Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).
Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.
A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.
For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.
Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry. Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.
While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.
Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).
Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.
I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.
But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).
On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.
What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?
It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.
But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.
St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).
It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.
Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.
But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.
Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.
As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.
And roasting fiercely!
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.
Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.
Autumn is a wonderful time to go a-gathering. The last of the year’s fruits have ripened and are ready to be eaten – a cornucopia of Nature’s goodies waiting to be sampled!
In the various hikes my wife and I have been making during this autumn season, we have been taking advantage of this bounty, gathering fruits that have (more or less) fallen into our laps.
Our gathering started with grapes; not table grapes but wine grapes. I would admit, if my arm were twisted, that we took a few bunches from vines that were waiting to be harvested.
But we soon discovered that quite often there were bunches at the very bottom of the vines which the harvesting machines they use nowadays didn’t catch.
So we helped ourselves to those. I mean, they were obviously not going to get picked, and there was no point letting them rot on the vine, right? We ate white and red grapes indiscriminately, grapes that had been destined to become Zweigelt or Blaufränkisch in the red wines, Riesling or Grüner Veltliner in the whites. They were full of pips and had thick, rubbery skins but were wonderfully sweet.
Later on, we walked along hiking trails flanked by walnut trees
The ground below the trees was thick with walnuts still in their blackened husks.
So many walnuts! It was terrible to see this bounty given to us free by Nature just being left to rot. So we got to work and collected several bags’ full, which we brought home to eat – waste not, want not, as my grandmother used to say!
That being said, I cannot in all honesty claim that they were a good find. Most of them were small, hard to crack, and the meat inside clung for all it was worth to the shell, a meat that after a while left a metallic taste in your mouth. Once we had dutifully finished our trove of nuts, my wife went out to buy some commercial walnuts, to remind ourselves how easy they were to open, how smoothly the meat fell out of the shell, and how delicious their taste was – sometimes, I have to admit, the products of the agro-industrial complex are tastier than the original …
Lately there have been apples and pears. In so many spots on our walks we came across apple or pear trees growing by the side of the path, groaning under their load of fruit and dropping them to the ground.
All these gifts from Nature, just going bad … It really broke our hearts to see this waste. I suppose the trees were planted in a time when more people lived on the land and when they grew more of what they ate. Now there is hardly anyone left in the countryside and those who are left can’t be bothered to pick the fruit from the trees their ancestors planted. Well, in memory of those ancestors, we gathered up a bag or so of both. The apples were really delicious: red-cheeked and slightly tart in their sweetness, just the way I like them.
Not for me the vacuously mild Golden Deliciouses of this world!
The pears were not so good. A few are mixed in with the picture of our walnuts: small, green-skinned, with a flesh which was both granular and set the teeth on edge. But my wife whipped up a fruit salad, mixing them with some of the apples and adding a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of lemon juice. Mm-mm-goood! (pity we don’t have any gin in the house; a slug of that would have made the salad even more delicious).
The fruit-picking time is nearly over. Now it’s leaf-watching time. This afternoon, we immersed ourselves in a world of yellow, gold, and russet (not too many reds in this part of the world).
We finished where our autumn adventures had started, in the vineyards, yellow now but with a dash of red.
The leaves are falling faster and faster, driven off the trees by wind and rain. Soon it will be time to search out mugs of glühwein, the hot wine toddy of this part of the world.
Hopefully, if lockdowns and other Covid restrictions allow it, we’ll be able to drink the winter season away, waiting for Spring to roll around again and the cycle to start all over again.
A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.
It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).
I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.
A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).
Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.
Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.
The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).
The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.
But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.
A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).
The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?
The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.
I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.
I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.
It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.
The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit – posca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.
Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.
By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.
The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.
But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.
It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).
It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.
For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.
For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.
I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.
The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.
Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us theword “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.
Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!
This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.
My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation. In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.
Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:
“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”
Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.
And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)
Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.
A few posts ago, while I was describing the origins of Lea & Perrins sauce, I mentioned in passing that the story of tomato ketchup was an equally fascinating tale and thought that its telling could be the subject of one of my posts. Well, that moment has come!
I find the story of tomato ketchup worth telling because it intertwines two themes which I am passionate about and which have been the subject of a number of my posts in the past: the rich history of the humble, mundane articles which we have surrounded ourselves with, and the role which global trade has played in spreading such articles around the planet – for better or for worse. The story of tomato ketchup serves up both of these themes in spades.
Tomato ketchup is of course primarily associated with the United States, and indeed it is there that we have seen the greatest growth in the consumption of ketchup. But the roots of ketchup are buried in a land far, far away, on the other side of the world, in southern China.
The word ketchup is an Anglicisation of the Hokkien word kôe-chiap (as written in its Romanised form; 鮭汁 in Chinese characters). The homeland of Hokkien speakers, the Hoklo, is southern Fujian, although Hoklo communities also exist in Guangdong and Hainan. In southern Fujian, they live cheek by jowl with other groups like the Hakka (I only mention the latter because my wife has never forgiven me for visiting the typical Hakka roundhouses near Xiamen without her). Hokkien is only one of a mass of different languages and dialects that are found in China.
Kôe-chiap means “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish”. We have the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (now called Xiamen), published in 1873, to thank for this explanation; I throw in a picture of the dictionary’s title page, along with the relevant entry in the dictionary.
“Brine of pickled fish” basically means a sauce made by fermenting fish in salt and collecting the liquid which is so created. So we can consider kôe-chiap to be a fermented fish sauce. The same sauce is still made in southern China, although it’s now often called yu lu (which translates as “fish dew” – such a poetic name! especially since the sauce probably smells strongly …). Here is a picture of a modern version.
In its most elemental form, as simply the liquid which oozes from brined fermenting fish, this kind of sauce is found in all the cultures in South-East Asia. So we have nuoc-mam in Viet Nam, naam-plaa in Thailand, tuk-trey in Cambodia, padaek in Laos, patis in the Philippines, budu in Malaysia, ngapi in Myanmar, and – very importantly for our story – kechap ikan in Indonesia. It’s also found in Japan (shottu kuru), Korea (aek jeot) to the east, Iran (mahyawa) and Italy (colatura di alici) to the west. In fact, until the 18th Century or thereabouts, fermented fish sauce was common in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe, after which its use died out (and it was incredibly popular in Roman times, when it was known as garum; the Romans put it in just about everything). To show the sauce’s ubiquity, I throw in a photo of the cover of a cookery book dedicated to recipes from around the world which use fish sauce.
I would ask my readers to make a mental note of the fact that fermented fish sauces also existed in Europe and in particular in the UK, because I will come back to this point later. But right now, I want to focus on how the Hoklo version of fermented fish sauce, kôe-chiap, spread throughout South-East Asia, because it is almost certainly there and not in southern Fujian that English traders and sailors came across it and liked it so much that they brought it back to the UK.
The Hoklo were intrepid traders. They traded throughout South East Asia and beyond. They also emigrated to all the polities making up South East Asia. They did this even though successive Chinese dynasties blew hot and sometimes very cold about their subjects trading overseas and emigrating, going so far in some moments as to declare that Chinese who emigrated were no longer worthy of being considered Chinese. The Hoklo were no doubt firm believers in the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn, meaning “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (a proverb which is still relevant in China today; I heard it uttered quite a few times in my time there): Beijing (or whatever was the Imperial capital of the moment) was far away and communications were difficult, so they could safely ignore emperors’ fulminations. I hasten to add that they were not the only southern Chinese people to trade and emigrate. Other peoples from the south, like the Cantonese and the Hakka, did the same. But the Hoklo people seem to have done it more than any other group, so they are now the largest (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, southern Thailand) or one of the largest (Malaysia, Viet Nam, Myanmar) groups in the various Chinese diasporas in South East Asia. For the most part, the Hoklo settled in the bigger trading ports in these countries.
As emigrants from all parts of the world have done in all times, the Hoklo no doubt took their foodstuffs with them, and that will have included their fermented fish sauce. At least in Indonesia, it looks like the local population took to the sauce with such enthusiasm that the word kôe-chiap entered the Indonesian language as kechap (or kicap, or kecap, or ketjap; I presume there is some difficulty in finding a satisfactory Romanised form of the Indonesian word). This seems to be another example of Indonesians’ enthusiasm for adopting foreign words, something I have written an earlier post about. Over time, the meaning of kechap has evolved to cover just about any type of sauce, which is why the modern Indonesian name for fermented fish sauce is kecap ikan (“ikan” meaning fish in Indonesian); they now have to specify that the sauce is fish-based.
So by the 1500s (the relevance of this date will become clear in a minute), kôe-chiap was probably present throughout South-East Asia, particularly in the region’s trading ports, thanks to Hoklo traders settling in these ports. What happened next?
Well, by the early 1500s, European ships finally began to arrive in South-East Asia, having managed to make it around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. They were after eastern spices, especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. These spices had always arrived in Europe via India and the Middle East, and European traders wanted to go direct to the source, thus cutting out all the middlemen and making themselves huge fortunes in the process (just to give readers an idea of the size of the profits, in 1620 a cargo of 250,000 pounds of pepper, bought for ₤26,401 in the “East Indies”, was sold for ₤208,333 in London, a profit of 690%; in the same period, a cargo of 150,000 pounds of cloves, bought for ₤5,126, was sold in London for ₤45,000, a profit of 780%). The Portuguese arrived first, followed by Spaniards (who actually arrived the other way, finding a route around the tip of South America and sailing across the Pacific). The Portuguese ruled the roost for about a hundred years; the Spaniards contented themselves with the Philippines and left the rest of South-East Asia alone. Then the Dutch and English arrived on the scene (as did the French, but they quickly disappeared). The Dutch eventually strong-armed the Portuguese out of the way. As for the English, they were actually quite modest players. They managed to do some trading and to set up a few “factories” (which in this case meant warehouses where they could store their spices and other merchandise and hold markets with the locals) in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; these islands were at the very centre of the spice trade. But the Dutch squeezed them out by the 1600s (so the English focused on India instead, as a consolation prize; they ended up controlling the whole of the subcontinent and used that as a stepping stone to the foundation of a global Empire – what an irony).
