Bread and Thread: Heritage Sheep

opening music
Liz: Hello and welcome to Bread and Thread, a podcast about food and domestic history. I’m Liz
Hazel: I’m Hazel. We’re two people who studied archaeology together and love history
L: So what have you been doing craft-wise this week?
H: I have branched out into gardening
L: Ooh
H: But, no branches actually involved. I planted my woad, at the weekend. Turns out digging is actually quite tiring. Who knew?
L: Hazel you did archaeology
H: I know but I kind of, I haven’t excavated in a while
L: Is it the digging properly down rather than scraping back layers that does it?
H: Yeah. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my fair share of mattocking but I was a bit useless at that as well to be honest. But I did it! I dug myself a bed for the woad. And I planted it, and it should be ready in July, it should be fully grown
L: So we’re going to see some beautiful blue-dyed wool in the summer?
H: Yeah I’ll do some videos because woad is, when you dye with woad it looks grey in the pot, and then you pick it out and it turns blue with oxidisation
L: Oh that’s very cool. That is actual witchcraft
H: I know! It kind of makes you understand why woad is associated with like, magic and things. It’s very cool. So yeah hopefully. All I need to do is make it not die within the next month
L: So that it can dye
H: Yes, but constructively. What have you been up to?
L: I have been coping with anxiety by making salted caramel brownies
H: That is an extremely valid coping mechanism
L: Yeah, like all you have to do is like, you put the brownie batter in the pan, you put on just some blobs of salted caramel on top and just kind of like swirl it through with a chopstick and you get these beautiful kind of feathery patterns of caramel and when you bake it they just kind of crisp up and melt into the brownies. It’s so good. So good
H: I can see them, I can taste them. Why would you do this to me?
L: When we are no longer on lockdown I shall produce some brownies
H: Yes! I look forward to being on the receiving end of production
L: On the receiving end of some brownies?
H: laughs When you put it like that it sounds a bit aggressive doesn’t it
L: I’ll just get a trebuchet, and just launch them to Sussex. It’ll be fine
H: Mmm. Have we talked about this before? I feel like this is a strategy we’ve done before
L: Possibly. But on the other hand I really like siege weaponry
H: laughs That is a point you’ve got there, I cannot deny that
L: Yeah
H: I’ll do it for science
L: So, I believe this is another episode that was suggested by a listener
H: It was! Yeah, I am terrible and have forgotten who it was, who was it?
L: Andy, on Twitter
H: Yeah thanks Andy! ‘Cos I really like sheep and now I get to talk about it, to the internet
L: I am very excited to learn all there is to know about heritage sheep breeds
H: So, turns out there’s a lot of breeds of sheep
L: What?!
H: They’re quite a popular animal so I’m not going to tell you about all of the sheep breeds, but I’ve sort of picked out some of the more interesting ones to mention. So, sheep have been domesticated for, for quite a long time, but they weren’t used for wool until. They’re thought to have been domesticated between 11,000 and 8,000BC
L: Is this our friend the fertile crescent?
H: It is! It’s Mesopotamia!
L: Heack yeah
H: Yeah everyone loves the Levant
L: We can say “heck” right?
H: Yeah
L: Nice
H: That’s fine, probably. So, but at that time they were kept for their meat, and for their milk. And for their pelts, as well. They didn’t really begin to be used for wool until the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age in Europe, anyway. I’m going to keep this probably more European/British focused because I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge about wool specifically outside of that region
L: I mean I feel like if we covered every breed of sheep from all the countries this might take a while
H: Pretty much. And the ancient breed of sheep was a lot smaller than it is today, and the coat was less big and fluffy and probably coarser. But with selective bleed- breeding over the centuries they’ve got a lot more diversified in terms of the breeds, and some of them are really specialised for their wool. So originally they probably wouldn’t have been shorn, sheep moult wool naturally
L: Yeah because you can like pick it off fences in fields can’t you?
H: Yeah, and at least the more ancient breeds would have done this. Modern breeds do need to be sheared because otherwise their wool doesn’t come off
L: Have you seen Shrek the sheep?
H: I have! Is that the one that escaped for like six years?
L: Yeah, I will post, I will find something about Shrek the sheep and I’ll put it in the show notes so that everyone can see the glory
H: It will bring joy to your day, it really will laughs. So, originally people would have just picked up the wool that was caught on things, or was on the ground having just fallen off and been like “oh this is warm, we can make a thing from it” and the rest is history, as they say. So, one of the breeds of sheep, heritage breeds, that I found out about as a result of this is the caracal breed, which originates in central Asia, and they’re probably one of the closest breeds to ancient style breeds of sheep which exists today. You can see carvings of them in Babylonian temples, and their, kind of, wool has been found in ancient Persia so they’re, they are like a really old breed of sheep, and they’ve been imported to Africa, and to the USA as well. So, they are mainly used for meat, and for their pelts as well – for the sheep skins – but their wool is also used, it makes really strong carpet wool, so I’m guessing that most of the amazing Persian carpets and stuff are made with this kind of wool, and apparently the craft of felting evolved with this wool, this was like the first wool to be felting which is interesting
L: Oh that’s cool
H: Yeah. I’ve not done any felting, have you?
