Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cheating and eating.

Today, January 31st …

On this day in 1961, a primate of the chimpanzee family was sent to test the dangers of space before a primate from the human family was risked out there. The chimp’s name was Ham, after the Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre, and this story is not about cured meat from the porcine family, it is about bananas. Sort of.

Ham not only did not die, get space germs, or go bananas (Sorry!) he completed his work well, and was rewarded with banana pellets. The first human to eat in space was John Glenn a little over a year later, and he ate applesauce out of an aluminium tube. So far all of this space-eating seems particularly apt, don’t you think? Bananas for the chimp, apples for the American. Well, I want it known that Ham got cheated. “Banana pellets” do not contain banana. The phrase refers to precision food pellets made specifically as training rewards for animals, so in Ham’s case they would have been made from basic “Monkey Chow”.

The banana’s extreme perishability meant that it was an expensive delicacy in Europe until transport methods improved in the 1920’s. They soon became cheap enough to languish in long enough in the fruit bowl to become spotty and squishy – in other words, good enough for banana cake.

The following recipe for banana cake, from the American Mrs. Rorer’s “New Cook Book” (1902), is often quoted as being the first. It is another cheat: it sounds very odd, it may even be delicious, but it aint cake!

Banana Cake
Beat to a cream a quarter of a cup of butter, add a half cup of sugar and one egg; when very light, stir in enough flour to make a stiff dough; roll into a thin sheet and line a square, shallow baking pan. Peel five good, ripe bananas, and chop them very fine; put them over the crust in a pan, sprinkle over a half cup of sugar, the pulp of five tamarinds soaked in a quarter of a cup of warm water; squeeze over the juice of two Japanese oranges, put over a tablespoonful of butter cut into pieces, a saltspoonful of mace, and two tablespoonfuls of thick cream. Grate over the top two small crackers, bake in a moderate oven a half hour, and cut into narrow strips to serve.

Grate crackers over the top??

Tomorrow: Dishes for the deserted.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Dinner with the Crown Prince.

Today, January 30th …

The Crown Prince of Austria, Rudolph Habsburg, and his beautiful seventeen year old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera died on this day in 1889 in what may have been a double suicide, a murder-suicide (with either Rudolph or Mary being the murderer), or a politically motivated assassination. The subsequent publicity was a masterpiece of cover-up and spin-doctoring, as would be expected from an Imperial family, and the response was speculation and rumour of epic proportions. Officially Rudolph died from “apoplexy of the heart” - a complication, no doubt of the large bullet hole in his chest. Mary was not mentioned at all; officially, she was never there.

It is not only the motive that is in doubt. Mary may or may not have been pregnant (and if she was she may have died as the result of a botched abortion), and she may have been shot in the head or beaten to death (her body disappeared for a while, and the rediscovered body, may not have been the same as the one buried with her name on it, and it is not certain which of the two was the real one anyway). She may or may not have poisoned Rudolph, although again, this does not explain the bullet-hole in his body.

In the midst of such controversy, it is comforting to find that there is no dispute about their last meal together. Rudolph and Mary were at Mayerling, the royal hunting lodge in the Vienna woods (now a Carmelite convent). On that last night his valet served them a meal of pheasant with fresh mushrooms, leeks, and baked potatoes, with two bottles of Tokay on the side.

Not a bad final meal, planned or not, and surely more elegant than the usual American prisoners’ death-row requests for hamburger or pizza!

Here is a pheasant dish from a titled gentleman of the same era : the Baron Brisse, from his book “366 menus and 1200 recipes”.

Stewed Pheasant.
Truss the pheasant for boiling, lard it with fine strips of bacon, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and mixed spice; be careful to lard even the legs, cover with slices of bacon, and place in a stew-pan lined with bacon; moisten with equal quantities of white wine, and stock, and simmer for two hours; when done, drain the pheasants, remove the slices of bacon, and dish up covered with game sauce.

Enjoy with the Tokay!

Tomorrow: Cheating and eating.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Baronet’s Egg.

Today, January 27th …

This day in 1860 was the birthday of Sir George Sitwell, father of the writers Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, and a superb example of an aristocratic eccentric in a country that excels in them. It might be truer, but less kind, to say his hold on reality was tenuous all his life. When he was a child travelling with his nurse, he announced to another passenger "I am Sir George Sitwell, baronet. I am four years old and the youngest baronet in England." Like all true eccentrics, he never achieved the capacity to see himself as others saw him.

Aristocratic birth and wealth facilitate eccentricity of course, as they allows the pursuit of bizarre whims and strange projects, and George had many of them. He was a prolific writer (although only one book was published), genealogist, antiquarian, and inventor of all sorts of oddities such as a musical toothbrush, a small gun for shooting wasps, and a convenient travel food which he called “The Sitwell Egg”. The “yolk” was made of smoked meat, the “white” made of rice, and a shell of synthetic lime. He supposedly arrived unannounced at the office of Sir Gordon Selfridge, wearing his usual silk hat and frock coat and saying “I am Sir George Sitwell, and I have brought my egg with me”. Sir Gordon may have been amused, but he was not impressed: Selfridges did not subsequently stock the Sitwell egg.