Just for the fun of it, I throw in here a painting of a factory – it is actually a Dutch factory, in India, but I think it rather nicely gives the idea of what the factories looked like.
And for the hell of it, I add a print of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, which was the centre of Dutch power in South-East Asia, as the town looked like in 1754.
Of course, even as they were busy trading and fighting one another, the European sailors and traders had to fill their stomachs. In their idle moments in the various South-East Asian ports they visited, or during their down time in the factories, they must have been sampling local cuisine, as modern tourists do today. Certainly in the case of the English, this included a sauce which they variously spelled as catchup, katchup, ketchup, kitchup, and maybe in a few more ways. They really liked it! In the case of sailors, it was certainly sufficiently part of their lives that a dictionary of slang used by British sailors, the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1698, had an entry for catchup (as it is spelled), where it is described simply as “A high East-India Sauce”. I include a photo of the relevant page of the dictionary (the relevant word is highlighted).
(by “high”, the writers of the dictionary were no doubt referring to the fact that the fermented fish in the sauce made it smell “off” or quite strong)
At this point, then, this ketchup sauce made the jump from South East Asia to England, as traders or sailors or both brought it back home. Once it arrived in England, it caught on big time. But now we have to ask ourselves what exactly was this sauce that English sailors and traders got so excited about? I cannot believe that it was just plain fermented fish sauce. As I said earlier, that already existed in the UK, where it was known as fish pickle and was made much in the same way as kôe-chiap was. Why would English sailors and traders get enthusiastic about a sauce they already knew, and more importantly why would they bother to bring it home? And why would people in England get excited about it? I have to think that as kôe-chiap moved around South-East Asia in the trunks of Hoklo traders and emigrants, other ingredients began to be added to the original sauce. My money would be on this having happened most in Indonesia. After all, many different kinds of kechap sauce began to be made there, to the point where the word kechap simply came to mean any sauce (and interestingly enough, it seems that until the 1950s the Chinese community in Indonesia, the majority of whom were Hoklo, made most of the different kechaps consumed in the country). So in my romantic mind’s eye, I see English traders and sailors in their Javan and Sumatran factories, or in some port somewhere in those islands, tasting the local kechap and saying “Yum! Must bring this back to Blighty”.
But what ingredients might have been added? Unfortunately, no-one in the 1600s, when the sauce caught on with the English, thought of publishing the recipe somewhere (or if they did, I haven’t found it). From the recipes which appeared in English cookery books, examples of which I give below, my guess is that a lot of spices – that pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves which the Europeans had sailed to South-East Asia to find – were added.
In any event, English cooks began to try to copy this kechap sauce which appeared on their shores, with locally available ingredients. Here, for instance, is the earliest published recipe for katchup (as it was spelled) in an English cookery book. The book in question is The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith and published in 1727. I love the book’s frontispiece, so I’ll throw it in here.
And here is the recipe.
To Make English Katchup.
Take a wide-mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar ; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised ; then take a pint of the best Langoon white-wine [a French white wine], boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen [salted] anchovies wash’d and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle ; then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little ; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon-peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish ; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day ; then use it: T’is good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat ; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms.
So we have the fish (although not in the form of fish sauce but rather as the fish itself) and the spices from South-East Asia (now readily available thanks to those brave English sailors), to which some local spices have been added (horse radish and shallots). Interestingly, alcohol, in the form of wine in this case (beer was used in other recipes), has been added; I suspect alcohol was not present in the original kechap.
Quite quickly, mushrooms – or rather the liquid extracted from mushrooms – which was mentioned almost as an afterthought in Eliza Smith’s recipe, started playing a more important role. In fact, in some recipes the fish disappeared completely, to be replaced by mushrooms. An example is a recipe from the cookery book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747. Before giving the recipe, let me show the book’s frontispiece, another wonderful piece of minor art.
And now the recipe.
To make Ketchup.
Take the large Flaps of Mushrooms, pick nothing but the Straws and Dirt from it, then lay them in a broad earthen Pan, strew a good deal of Salt over them, let them lie till next Morning, then with your Hand brake them, put them into a Stew-pan, let them boil a Minute or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth, and wring it hard. Take out all the Juice, let it stand to settle, then pour it off clear, run it thro’ a thick Flannel Bag, (some filter it thro’ brown Paper, but that is a very tedious Way) then boil it, to a Quart of the Liquor put a quarter of an Ounce of whole Ginger, and half a quarter of an Ounce of whole Pepper, boil it briskly a quarter of an Hour, then strain it, and when it is cold, put it into Pint Bottles ; in each Bottle put four or five Blades of Mace, and six Cloves, cork it tight, and it will keep two Years. This gives the best Flavour of the Mushrooms to any Sauce. If you put to a pint of this Ketchup a pint of Mum [Beer], it will taste like foreign Ketchup.
In fact, as far as the UK was concerned mushroom ketchup became the norm. It was in common use until some 30 years ago. It’s rather disappeared from view now, although you can still buy it online, as “Geo. Watkins Mushroom Ketchup”.
I suppose cooks are infinitely curious and will try all sorts of variations to true and tried recipes. Certainly, once people got over their diffidence about eating tomatoes (for a long while, it was thought they were poisonous), cooks tried making a ketchup with tomatoes. And here it is time to finally bring in the United States. At about the same time as English sailors and traders were going east to search for spices, they were also going west, to the newly discovered continent of America. Emigrants were going too and eventually set up the American colonies. The English colonists tended to look back to the Mother Country for their cooking habits and recipes. Both The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy were published in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic, cooks were experimenting with tomatoes. It seems that the prize for First Published Recipe for Tomato Ketchup goes to an American, a certain James Mease. In his book Archives of Useful Knowledge, published in 1812, he gave the following recipe for a tomato ketchup (he called tomatoes love apples, an early name for them):
Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.
Mease had already dropped the fish (a recipe for “tomata catsup”, in the cookery book Apicius Redivivus, or the Cook’s Oracle, published in the UK in 1817, is quite similar to Mease’s but still includes the fish) and considerably reduced the spices. It sounds more like what I would call a tomato sauce. A recipe for “tomato catsup”, given in The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) and first published in 1824, is even more like a tomato sauce, with the brandy now dropped.
Gather a peck of tomatoes, pick out the stems, and wash them; put them on the fire without water, sprinkle on a few spoonfuls of salt, let them boil steadily an hour, stirring them frequently; strain through a colander, and then through a sieve; put the liquid on the fire with half a pint of chopped onions, half a quarter of an ounce of mace broke into small pieces; and if not sufficiently salt, add a little more — one table-spoonful of whole black pepper; boil all together until just enough to fill two bottles; cork it tight. Make it in August, in dry weather.
At some point, Americans began adding sugar to their tomato ketchup. By the time, Mr. Henry J. Heinz began making his tomato ketchup in the mid 1870s, sugar was standard. Here is a handwritten description of the recipe Heinz was using in 1895.
It’s a little difficult to read and the picture doesn’t have the whole write-up, but it seems to say the following:
100 gals of thin tomato pulp
8 oz Ambonia cloves broken
7 oz Garden Allspice
6 oz broken Saigon cinnamon
4½ oz broken Penang mace
1½ oz powd Cayenne pepper
3 oz fresh chopped garlic
4½ lbs fresh chopped onions
This is all put into a 250 gal capacity kettle and boiled fast. After a while, add 4 gals of 10 %[?] vgr [vinegar] and cook, again for a while, when having almost the proper thickness add 38 lbs sugar … [I cannot read the rest]
Heinz seems to have stayed with the spicier types of ketchups. According to those who have recreated this sauce, this is a sauce with some punch to it, much more than the “timid smooth sauce” of today. But in 1895, hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries weren’t where tomato ketchup was mainly being used. No doubt the spiciness has had to be toned down.
In any event, Heinz’s tomato ketchup was a huge success and continues to be so. The company caught the wave of women no longer wanting to slave over the stoves to make their sauces at home when they could buy perfectly good ready-made sauces in the shops and then the supermarkets.
So there we have it. By the twists and turns of history, what started out as a sauce oozing out of fermenting fish ended up as a thickish sweet tomato-sugar-vinegar-based sauce, changing as different cultures met, swapped foodstuffs, and people carried new foodstuffs home and modified them to meet their needs.
A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to an upscale (i.e., swanky) supermarket in the central district of Vienna to buy bresaola (an Italian delicacy which I have covered in an earlier post). As she waited to be served, I wandered around looking idly at what was on offer in the condiments section, where I was much struck by this array of mustards.
Mustards of all types, from all corners of the world, were on display. So many, so inviting! (I have touched upon the delights of mustard in at least one previous post). I had to investigate this wonderful condiment, I decided. Now, after many hours of surfing the internet’s electronic waves, I am ready to report back.