L: No, I-I want to, but the sound that the needles make, the horrible like crunching, tearing noise just, it goes right through me
H: Man, is that like needle felting?
L: Yeah
H: Yeah, the stabby one, yeah
L: Is there a non-stabby one?
H: Yeah there’s wet felting, which is where you put the wool on top of each other…
L: Oh like medieval hats
H: And get it wet and like rub it
L: Ok I might be able to do that one
H: Yeah, I mean it’s, yeah, less murderous. You wanna hear about some Icelandic sheep?
L: I absolutely want to hear about some Icelandic sheep
H: Oh they’re so good! I’m gonna find a picture of some Icelandic sheep, and I’m gonna post it to the twitter, because they are incredible. They are also a very very ancient breed. In fact, the Icelandic sheep of today is genetically the same as it was 1100 years ago
L: Amazing
H: And that is because it is illegal to import sheep into Iceland
L: Wait what? I love how we keep discovering these really weird niche laws
H: I know! laughs It is illegal to import sheep into Iceland, in case they crossbreed with the protected heritage Icelandic sheep and deteriorate the breed. Yeah, the more you know
L: That’s amazing
H: Yeah, and I think it’s because these, they are quite a special breed. They are direct descendants of the original viking sheep that were brought there when Iceland was first colonised
L: So they are literally just the sheep version of Icelandic people?
H: Yeah. And to be honest most of the population of Iceland is actually as well, so, yeah. They’re extremely hardy. They’re kind of, honestly it sounds like they’re kind of feral? Apparently they’re aggressive toward other kinds of
L: laughs
H: They’re kind of just like, like to be on their own
L: So what you’re saying is that Icelandic sheep are racist
H: I mean I didn’t say that, but…
L: But it could be inferred
H: I’ve never seen them around other sheep, you know? crosstalk slander the good name of sheep
both giggle
H: They are, they’re related, they’re related to the Shetland, in that they’re both descended from old, kind of Norse varieties of sheep, and I did talk about Shetland
L: Makes sense
H: What’s that?
L: I just said makes sense
H: Yep, and I did talk about Shetland quite a bit a couple of episodes ago so I’m not going to go into that too much here, the icelandic sheep are actually mostly used for meat in iceland, it’s one of the biggest things that they export is sheep meat or lamb but they’re really famous for the wool as it’s so warm and you know those really nice icelandic jumpers the colourful ones
L: like the ones in the crime dramas
H: yeah they’re so warm because these sheep have to live in really harsh conditions they’ve got a really downy underlayer of wool and a coarser more hard wearing outside
L: like a husky
H: is that what huskies have?
L: they have a fluffy layer and then a hair layer
H: Icelandic sheep are the huskies of sheep confirmed. They’re quite prized among spinners and knitters for the quality of their wool it’s quite coarse but for outer wear it’s amazing cause it’s so warm that’s the Icelandic sheep. and if we take a short little hop across the sea to the shetland isles you get shetland sheep which similarly very old breed thought to originate from the vikings and that is acclimatised to the shetland islands, has a wool that’s a lot softer and is really famous for having a very long staple which is the length of the individual fibres which can be used to make amazing stuff like shetland lace which we did a whole episode on.
L: yeah listen to episode 2 if you want to know more about shetland lace
H: do that it’s cool. that’s a couple northern european breeds. i’m going to go a bit more down into england now and talk about the herdwick which is really interesting.
L: i think i’ve had that, herdwick lamb
H: they’re not so much of a thing anymore they’ve fallen out of fashion a bit because their wool isn’t very soft and i mean i don’t know too much about the economics of sheep raising but i did read a fantastic book by a herdwick shepherd in the lake district called james rebanks. i think it’s called the shepherd’s life. it’s a really good book about raising ship in the lake district in today’s economy. the herdwick sheep i’m not sure how old they are but a good few hundred years old, they live up in the fells in the lake district and they get hefted to a particular patch of ground and that’s their home.
L: when you say hefted i’m just imagining people carrying sheep to the right field now.
H: i like that image.
L: please tell me that’s what it is
H: I don’t think it is. it just means they won’t wander away. you can bring them up there in the spring and leave them there, you can come back later and they’re still there.
