My wife and I have spent the last month or so on the Ligurian coast, far away – we hope – from the modern pestilence ravaging the bigger cities of northern Italy. Our base is the small seaside village of Sori, which sits at the end of a long and narrow valley that slices up into the range of hills backing the sea. Our apartment is up one side of the valley, with our balcony overlooking the village below and giving us a view of the olive trees tumbling down the steep valley side opposite.
Often now, more often than we remember, as we sit there admiring the view we will see seagulls coming in from the sea, riding up the wind currents on the far side of the valley, banking, and then gliding past our balcony seat back to the lapis-lazuli sea, with perhaps a lazy flap or two of their wings. Once in a while, their flight will be accompanied by the bells ringing out from the village church, as is the case as I write this.
A seagull in flight is a beautiful thing. I’m too busy watching them to take photos, and anyway my iPhone camera is not up to the task. But photographers far more able than I have caught them in flight, as these few photos culled from the net attest.
Sometimes, as the gulls fly by they open their beak – and the love fest is over.
The calls which gulls make are really horrible. A mournful wail is really the only way I can describe it. It can come out as one long sound, or as a string of short sounds, or as both. In fact, I learnt while reading up on gulls that their original name in English was mews, a Germanic word (the German word for gulls is Möwe, for instance, whilethe Dutch word is meeuw; even the French have used the German root, calling gulls mouette). It’s clearly onomatopoeic – another way of describing the noise gulls make is that they are mewing. For some reason, though, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the British Isles switched to a form of the Brythonic Celtic name (compare “gull” to the Welsh gwylan, the Cornish guilan, the Breton goelann). I would say a rare example of a victory of the original Celtic immigrants over their later Anglo-Saxon overlords.
The moment gulls mew, I am instantly transported to my youth. I am back in some small English fishing port. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s probably also raining, the tide is out, the boats are sitting awkwardly on the mud flats. And the water is absolutely bloody freezing.
The photo gives the scene a certain aura of romanticism, but for me there was none. I would always become enveloped in a dark cloud of melancholy in places like this, made all the worse by the mournful mewing of the seagulls flying overhead. I thank God every day that the Hand of Fate led me to escape the British Isles, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, and end up in a part of the world where there are no tides (or hardly any), where the cold is moderate, and where the water gets warm enough by August to tempt me to bathe.
While I’m at it, I might as well get my other beefs with gulls out on the table. First, there’s their eating habits. I read that people call gulls “rats of the sky”. I’m afraid this is an apt description. They’ll basically eat anything, which is why – like rats – they thrive on landfills or waste dumps.
The one time I worked on a landfill, I’d mentally take out my depression of being in such a shit-hole on the flocks of gulls dancing around the mounds of fresh garbage being deposited, mewing and squawking as they fought amongst each other for food scraps. How could they demean themselves to eat that crap?!
And they are really cheeky bastards, quite willing to snatch food from beachgoers.
Kleptoparasites, a scientific name to describe their feeding habits, is a polite way of describing this nasty behavior on their part.
And of course, like other species which feed on the crap which our civilizations spew out (rats, pigeons, cockroaches, to name a few), the gulls are thriving while thousands of other species are collapsing all around us.
My other beef with gulls is their readiness to poop on to you the digested remains of that food they snatched from you – another epithet for gulls is “bags of crap with wings”. Of course, it’s hilarious when it happens to someone else, as exemplified by this moment in the Tintin story “Temple du Soleil”.
But it’s less droll when it happens to you.
But why am I complaining? Gulls are what they are. If we want them to behave nicely, we should behave nicely first and not destroy the planet we all share.
And with that moralistic conclusion, I shall go back to watching the gulls – or mews – soar up the valley, bank, and glide down back past our balcony.
“Spring his here” crooned Frank Sinatra. And indeed – at least in the little corner of the Northern Hemisphere on which my wife and I are currently perched – Spring is here! Frank then goes on to lament the lack of love in his life, but that is not our problem. My wife and I can just focus on the flowers exploding into life all around us, humming soulfully a tune or two as we do so.
As usual in Liguria, mimosa was the first to burst onto the scene, with joyous sprays of canary yellow.