We have to begin, of course, at the beginning, that is to say with the plant which produces the mustard seeds. Actually, it’s three plants: Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea, and Sinapis alba, and they produce black, brown, and white mustard seeds, respectively. The first two are closely related, the third is a distant cousin of the other two. This is what the plants look like (from left to right Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea, Sinapis alba)
Those readers who see a distinct resemblance to the rapeseed plant will be right. Rapeseed is a close relative to the black and brown mustard plant. A rarity until the 1970s, it is now grown in huge quantities around the world, giving rise to field after monotonous field of the stuff
as well as to the questionable delights of colza and canola oil (why this sudden rise to fame of the rapeseed is a story for another day).
(A quick parenthesis: the Brassica family, to which black and brown mustard as well as rapeseed belong, seems to have a hugely elastic genome; farmers have managed to coax all sorts of different yummy foodstuffs from members of this family, as I have related in a previous post. The precise genomic relationships between the various members of the family were first described in the delightfully-named Theory of U, so called because it was published in 1935 by the Korean botanist Woo Jang-choon, writing under the Japanized name Nagaharu U – readers will recall that Korea was a Japanese colony in 1935).
Anyway, back to mustard. For readers – like me – who have never actually seen mustard seeds in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a mug shot of all three together. From left to right, we have black, brown, and white mustard seeds; I think the photo explains the colour-coded names they have been given.
The seeds are tiny, by the way, 1 mm or so in diameter. Readers with a Christian background will no doubt recall the parable in the synoptic Gospels (I quote here the version from Matthew): “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Most people believe the parable refers to the black mustard plant, which can grow up to 3 m tall.
The seeds not only differ in colour, they also differ in “punch”, that sharp, hot, pungent flavour which we associate with mustard, with white mustard seeds being milder than the other two. Here I have to explain a little where that punch comes from, because it is important to our story of mustard condiment. The seed itself has punch, so if you ate a seed or two you would feel a bite in your mouth. But much of the punch that we associate with mustard actually comes from a series of chemicals which are produced when an enzyme naturally present in the seeds reacts with other chemicals also naturally present in the seeds. These reactions only occur when the enzyme is activated by the presence of water. Thus, the real kick from mustard only comes if you break up the seeds and mix them with water or with a liquid containing water. The enzyme can be denatured, thus making the mustard’s kick milder, by applying heat (using hot water or heating the mixture) or by using acid – the more concentrated the acid, the more denatured the enzyme.
Interestingly enough, of all our ancestors only the Romans stumbled onto this trick for getting mustard to pack a more powerful punch – or at least they were the only ones who used the trick routinely. Others – the Indians and the Ethiopians, for instance – used mustard seeds as a spice and so relied mainly on the seeds’ “dry” punch, while others still – the East Asians in particular – used mustard plants as a leaf vegetable and ignored the seeds.
The name “mustard” gives us a possible clue to what liquid the Romans used to make their mustard condiment. “Mustard” derives from the old French word “moustarde” (which has become the modern French “moutarde”), which in turn comes from the Latin “mustum ardens”, or “fiery must”. Must is the fresh juice that is squeezed out of grapes in the wine presses. Here we have a Roman mosaic showing men merrily (and probably somewhat tipsily) stomping on the grapes to expel the must, which is flowing into receptacles below.
The ground mustard seeds presumably added piquancy to the must. I find this quite intriguing, because as far as I know no-one makes mustard in this way anymore. It just so happens that come Autumn, when the grape harvest is in, must is a popular drink to quaff in the wine taverns which dot the outskirts of Vienna and the woods surrounding it.
I must make a mental note to try making my own Roman-style mustard this Autumn, to see what it tastes like. Since must is quite sweet, I would imagine that I would end up with a sweet mustard.
On the other hand, the two recipes for making mustard which are to be found in surviving Roman cookbooks actually use vinegar as the liquid. I quote here (in translation) the shorter of these recipes, from Palladius’s book on agriculture, Opus agriculturae, written some time in the late 4th, early 5th Century AD.
“Grind one sextarium [2 quarts] of mustard seeds with five pounds of honey and one of Hispanic oil, diluting with one sextarium [2 quarts] of strong vinegar. Grind everything together diligently and use.”
The honey suggests to me that this mustard would also be sweet. Perhaps the Romans liked their mustard sweet.
So what “accelerant” (to use a term from fire-making) did the Romans use to fire up their ground mustard seeds? Must? Vinegar? Perhaps they used either one or the other, depending on the tastes of the cook. Perhaps they used both; a popular Roman drink was must clarified with vinegar. Perhaps they used other liquids, now lost to us in the mists of time. We shall probably never know.
What is important for the history of mustard is that the Romans took both vines and winemaking, and probably their mustard seeds as well, north into Gaul after they had conquered it, and the making of both wine and mustard took hold there. There was a certain desire – at least among the Gaulish elites – to emulate their Roman conquerors, as Goscinny and Uderzo brilliantly showed us in their Asterix album Le Combat des Chefs.
Luckily for us, the Gauls, who were soon to become the French, continued with their love of mustard long after the Romans had departed and their Empire had collapsed. The symbiotic relationship between wine and mustard seed continued. Must as the accelerant seems to have been forgotten and vinegar took its place; mustard making was a good way of using wine that had soured and turned to vinegar.
While many of the emerging wine regions of France also became mustard making regions, the prince among them all was Burgundy, with its capital Dijon. For want of a photo of Dijon mustard from the 14th Century, I thrown in a photo of the delightfully coloured roofs of Dijon’s cathedral instead.
Dijon mustard seems to have become the gold standard for mustard makers, with everyone else around Europe trying to emulate them. But what did you do if you lived in a part of Europe to the north of where vines would grow? The following map shows roughly where the current northernmost boundary of vine growing is. I don’t think it’s changed much over the centuries, although it is now creeping northwards because of climate change (but that is a discussion for another day).
What did you use instead of wine vinegar?
Well, of course these northern regions all had fruit or grain, and you can ferment either to make alcohol, and you can ferment alcohol to make vinegar. As an example, let me use the English mustard from Tewkesbury (which, for those readers who are somewhat hazy about English geography is a quiet market town in the county of Gloucestershire). I choose this particular mustard for a number of reasons, as will become clear in a minute.
I haven’t talked at all about all the other herbs, spices, and other goodies which mustard makers have added over the centuries, and continue to add, to their mustards, to amend the taste. As readers can imagine, though, they all have their secret list of additional ingredients. Tewksebury mustard is interesting in that its makers added large amounts of horseradish (and for this reason it got a mention in an earlier post about this potent root). This seems to me to be an example of creating a double-whammy, because the chemicals created by that enzyme in mustard are very similar to the chemicals in horseradish. From which I deduce that Tewkesbury mustard must be pretty damned strong. So that’s one reason for my choosing to talk about Tewkesbury mustard.
To make Tewkesbury mustard, its citizens would steep grated horseradish in vinegar made from apple cider for some two days and then mix this infusion with powdered mustard seed (ground, I am delighted to report, by using an iron cannonball as the pestle in a mortar). So here we have an example of a non-wine vinegar being used as the accelerant. Other vinegars have been used by other mustard makers.
Tewkesbury mustard was famous all over England. Why, it was famous enough to get mentioned by the Bard of Avon himself! The citation comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part II, where at some point Falstaff says of his companion Ned Poins, “He a good wit? Hang him, baboon. His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard. There’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet” (for readers interested in looking the citation up, it appears somewhere in Act 2, scene 4).
To get around the tricky problem of how to transport their mustard all around the kingdom, the citizens of Tewkesbury rolled it into balls and then allowed them to dry. The dried balls could then be transported quite easily and would keep a long time. Customers would purchase a ball, cut off a slice whenever needed, and then steep it once again in any manner of liquids of their choosing: water, milk, cider, cider vinegar, wine, ale, beer, or fruit juice. Once soft enough, it would be whipped to a thick, creamy consistency (as we know from the quote from Shakespeare).
At some point, the round shape of the product, allied to its horseradish-enhanced pungency, led wits to use Tewkesbury mustard as slang to describe incendiary fire-balls. Here, for instance, we have the great philosopher David Hume, in his History of England, writing about a rumour that the Great Fire of London of 1666 was started by foreign arsonists trained by Jesuits: “Fire-balls were familiarly called among them Tewkesbury mustard pills”. That certainly tells us something about their fiery nature …
I find this idea of offering mustard in the form of balls quite delightful. Sadly, the manufacture of Tewkesbury mustard died out at the beginning of the 19th century, possibly under the pressure of having to compete with newfangled powdered mustards liked Colman’s. Luckily, however, some brave souls are trying to revive its manufacture in Tewksebury (although also wisely offering the mustard in the modern form: ready-made in jars, ready to slather on). They are also trying to brand the mustard by applying for Protected Geographic Indication status. Here is a photo of a pile of these balls.
It’s certainly the case that for some reason finely powdered mustard became the norm in England (as well as in certain British colonies like Australia). Colman’s mustard dominated the market, selling its mustard in these iconic yellow tins.
