which the nobility displayed their wealth and ostentation.

When chocolate first came to in Britain it was consumed in the form of a drink (from 16th century.) The first cocoa beans arrived here in 1585. Coffee was introduced into England by The East Indian Company, in the 16th century. By 1675 there were more than 3,000 coffee houses in England. ( Samuel Pepys frequented the Coffee Houses of London, mentioning them in his entry of 1661). The number of coffee houses in Leicester grew in Victorian times.

Tea began to drunk in the 17th century. In 1662 chests of tea were imported by the wife of Charles II. Queen Anne popularised the drinking of tea at breakfast. England was one of the last countries in Europe to adapt tea as a drink. Tea was imported by the East India Company. Herbal teas for example were very rarely found in Leicester homes, until supermarkets began to stock them as demand increased for new things to drink, healthier options and the general trend to a more varied lifestyle.

Wine became an increasingly popular drink amongst the middle classes of England. The Romans might have been the first to established vineyards in England, though most of the wine they drank was imported from Europe. Wine, Sherry and other continental beverages increasingly became popular from the middle ages onwards as more and more people could afford them.

Lager began to replace beer in our public houses and bars.
An increasing concern with health led to the establishment of a range of foods and drinks.

Fast food has always been around in Leicester – since the Roman began to build their towns and cities and a lot of people moved in with them. The Roman centre of Leicester had a range of fast-food outlets, catering for people who needed to eat out or who could not cook food in their own accommodation. Fast food continued to be a familiar part of street life in Leicester during the middle ages.
As Leicester’s population became increasingly diversified, in the post-war era, fast food outlets began to appear offering an alternative to the long-established fish and chips shops. We saw the rise of the pizza takeaway and restaurants offering Indian and Chinese take-outs.

Today’s home kitchens have seen the staple potato increasingly supplemented by or replaced by other carbohydrate ingredients such as rice and pasta. The potato was a staple in Leicester for many centuries. Only in recent times has it been replaced by rice or pasta.
The other great staple was bread. In the middle ages bread was eaten by all classes of people, although in those times the finer variety of white bread was reserved for the tables of the rich while the loaves eaten by the poor and the working classes were much rougher and closer to what we now know as wholemeal.

Next:  we will look at food in Leicester in the 21st century.

See also:

What did the Romans ever cook for us?

Food and farming in Roman Leicester