L: is that why in the lake district you just get sheep out in a field unattended?
H: yeah i would assume so, yeah. apparently they bring them down in the winter to keep them alive but most of the year they just stay up there doing their thing.
L: i like it, it’s a low maintenance sheep.
H: it’s a nice life, roaming out on the fells. being a sheep.
L: i envy these sheep.
H: it’s the millenial dream. oh to be a sheep. in fact i do want to share with you a quote that i found it’s more the poem that this quote comes from. i’m reading the golden thread by Kassia St Clair which is a history of fabric and there’s a chapter about the wool trade in england and one of the reasons there are so many varieties of sheep.
L: we should probably do a separate episode on that because there’s wild stuff on war with the dutch
H: yeah we probably should. there’s so many knock on effects from it you wouldn’t expect but yeah there’s a quote from a poem written by somebody called winrich of treves who in 1090 writes a poem called the conflict of sheep and flax. it’s just about different sheep extolling the praises of dyes from different areas. it’s adorable.
L: i like the idea a sheep is picky about what is used on its wool.
H: it’s talking about maddow being used for red dye, and it says “not blood not sun not fire glows as red as you britain” so that was fun. unfortunately i can’t find a translation of it anywhere because it’s written in latin because obviously that’s what sheep speak.
L: obviously because they are god’s creatures
H: that makes a lot more sense yeah.
L: I think nick studied latin we should send the poem to them
H: can you get nick to stand out in a field and yell latin at sheep, and film it?
L: maybe when we’re allowed in fields again.
H: that’s one to practice… so what did you do in quarantine?
L: what’s in this poem you mentioned?
H: oh that’s the main thing, i just like there’s a medieval poem from the pov of a sheep. anyway another sheep, the wensleydale…
L: i love the wensleydale, is that the dreadlock one? I love that one.
H: wensleydale also known for cheese… cheese gromit?
L: yeah it’ s the cheese that wallace from wallace and gromit mentions a lot. it’s a slightly creamy sort of nutty cheese. you get nuttiness a lot with sheep cheese.
H: you can get one with cranberry, wensleydale with cranberry.
L: haven’t had that had one with apricot in, very nice for pudding a dessert cheeese
H: anyway, sidetracked by pudding..
L: i just like cheese
H: one of the younger heritage breeds, that i’m going to talk about, when i say thqat i mean it’s early 19th century, what a whippersnapper.
L: what is the cutoff for what’s considered a heritage sheep?
H: idk, i would assume it’s a sheep breed that is before industrialisation?
L: so this is right on the cusp of heritage then.
H: yeah. and they’re coming back mainly for the quality of their wool, they’re a long wool breed i’m also going to find a pic of these. it’s almost shiny i’ve spun with it, it’s got a lustre to it almost a fuzzy halo to it.when you see the sheep they do look like they have dreadlocks they have these beautiful locks of wool and they have a bit of an emo fringe going on
they really do, they have this forelock which is a topping, apparently. but it just looks very emo
L: it’s their icing
H: yeah. they like a lot of heritage breeds declined in popularity during industrialisation, and with that came less variety and wool from the 19th century i guess second industrial revolution more cotton was being produced than wool in the mills. wool production took a back seat and that continued into the 20th century but a lot of these are getting more popular we like the variety, we like spinners and crafty people
L: there’s been a definite craft resurgence.
H: and that’s been really good for appreciation of the heritage breeds of sheep. a lot of them are perfectly adapted to the environment they’re native to. it’s really good to have all these breeds because they’re involved in the maintenance of the landscape. for example the south downs sheep which is native to the south downs where i’m from they’re adorable they’ve got really fluffy teddy bear faces and they’re used for managing the downland. chalk downland is actually more diverse in terms of plant species per square metre than the amazon rainforest which is wild. and the chalk downland is managed with sheep grazing, so if the sheep weren’t there the grassland would be overtaken by trees and scrub. i could go on, there’s quite a lot, there’s definitely more in other parts of the world.
L: yeah you’ve done your local sheep. there’s a Lancastrian sheep known as the Lonk.
H: what?
L: L O N K known as the lonk. i know nothing except for the name and that they’ve been bred by monks.
H: a monk lonk
L: but they’re called lonks.
H: that’s a good name. another good one is one i found called the Wallachanshaf.
L: sounds like a sword
H: yeah, wallachanshaf… your sword? no my sheep. they’re endangered there’s only about 400 of them left around 2000 so… yeah. if anyone knows… someone find out the fate of the wallachanshaf
L: or the lonk
H: points will be given for the most entertaining facts. anyway brief wild and wonderful tour through the many breeds of sheep. maybe we’ll do more later on.