One of my first memories of mustard was a small yellow tin just like these in my English grandmother’s kitchen cupboard. She used it in her vinaigrettes and she taught little 8-year old me how to make them (I still remember the recipe: “1 teaspoon of vinegar, dissolve in a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, 2 pinches of Colman’s mustard powder, add 3 teaspoons of oil”). A whip around the web shows me many people of about my age fondly recalling their mothers using Colman’s mustard powder in all manner of dishes. It seems to me, though, that those mothers of yesteryear were using mustard powder more like a spice – like a curry powder – than a condiment. Interestingly enough, the first Mr. Colman, Jeremiah Colman, was not in the vinegar business as were many of the mustard makers of the time. He was a miller instead; clearly, he was only interested in the milling of the mustard seeds; what liquid was used to fire up the powder didn’t interest him (this connection between mustard and milling rather than mustard and vinegar was at the basis of at least one other well-known mustard, la moutarde de Meaux in France; Meaux was well-known since Carolingian times as a place which sat on a rock formation which made excellent grinding stones).
In 1756, some 60 years before Jeremiah Colman set up his mustard grinding business in Norwich, a revolution occurred in the heart of the mustard business, Dijon. There, a certain Jean Naigeon switched from using vinegar to using “verjus”, or verjuice in English. Verjuice is an acidic juice made from pressing unripe fruit or sour fruit of one variety or other (“verjus” translates as “green juice”). During the Middle Ages it was widely used all over Europe as an ingredient in sauces, as a condiment, or to deglaze preparations. Over time it fell out of fashion, with cooks replacing it with either wine or some variety of vinegar or lemon juice. Jean Naigeon moved in the other direction, shifting from vinegar to verjuice. Specifically, he used verjuice prepared with green, unripe grapes hailing from the Côte d’Or (home to most of the greatest Burgundy wines). For readers who are curious about what this verjuice might look like, I throw in a photo of a bottle of the stuff made by one of the few local mustard manufacturers left in the Dijon area, Edmond Fallot. It looks quite like a normal white wine; it is simply much more acidic.
From then on, mustard makers in Burgundy, as well as in many other places which were copying Burgundy’s mustards, used verjuice, possibly mixed with vinegar, possibly mixed with wine, as the accelerant in their preparations. When mustards proclaim on their labels that they are made with wine, they may have some real wine in them, but most of the “wine” will actually be verjuice.
This shift to verjuice leaves me thinking. As I said, verjuice can be made from any unripe or sour fruit. A quick whip around the web has shown me that there are makers of crab apple verjuice and apple verjuice. Perhaps other fruits have been used. Has anyone tried making mustard with other verjuices? I have not found any being marketed on the web. Is there a reason for this, I wonder? I cannot think of one. Perhaps some clever entrepreneur will give it a go (and if I find a bottle of non-grape verjuice here in Vienna, I might also give it a go, before I try making my mustard with must).
The one other big change that happened to mustards took place in Munich, in the mid-19th Century. This was the development of Bayerischer Süßer Senf, or Bavarian sweet mustard, a mustard which goes exceedingly well with the traditional Bavarian white sausage, or Weißwurst (normally eaten with a large soft pretzel, the Laugenbrezel).
This is the type of mustard we currently have on our dining table. We don’t eat it with white sausage (we wish!); my wife uses it to give taste to her rather bland diet of chicken and turkey (which I suppose has always been the purpose of mustard, ever since Roman times, to give otherwise bland food some oomph).
This mustard was developed by one Johann Conrad Develey. He was from an old Huguenot family which had escaped from France to Switzerland (hence his French-sounding name). He himself came to Munich from Switzerland via Lindau and Augsburg, where he had done his schooling. He started by making Dijon-style mustard, but he sensed that there was an unfulfilled demand for a sweet mustard. He played around with various ingredients, of which sugar was naturally one. He finally hit the jackpot when he caramelized the sugar by plunging red-hot pokers into it. The caramelization process gave his concoction a depth of taste he couldn’t get with sugar alone. Thus, it seems, that mustard development had gone back to where it started in Roman times, with a sweet mustard.
The rest of the mustard story is rather depressing. It is a story of industrialization, developing machines that could make mustard ever more quickly and in ever greater quantities (this is what made Maurice Grey, of Grey-Poupon mustard, famous), which in turn meant ever greater concentration: the micro mustard makers didn’t have sufficient capital to buy the new machines and went to the wall, allowing the remaining firms to capture more market and grow ever bigger. It is then a story of building up brands through advertizing of one form or another.
Notice the stoneware pots in this ad; this became a very popular way of branding mustards.
Amora started selling its mustard in pots which housewives could reuse as drinking glasses. Themed glasses were made, where you could collect the whole set.
It is finally a story of ever bigger companies buying up the smaller companies.
Now all that’s left are vast, faceless multinationals which have no sense of place, of “terroir” as the French call it, which are only interested in owning famous mustard brands – made famous through clever advertizing – and which will make the mustards wherever it is cheaper to make them, with ingredients it will source from the cheapest place, and will look to substitute the more expensive ingredients with others which “give more or less the same taste”. I know, I’ve been there. I once did environmental due diligence work for a multinational company whose name will not pass my lips, which was intent on buying up an Italian shoe polish company with a well-known brand. The company had been making the polish from the very start in Padova, using a local workforce. The purchase went through. The last time I passed Padova by car – you could see the factory from the motorway – the factory was gone; the polish is probably now made in China or somewhere similar.
Luckily, though, there are courageous entrepreneurs fighting back, trying to make mustards again locally, with local ingredients where possible, aiming to put on the market a product which is good and not just branded. I wish them luck. I urge all my readers to buy these non-branded mustards. I also urge them to have a go at making their own mustard rather than getting it off a supermarket shelf. There are tons of recipes online for making mustard at home. And I will try to make mustard with must this Autumn and with non-grape verjuice if I can find it. I will report back if I succeed (a big part of the success will be to persuade my wife to help).
Milan, 14 June 2020
Revised in Vienna, 20 October 2020
In the recent hikes which my wife and I have been doing, we’ve come across a lot of these.
“These” are woodland strawberries (but see the Postscript at the end). I throw in here a much more professional photo of this plant, to give readers a better view.
The fact is, though, that they are really very small, no more than half a centimetre across, as this photo of a whole sheet of them shows: they are just bright red dots against the green of the leaves.
Those bright red dots always catch my eye as we walk along. From time to time, I’ve picked one of the bigger ones and eaten it. They are pretty bland, I have to say. Their taste is really nothing to write home (or a post) about.
Which – as I tramped along – got me thinking: who were the people who laboured so hard to turn these small, not very tasty berries into the big, juicy and wonderfully sweet berries that we eat today?
Readers of my posts will know that I have a fondness of saluting the almost always anonymous folk who over the millennia have coaxed tasty foodstuffs which we eat today out of small and not so tasty wild plants. The last such foodstuff whose creation I have saluted is the common chicory. I decided to do the same thing for the strawberry. And so I have been beavering away on my computer these last few weeks, surfing the web and seeing what I could find.
The first thing I found was that I had been completely wrong. Today’s strawberries do not descend from those little woodland strawberries we had been spotting on our walks. They are not the result of countless generations of rural people patiently selecting woodland strawberry plants with ever sweeter and ever bigger fruits. The story of today’s plump and juicy strawberries is much more complex. They are actually the result of Europe having colonised much of the rest of the planet.
But let me start where all good stories start, at the beginning. It is true that Europeans had at one time domesticated woodland strawberries. Perhaps the Romans had done so, but if they did these domesticates were lost during the Dark Ages. Medieval Europeans certainly started domesticating them. King Charles V of France, for instance, has his gardeners transplant 1,200 woodland strawberry plants into his gardens some time in the late 1300s. Europeans also started domesticating the other species of strawberries which are found in Europe, the musk, or hautbois, strawberry, which is somewhat bigger than the woodland strawberry
and the creamy strawberry, which as its name suggests can be quite pale; it’s about the same size as the woodland strawberry.
It’s hard to tell from surviving documents, but Medieval and Renaissance gardeners do seem to have created strains of strawberries which were bigger and sweeter than their wild cousins. But by “bigger” I mean something as big as a plump blackberry, no more than that.
Then started the period of European colonisation. In the Americas this led to, among other things, the transfer of a wealth of new foodstuffs to Europe, a phenomenon I’ve touched upon in a couple of past posts. Maize, tomato, and potato are probably the most well known of these arrivals from the Americas. Like these three, most of the new foodstuffs came from Central and South America, but a few also made their way from North America. The best known of these is the sunflower, while I recently wrote a post about another, more modest transfer from North America, the Jerusalem artichoke. And now I have discovered that there was yet another transfer from North America: the Virginian (or scarlet) strawberry! This species of strawberry grows throughout much of North America, but it was of course first seen by Europeans in the colonies strung along the eastern seaboard.
These colonists must have been quite pleased to have this new strawberry plant at hand. We’re still not talking of berries the size of those we’re now used to – its berries were about the same size as those of the European musk strawberry. But no doubt they would have seen them as a useful adjunct to their diet.
When exactly someone brought plants of the Virginia strawberry back to Europe is not clear – the early 1600s seem to be the most probable time frame. And what country they brought them back to is not clear either – the British, French and Dutch all had colonies in the strawberry’s range, so any of these three countries could have been the original entry point, and maybe the plant was introduced into Europe more than once. Wherever its entry point (or points) was, the Virginia strawberry didn’t spread that quickly through the rest of Europe. It seems to have been more of a curiosity, and certainly didn’t replace the European species with which people were familiar.
While the French, British, and Dutch were busy colonising North America, the Spaniards were busy colonising Central and South America. In South America, they first smashed the Inca Empire. Then they turned their attention further southward. It made strategic sense for them to control the whole of the Pacific seaboard down to the Straits of Magellan, to keep an eye on other pesky European nations coming through those straits for who knows what nefarious reasons. So they went on to conquer what is now Chile. In the south of Chile, the Spaniards encountered the Mapuche and Huilliche peoples, who put up a stiff resistance but who were eventually overcome and subjugated.