George firmly believed that everything was done better in the past, so perhaps his inspiration came from one of the “illusion foods” of Medieval times, such as this Lenten Egg from a fifteenth century English manuscript.

Eggs in Lent.
Take eggs, and blow out that is within at the other end; then wash the shell clean in warm water; then take good milk of almonds, and set it on the fire; then take a fair canvas, & pour the milk thereon, & let run out the water; then take it out of the cloth, &; gather it together with a platter; then put sugar enough thereto; then take half of it, & color it with saffron, a little, & powdered cinnamon; then take & do the white in the nether end of the shell, & in the middle the yolk, & fill it up with the white; but not too full, then set it in the fire & roast it, & serve forth

On Monday: Dinner with the Crown Prince.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The inevitable banquet.

Today, January 26th …

This day in 1888 marked the centennial anniversary of the day that Captain Arthur Phillips formally claimed the land as the furthest outpost of Her Majesty’s Empire, and landed a considerable number of her less desirable subjects as its first citizens.

The colony celebrated the day from the beginning, first as Foundation Day or Anniversary Day, and after 1946 as Australia Day. The centennial anniversary of white settlement was celebrated particularly magnificently and magnanimously in Sydney. A public holiday was declared, the public (presumably the white members) were allowed into Centennial Park, and religious services, parades, and exhibitions were held. Centennial ration packs were handed out to 11,000 deserving poor (presumably the white ones), and 13,000 workers marched (as they do) and laid the foundation stone for a new Trades Hall. Naturally, there was a statue unveiling, and naturally, it was of Her Majesty.

In the Town Hall in the evening there was “the inevitable banquet” for the most important white folk – or at least the male ones, ladies not being allowed at public banquets at the time. The first murmurings of Federation were already being heard, but loyalty was indisputably to the Empire, and the culture was resolutely British – which meant the formal menu was in French, and dishes did not include such things as fresh local oysters or kangaroo.

Saumon à la Royale.
Filet de Sole, Crême des Anchoies. Schnapper à la Maréchal.
Les Pâtes à la Reine.
Salmi des Perdrix.
Chaud Froid de Volaille.
Dinde Rôti à la Perigord. Dinde Boulli, Sauce aux Champignons.
Jambon de Yorc. Langues de Bœuf.
Selle d’Agneau. Haut de Bœuf.
Bœuf en Preserve.
Faisans, Sauce au Pain.
Pâte de Foie Gras en Aspic.
Salade à la Russe.
Mayonnaise des Crevettes.
Gelée à l’Australienne.
Gelée des Oranges. Gelée au Ponche.
Charlotte aux Fraises.
Pouding à la Princesse. Pouding aux Amandes.
Crême à la Vanille. Crême au Fleur des Oranges.
Crême au Chocolat.
Nougat au Crême.
Bouchées des Dames. Tartelettes au Crême.
Pouding Glacé à la Nesselrode.
Eau Glacé aux Oranges.

Sherry, Hock, Chablis, Australian Wine.
Champagnes: Ruinart, Irroy, Pommery and Greno.
Clarets: Mouton de Rothschild, Latour.
Liqueurs: Curacoa, Maraschino, Old Brandy.
The entremets/dessert puzzle must wait for another story!

No recipe today folks, fresh oysters need no cooking, only the accompaniment of a good white wine (Australian of course).

Tomorrow: The Baronet’s Egg.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

And so the Lord be thankit.

Today, January 25th …

Today is Burn’s Day, the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns in 1759. If you have the tiniest trace of Scots ancestry, you will, like your relatives all over the world, be intending to hold your own traditional Burns Supper on this night.

In case the trace is very distant and your ancestral memory of the evening’s ritual needs jogging, I remind you of the proper order of proceedings.

1. Welcome by the Chairman.

2. Burns’ “Selkirk Grace” is said by all:

“Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat and we can eat
And so the Lord be thankit”

3. The company then stands, and performs a slow handclap during the piping in of the haggis. The procession consists of the piper, the chef bearing the haggis on a silver platter, the honoured guest who will address the haggis, and – let he not be forgotten - the whisky bearer.

4. The honoured guest recites Burns’ ode “To a Haggis”, with great gusto and feeling, and at the lines “His knife see Rustic-labour dight, An cut you up wi ready slight” he plunges his own knife into the haggis, spilling out its “gushing entrails”.

5. At the final line "Gie her a Haggis!” (“her” being Scotland) the company applaud, raise their whisky glasses and make a toast “To the Haggis”.

6. The meal proper then commences. The haggis is compulsory, but other menu items may vary so long as they stay within the traditional Scots culinary repertoire. A common selection would be:
Cock-a-leekie soup
Haggis with Bashed Neeps and Champit Taties
Clootie Dumplin or Tipsy Laird

7. A short speech on Burns is given.

8.There is a Toast to the Lasses, and various other recitations and entertainments, accompanied by as much whisky drinking as seems necessary and appropriate.

9. The evening ends with the traditional rendering by the company of Auld Lang Syne.

If you have any Scottish blood at all, I assume that you have your own inviolable family recipe for haggis, but hope your ancestors are not offended by my suggestion that you try Mistress Meg Dods’ variation of Bashed Neeps (from her “Cooks and Housewife’s Manual”, 1856).

