In a field at a far corner of UCD, within view of a used car dealership and a row of apartment blocks with five cranes looming over them, Maeve L’Estrange is throwing large chunks of ice off of a blue tarpaulin.
She takes off her good black coat and lays it on a dry tuft of grass. It’s muddy in the field. She moves away the stones holding down the plastic and gingerly peels it back, pools of icy water running off.
Underneath is a circle of stones. They’re the foundations of the late-medieval-style bread oven she’s making, with the help of staff and students in the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture.
She hopes it will be ready to fire up by summer. She plans to bake a lot of bread.
“Food in general has been, in my opinion, understudied. I mean, the most important things to human life have been food and shelter … The most basic element of food would be bread,” she says.
L’Estrange is doing all this as part of a PhD in archaeology. The focus of her research is on food of the Middle Ages, particularly bread. She wants to understand how it was produced in Ireland.
The oven L’Estrange is reconstructing is based on one found at St Audeon’s Church, near Christ Church in Dublin. It was excavated by the archaeologist Franc Myles within the last couple of years.
L’Estrange thinks it could have been a community oven.
“If my theory is correct, this oven would have been too big for just a family. So it might have been for a group of houses, and they used this as their bread oven. That’s what I’m hoping,” she says.
She’ll test her hypothesis when the replica oven is ready. She says it will be a hemispherical, clay-domed, open-air oven.
Because post holes are often found nearby in the archaeological record, she believes such ovens were protected by additional structures. “So I’m going to put a sloped roof over it, protecting it.”
“I want to test the capacity of it. How long would it take to heat up? And how many loaves could have been baked at one time? Could it have been used for anything else? Because a community oven would have been a very handy thing,” she says.
Bread and other foodstuffs don’t turn up much in the archaeological record, says L’Estrange. “They just disappear. They can’t leave a trace.”
The Lisleagh biscuit, discovered by the archaeologist Mick Monk in Cork, is the only medieval bread specimen found in Ireland, she says. “That’s all we have left.”
What doesn’t turn up in archaeological digs sometimes can be gleaned from written records though. L’Estrange found an old Irish hospitality law in the early medieval law texts.
“If somebody was travelling around the country and called to someone’s house, they were entitled to various levels of hospitality … The most basic level of hospitality was bread and a condiment,” she says.
Poor people could get oats, so they could have prepared flatbreads, she says. It would have been easy to do on a baking stone, over a fire.
“And a condiment could be some honey … or whatever they could put together very quickly,” she says. “Berries could have been crushed up and served with this. Or butter, if they could afford it.”
Wheats, by contrast, were expensive, “and the finer the wheat, the wealthier the person who would have eaten it”, L’Estrange said. So the aristocracy and the monastics ate the finest wheat.
L’Estrange says she can tell from accounting records from the Priory of the Holy Trinity, which is now Christ Church, that the prior would serve his best guests very fine wheat bread.
“I can say with a certain amount of certainty that [this bread] would have been a beautifully raised, what would now be thought of as a sourdough bread,” she says.
L’Estrange started out working in banking, but she decided to take a “very early retirement” package to be a full-time mum to her two daughters.
She only really got into food after her marriage broke up. Now she’s a “food experimentalist” who cooks something new every week. Her focus, both in and out of academic life, is bread.
L’Estrange’s mother had died when she was doing her final exams in school, and she ended up not going to university. When her daughters were old enough, though, she did a degree in art history and archaeology in UCD.
While there, she approached Professor Aidan O’Sullivan, who directs the Experimental Archaeology Centre, about doing a food project. “He was rather surprised because nobody had ever mentioned food, but to me it was a natural thing,” she says. He’s now her PhD supervisor.
L’Estrange says O’Sullivan calls experimental archaeology “making, understanding, and storytelling”.
“It’s making something that was made in the past and understanding the process of making it, which makes you think about who would have made it … then using it and understanding that,” she says. “For instance, somebody might make me a very nice pottery pot, and then I’ll cook in it. And we’ll just see. We’ll cook in the open air to see how it behaves.”
The Great Medieval Bake-Off
A few times a year, L’Estrange teaches a day of cooking and baking for undergrads in an experimental archaeology module. The recipes are based on medieval English texts, and she only uses ingredients that would have been found in Ireland.
“When I make food and the students taste it, they’re using their modern taste buds. I have to say, leave them outside the classroom. Just come to me with an open mind, and we’ll try to understand what it was like in those days,” she says.
L’Estrange says food tasted different in the period she’s studying. Wealthier people had imported spices and wanted to show them off. They used a lot of cumin, cinnamon, and saffron.
“Then the monastic gardens grew herbs, so there’s really a monastic diet, a peasant diet, I suppose you could call it, and then the aristocratic diet,” says L’Estrange.
She is studying all three. She believes people of all ranks had nice food to eat.
“There was a myth that they would use spices to cover up the flavour of rotting meat, which I don’t believe. I believe they used spices as a form of just showing off, basically,” she says.
One type of medieval bread she makes with the students is from an old English recipe. The “twice-baked raston” is bread that’s scooped out of the crust, mixed with butter, put back in, and baked again.
“People actually said they would love to make this at home,” she says.