L: those were some wonderful sheep facts
H: you’re welcome
L: when the episode goes up we should put up images of heritage sheep
H: caption competition!
L: what would the prize be?
H: woad dyed wool. but they might be waiting a while.
L: at least three weeks.
H: the woad grows in July.
L: bit more than three weeks.
H: wensleydale wool maybe. or something.
N: if you enjoy this podcast, don’t forget to subscribe on patreon at patreon rewards include instructional videos, recipes and access to a discord server where you can discuss crafts and food.
L: I want to talk to you about the ploughmans lunch. you heard me talk about ploughmans pickle last episode, now we’re talking ploughmans lunch.
H: this is great. i’ve grown up with ploughmans, but i have a sneaking suspicion it has secrets.
L: how old do you think the ploughmans lunch is as a concept
H: do you want to say what it is first
L: now a ploughmans lunch is you go to a pub ask for a ploughmans and get thick slices of bread, thick slices of cheese some pickled eggs or some ploughmans pickle… not pickled eggs, pickled onions, please edit that, some pickled onions or a ploughmans pickle which i will elaborate on in a minute and a pint of beer, preferably ale.
H: sometimes you get apples.
L: sometimes you get apples or salad but the base ploughmans is bread cheese or pickle. not pickles, pickle. so how old do you think the concept of the ploughmans lunch is?
H: it sounds like it should be some medieval peasant food, the ploughman would go out in the morning and sit down for his hearty ploughmans lunch? is it true?
L: it’s half true. the idea of a ploughman having bread cheese and beer is mentioned in a satirical poem from 1394ish called piers the ploughmans creed
H: i’ve heard of that one i think or is piers ploughman a character that-
L: no they’re two different things, two poems in the same tradition. Piers Plowman is about a guy who has visions while PIers the PLowmans creed is a satirical poem about monks.
H: sounds great.
L: obviously the idea of eating bread cheese and beer, everyone knows bread and cheese, it’s in every film where somebody runs away – they’ve got bread and cheese
H: in a bundle
L: but the idea of selling this meal as the ploughmans lunch was created by the cheese bureau in collaboration with the milk marketing board to increase cheese sales after rationing in the 50s. the monthly bulletin of the brewers society in 1956 mentions this mission and said the cheese bureau, quote, exists for the admirable purpose of popularising cheese and as a corollary the public house meal of bread beer cheese and pickle. this traditional combination was broken by rationing, the cheese bureau hopes by demonstrating the natural affinity of the two parties to effect a remarriage.
H: that is poetry. i cannot deny the natural affinity of the two parties.
L: the two parties being the cheese bureau and the brewers society
H: I thought that was bread and cheese
L: bread beer cheese and pickle that’s four parties in the meal.
H: that’s a lot of parties in the meal
L: there’s a party in my mouth and all the pickles are invited. the concept of pickled onions has been a thing pretty much forever as we mentioned in the jam episode
H: yeah pickling would have been pretty essential
L: but what we know as the ploughmans pickle is pretty recent it was created by branston pickle in the 30s. its ingredients include onions apple paste vinegar sugar carrot rutabaga and dates. that recipe has at least been pretty much unchanged except swapping out sugar for high fructose corn syrup in the american market. but the branston pickle in the uk is still made with actual sugar.
H: i didn’t know that i guess i never really thought about branston pickle that much.
L: it’s not the brand i tend to get bury market just has a really nice brand of ploughmans pickle which i can’t remember the name of now we haven’t had any in a while. but branstons is pretty good tbf.
H: yeah it is it does go well with food. i’ll give it that. you could say they have a natural affinity
L: the two parties. I mean this concept of the ploughmans lunch is so ingrained 60ish years later you can buy a plooughmans sandwich which is just a ham cheese and pickle sandwich. idk when ham snuck in but it’s become a part of it.
H; yeah it seems to be sometimes you get ham sometimes you don’t but mostly you get ham
L: this was not in the original vision of the cheese bureau or the milk marketing board
H: is it not canon?
L: it is not canon.
H: ham is not canon
L: ham only exists in fanfic ploughmans. it’s apocryphal ham.
H: I thought it was quite nice.
L: so yeah the ploughmans lunch is a delicious lie is what i have learned
H: it’s so surprising it’s a thing like if you grow up in the uk you can go to the pub and there’s your ploughmans lunch
L: at this point it’s valid to call it a thing it’s been around for 60 years. but they pretended it was a thing 60 years ago to sell cheese. it’s an actual conspiracy to sell cheese. a curdspiracy.
H: oh no! i feel like my mind’s just been blown.
L: I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. if you want to suggest an episode or local larder you can email us at or tweet at us like andy did @breadandthread on twitter.
H: and we’ll see you next time for more exciting cheese facts.

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