The Spaniards discovered that these two tribes had domesticated another local species of strawberry, the Chilean (or beach) strawberry. And in this case the berry was pretty damned big!
The Spanish colonists were very happy to add the Chilean strawberry to their local diet, to the point that it was commonly available in local markets in the new Spanish towns of southern Chile. It remained, however, a local delicacy. If anyone ever tried to bring back plants to Spain, there is no sign of them having succeeded.
So things stood until 1712. In that year, King Louis XIV of France sent a certain Amédée François Frézier on a secret mission to Chile. We have here a portrait of Frézier in old age, after a long and successful career.
His orders were to find out all he could about the Spanish military presence there: forts, harbours, military units, and so on (this was part of Louis XIV’s ongoing struggles with Spain). For nearly two years, Frézier followed his orders most diligently, posing as a merchant looking for trading opportunities. But Frézier was a man of many interests, one of these being botany. Naturally enough, the Chilean strawberry, with its very big fruit, caught his attention. As he was to write later:
They there cultivate entire fields of a type of strawberry differing from ours by their rounder leaves, being fleshier and having strong runners. Its fruit are usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg. They are of a whitish-red colour and a little less delicate to the taste than our woodland strawberries.
Frézier determined to bring some plants back with him when he returned to France. So it was that when in 1714 he finally boarded the ship which would be taking him home, he took five plants of the Chilean strawberry with him, and managed to keep alive on the long – and hot – trip home. When he arrived in France, he kept one of the plants for himself and sent the others to various friends and patrons. News of this new species of strawberry quickly made the rounds among Europe’s little circle of amateur botanists, especially after Frézier’s book was published in which he gave a detailed account of his doings in Chile and included a description of this strawberry plant with such large fruits. Strawberry plants are easy to propagate, so not only did news about the Chilean strawberry get around; so did clones of the various plants he brought back. Anyone with a serious botanical garden had to have the plant in their collection!
Alas! Great disappointment lay in store for many of those eminent botanists who planted the Chilean strawberry in their garden and eagerly awaited it to flower and – especially – to fruit (“usually as large as a whole walnut, and sometimes as a small egg”, Frézier had written). For the most part, their plants yielded nothing – nada, zero! They began to think that maybe the plant’s transfer to Europe had made it sterile.
Here, with the advantage of hindsight, I shall cut through all the intellectual confusion that pervaded the minds of Europe’s finest botanists for several decades. The fundamental problem was this: they hadn’t realized that some species of plants are hermaphrodites, and so can self pollinate, while in other species there are separate male and female plants, so both have to be present – and relatively close to each other – for pollination to occur. It just so happens that all the European species of strawberries are hermaphrodites, as is the Virginian strawberry, but the Chilean strawberry is not. There are both male and female plants in that species. Frézier must have taken only plants which were fruiting, and therefore females. This was sensible enough, given his (and everyone else’s) knowledge of strawberries; he wanted to be sure that the plants he nicked were fertile. But what this meant is that there was no way that those poor female Chilean strawberry plants, along with their clones which all the botanists were busy sending each other, were ever going to fruit in Europe without a male plant handy. This mystery was finally elucidated in the early 1760s by a young Frenchman called Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who had a fascination for natural history. He was lucky to have access to King Louis XV’s gardens at Versailles and to be mentored by the “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden”, Bernard de Jussieu. After making a detailed study of strawberries, he explained all in his book Histoire naturelle des fraisiers published in 1766, when he was a mere 19 years old! Here is picture of him in old age.
But actually there was a way to make the Chilean strawberry produce berries! The discovery had been made some time in the first half of the 1700s by those anonymous farmers whom I love to salute. While all those well-off, educated botanists were tearing their hair out at the Chilean strawberry’s obdurate refusal to fruit, they had found a way to coax it to do so – by interplanting the plants with either Virginian strawberry plants or musk strawberry plants. The pollens of these species were closely related enough to that of the Chilean strawberry to pollinate it. Presumably, by chance a farmer (or his wife) had planted these various species close together in their strawberry patch, had seen that the Chilean strawberry fruited under these conditions, and were sharp enough to draw the right conclusion. Who exactly these clever farmers were will of course never be known. But the chances are that it was one or more farmers from around the French city of Brest, in Brittany (Frézier was posted to Brittany on his return from Chile, which probably explains this Breton connection), although it could (also) have been farmers in the Netherlands.
And what fruits they were! Big, juicy, sweet – everything that Frézier had said of the strawberries he had eaten in Chile. Further experimentation showed that the two species from the Americas, the Virginian strawberry and the Chilean strawberry, gave birth to a fertile hybrid, which could be grown as a separate species. On top of this, this hybrid was hermaphroditic so no need for all that fiddly stuff of making sure to plant males and females together! This hybrid is the garden strawberry, the modern strawberry eaten all around the world today.
An industry was created, which currently produces some 9 million tonnes of garden strawberries per year, (with – sign of the times – 40% of that being in China).
And what of the strawberries which this hunking hybrid of a strawberry displaced? The woodland strawberry has disappeared back into the woods from whence it came and where I found it at the beginning of this post. As far as I can tell, the same fate has befallen the Virginian strawberry. There is apparently still a small but devoted following of the musk strawberry in gourmet circles in Italy (of which my wife and I are clearly not part since no restaurant in this country has ever offered us this delicacy). And the Chilean strawberry is still eaten in certain parts of southern Chile.
And what of the other species of strawberries? Because there are something like 15 other species of strawberries around the world. Not surprisingly (strawberry plants liking cool to cold conditions), most of these are native to northern Eurasia, in an arc going from western Siberia to northern Japan. But a number are also to be found in the high areas of western China, all the way from Qinghai in the north to Yunnan in the south. A couple of species are also found in the Himalayas proper. There is even one species which inhabits the hill country of southern India and the mountainous regions of the Philippines.
A good few of these species don’t produce a fruit worth eating. Others do, but the steamroller of the garden strawberry hybrid has meant that they have never had a chance to develop commercially. They are only eaten locally. This is especially true in China. I find that a pity. Rather than becoming the biggest global producer of what is essentially an American hybrid, China should look to its own strawberries and bring them to its people, and to the rest of the world. Just a thought.
As for me and my wife, I think we should plan an enormously long hike from Yunnan to Qinghai, sampling the local strawberries along the way. That would certainly keep us busy for quite a while …
POSTSCRIPT 20 October 2020
A sharp-eyed, and knowledgeable, reader recently informed me that I had made a fundamental mistake when I thought that the little red fruits I was seeing on those hikes with my wife were woodland strawberries. Actually, he kindly told me, they were false strawberries (or mock strawberries), Potentilla indica. The fruits look like the Real McCoy, the leaves look like the Real McCoy, but it ain’t the Real McCoy! After a moment of indignation against this plant masquerading as another, I actually felt relieved. I wrote above that the fruits which I had tasted were bland tasting. Actually, eating them was like eating paper filled with sand (the keen-eyed reader felt it was like eating styrofoam; the few times I’ve bitten into styrofoam makes me think that that taste is quite nice compared to what I was tasting). I kept on wondering how our ancestors could ever have thought they were nice to eat. Now I know that what they were eating – the Real Mccoy – probably tastes quite nice, and I look forward to coming across some in next year’s hikes.
This discovery that what I had been looking at was actually Potentilla indica led me of course to do my usual (Wikipedia-based) research. Which in turn led me to discover that this false-friend is actually native to southern and eastern Asia. Another invasive species! Any faithful reader of mine will know that this has been a topic on which I’ve written several posts over the years. If any of my readers happen to live in Minnesota, they should be aware of the fact that that State’s Department of Natural Resources invites people to report this plant (and any other invasive species) to the authorities. I’m not sure if Italy has any such reporting system, but if it does I will be sure to report any more patches of this fake strawberry which I come across to the right authorities, and will gladly help them in uprooting the little bastards.
My wife’s English is really very good. Readers may think I’m biased, but really, it is very good. Whenever we meet British people, they are regularly surprised to learn that she is Italian. She has not a shadow of that “typical” way of speaking English which so many Italians have (“It’s-a not so bad, it’s-a nice-a place. Ah shaddap-a your face!”). She doesn’t even have that sort of indefinable accent which surely isn’t British but which you can’t quite place. Her only weaknesses are that she sometimes gets a typical British phrase slightly wrong (what we call a “Poirotism”, after David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot, who has this same tendency). And there are some words which she regularly has problems pronouncing. One of these is Worcestershire. It’s one of those legions of English words which are enunciated completely differently from the way they are written. A foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that it should be pronounced Wir-ses-ter-shay-r, and not WUUS-teuh-sheuh, which is the way a Brit would pronounce it. My wife does quite well, but she still stumbles a little over the “teuh-sheu” bit.
If I bring this up, it’s because my wife has been saying “Worcestershire” quite often since we went into lockdown more than two months ago, for the simple reason that she was using a lot of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce in her cooking during lockdown, to add some zest to the food and help us feel a little less mournful. She has since continued on this track.
She is really quite liberal in her use, judging by the number of little L&P bottles which I have to recycle. Under normal circumstances, we would get through one, possibly two, bottles a year. In just the two months of lockdown, I must have thrown away at least three bottles.