Those are fading now, their place being taken by crocuses (high up in the hills)
various fruit trees
and of course daffodils! Gardens and public parks have a sprinkling, but my eye was really caught by this bevy of them planted in a corner of an olive-tree terrace.
It’s been decades now since I’ve lived in the UK, but first impressions on the young mind are indelible (as opposed to impressions on the old mind which I find to be distressingly delible). My spending the Springs of my youth in rural Somerset, in that prep school which I mentioned in a recent post, has meant that in my mind’s eye Spring will always be that triumvirate of flowers: the snowdrop, the crocus, and the daffodil, which someone at the school had planted in various corners of the school grounds. Later, when I moved on to my public school (in Brito-speak, a private boarding school for boys (in my time) aged between 13 and 18), my soul was stirred during my first Spring there by bunches of daffodils which sprang out of the lawn in front of my House.
That same Spring, just off the path which led down from the House to the main school buildings, I discovered a group of narcissi, those cousins of the daffodil, scattered down a slope.
I was enchanted.
Alas, I quickly learned that showing a delight in flowers would definitely put me in the uncool category at school. I risked being compared to Fotherington-Thomas in the book “Down with Skool”. Molesworth, the purported author of the book, has this to say about Fotherington-Thomas: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic). This gallery of drawings in the book of Fotherington-Thomas, by the great Ronald Searle, says it all. At the age of 13-14, that was definitely not where I wanted to be! And so I buried my uncool delight in daffodils and other flowers of Spring under deep layers of teenager cynicism and world-weariness. A few years later, when I got to know it, I could only secretly thrill to Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
But now that I am old and venerable, and my foibles and oddities are tolerated (“don’t worry about him, he’s just an old fart”), I can openly advertise my delight in the flowers of Spring. I can, like the Great Poet, lie on my couch and let my heart with pleasure fill and dance with the daffodils and all the flowers that Spring brings us.
Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria
and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?
Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.
I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.
First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.
For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).
If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.
There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”
Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?
It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.
I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.
Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.
We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”
Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.
But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.
The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:
Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.
No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.
You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.
Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.
Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.
Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.
Never plant before Cold Sophie.
Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.
Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.
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).
In these days of Covid-19, when the rules here in Italy forbid us from traveling from one region of the country to another, my wife and I have been cut off from the usual hikes we do at this time of the year along the sea in Liguria. We’ve had to make do with hikes in Lombardy, which in practice has meant hiking along the edges of Lake Como. Not that we’re complaining (too much), it’s a beautiful part of the world to be hiking in. Anyway, a week or so ago, my wife and I decided to retrace our steps along one of the segments of the Wayfarer’s Trail which we had first attempted back in January (for any readers who are interested, I mention our hikes along the Wayfarer’s Trail in an earlier post). Towards the end of the walk we passed through a small village called Corenno Plinio, which lies just north of a somewhat larger village by the name of Dervio, where we were planning to catch the train to go back home.
The last time we passed through Corenno Plinio, back in January, the light had been failing and we were in a hurry to get to Dervio station before dark. So we had ignored the village’s sights and pressed on. And quite some sights there are, to whit a castle from the 14th Century, a little church from the late 12th-early 13th Century attached to the castle, plus the winding cobbled streets of what was once a Medieval village huddling under the castle’s protective walls. This time, with the days being considerably longer, we decided to take a little break when we hit Corenno Plinio and at least visit the church.
For such a little church, it was quite a treat. Before we even went inside, there were three funerary monuments, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, to inspect. Readers can see two of them in the photo above. As for the interior of the church, there were some charming frescoes from the 14th Centuries on both walls of the nave. I particularly liked this Adoration of the Wise Men.
Opposite the Wise Men was a fresco with Saints Gotthard (he of the Gotthard Pass in the Alps) and Apollonia.
I’ve mentioned Saint Gotthard in an earlier post, but I had never come across Saint Apollonia before. For those of my readers who are not up to speed on their Christian martyrology, Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs from Alexandria who was caught up in a riot by the Alexandrian mob against Christians in the early 200s AD. In her case, the mob pulled out her teeth. This explains that mean-looking fellow who is shoving a large pair of pliers into the her mouth (she is, by the way, the patroness of dentistry, which I find highly appropriate; I feel just like that painting every time I sit in my dentist’s chair).