Our Club put a little powdered ginger to their mashed turnips, which were studiously chosen of the yellow, sweet, juicy sort for which Scotland is celebrated.

Tomorrow: The inevitable banquet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A revolutionary dish.

Today, January 24th …

Lobster Thermidor is an extravagant, indulgent, classical dish, a dish that no-one makes at home anymore - the reasons for which will become obvious shortly, but have nothing to do with the level of culinary difficulty. A popular story which may be history or myth, says that the dish was invented on this very day in 1894 at the restaurant Maire in Boulevard Saint-Denis in Paris, in honour of the first night of the play “Thermidor”, by Victorien Sardou. Its subject was the French Revolution, which was still a politically sensitive issue 100 years later, and the play was banned after only three performances.

There are other stories of course, but whatever the route, the dish is ultimately named after the month of that name in the short-lived French Revolutionary calendar, one of the warm summer months (now July 19 to August 17). The play’s name was a reference to the political machinations called the “Thermidorean reaction” which occurred on 9 Thermidor 1794, and led to the end of the Reign of Terror and the execution by guillotine of Robespierre the following day.

The lobster must think this explanation is particularly apt, in view of its own last moments and method of execution.

Lobster thermidor.

Split a live lobster in two, lengthwise. Crack the shell of the claws and pick out the meat. Season both halves of the lobster with salt. Pour oil over them and roast them in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Dice the lobster flesh coarsely. Make a stock of white wine, fish fumet [stock] and meat gravy, flavoured with chervil, tarragon, and chopped shallots. Boil it down to a concentrated consistency. Add to this concentrated stock a little very thick Bechamel sauce and some English mustard.
Boil this sauce for a few seconds, then whisk in fresh butter (one third of the volume of the sauce).
Line the two halves of the carcases with a little of this sauce. Fill them with the flesh of the lobster, cover with the remainder of the sauce, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and melted butter and brown quickly in the oven. (Larousse Gastronomique).

If this method of lobster execution makes you squeamish, please do use the standard method of death by immersion in boiling water – in which case a name change to “Lobster Plûvoise” would be doubly apt, since January 24th fell in the wet month of that name.

Tomorrow: And so the Lord be thankit.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Misunderstood, misused and misliked?

Today, January 23rd …

On this day in 1889, an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, wrote a letter of complaint to the Steward:

“I wish to mention that I have twice been sent Rhubarb tart when I have ordered apple, as I have a particular objection to Rhubarb tart I hope it may not occur again. I also wish to mention that the food in Hall is not what it should be.”

Poor rhubarb! If ever there was a food that should suffer low self esteem and an identity crisis, it is rhubarb. It is a plant that has been misunderstood and misused all of its life. For starters, it is a vegetable that we have used as a fruit since we stopped using it as a medicine - and a purgative medicine at that.

Its very name means “food of the barbarians” (the people who live beyond the Rha, now the river Volga), and to add insult to insult, the name has since been hijacked by the theatre industry as a background nonsense word. Its riches to rags life history hasn’t helped either: once a desirable medicine worth more than opium and saffron it is now easily grown in anyone’s back yard. The dried root was used medicinally, and now we cook the fleshy stems, but early consumers mistakenly ate the leaves which was unfortunate as they contain oxalic acid which is poisonous. Although it would take 5 kg of leaves to kill, the confusion did nothing for rhubarb’s reputation.

It must have been a brave cook who first offered rhubarb in a pie, even allowing for new hybrids and cheaper sugar, considering its medicinal use as a purgative. Instead of pie, I offer you this rhubarb dessert, while sincerely hoping that our poor veggiefruit does not take further offense at the name.

Rhubarb Fool.
Wash, and if necessary, peel the rhubarb, and cut it up into small pieces. Put as much as is to be used into a jar which has a close-fitting lid, with as much sugar as will sweeten it. Set this jar in a saucepan of boiling water, and keep it boiling until the fruit is quite soft. Rub it through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon, and mix with the pulp as much cream, milk, or thin cold custard as will make it of the consistency of gruel. Serve cold in a glass dish (1870).

Tomorrow: A revolutionary dish.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Clubs, cabbages, and cannonballs.

Today, January 20th …

“The Athenaeum” was a popular weekly literary magazine, founded in England in 1822 and popular for a century before being merged into oblivion with several other publications. There was an interesting snippet in the edition of this date in 1875, which referred to an event of food significance a century before:

“About 1774 Isaac Sparks, the Irish comedian, founded in Long Acre a Colcannon Club.”

Colcannon itself is somewhat of an Irish national dish, and although it is infinitely variable, in its basic form as it was defined in a dictionary of Isaac’s day it is “An Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage, seasoned with butter”.

The name is another mystery. Most say it is based on the unpronounceable Gaelic words for “white cabbage” and/or onion (suggesting that onion is essential). If it isn’t Celtic, it is Teutonic, for the variations of cole, kale, khol etc are all cabbagey words, which is why cabbage salad is called coleslaw (although many older American cookbooks insist on calling it “coldslaw”, presumably because it is not hot, and proving yet again the division of the two cultures by a common language).

The best explanation, mooted by the OED no less is:

“ … it is said that vegetables such as spinach were formerly pounded with a cannon-ball

Which may only prove that the editors of the OED have never pureed spinach, or they are not totally without humour.