But I have to say, Messrs Lea and Perrins’s sauce did add a je-ne-sais-quoi to the food it was applied to. Which of course is the whole purpose of the sauce, and has been ever since it first came onto the market in 1837 (I know this date because in my moments of idleness I have been reading up on Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce). What was the source of that sweet yet pungent je-ne-sais-quoi, I have been wondering?
The label, of course, doesn’t really answer the question. It merely lists the ingredients in no particular order: malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spices, flavourings. It doesn’t tell us how much of each ingredient is used, and, in the case of the last two ingredients, what spices and flavourings are used exactly. As I have noted in an earlier post on the Austrian soft drink Almdudler, the recipes for commercial brands tend to be locked away in particularly secure safes.
Except that in this case, by one of those happy twists of fate which make life so interesting, the recipe was divulged – at least the recipe as it was around the turn of the last Century. In 2009, Brian Keogh, who had been an accountant at L&P until his retirement in 1991 and who had then become an archivist for the company, discovered, thrown away in a skip at the company factory, an old ledger, which he retrieved before it was sent off to the dump. Just as well that he did, because it contained, among other things, handwritten write-ups of the recipe! For any readers who are interested, Mr Keogh authored a book called “The Secret Sauce: a History of Lea & Perrins”, where he describes his discovery and also gives a history of the L&P Worcestershire sauce. I include here pictures of the pages in the ledger showing the recipe used in 1907.
For those readers whose eyesight is fading, you have my sympathy and I have recreated a table below with all the ingredients as they were in 1907 (although the writer has noted at the top “Return to old formula”, so no doubt these were also the ingredients in earlier decades). As for the quantities, those given in the ledger are “for one cask” and as a result are pretty damned large. They are also given in those cute units of pounds, ounces, and gallons which the British used before they entered the modern age and adopted modern metric units. I’ve translated all the quantities into metric units and scaled the amounts to make 1 litre of the sauce – that seems more than enough sauce for any determined reader to make should he or she decide to rush off to the kitchen and start making Worcestershire sauce à la Lea & Perrins.
What emerges is that, at least in 1907, Lea & Perrins sauce was in large part vinegar, to which was added a good dollop of soy sauce, water, sugar and anchovies, along with a hearty pinch of tamarind, shallots, salt and garlic, a smaller pinch of red pepper and cloves, and a smidgen of essence of lemon.
Since the vinegar is such an important part of the overall sauce, I throw in a comment about it. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by vinegar F. or by acetic acid, but if readers look closely at the red writing on the second page of the ledger which I inserted above, they will see a calculation on the level of acidity of the mix of vinegars. It would seem that small amounts of a very strong vinegar were used to raise the acidity of the main vinegar. The modern version of the sauce still seems to use this trick, although nowadays malt vinegar and spirit vinegar are used. For anyone dedicated enough to make the sauce at home, please note that they should ensure that the vinegar mix they end up with has an acidity of 6.12% (I’ve just noticed that the wine vinegar we routinely use at home has an acidity of 6%, so maybe there would be no need to diddle around with vinegars of different acidity if you buy the right vinegar).
Since I’m commenting on the ingredients, perhaps I can make a couple of other points. The first is that the modern recipe has abandoned shallots in favour of onions. Why that should be I don’t know. Unavailability due to war led to the second big change, when soy sauce was dropped during World War II and replaced by Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, or HVP. This stuff is produced by boiling foods such as maize or wheat in hydrochloric acid. The acid breaks down the protein in the foods into their component amino acids. The resulting acidic solution is then neutralized with sodium hydroxide, leaving behind a dark-coloured, salty liquid. Sounds most unappetizing, but HVP is used in a lot of foodstuffs to give a bouillon-like taste. After the war, L&P continued to use HVP, because it was cheaper and presumably didn’t much affect the taste. From the list of the current ingredients on the label, I also see that at some moment between 1907 and today the company introduced molasses into the recipe. Again, I’ve no idea why they did that – perhaps to cut down on the amount of sugar?
Of course, I will be told that the ingredients is only half the story – maybe even less than half. How you put them together is even more important to the final taste. In the case of L&P sauce, pickling and curing seem to be very important. Today, the anchovies are fermented in salt for 2 years while the onions and garlic are separately pickled for 18 months in vinegar – from entries in the ledger, I get the sense that in the old days the two were pickled together, but I may be wrong. And then, after all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed together and homogenized, and the mash strained , the resulting liquid is put into barrels and left to mature for up to three years. This post-production maturation is a key part of the sauce’s creation story. It is said that when Messrs Lea and Perrins made their first batch, they of course tried it and found it to taste awful. They put it in a barrel, which they shoved in their cellar. They forgot all about it until a few years later, when they were clearing out the cellar. They came across the barrel, tried it again, and oh miracle! it now tasted delicious. And that was the start of Lee & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce.
To be honest, I find this story somewhat dubious. But the other part of the sauce’s creation story – the part which explains where the sauce came from – is frankly unbelievable. Let me explain why.
But first, I need to introduce Messrs Lea and Perrins a bit more. These two men, born and bred in Worcestershire, were chemists – in today’s language pharmacists – who jointly ran a chemist’s shop in the town of Worcester. Their shop has disappeared, but a very similar shop was rescued and is now to be found in the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum.
Here are our two chemists – John Lea to the left, William Perrins to the right – at a time in their lives when they had become prosperous from selling their sauce. As chemists, they would routinely have made up not just medical prescriptions but also other mixtures which their clients wanted. For instance, the ledger rescued from the dump has listed (on pages 18 and 19, for any reader interested in looking) not only the recipe for Lady Heskeeth’s pills but also recipes for Effervescent Cheltenham Salts, Lemonade Syrup, and Curry Powder. The story which the company put around in the first decades of the sauce’s life was that one day, a certain Lord Marcus Sandys, former Governor of Bengal, had walked into Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop in the early 1830s and asked them to recreate a sauce which he had encountered during his time in Bengal and which he had come to like enormously. Then he seems to have completely forgotten to come and collect his sauce, and, as I recounted above, our two chemists tried it, found it disgusting, shoved it in a barrel (rather than throw it down the sink, which is what I – and I’m sure most of my readers – would have done), put the barrel in the cellar, and forgot all about it for a couple of years .
Well, a Lord Marcus Sandys certainly existed around that time; he was 3rd Baron Sandys and his seat was in Ombersely, some 10 km from Worcester, so he could have gone into to Worcester to Messrs Lea & Perrins’s chemist shop. I throw in a painting of the Lord by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
A great story, right? And a masterstroke in marketing. It combines a touch of the exotic (“sauce from Bengal”) with an aristocratic connection. The English were (and maybe still are) terrible social snobs, so manufacturers often tried to connect their products with members of the aristocracy. I have written an earlier post about a similar story in the naming of Earl Grey tea. And during the 1800s, the British were building their Empire, so there was a fascination among the public with the strange and wonderful things pouring in from this Empire.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with this story, one major and one minor. The minor problem is that Lord Marcus was not a Lord in the 1830s when the sauce was developed. He only became a Lord in 1860. But that’s OK. He could have been a mere Esq. when he asked our two chemists to make up the sauce, but he still became a Lord later on. Our two chemists would merely have stretched the truth a little. But there is the major problem, which is that Lord Marcus was never Governor of Bengal. In fact, he never visited Bengal. Nor did his elder brother, who was the second baron. Nor did his mother, who was the first baroness (and who was baroness at the time the sauce was created). Nor did his father, who was 2nd Marquess of Downshire.
So where did this sauce come from? We have to presume that our friends John Lea and William Perrins picked up the recipe somewhere, or picked up a sauce somewhere and tried to recreate it, sensing a market for such a sauce. When Michael Portillo visited the Lea & Perrins factory a few years ago during the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys series, the person he interviewed told him that the original recipe was from Bengal and that Lea and Perrins had added fermented fish to it.
This could well be possible. As I discovered on the Food Timeline website, there were certainly a number of sauces based on fermented anchovies doing the rounds in the early 19th Century: anchovy sauce, essence of anchovy, fish sauce, Quin’s sauce. More or less at random, I have chosen to report here the recipe of a Quin’s sauce reported in William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle, containing Receipts for Plain Cooking, of 1821. To get us into the spirit of things, I insert a photo of the cookbook’s title page.
Here is the recipe (as we call them nowadays):
“Two wine-glasses of port, and two of walnut pickle, four of mushroom catchup, half a dozen anchovies, pounded, the like number of eschalots sliced and pounded, a table-spoonful of soy, and half a drachm of Cayenne pepper; let them simmer gently for ten minutes; strain it, and when cold, put it into bottles; well corked, and sealed over, it will keep for a considerable time.”
As readers can see, we have in common with the 1907 L&P recipe the anchovies (which are actually pickled, although it’s not clear from the write-up), the shallots, the soy sauce, and the pepper. Other recipes for fish-based sauces contain the garlic, the cloves, the vinegar, and even the lemon. What the 1907 recipe doesn’t have, but was present in nearly all the fish sauces, is mushroom and walnut ketchups (the history of ketchups being a fascinating story in its own right, perhaps the subject of a future post).
So my guess, based on nothing more than a hunch, is that John Lee and William Perrins took one of the many recipes for a sauce based on fermented anchovies floating around – maybe one used by their wives – and made one big change: they substituted the walnut and mushroom ketchups with a tamarind sauce.
