University of Leeds

University of Bradford

Wakefield Council

You Are What You Ate

Project news

by Iona McCleery

Where do foods come from?


Answers to our competition and prize winners

Last year You Are What You Ate went to festivals around Yorkshire, encouraging members of the public to try medieval recipes and learn more about how food affected rich and poor people in the past.

You are what you ate festival stall at Kirkgate Market, Leeds 2013You might have seen us at Food, Drink and Rhubarb in Wakefield City Centre (February 2013), the official opening of Wakefield Museum (March 2013), Leeds Kirkgate Market (May 2013), the Pontefract Liquorice Festival or ‘Making Leeds Medieval’ on the Leeds University Campus (both July 2013). If so you might have entered our competition ‘guess where foods come from...’

People who entered the competition had to say where they thought the following foods came from originally in the world - sugar, rhubarb, apples, liquorice, black pepper and potato. The first correct answers drawn for each festival received a National Book Token for £20. We have already contacted all the prize winners so congratulations to Angela, Kathleen, Ian and Pat!

So where do these foods come from?

Sugar cone: one of the exhibits at 'Sugar and spice and all things nice (loaned by Vicky Shearman)Sugar (Indonesia, India or Caribbean or other variants possible)

It is not known for sure where exactly this grass was first eaten, but it was probably in Indonesia or India. It was farmed throughout the Islamic world, which in medieval times included Mediterranean islands like Cyprus and Crete as well as Spain. Most sugar in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries came from slave plantations in the Mediterranean or increasingly from Atlantic islands like Madeira and São Tomé, the Caribbean islands or Brazil. In the past usually only the rich could afford sugar – so usually only the rich got cavities in their teeth! See here for more information on sugar.

Rhubarb in a 16th century copy of Dioscorides, photo courtesy of the Wellcome LibraryRhubarb (China)

Most people said that rhubarb came originally from Yorkshire because it is now so important in the local economy (80% of British rhubarb now comes from the rhubarb ‘triangle’ between Leeds and Wakefield). Rhubarb actually comes from China and was first imported into Britain as a medicine (a laxative mainly). It was only grown here from the 17th century. Forced rhubarb used to be a very important source of Vitamin C during the winter months. For more on rhubarb, take a look here


Apples (Central Asia)

Ribston pippin apple in Helmsley Walled Garden (photo: You are what you ate)There is nothing more British you would think? Yet it seems that apples originated in central Asia. It is there that the first experiments with grafting were done in order to get the fruit to grow true each time. The Romans probably brought apple cultivation to England. Wild apples (crab apples) may have grown here earlier but they would not have been the sweet apples that we are used to eating. The phrase ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ probably dates from the 19th century. Researchers at the University of Oxford recently announced that eating an apple a day may help to prevent heart disease – although it would be better if we ate at least five fruits and vegetables a day rather than just one!


Liquorice (Turkey)

Glycyrrhiza glabra Liquoricebottle of essence and dried woody roots (image: Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar, Wellcome Images) This is another one that most people thought came from Yorkshire – from Pontefract to be precise where it was farmed from at least the 17th century through until the 1960s. Yet it actually came originally from the Middle East, especially Turkey. It was imported as a medicine for throat and lung problems during the Middle Ages. The liquorice sweet industry only grew up in Pontefract during the 19th century. You can read more about liquorice here.



Black pepper: M. de Victoria, Burgos 1578 (courtesy of Wellcome Images)
Black pepper (India)


Black pepper came from India originally (sweet peppers and chillies came from South America). One of the most important sources was the Malabar coast of southern India, which is exactly where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498, looking for spices like pepper. Pepper was already known to the Romans and could be found imported into northern England as early as the 8th century. Pepper was one of the cheaper spices to buy by the end of the fifteenth century.


Potato (South America)


Many people associate the potato with Britain or Ireland but it is actually from South America and was not widely grown here until the 18th century. Potatoes were first brought from Peru to Spain in the late 16th century but took a long time to become popular. They were known as Virginia potatoes in England because of the English colony founded in North America where they also grew. Christopher Columbus came across sweet potatoes in the Caribbean in 1492 but they never became popular in Britain. The potato is a major source of carbohydrate for many modern people so does not count as one of our five fruits and vegetables a day.

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