Further along the same wall, there was this line of apostles. I rather liked their piercing gaze.
The only one I recognized was the one holding the knife. That’s Saint Bartholomew, who met with a particularly hideous end by being flayed alive (readers who are interested in knowing more can read my post on him).
And then, next to the apostles, there was this bishop.
It is St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on 29 December 1170 in his cathedral. In fact, I discovered, my wife and I were in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury.
Well! It gave me a little turn to find a church dedicated to this oh, so English saint on the shores of Lake Como. I had learned about him in my history classes many, many years ago in primary school. At University I had read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Honour of God, plays which both explored his tortuous relationship with his king, Henry II. It seemed such an English story. Why would the Italians be interested in Thomas Becket?
For any of my readers who might not know his story, it is quickly told. Born into a London merchant family, Thomas rose to become Chancellor to Henry II. He served the king faithfully, but more than that, he and the king were genuinely friends. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry had the bright idea of putting Thomas up for the post. He thought Thomas would enthusiastically implement his agenda of strengthening royal powers at the expense of the Church’s. Henry felt – with some merit, I would say – that the Church was too powerful and independent: a state within a state, as it were. But the moment Thomas became Archbishop, he became a zealous defender of the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Not surprisingly, Henry was outraged and relations between the two men soured rapidly, to the point where Thomas finally fled England and sought the protection of the French king. For six long years thereafter, the two men brought to bear against each other all the punitive measures in their power short of violence. Finally a peace, or rather an armed truce, was negotiated and Thomas came back to England. But just before he landed, he excommunicated three bishops for reasons which are not completely apparent. When Henry heard the news, he flew into a towering rage and is said to have cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Actually, he is more likely to have shouted, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”, which I feel sounds rather better. In any event, four knights (who play a major role in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) interpreted this royal outburst as an invitation if not an order to act. They immediately saddled up and left for Canterbury.
When they arrived, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral before entering to challenge Thomas, who was on his way to Vespers. They demanded that he submit to the king’s will and come with them to Winchester to give an account of his actions. Thomas of course refused. The knights then rushed out, grabbed their weapons, and rushed back inside, shouting “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?!”. When they found him, one knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Thomas held fast to a pillar. One eyewitness, who was wounded in the attack, wrote this about what happened next: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again!””
Well!! That is a most satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of a Medieval bromance gone terribly, horribly wrong.
It may have been a very English story (although in truth the French were a good deal involved, as was the papacy), but this hideous murder, in a cathedral of all places, of the highest prelate in the land of all people, apparently on the orders of a king of all things, sent shock waves around Europe. Not only was it a damned good yarn, to be declaimed to a rapt audience around the evening fire, but it contained – for Medieval Europeans steeped in Christianity – the elements of sacrilege: murder in the holiest of places, of Christ’s highest representative in England. A delicious shiver of horror must have travelled up every Medieval European spine when the spines’ owners heard the tale, and many signs of the cross must have been rapidly made and prayers breathlessly uttered to keep the devil at bay.
The fallout was immediate and immense. Almost overnight, the spot where Thomas was murdered became a place of pilgrimage. The Church made the most of it and had Thomas canonized in the record time of two and a bit years. The murderers fled to safety in Yorkshire, but eventually gave themselves up and submitted to a heavy penance. As for Henry, like any modern politician he tried to distance himself from the whole affair and urged everyone to move on, but like all modern electorates no-one really believed him and didn’t want to move on. So he made peace with the Pope, swearing to go on a crusade (a promise he never kept), and scaling back some of his more anti-Church policies. And he bought off the Becket family by making Thomas’s sister the abbess of a rich nunnery. But it wasn’t enough. When his three surviving sons, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lacklands, along with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against him, Henry found the rebels were supported by many people who were still shocked by the murder of Thomas. Henry’s difficult relations with his wife and sons is recounted in the play Lion in Winter – I show here Christopher Walken in the first production of the play in 1966 (for no better reason than my wife is a great fan of Walken).