When all is said and done, colcannon is really the Irish version of “bubble and squeak”, for which the eccentric Dr William Kitchiner in his book “The Cook’s Oracle” (1817) suggested his own famous “Wow Wow Sauce” as an accompaniment.

Wow Wow Sauce:
Chop some parsley leaves very fine; quarter two or three pickled cucumbers, or walnuts, and divide them into small squares, and set them by ready; put into a saucepan a bit of butter as big as an egg; when it is melted, stir to it a tablespoonful of fine flour, and about half a pint of the broth in which the beef was boiled; add a table-spoonful of vinegar, the like quantity of mushroom ketchup, or Port wine, or both, and a tea-spoonful of made mustard; let it simmer together till it is thick as you wish it; put in the parsley and pickles to get warm, and pour it over the beef; or rather send it up in a sauce-tureen.

On Monday: Misunderstood, misused and misliked?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hanging around on the tree.

Today, January 19th …

Since the ratification of the twentieth amendment in 1933 the traditional day for the inauguration of the President of the USA has been January 20th, and the obligatory dinners and lunches are usually on that day. In 1945 however, for reasons known only to the planners of such events, the Inaugural dinner for Franklin D. Roosevelt, was held (at the usual venue of the Mayflower hotel, a few blocks from the White House) on the 19th.

The menu was:

Terrapin Soup with Sherry en Tasse
Fried Puff Pastry

Celery Olives Nuts

Filet of Sole, Belle Meuniere

Breast of Capon on Smithfield Ham, Southern Style
Baked Half Lobster Thermidor
New Stringless Beans Sweet Potato with Apples, Winchester

Salade Rose Marie
(Hearts of Romaine with Alligator Pear and Grapefruit, Lorenzo Dressing)

Cheese Wafers

Coupe Tortoni with Chocolate Mousse

Moka Cream Cake

Demi Tasse
What I find interesting is that the salad dish, unlike the other items, was described in detail, suggesting that it was a creation of the chef. I wonder, who was “Rose Marie”? The other interesting thing is the “alligator pear”. The chef meant of course, the avocado.

The avocado has had many names. Some describe its texture and use : midshipman’s butter, butter-pear and butter-fruit, for example. The “pear” part is also obvious, but why “alligator”? It is supposedly a very tortured derivative, like the word “avocado” itself, of its original Aztec name “ahuactl”, which makes sense as the fruit originated in South America and has been cultivated there for over 7000 years.

And, most deliciously – this is my favourite food name explanation in the world - the Aztec name means “testicle” and so it is the “testicle fruit”! This makes the best sense of all, as the fruit hangs in pairs on the “testicle tree” - one slightly lower than the other of course. Check it out.

“Sauce Lorenzo” is supposedly named after the waiter at the famous “21 Club” in New York who invented it. It is a variation on the vinaigrette theme, the essential ingredients being chilli sauce and chopped watercress. This is the “genuine” recipe:

Lorenzo Dressing 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar1/2 teaspoon dry mustard dissolved in 1 tablespoon water 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/3 cup olive oil2 tablespoons bottled chili sauce2 tablespoons finely chopped watercress leaves2 tablespoons chopped cooked bacon

Tomorrow: Clubs, cabbages, and cannonballs

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The tin that takes the biscuit.

Today, January 18th …

Today was the birthday in 1818 of George Palmer of Huntley and Palmer’s Biscuits, one of the Victorian era’s most successful and innovative entrepreneurs.

The demand for commercially made biscuits soared in the nineteenth century partly because of the increase in travel, but biscuits are fragile, and broken biscuits are not so attractive, even if breakage does allow the calories to leak out. One of the innovations introduced by Palmer was the biscuit tin, enabling unbroken biscuits to be sent all over the world, his business to boom, and generations of biscuit-tin collectors to be born.
Several sizes of tins were made: ten pound tins fashioned individually from sheets of tinplate, seven pound glass-lidded tins for grocery shops, and small household-size, elaborately decorated tins which soon became collectors items. It is not a hobby to be scoffed at. Christie’s auction house has had sales dedicated to tins made by this single manufacturer, and a “Grandfather Clock” tin made in 1929 sold a few years ago for about $6000 AUD.

The biscuit tins were also the subject of a recent and spectacular example of industrial sabotage by a disgruntled employee. A few years ago, this biscuit-tin artist made some non-standard variations to his lids: he painted two tiny couples in flagrante delico – one human couple and one canine couple – almost hidden in the bushes around the happy garden party scene. Eight thousand went to market before being spotted by a sharp-eyed grocer who reported the pattern variation and caused the tins to be withdrawn. Keep an eye out at the flea markets, because one of them sold in 2004 for almost $1000 AUD!

In appreciation of the entwined couples, I give you a recipe for a favourite old biscuit – jumbals, or jumbles. The word comes from “gemmel” meaning twin, and usually refers to a double intertwined finger-ring. Jumbals were originally pretzel-like biscuits, the pieces of dough knotted or twisted together “into what fashion you please”, as in this recipe from Nott’s Cook’s and Confectioner’s dictionary (1724):

To make Jumbals plain.
Take three pounds of fine Flour, a Pound and half of fresh Butter; rub into the Flour with a Pound and a half of Sugar; put in six Eggs, leaving out three Whites, and six Spoonfuls of Rose-water; make it into a Paste, and make it into what fashion you please, and bake them on Papers or Plates.