That tamarind sauce could well have come from Bengal. Bengali cuisine certainly uses tamarind a lot. And maybe this popular Bengali tamarind-based dish, tamarind chutney (or tetuler chutney in Bengali), whose photo I give below, somehow made its way to Worcester. I could well imagine that Brits who had been to Bengal during the early 1800s got to know this chutney and brought it back to Britain. After all, they brought back a number of chutneys.
I have no idea why the two partners thought of using this chutney or some other tamarind sauce instead of the walnut and mushroom ketchups in the fermented fish sauces which the Brits slathered on their food. Nor can I guess why they decided to let their concoction cure in a barrel for several years. But they did, and became very rich because of it.
I don’t know if there is a moral in this story: be careful what you throw away; don’t make up silly stories; truth is always stranger than fiction; think out of the box (or barrel in this case) and you’ll get rich; play on people’s snobberies; … I let my readers decide for themselves.
And do all remember that it’s pronounced WUUS-teuh-sheuh sauce.
One of the more enduring habits which my wife and I have taken up in our retirement is to go out for a morning walk to a local bar and have ourselves a cappuccino. It’s always a pleasure to watch the barman or woman go smoothly through the motions of making it:
1) Brew the necessary shot of espresso with the espresso machine.
2) Steam the milk and foam it, using the wand on the espresso machine to do this. The wand must not go more than 2 cm below the surface of the milk! Otherwise, you won’t create the necessary microfoam.
3) Gently pour the steamed milk and foam over the espresso, to get the necessary layering: proportions should be one-third of espresso at the bottom, one-third of steamed milk in the middle, one-third of microfoam floating serenely on the top.
4) If you want, sprinkle some cocoa or cinnamon or chocolate powder over the foam
5) If you’re feeling really artistic, create nice figurines on the foam.
It seems almost a shame to destroy all of that handiwork by drinking it. But that’s what we do every morning (and afternoons sometimes)
Aaaah, cappuccino, that most Italian of beverages!
Except that it isn’t.
At least, its origins are most definitely not Italian.
I have to say, I was completely gobsmacked when I discovered this. I mean, cappuccino is as Italian as pasta, right? But no. All agree that the Italian cappuccino is a direct descendant of one of the products of Vienna’s 18th-century coffee houses, the kapuziner.
As this photo shows, the modern kapuziner will often have a head of whipped cream on it, but in its original form the kapuziner was simply a shot of coffee to which a small amount of cream had been added. This had the effect of turning the coffee dark brown. It was this colour which led to this drink’s name: kapuziner is the German name (and cappuccino the Italian name) of the order of Capuchin monks, whose habit is the same dark brown. I throw in here a picture of a Capuchin monk, so that readers can see what colour the Viennese had in mind.
This is actually a painting of Blessed Marco d’Aviano, a Capuchin monk well known in Vienna. A native of Friuli in the north-east of Italy, he became – by one of those strange twists and turns that make up history – a close friend and advisor to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I. He played an important role in stitching together the coalition of forces which broke the Ottomans’ second and final siege of Vienna in 1683, and he was behind the Austrian Emperor going on the offensive after the siege and starting the slow and steady expulsion of the Ottomans from south-eastern Europe. He is buried in the Kapuzinerkirche in Vienna (along with a bunch of the Hapsburgs, I might add). I chose to exhibit him rather than any other Capuchin monk for two reasons. First, because it allows me to refer readers to a post I wrote about the breaking of that 1683 siege of Vienna. Second, because there is a story circulating on the net and elsewhere that the Viennese named the kapuziner in his honour. Supposedly, he was carrying out his mediation efforts over a cup of coffee. Finding it too bitter, he added cream.
Personally, I don’t believe in this link with Marco d’Aviano. I think that the colour of the kapuziner simply reminded its drinkers of all those Capuchin monks they would have seen buzzing around Vienna. For any doubters, I would point out that there is another coffee beverage which was common in the old days in Vienna, which had more cream added to it and which therefore was of a lighter brown colour. It was called the franziskaner, a reference in this case to the order of Franciscan monks, whose habit is indeed of a lighter brown colour.
They too would have been a common sight around Vienna.
Clearly, colour was an important distinguishing feature for Viennese coffee drinkers. I read that initially all these different mixtures of coffee and cream or milk had no name. The customers of Vienna’s coffee houses simply chose the mixture they wanted from a colour-shaded chart. What an absolutely splendid idea! Something to be brought back into use; like that, we can consign to the dustbin all those fancy names which communication agencies have dreamed up for what are after all merely differing mixes of coffee and milk. Here is a suitable modern take on this idea.
As the photo above shows, the kapuziner’s initial simple recipe – black coffee with a dribble of cream well stirred in – had to get more complicated of course: human beings simply can’t leave a good thing alone. Sugar or honey was added early on, spices like cinnamon later, and a topping of whipped cream later still. It’s worth noting in passing that whipped cream has become a popular addition to various coffee drinks in Austria, to the point that in the rest of Europe a “Viennese coffee” often is understood to mean a coffee with an island of whipped cream floating on it.
But how did the kapuziner, a product of the Austrian Empire, become the cappuccino, that most Italian of coffee drinks? The answer lies in the Austrian possessions in Italy.
Already in the 1700s, when coffee drinking was growing in popularity in Vienna (as it was in the rest of Europe), a good chunk of northern and central Italy was governed from Vienna. This became even more marked after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, when the Austrian Empire was given the central and eastern regions of northern Italy (what are now Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, as well as parts of Emilia-Romagna), plus Tuscany in central Italy.
Some theorize that it was Austrian soldiers who, garrisoned in Italy, brought to the country the coffee beverages they knew from home, including the kapuziner. Others think it was Italians who, after visiting Vienna either for work or for fun, brought back with them the coffee beverages they had discovered in Vienna. But I think there is a much simpler answer: export of the Vienna coffee house culture.
The habit of drinking coffee had brought with it the building of coffee houses, or cafés as they came to be called. This development became particularly marked in Vienna. By the 1850s, the city was famous throughout Europe for its cafés. The best took on a certain look: large rooms, red-velvet seats, magnificent chandeliers, smartly-dressed waiters. No visit to Vienna was complete without a visit to one of its famous cafés. Here, we have a view of one of these cafés in the early 1900s.
As always in Empires, there must have been a desire in the provinces to ape the manners of the Imperial capital. It is certainly the case that Viennese-style cafés opened in many of the Austrian Empire’s provincial capitals: Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Zagreb, and – in Italy – Verona, Trieste and Venice, to name just a few. Not only did these provincial cafés copy the interior decoration of the smarter Viennese cafés, they adopted their menu of coffee beverages too. Thus, in my opinion, did the kapuziner make its way into Italy.
At some point, it became the cappuccino. The translation might have occurred after the Austrians were kicked out of most of their Italian possessions with Italian unification; national pride could have required that the menu in the cafés drop the language of the evicted colonizer. Or it might have occurred during the early Fascist period when there was a determined effort to stamp out non-Italian languages in all the areas along the country’s northern borders: French to the west, German and Serbo-Croat to the east.
But this kapuziner-turned-cappuccino was a far cry from the cappuccino my wife and I drink every morning. I read that there are photographs of cappuccini from the 1930s (which, alas, I have not found) which still depict a Viennese-type coffee, topped with whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate. What changed everything was the invention of the espresso machine.
The first commercially successful espresso machine was produced in Milan, where I am writing this post, in the early 1900s by the Pavoni company (my wife will be interested to know that the production site was on the same street as her old high school). But these were crude machines and much tinkering took place in subsequent decades. One of the more successful tinkerers was Francesco Illy, creator of the eponymous coffee company (who was, incidentally, a typical product of the Austrian Empire and its collapse: born into a Hungarian family from Timișoara, now in Romania, after fighting for Austria in World War I he settled in Trieste, now in Italy). But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when espresso machines were finally able to scald and foam milk properly, that the cappuccino as we know it today was born. Scalded milk could take the place of the cream and foamed milk could take the place of the whipped cream.
So is the cappuccino Italian, or is it Austrian? I feel the same way as I felt when I wrote a post about whether the wiener schnitzel was the parent of the cotoletta alla milanese or vice versa: a bit nervous about getting attacked by some furious internet trolls regardless of the decision I came to. But I really think that in this case we can say that while it may have Austrian roots the cappuccino in its modern form is Italian – without the espresso machine, invented and perfected in Italy, we would not have it.
I hope this Solomonic judgement will satisfy everyone. And now it is time for my wife and I to set out for our daily cappuccino!
Dedicated to my daughter, who loves olives as much as I do
Sori, 27 January 2020
A week or so ago, I accompanied my wife to a supermarket that we go to from time to time – it’s bigger than the ones just down the road from us but somewhat further away, so we only go there for certain items which the closer supermarkets don’t stock. But I don’t want to discuss shopping strategies in this post, fascinating as these are to retirees like ourselves. I want to discuss table olives.
This particular supermarket has an olive bar, where you can buy olives loose by the gram (or kilogram if you’re an olive fanatic).
It’s a delightful spot in this otherwise bog-standard supermarket. I like to linger there, looking over these glistening globules of yumminess. From time to time – when I’m in a mood to splash out – I will take the plunge, grab the beckoning spoons, and fill a few plastic tubs to take home and munch my way through. I hasten to add that I remember what we taught the children: I will share, with my wife if her diet allows it and with my children if they happen to be around.
This supermarket is proudly patriotic and offers only Italian olives. For the uninitiated, it is offering, among others:
Green olives from Cerignola in Puglia
These gigantic green olives are probably my favourite. They are crisp, not too strongly flavoured, almost buttery.
