Tuesday 19th November 2019,
Frontiers Magazine

A Taste of the Neolithic

Mary Leonard August 19, 2019 Food Journeys
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“The main course will be shin of beef braised in an un-hopped bere malt beer, because I don’t want bitterness there. I am hoping to acquire some neep tops to serve with it. It’s a strange situation because the Italians only eat the tops and give the neep to the animals, but I’m hoping to use the neep as well and salt bake it. Then, you’ve got the sauce which is bere beer, reduced with the stock of the shin, and I was going to introduce some bone marrow back into it and some texture with bere grains.”

The above description is of the main course of a three-course Neolithic dinner which is being served in the Orphir Hall on September 7. A unique and highly entertaining occasion, the dinner will also offer the opportunity to focus attention on fresh local produce and the politics of food, as well as our own human relationship and responsibility with the food we consume and our environment.

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You might think at first that a Neolithic menu could be a little basic and unimaginative, but chef Sam Britten, begs to differ. Having also worked for Historic Scotland as a stonemason, Sam firmly believes that Neolithic people took a much more sophisticated view of food than just simply fuel for the belly.

“I think there was a lot of attention to detail in the food because they weren’t distracted by things like Facebook and Instagram, and especially at the higher levels of the community I feel a lot of effort would have gone into it.”

Sam, an experienced chef of 17 years, has created this Neolithic menu and will cook the meal for 111 people. He is particularly inspired by this challenge as it fits well with his own philosophy of paying attention to what we consume and our effect on the environment. One of the reasons he stopped working as a chef was his disgust at the “frivolous waste” of some restaurants, as well as questionable practices involved in food production and sourcing.

During my work as a chef in Michelin star restaurants I spent a lot of time throwing foie gras in the bin. It’s sickening really, fattening a goose for its liver and then having it travel hundreds of miles to end up in the bin. I’m not comfortable with it at all.”

With the Neolithic dinner, on the other hand, all the food has been sourced from within Orkney, with no contamination from single-use plastics. Sam is keen to spread the good message about the huge potential of local ingredients and what can be created without having to use products from all corners of the world. He will be speaking on this theme as part of the inter-course entertainment.

The premise of my own business is to go to great lengths to look at suppliers and how they deliver things to us, because we want to be the change we want to see in the world. If you can’t do it in a place like Orkney, you can’t do it anywhere.”

The menu for the Neolithic dinner, he says, has been a joy to create because it has, in a sense written itself, with the season dictating the foods available.

Scallops and seaweed

The main course, described in detail at the beginning of this article, will be preceded by barbecued or pan-fried Orkney scallop, served with various different seaweeds and seaweed butter. The scallop roe will be brined and smoked and served with sugar kelp vinegar.

For desert there will be a posset, made with vinegar rather than lemon, as citrus could have been difficult to find in Neolithic Orkney. The posset will combine Orkney cream and honey with meadowsweet vinegar, topped by an oatcake praline and served with a cup of meade, infused with meadowsweet from local honey. No sugar will be used.

The meal will be served on Neolithic-style grooved ware pottery designed and made by Andrew Appleby. The first course will be presented in a bowl modelled on an early Neolithic style found at Unstan, the main course on a large, gently-curved platter, modelled on a design from the late Palaeolithic period, and there will be tumblers for the mead.

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All the items have been thrown, turned and bisque fired, before being re-fired on wood shavings to give an ancient authentic look. They are then reheated in a kiln and dipped in molten beeswax, which not only brings out the colours of the firing, but also makes the items non-porous and a pleasure to touch and hold.

No detail has been overlooked in creating the perfect ambience for this event, Andrew says.

We keep thinking about other things we need, like water beakers, which Sam can also use for his home-made beer, and little candle pots to go on the table. We will also have informal arrangements of autumn flowers on the tables and table cloths of natural coloured butter muslin that will cover the harsh tone of the formica tops. We have wooden cutlery. It’s quite comprehensive really and it should look lovely and have a feel of the past, and with Sam’s food it is going to be just out of this world.”

The focus is very much on using and recognising the value in what is available to you on your own doorstep, Andrew says, as he enthuses about the bounty that exists in Orkney, from the nettle patch in his own garden, to the watercress that grows at Skaill and the blewit mushroom that emerges after the first frost. Little wonder, he says that Orkney is full of innovative enterprises such as Sam’s Orkney Craft Vinegar, the merits of which have been extolled on TV chef James Martin’s show.

Orkney is then, an eminently suitable location for a Neolithic meal, regarded as the centre of ancient Britain and from where, as Andrew says, places such as Cambridge would be considered remote.

Adding to the mix

As a potter Andrew has delved into the life, customs and history of Orkney, including ancient pottery techniques. In his prehistoric potter experiment he found a way around the difficulty of working with Orkney clay, by adding goose fat to the mix, resulting in much finer pots which had the additional and surprising benefit of being watertight even before firing.

This discovery explains a lot about what is already known of Neolithic life, he says, and for the next part of the experiment he plans to use beef fat rather than goose, because beef fat remains are very common in excavated late Neolithic pottery.

The Neolithic dinner, in association with the John Rae Society, will be a highlight of this year’s Orkney Science Festival programme and there will be a grand raffle with a variety of quality prizes on offer at the end of the evening.

No occasion would be complete without music and this will be provided throughout the evening by a trio of talented and experienced musicians – Kate Fletcher, Corwen Broch and Dave Griffith who, in keeping with the theme, will be playing ancient-style tunes, on replicas of ancient instruments.

Drinks on arrival will be offered by Highland Park as an introduction to the new whiskies, and if you enjoy the evening and like the utensils you have eaten from, all the pottery will be for sale after the meal.

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About The Author

Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard is a journalist who started work with The Orcadian before emigrating to Australia, where she lived and worked for almost 20 years. Although not a scientist, she has always had a keen interest in science, philosophy, spirituality, in fact in almost everything, which she hopes gives her an open-minded approach to any subject.