Tomorrow: Hanging around on the tree

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Comical food for health.

Today, January 17th …

On this day in 1929, the character “Popeye” first appeared in Elzie Seagar’s comic strip “The Thimble Theatre”. The temporary character was so popular that he became the lead player in his own saga, and the rest, as they say in the industry - is spinach history.

From 1931 to 1936 there was a 33% increase in spinach consumption in the USA, and spinach growers gave the entire credit to the little man who was “strong to the finish ‘cos I eats my spinich”. So grateful were they in “the spinach capital of the world” that they honoured Popeye and his creator with a statue. That’s Crystal City, Texas, in case you want to pay homage.

Other cartoon characters have had an impact on the food industry, but none with such impressive economic benefits. Dagwood Bumstead, the supreme and sneaky raider of the refrigerator, has given his name to a multi-layered sandwich; Popeye’s buddy Wimpy, the hamburger lover, gave his to a whole hamburger chain. The nouveau-riche Irish immigrant Jiggs, in “Bringing up Father” escaped the extravagant social functions of his social-climbing wife Maggie to eat his personal comfort food of corned beef and cabbage. In Newfoundland, where this dish is a specialty, it is referred to as a “Jiggs Dinner”.

Nutrition watchdogs are currently calling for a crackdown on the use of children’s cartoon characters to market food products, which seems strange in the light of this culinary comic history. The sad truth is that nowadays there is only merchandising profit in marketing brand names, and it is unlikely that a generic avocado grower could afford to purchase the “Shrek” brand, no matter how close his colour match to their product.

Popeye popped his spinach straight from the magically appearing can, but this recipe from an elegant little English book, “The Gentle Art of Cookery” published in 1925 seems appropriate for a well-travelled sailor man.

An Italian Way of Cooking Spinach.
Spinach, sultanas, raisins, anchovy butter, fried bread.
Cook 2 lbs. of spinach, drain it, chop it very fine, and put it into a casserole with a teaspoonful of anchovy butter, and three ounces of mixed sultanas and seeded raisins. Make it very hot, and serve with fried croutons of bread.

Now what the world needs is a loveable character to promote organic low cholesterol low sugar high fibre anti-oxidant rich low allergy low GI genetically unmodified food.

Tomorrow: The tin that takes the biscuit.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Peace and Plenty.

Today, January 16th …

This day in ancient Rome was the festival of Concordia. Concordia (‘Harmonia’ in Greek mythology) was the goddess of agreement or “concord” (meaning “with one heart”), and seems to be particularly associated with marital harmony.

It was a day of offerings, not feasting, which is a pity if you agree with Samuel Pepys that it is “strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody”. Perhaps your experience agrees more closely with that of the wonderful writer M.F.K. Fisher: "the cold truth is that family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters"?

If Isabella Beeton is correct, and “there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than badly cooked dinners and untidy ways”, perhaps today we should make a special effort.

In the absence of a traditional food, we must make up our own menu. As an aperitif, let’s start with a modern cocktail:

Take a martini glass, and build and stir:
36 ml vodka, 12 ml blue Curacao liqueur, 12 ml dry vermouth.
Decorate with a maraschino cherry.

From Victorian cookbooks, the savoury course: first, make some dumplings, and serve with:

Matrimony Sauce.
Put a bit of butter into cold water in a saucepan; dust in a little flour, stirring one way until they are completely mixed; then add some brown sugar and a table-spoonful or so of Vinegar. Continue stirring until the sauce boils; pour it into a basin and serve.

A marital metaphor in a sauce recipe, don’t you think?

Then the dessert, less obviously named:

Matrimony Pudding.
Pare and core one pound and a half of apples, and boil with three-quarters of a pound of loaf sugar, the grated rind and strained juice of a lemon, and the sixth part of a nutmeg, grated; stir till they become a rich marmalade; then let it go cold. Make a custard as follows: moisten a tablespoon of Oswego [cornflour] with half a gill of new milk; boil a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar in half a pint of milk, and stir into the Oswego while boiling; add four well-beaten eggs and half a gill of thick cream. Butter a pie-dish, lay in the custard and marmalade in alternate layers until the dish is full; bake in a quick oven for twenty-five minutes. Serve, hot or cold.

Tomorrow: Comical food for health.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Wine for health.

Today, January 13 …

Samuel Pepys spared no expense on a “noble” dinner for friends on this day in 1663. His guests arrived around midday, and stayed on till supper, when they had “a good sack-posset and cold meat” before leaving around 10 o’clock at night.

A “posset” was a hot, sweet drink made by heating alcohol in a bowl, then pouring hot cream or milk in from a great height. It was a popular supper dish, a comfort food or treat, considered to have a restorative or medicinal benefit. It was often made with “sack” (sherry), which was also sometime called “Canary”, as the best came from those islands.