Green Nocellara olives, from the flanks of Mount Etna in Sicily
These olives are cut, crushed, seasoned with oil, spices and hot sauce and garnished with whole chillies. The use of chillies (which I profoundly dislike) and their slightly bitter taste mean that I skip these when I get some tubfuls of olives at the supermarket.
Black olives from Gaeta in Puglia.
These small, purplish-brown olives have a soft, tender flesh and a tart, citrusy taste. The Gaetas in the supermarket are brine-cured, but they can also be dry-cured, in which case they are more shrivelled and chewy, somewhat like the next ones.
Black Nocellara olives from the Belice valley in western Sicily.
These olives are harvested when completely ripe (in November). After an initial brining to desiccate them somewhat, they are placed in an oven at low temperature to further desiccate them.
There are more varieties of olive in the supermarket’s olive bar but I will stop there, for fear of boring readers with my purplish prose. And anyway, while I respect the supermarket’s patriotic choice of only offering Italian olives, I feel I must point out that other parts of the Mediterranean basin offer equally delicious olives.
There are the Greek Agrinion and Amfissa olives, for instance, both coming from the same variety of olive tree, but the former grown at lowish altitudes near the Ionian Sea / Gulf of Corinth and the latter grown at higher altitudes around Delphi in central Greece. They come in the green and black forms as well as every hue in between, depending on when they are picked, and both have a wide range of tastes. After some debate with myself I have chosen to insert a photo of the Amfissa olive as the emblem of these two olives, but only because I liked the farmer’s hands cradling the olives.
Or there are Gordal olives from Andalusia in Spain.
True to their name (gordal means “fatty” in Spanish), these olives are big and plump, with plenty of firm, meaty richness.
Or we have Lucques olives from the Languedoc region of France.
These olives marry an interesting external appearance – bright green and crescent shaped – with a mild nutty taste and buttery texture inside.
From further east in France, around the Côte d’Azur, come Niçoise olives.
We know these olives because of the Salade Niçoise, of which they are an integral part. In truth, the Niçoise is none other than the Taggiasca olive, which is grown across the border in Liguria and which is the olive my wife and I buy when we go down to the sea. They both come from the same variety of olive tree and grow in the same climate. On both sides of the – artificial – border growers pick the olives while they are in the process of changing from green to black, giving them a striking medium to dark brown color.
I’ve only mentioned olives from the Mediterranean’s northern seaboard. The southern and eastern seaboards have equal variety, but they are just not as well known. Canny marketing hasn’t created brands there yet, so they are rarely consumed beyond their local area of production. Beldi olives from central Morocco are an exception.
These olives, picked when they are fully ripe, are then salt-cured. This gives them a shriveled appearance and a chewy texture. They are wildly, intensely flavorful.
From the eastern end of the Mediterranean, I’ve picked Gemlik olives from the Zeytinbaği region on the Sea of Marmara in the north of Turkey, close to Istanbul.
These too are picked when they are fully ripe. Because of their high oil content, they can be cured in a number of different ways, giving rise to olives with different tastes:
oil-cured (rotated in drums with a little salt; the agitation causes the olive to exude oil), then dry stored; this gives a rich, low-salt-tasting olive;
purely brine-cured olive, which gives a firm, salty olive;
dried in a basket of rock salt, which draws all the water out of the olive, leaving a firm, crinkly olive with hardly any salty taste.
There are good olives produced in other parts of the world where Europeans have transported the olive tree, the Americas especially, but I will be proudly patriotic and focus only on olives from the Mediterranean basin, which is the tree’s original home.
Olives joins that long list of plants which were basically inedible but out of which our ancestors were able to extract extremely yummy foodstuffs. In these posts, I have written about five such plants – the caper bush, cole, sea beet, common chicory, and cardoon – and there must be hundreds of others. I’m always amazed by the cleverness which was shown by armies of anonymous farmers over the millennia in patiently coaxing the DNA of plants which grew around them to evolve in a direction which expanded the range of foods available to them and to us, their descendants.
The edibility problem with wild olives is that they contain a number of incredibly bitter chemicals which go by such names as oleuropein, ligstroside, and dimethyl oleuropein. The levels of these chemicals are high in a just ripening olive, enough to impart such a bitter taste as to make you desist eating it immediately. As the fruit ripens further, the levels of these nasty chemicals drop. In most cases, though, their levels never drop low enough to make eating an olive straight off the tree a pleasant experience (there are a couple of domesticated varieties where the bitterness levels are low enough in the fully ripe olive to make them edible, but they are the exception). It’s a defence mechanism: the plant doesn’t want predators other than birds to eat its fruit because they could crack and therefore ruin the seeds (this is not a problem in the case of birds, which swallow the olives whole).
But actually, edibility is a secondary issue for the olive. The first use of olives was not as food but as a source of oil. Olives are rich in oil and by at least 5,000 years ago some bright spark (or sparks) had figured out ways of squeezing the oil out of ripe olives. It’s not even clear that the oil was used initially as a foodstuff. The same problem of bitterness rears its head with olive oil: if the olives are picked too early this will impart a bitter taste to the oil. It could well be that olive oils were first used as a source of fuel in lamps or as a raw material in soap making, or were used as a skin-care product or in medicines or in perfumes. It was olive oil that really drove the domestication of the olive tree. The economies of at least two Mediterranean civilizations – the late Minoan and the Mycenaean – were probably based in good part on the production of olive oil and its trade around the Mediterranean. Olives to eat became a by-product of the oil industry. That is still the case today: the great majority of olives which are grown around the world are turned into oil, with only a small percentage being eaten.
Luckily for us olive lovers, though, at some point some other bright spark (or sparks) stumbled on the discovery that steeping olives in brine for a good few months cut the bitterness levels to acceptable levels, because the nasty chemicals were leached out. Even better, the fermentation processes which brining kicked off gave the olives a better taste. On top of that, brining dealt with the familiar problem which our ancestors were confronted with everywhere: the fruit (or grain, or vegetables) ripen all at the same time; how can we conserve them so that in the weeks and months ahead we can eat the excess that we don’t eat straight away? By acidifying them a bit, brining meant the olives would last quite some time without going bad. A win-win-win situation, as we would say today!
After this fundamental breakthrough, olive eating could take off. Human beings being the way they are, our ancestors continued to tinker away. Various things were added (herbs, spices, wine, vinegar, …) to make the final product even more yummy. It was discovered that cutting or cracking the olive – basically, splitting open the flesh – allowed the leaching to happen faster. Different methods for leaching were developed (water – very slow; salt – gives rise to chewy olives like the Beldi). And, more importantly, they tried brining not quite ripe olives, picked when they were going from green to black and when the dreaded levels of bitterness were still high. Well, by gum, it worked! Sufficient leaching took place so that you could pick the olives somewhat earlier – maybe a month earlier – and still have a yummy product to eat. That allowed the development of olives like the Taggiasca or the Niçoise.
The next big breakthrough was the discovery by yet another bright spark or sparks that if you used a weak solution of lye (or caustic soda, to use a more modern appellation), you could turn green olives with very high levels of bitterness 6+in them into an edible product. In this case, rather than encouraging the nasty chemicals to leach out as brine does, the lye penetrates the olive and chemically destroys them. As readers might suspect, olives subjected just to processing with lye don’t taste very good, so there is still a brining step involved. This treatment was developed in Spain, apparently; it’s called the Spanish or Sevillian approach. I’m not sure if I should congratulate the Spaniards who came up with lye processing. On the one hand, it has allowed us olive lovers to eat green olives like the Cerignola and the Lucques. On the other hand, it does begin to feel more like chemical processing than food preparation, the first step on a slippery slope.
I feel confirmed in my fears by the next big advance in olive processing – the so-called California style of processing (presumably because that was where it was invented) – which smacks even more of chemical processing. It is used with green and semi-ripe olives. It adds a step between the lye treatment and the brining, and consists of washing the olives in water injected with compressed air. This intense exposure to air oxidises the skin and flesh of the olives, turning them black. In other words, it’s a way of taking green olives and artificially “ripening” them. Olives treated in this way are the ones most favoured by fast-food pizza makers, those olives which are chewy and have no taste but look good sitting on the pizza.
And it’s not finished! An article I read which summarizes the state of play in olive processing reports that people are looking into the use of ultrasound during lye treatment to accelerate debittering; adding absorptive resins to the brine; running treatment processes under a vacuum; blanketing green olives in carbon dioxide; blanketing them in pure oxygen; using potassium and calcium chloride solutions instead of normal brine (sodium chloride solutions); exposing olives while still on the tree to aminoethoxyvinylglycine to delay ripening and so allowing levels of the bitterness-causing chemicals to reduce more than they normally would. And I’ve skipped a few.
Reading this list makes me look at my olives in a different light now. Rather than food, I see lumps of chemicals. Why can’t we just prepare food the good old way?
One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire
and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.
Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.
Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.
So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).
It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.
They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).
I think we can even throw in grilled fish.
Yes, all most delicious!
But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.
What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of one of these döner kebab shops.
For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.
When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.
They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.
I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance. Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.
I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.
Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.
This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.
And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.
The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.
The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.
New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.
But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.
But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.
And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.
So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)
The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.
Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).
According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.
Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.
As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.
And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.
Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.
As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.
(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)
On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.
But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.
Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.
But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.
The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.
I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.
But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).
Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots. It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.
Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.
Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …