A Tasty Morsel: An Offering for Last Kingdom Fans
WRITTEN BY GORDON O’SULLIVAN
Some news to get fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series salivating: its hero Uhtred has returned from feasting in Valhalla! Uhtred’s Feast (HarperCollins, 2023) is a historical cookbook from American chef Suzanne Pollak, mixed with three new short stories from Bernard Cornwell featuring the Saxon warrior. Cornwell said in a recent interview with the Historical Novels Review that Uhtred’s “meals, in the books, mainly consist of bread, cheese, ale and salted meats.” When he became friends with Suzanne Pollak, however, her passion for Anglo-Saxon cookery convinced him that they should “fill the gaps in my ‘menu’”.
Did you know that “the first mention of apples in England was by King Alfred” or that “the Saxons made omelettes” or that parsley was considered a “poisonous flirtation with Satan”? In her useful historical background, Pollak explains how an Anglo-Saxon diet was driven by the seasons, with vegetables and summer fruit taking up central roles. Cereals like barley and wheat were also staples, with bread eaten at nearly every meal and ale drunk by all ages and classes. Fish was consumed by those living near water, while meat was mostly reserved for richer tables. Pollak also underlines that food preservation was “an indispensable part of Anglo-Saxon life” to “feed a household throughout a cold and barren winter” and as “lifelines for travellers on land and sea.” Rather than try to recreate dishes exactly as the Anglo-Saxons would have eaten them, in Uhtred’s Feast, the “recipes in this book represent the taste and spirit of the food of the time.”
Bernard Cornwell found the process of being a co-author “incredibly easy … Suzanne is the expert and enthusiastically researched ingredients and cooking methods from over a thousand years ago – and I was more than content to let her do all that work – while she was equally content to leave the stories to me.” Chef Pollak puts her research to work with recipes ranging from Pease Pudding and Fermented Shredded Turnip to Juniper-spiced Boar Meatballs and Royal Beef Stew. And of course, no Anglo-Saxon cookbook would be complete without a recipe for King Alfred’s Cakes.
Cornwell was a willing taster for some of Pollak’s history-infused recipes. “I’ve tried several, and they all worked out remarkably well – mainly because Suzanne cooked them and all I was supposed to do was enjoy them – which I did!” But does he think he’d relish Anglo-Saxon meals? “On the whole I think I’d survive very well on a Saxon diet … there are plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts, and enough meat to provide protein and, being married to a vegetarian dietitian who isn’t averse to cooking meat, I think I qualify as a Saxon eater.” What about that Satanic parsley? “I’ve flirted with Satan for so long and can only think I have been poisoned by parsley – which I like.” But there is one food that sticks in Cornwell’s craw: “The one ingredient I detest, and regard as Satan’s foulest product, is carrots.”
Uhtred’s Feast isn’t wholly about Anglo-Saxon cooking; there is a Viking flavour to the recipes, reflecting Cornwell’s interest in the interrelationship between Saxon and Danes in this period. The hero of his Last Kingdom series was, after all, both Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Uhtred Ragnarsson. Why is he fascinated by this cultural assimilation? “Because it is such a tangled relationship. Received history and, I confess, the novels, might give an impression of unending warfare and mutual hatred, and undoubtedly that existed, but alongside it was a process of assimilation. The incoming Danes often took Saxon wives, and vice versa, and so a large proportion of the inhabitants of northern and eastern England became bicultural – and the effects of that are strong in the English language. In the end the Vikings were embraced by the English and disappeared into their joint DNA.”
For fans of Uhtred, the meat or mead of this book is a chance to return, however briefly, to much-missed characters. How was it for Cornwell to live again in Uhtred’s world? “It felt very comfortable – I’ve lived with Uhtred for most of the last 15 years, and it was a pleasure to meet him again!” In the three short stories Uhtred eats and grows from aspiring warrior to grizzled hero. “The First Victory” shows Uhtred as a youngster desperate to become a warrior but having to use his brains rather than his brawn to conquer his enemies. Readers see why Uhtred had a lifelong hatred of eels, and we even see Father Beocca again for a time.
“The Gift of God,” perhaps the strongest story, sees a more mature Uhtred on a mission with King Alfred, although we also have a brief glimpse of Steapa and Uhtred’s beloved Gisela. When asked if he regretted killing off any of his characters too early, Cornwell responded, “perhaps I’d have been happier (and so would Uhtred) if Gisela had lived longer. I was fond of her and can’t even remember now why I killed her off.” Seeing Alfred and Uhtred reunited in this second story was a poignant reminder of how well-matched these two characters were. “The Last Shield Wall” features a new Viking adversary in Hoskuld and emphasises just how impressively Cornwell writes battle scenes. The older Uhtred fights not with the energy of his younger years but with the skill of hard-won experience: “I had feared age would slow me, but in truth age had equipped me.”
Finally, in the Last Kingdom series Uhtred fought many Northmen, but which of his Viking enemies would Bernard Cornwell like to share a meal with? “Haesten and Guthrum, probably – they’re both treacherous and subtle, and would be amiable dinner companions. But if I had to choose just one it would be Skald – she would be endlessly entertaining.”
About the contributor: Gordon O’Sullivan is a freelance writer and researcher.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 106 (November 2023)