In Pepys’ day every good housewife, though she employed a cook to prepare daily meals, was expected to take responsibility herself for making preserves and simple household remedies, and books of “receipts” for these were enormously popular. One written by a contemporary of Pepys, Sir Kenelm Digby, and published posthumously in 1669 is the earliest collection of fermented drink recipes that we know. He was a colourful character – amateur scientist, linguist, privateer, diplomat, and according to some a “great mountebank”. When his beloved wife Venetia died suddenly it was widely believed that he had accidentally poisoned her with the viper wine that he gave her to preserve her beauty. There is no recipe for viper wine amongst the possets, meads, hydromels and metheglins of Digby’s book, as this was more properly in the domain of the alchemists such as John French. He published his book “The Art of Distillation” in 1651.

Posset recipes being easily available, I give you French’s instructions for viper wine. Conveniently, sherry is the basis for both.

Viper Wine is Made Thus
Take of the best fat vipers, cut off their heads, take off their skins, and unbowel them. Then put them into the best canary sack, four or six according to their bigness into a gallon. Let them stand two or three months. Then draw off your wine as you drink it.Some put them alive into the wine, and there suffocate them, and afterwards take them out, and cut off their heads, take off their skins, and unbowel them, and then put them into the same wine again, and do as before.This wine has the same virtues as the foregoing quintessence. It also provokes to venery, cures the leprosy and such like corruptions of the blood

On Monday: Peace and Plenty.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Food for perfect felicity.

Today, January 12th …

In 1763, James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, had been successful “in search of a woman worthy of my love”, and by this day “Louisa” had at last agreed “to bestow perfect felicity upon me”. No decent lodging place would rent rooms to unmarried folk, so they planned a subterfuge.

“We contrived to seem as if we had come off a journey, and carried in a bundle our night-clothes, handkerchiefs, and other little things. We also had with us some almond biscuits, or as they call them in London, macaroons, which looked like provisions on the road.”

He ordered “ a bowl of negus, very rich of the fruit, which I caused be set in the room as a reviving cordial”. Louisa allowed him “full possession of my warmest wishes” five times (he was proud of his “godlike vigour”) – and “At last I sunk to rest in her arms and she in mine. I found the negus, which had a fine flavour, very refreshing to me.”

Conquest achieved, by the 16th “the warm enthusiasm of love was over”, and by the 18th he had suspicious symptoms. It seems that a glass of negus can restore vigour, but not prevent “that distemper with which Venus, when cross, takes it into her head to plague her votaries”.

In case you need to bribe your way to perfect felicity, I give you a recipe for macaroons:

To one pound of blanched and beaten sweet almonds put one pound of sugar, and a little rosewater to keep them from oiling. Then beat the whites of seven eggs to a froth, put them in and beat them well together. Drop them on wafer paper, grate sugar over them and bake them. (1769)

Assuming you are (safely) successful, here is a nineteenth century recipe for negus, to serve hot or cold.

Negus: This popular beverage derives its name from its originator, Colonel Negus. The ingredients of which it is composed are either port or sherry and hot water, the quantity of the water being double that of the wine. Sweeten with lump sugar, and flavour with a little lemon juice, and grated nutmeg, and a morsel only of the yellow rind of the lemon. It is an improvement to add one drop of essence of ambergris, or eight or ten drops of essence of vanilla to every twelve glasses or so of negus.

Tomorrow: Wine for health.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A pearl of a recipe.

Today, January 11 …

David Livingstone, intrepid African explorer and missionary wrote in his journal in January 1854:

“On the 11th and 12th we were detained by incessant and violent rains. I had a little tapioca and a small quantity of Libonta meal, which I reserved for emergencies. The patience of my men under hunger was admirable. Present want is never so painful as the prospect of future starvation”

Tapioca is made from the tasteless starchy root of the cassava (or manioc) plant, after the poisonous prussic acid is removed by pounding and cooking. Cassava originated in South America and now thrives in Africa and elsewhere, although food historian Waverley Root has said “It is possible that it could be grown in Florida, but so far as I know, no-one has ever wanted to.”

In the form used most commonly in the West – pearl tapioca made into a glutinous milk pudding – many say that it is poisonous even without the prussic acid. Descriptions of the nursery and sick-room staple are replete with adjectives like “wholesome” and “nourishing”, with a noteable lack of words such as “delicious”, or even “pleasant”. Tapioca is, however, now trendy in the form of “bubble tea”, a drink popular in Asia consisting of sweet tea with or without other flavourings, and large “pearls” or “bubbles” which can be sucked up through the specially wide straw, thus providing both food and drink in a cup. Disgusting.

I give you the tapioca recipe which wins my disgusting prize, from an 1870s cookbook. Take note: the book warns you that tapioca “should be bought of a respectable dealer, as a spurious kind is sometimes offered for sale made of gum and potato flour”. Gum and potato flour being worse, presumably.

If you do happen to be a tapioca fan, you could follow this savoury dish with the milk pudding, accompany it with bubble tea for a complete tapioca meal, and follow it with psychiatric help.

Tapioca and Tomatoes.
Soak a tablespoonful of tapioca in water for a couple of hours, set it to boil, adding a little more water till quite done to the consistency of porridge. Add pepper, salt, and a little fresh butter. Cut two tomatoes in half, remove pips and watery substance, sprinkle with a little pepper and salt. Fill each half-tomato with with the tapioca, sprinkle the top with grated parmesan and baked bread crumbs, put them into the oven for twenty minutes, and serve.

