A Brief History of Food & Drink in Five Objects

Five ancient artefacts from The British Museum, London, related to food and drink.

The world’s greatest repository of antiquities? Or a vainglorious testament to the arrogance and narcissism of empire? Either way, the British Museum has long engendered discussion and debate.

But as a child, all this flew largely over my head. As far as I was concerned, the British Museum was always just a bit.. well, dull.

Egyptian mummy? So what! Roman statue? Meh! The sheer scale of time and place just washed over my youthful mind without tingling any neurones of appreciation.

And so years passed, and it was not until my 30’s that I ventured back. This time, I felt a palpable thrill as I gazed round the entrance hall – all the more gripping for its unexpectedness.

Stepping tentatively into the cavernous glass-domed Great Court was like venturing into an oversized snowglobe. But rather than chintzy little reindeers or rickety Brighton piers, there were actual sphinxes and sarcophagi – millennia-old relics staring back at me, like they were alive and breathing.

Over time, it struck me just how many objects related to food and drink: not only cutlery, crockery, and utensils, but also in the glorified representations of feasts or hunting.

I had such a sense that, regardless of time and place, food has always been a central pillar of civilisation. It is more than a sustainer of life: it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of communities, and a shaper of identity.

Over time, I’ve been steadily making note of display items that have piqued my gastronomic interest, and I’m picking out five of them here – each originating from a different era and region, each with a culinary theme and a story to tell about the society of the time.

One of these stories is about the museum itself, and how the shadow of colonialism has shaped its collection… but more on that later. For now it’s time to buckle up – you’re about to go 5000 years back into the past…

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London Bridge Is Staying Strong; a Tribute to BOROUGH MARKET

Borough Market, London Bridge - where I am reflecting on the defiant spirit of London and its communities.

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay.
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.

 

As I tread these streets of London, rain streaming off rooftops, puddles lining the paving-stones like little pools of transient street-art, concentric circles appearing and disappearing within them, I think of this city. This great great city.

It’s two days now after another senseless assault; people were hurt and killed. And my heart cries for them, and for the people who hold them so dear. And as I walk, I look around me, at the city streets through the driving rain.

I wander past London’s squares and structures, buildings and bridges: they whisper words into my ear, reassuring me with their stories from days gone by. History hangs heavy in the air, like mist, swirling through the city’s alleys and gardens, wispy tendrils of history clinging onto cobblestones and brickwork.

Too much history for some. And not always good. But in amongst the narratives of this city – tangling and jostling as they do – lies the very oldest one. One that’s still the loudest and proudest of them all – the indefatigable spirit of Londoners in the face of adversity.

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