After a day enduring midwinter winds whipping off Salisbury Plain, the ancient builders of Stonehenge may have warmed up with a prehistoric version of the mince pie, archaeologists have suggested.
The hardy engineers of the great Wiltshire monument might also have kept themselves going by nibbling on their version of energy bars made of berries, nuts and animal fat.
It has been established that midwinter was an important time of the year for the Stonehenge builders with ancient people bringing cows and pigs from as far afield as Scotland to take part in feasts at the site around the time of the winter solstice.
Archaeologists have also found evidence of the collecting and cooking of hazelnuts, sloes and crab apples and other fruit, with remnants of charred plant remains discovered at Durrington Walls, the settlement inhabited by the builders of Stonehenge in about 2500BC. They knew how to grow cereal crops, so could have made pastry out of wheat, hazelnut or acorn flour.
English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge, concedes it is a bit of leap, but it is putting forward the festive theory that the engineers could have combined the two into a version of the mince pie, possibly baked using a flat stone or ceramic pot heated in the embers of a fire, rather like a Welsh cake.
Susan Greaney, a senior properties historian with English Heritage, said: “We know that midwinter and feasting were really important to the builders of Stonehenge and we have evidence which tells us that they had access to nutritious fruit and nuts, and that they may even have made and cooked recipes.
“Adding meat fats to hazelnuts and fruit would have made a great energy bar, full of calories. Such foods might have been eaten for celebration as well as sustenance, with the sharing of food helping the community to bond, encouraging people to travel from far and wide to help build Stonehenge. We’ll never know for certain what recipes they favoured, but it’s fun to imagine travellers being greeted with a tray of mince pies.”
The findings of fruit and nut gathering were made during the long-running Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaborative directed by six academics from five UK universities
Its excavations at Durrington Walls, a large henge monument 1.5 miles to the north-east of Stonehenge, revealed the remains of houses and middens – rubbish heaps – and provided an insight into life at the time of Stonehenge’s construction. Items such as pieces of ceramic and tools provided new information about the diets and lifestyles of the people who built and used Stonehenge.
The origins of mince pies can be traced back at least as far as the medieval period, with recipes varying over the centuries from meat based savoury treats to the sweet, rich version favoured now.
English Heritage volunteers will be baking Neolithic mince pies around the hearth in the recreations of Neolithic houses at Stonehenge every Monday in December, and mince pies inspired by the period will be on the menu in the cafe. The charity has also produced a recipe so that anyone can have a go at producing a Neolithic-style mince pie.
Recipe: Neolithic-inspired mince pies (makes 6)
To make these vegetarian, simply swap the lard for a vegan or vegetarian fat product.
For the pastry:
2 x handfuls of emmer flour
½ handful of hazelnut flour
Knob of lard
A few drops of water
For the filling:
Four crab apples or small sour apples
A few blackberries
A few sloes
Pureed rose hips (about a spoonful)
A spoonful of honey
A handful of whole berries
A couple of crushed hazelnuts
For the decoration:
Some linseeds and a drizzle of honey for the tops
1. Preheat your oven to 210C electric /190C fan/gas mark 5. Cut up your compote filling ingredients and put them in a saucepan on a medium heat, stew until tender.
2. Mix the flours with the lard and a few drops of water until you have a firm dough.
3. Create six circles for the pie bottoms, and six slightly smaller circles for the tops. Place the bases into cases in a muffin tin and spoon in cooked compote.
4. Take lids and brush one side with water and place water-side down, pressing the edges to seal.
5. Once all of the lids are on, brush their tops with water and sprinkle with honey, linseeds and crushed hazelnuts.
6. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown and firm to the touch.