Tomorrow: Food for perfect felicity.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Getting the sauce on vegetables.

Today, January 10th …

Officials of the “Nomenclature Sub-Committee” of the “Customs Code Committee” of the European Union met behind closed doors on this day in 2002 to solve a riddle. How lumpy does a sauce have to be before it is a vegetable?

Do not mock, gentle readers, for this was no mere theoretical debate, this was a decision of great financial significance to food importers to the EU, because import tax on sauce was 20%, but on vegetables was 288%. The existing definition was that 20% lumps meant vegetable, and European growers were concerned that if this was raised, veges would be able to sneak across international borders disguised as sauce. Sauce manufacturers wanted the barrier raised to 30%, citing increased manufacturing costs due to consumer demand for “increased textural interest”.

So – how is the lumpiness of a sauce determined? In strictly monitored tests, the sauce is poured through a metal sieve with apertures of five millimetres; the lumps in the sieve are then rinsed in warm water. If they remain lumpy, they are vegetables. I kid you not.

A really, really, smooth sauce is the pinnacle of saucery of course, and is easy nowadays with electric processors. The legendary French chef Carême (1774 – 1833), “The king of chefs and the chef of kings”, had muscular kitchen slaves to press raw chicken flesh through metal sieves and almond pulp through silk for his sauces and mousses. A good kitchen work-out, Non?

The French still consider themselves the masters of sauce-making. Someone, perhaps the gourmet diplomat Talleyrand said: “England has three sauces and 360 religions, and France has three religions and 360 sauces”. Carême, who cooked for Talleyrand, claimed that there were four classic sauces, from which all others were derived: Bechamel, Veloute, Allemande, and Espagnol. Sauce Espagnol is said to have been one of the important factors in getting the tomato accepted as a safe and desirable culinary item several centuries after its introduction from the New World.

Sauce Espagnol.
2 ounces butter, 1 ounce flour, 1 pint dark meat stock, bouquet garni, 1 ounce tomato puree.
Melt the butter, stir in the flour and cook gently on a low heat until well browned. Add the stock and stir till it thickens. Add the bouquet garni and simmer half an hour. By this time the sauce will have reduced. Remove the bouquet garni, add the tomato puree, and simmer another five minutes.

A pearl of a recipe.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Funny fish bits.

Today, January 9th …

The London Times carried an article on this day in 1999 reporting the death of a fugutsu - an aficionado of the fugu or puffer fish, which is an expensive delicacy. There is a traditional Japanese saying: “those who eat fugu soup are stupid, but those who do not eat fugu soup are also stupid.”

In its natural habitat the puffer fish gives its potential predators a more than reasonable warning; it puffs itself up into an ugly spiky ball, becoming very unappetising looking to put off those who do not already know that this is puffer-fish-speak for “Danger! I contain a lethal tetradoxin which is similar to curare, and is 1200 times more dangerous than cyanide”. Each fish contains enough poison to kill 30 adults and it kills quickly, but probably not quickly enough for the unfortunate (or stupid) victim, by paralysing the respiratory muscles so that breathing stops while consciousness is maintained.

The training of a fugu chef is very rigorous: the internal organs of the fish, which contain most of the poison, must be carefully removed without any contamination of the flesh as an amount that will fit on the head of a pin will kill the customer. In the unfortunate event that this happens, the chef would once have been expected to fall on his sword – quite literally, by committing seppuku or ritual suicide by disembowelling.

If you want an exciting seafood dining experience, but aren’t quite prepared to play Japanese roulette, there are some scary sounding fish bits that no-one eats anymore.

From Eliza Acton’s “Modern Cookery for Private Families” (1845)

To boil Cod’s Sounds.
Should they be highly salted, soak them for a night, and on the following day rub off entirely the discoloured skin; wash them well, lay them into plenty of cold milk and water, and boil them gently from thirty to forty minutes, or longer should they not be quite tender. Clear off the scum as it rises with great care, or it will sink and adhere to the sounds, of which the appearance will then be spoiled. Drain them well, dish them on a napkin, and send egg sauce and plain melted butter to table with them.

A cod’s sound is the swim (or floatation) bladder of the fish. You can batter and deep fry the bits after the preliminary boiling, if you prefer.

I’ll risk Death by Chocolate, thanks.

Getting the sauce on vegetables.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The art of tarts.

Today, January 6th …

Today is Twelfth Day, or Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, whichever you prefer. It is the end of the traditional Christmas season, celebrating the day when the three Wise Men paid their visit and gave their gifts to the infant Jesus, or the last party day before starting the real work of the year, whichever you prefer. It is the day to put the ham bone in the freezer ready for winter soup, take down the tree, and have some Twelfth Cake or King Cake.

Every country with a European heritage has its version of the Twelfth Cake. It may be a special sweet bread, or a fruit cake, or a flaky pastry confection, and the symbolic associations are at least as important as the gastronomic. One more slice than the number of guests should be cut, the extra slice being “for God”, and is to be given to the first poor person who comes to the house. For purely secular luck, a tradition which has its roots in ancient pagan fertility rites says that a small item – a bean, a coin, or a tiny doll – must be hidden inside the cake, and the finder is elected king or queen for the day. This was a dubious privilege, with the winner – depending on the particular local custom – being responsible for leading the fun (usually drinking), paying the bill, performing the rituals that rid the house of evil for the forthcoming year, or hosting the Candlemas celebrations on February 2nd.