So Henry decided that more extreme measures were required. In 1174, four and a half years after Thomas’s murder, he went to Canterbury, publicly confessed his sins, and then received five blows from a rod from each bishop present, and three blows from each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral (that seems an awful lot of blows, but I’m sure they went easy on him; I mean, how hard would you hit a king?). Then Henry offered gifts to Thomas’s shrine and spent a night at vigil at his tomb (which is where Anouihl’s Honour of God starts).
In the rest of Europe, scores of churches were dedicated to the now Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the little church in Corenno Plinio being one of them, and some wonderful artwork was created recording scenes of his life and death. In truth, his death seems to have excited artists (and no doubt their patrons) much more than his life. That seems perfectly in keeping with an age which enjoyed seeing paintings of St. Apollonia having her teeth pulled out and St. Bartholomew being flayed alive. In any case, let me run through a selection of these artworks, starting from the moment Thomas was consecrated archbishop.
This panel, of alabaster, was made in the second half of the 15th Century and was originally brightly painted. Many such panels were produced in England – the country was famous for them – and exported all around Europe.
Here, in a contemporary manuscript, we have Thomas now arguing with Henry.
In this other manuscript from the 1220s, the relationship between the two men has completely broken down and Thomas is excommunicating some of the king’s men.
This second alabaster panel shows the moment when peace was made and Thomas finally came back to England.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Thomas’s murder in the cathedral, in full technicolor.
From a psalter made in East Anglia in the mid-thirteenth century:
A fresco from the late 12th century in the Church of Saints John and Paul, in Spoleto, Italy.
From a reliquary, also of the late 12th Century, decorated with champlevé enamel. It was made in Limoges, France, which was a centre for this kind of work in Europe (I mention another wonderful piece of enamel work, this time made in the north of France, in an earlier post).
Finally, we have Thomas, now St. Thomas, joining the pantheon of saints in heaven, in a mosaic from the late 12th Century in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (a church which I have mentioned at some length in a previous post). This is a wide view of a rows of saints on the apse’s wall – Thomas is the one in green to the right of the window.
Here is a closer view of him, in the company of Saint Sylvester.
Once all the fuss died down, what happened? I think the fashion of dedicating churches to Thomas died away, but Canterbury became a high place of European pilgrimage, rather like Compostella in Spain is today. I’m sure there were many people who went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. But I’m sure there were just as many who went for the fun of it – Medieval Europe’s equivalent to our mass tourism of today. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, supports this. It follows a party of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. To pass the time, they regale each other with stories. Some are religious. Most are not. And they are hilarious.
Then, another king came along, another Henry, Henry VIII this time. Another king who believed that the church should be a servant of the State, who broke with Rome and “nationalised” English Christianity. As readers might imagine, he didn’t care for Thomas Becket. In 1540, he had Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed and he ordered that what was left of his bones were to be destroyed. He then had all mention of his name obliterated.
Now, all that is left in Canterbury Cathedral is this sculpture and a stone set in the floor where he was killed, bearing his name.
And there still are, scattered across Europe, churches like the one in Corenno Plinio dedicated to him and some wonderful artwork in these churches or in museums celebrating his life – and death.
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.
We’re out at last! First day post-lockdown in Italy. Like Basil Fotherington-Tomas, I was saying, “Hello clouds! Hello sky!” as I skipped (well, walked) along.
For those of my readers who are not familiar with this character, he appears in the book “Down with Skool!”, written in the 1950s, purportedly by one Nigel Molesworth, a boy in an English Prep school.
The delightful cartoons which pepper the book’s pages are by the great Ronald Searle.
Molesworth’s judgement of Fotherington-Tomas is severe: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic).
Well, I’m not utterly wet and a sissy (although I do admit to being a bit of a nerd), but my joy of finally being let out of my apartment is uncontainable.
Hello birds! (even if they are filthy urban pigeons)
Hello ancient church!
Hello canal of Milan!
Hello bridge over the canal! (even if you are a pretty ugly bridge)
It’s great to be out here and see you all again!
We now just have to hope that we don’t get too much of a spike back up in the numbers, otherwise they’ll send us once more into lockdown …
Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …
Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.
I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!
As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).
Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.
The next piece takes us to Africa.
It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.
My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.
I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.
We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.
At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).
We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.
It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.
My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.
For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.
These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.
They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.
Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).
It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.
I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.
Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.