The proud domestic pastry-makers of England had a variation of the homely jam tart which allowed them to show off their skills at church socials. It was the “Epiphany Tart”, and kudos was attached to the intricacy of the pastry lattice on top of the open tart, and the number of different coloured jams which it contained. A popular design was in the form of the Star of David, which in expert hands allowed for 13 different colours, and must have looked like an edible stained-glass window.

For your pastry, try this recipe, from Charles Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria.

Tart Paste
Spread a pound of flour on the table with a hollow in the centre; add half a pound of butter, three ounces of sugar, one egg, half an ounce of salt, and a gill of water; mix and work the paste into a smooth compact body.

On Monday:
Funny fish bits.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What’s in a name?

Today, January 5th …

The OED says that the word “hamburger” first appeared in print on this day in 1889 in the Walla Walla Union, a Washington newspaper. The quotation given is: ‘You are asked if you will have “porkchopbeefsteakhamandegghamburgersteakorliverandbacon”’. Careful reading shows that this is misleading, as it refers to hamburger steak, not hamburger(s). Anyway, this little researcher has found (purely by chance) a 1873 reference to “hamburger steak” in the New York Times of 1873, so the OED is WRONG!

The issue of the first written reference aside, the reality is that minced meat patties have been around for as long as there have been kitchen slaves to finely chop the less appetising cuts of meat. When and how did a lump of fried or grilled chopped up meat become a burger?

The first question is: Why Hamburger and not Berlinburger, or Parisburger for that matter? It seems that the idea of minced meat masquerading as steak came from Germany, presumably Hamburg, to the USA in the first half of the nineteenth century with the wave of migrants from that country. Leaving aside the recipes for “Hamburg beef” that are instructions for salted meat, most recipes of the time are for minced meat patties, called “hamburg steak” and often “shaped as sirloin”.

The real question is, who first got the idea to put the meat in a bun, thus creating a burger as we know it? There are many contenders for the original idea, and they will no doubt be scrapping over the honour for centuries yet, but burgers in buns were certainly being sold at the St Louis Fair of 1904.

Here are a couple of recipes from Fannie Farmer’s “Boston Cooking School Cookbook” of 1896. She doesn’t mention bread, but it is obviously the onion that makes the burger difference.

Broiled Meat Cakes
Chop finely lean raw beef, season with salt and pepper, shape in small flat cakes, and broil in a greased broiler or frying-pan. Spread with butter, or serve with Maitre d’hotel Butter. In forming the cakes, handle as little as possible; for if pressed too compactly, cakes will be found solid.

Hamburg Steaks.
Chop finely one pound lean raw beef; season highly with salt, pepper, and a few drops onion juice or one half shallot, finely chopped. Shape, cook, and serve as Meat Cakes. A few gratings of nutmeg and one egg slightly beaten may be added.

Tomorrow: The art of tarts.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Baron’s hat and other mysteries.

Today, January 4th …

Today I want to de-bunk some myths about the lamington, because persisting myths are ruining a perfectly good mystery. What is certain that “a subscriber” had a recipe for lamingtons published in The Queenslander newspaper on this date in 1902, and that this is the earliest known published recipe for our national cake. What is not certain is how the name originated.

Fakelore says that it was named after Baron Lamington, governor of Queensland from 1896-1901. The most ridiculous version of this says that it was so named because it resembled the hat he habitually wore, which either meant he had a lot of dandruff, or that the real name of the cake should have been “homburg”. What is also absolutely untrue (pity though) is that he referred to them as “‘those bloody poofy woolly biscuits”. The best that can be said is that the cake “came to be associated with him”.

One possibility is that the lamington is named after a locality, and there are three contenders: Lamington village (in Scotland), Leamington Spa (Warwickshire), and Lemmington (Northumberland). There are recipes for Leamington cake and puddings in some late Victorian cookbooks which are layered jam sponge-cake type mixtures, so the lamington could have developed from these.I hope this does not turn out to be the case, as it would be a very boring explanation. Naturally the New Zealanders claim to have invented lamingtons, as they do the pavlova, but this is from the nation that also had the idea of re-naming the Chinese gooseberry as “kiwi fruit”.

My favourite explanation, so good that it should be true, is that “lemmingtons” are made out of minced lemmings who have not yet drowned themselves.

I now give you that first known recipe. Call me if you make them.

Lamington Cake.
The weight of two eggs in butter, sugar and flour; 2 eggs; ½ tsp baking powder.
Beat the butter to a cream, add the sugar and yolks of eggs, one by one, then the whites beaten stiff, lastly add flour and baking powder. Bake in a moderate oven. When cold cut the cake like a sandwich and put the white mixture between, then cut into small pieces and cover on all sides with the chocolate mixture. Dip the cakes into grated coconut and put in a cool place.

Tomorrow: What’s in a name?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Food in the city.

Today, January 3rd …

One of the great food places of the world was officially named on this day in 1847, when the little town of Yerba Buena became San Francisco. Jack Kerouac sums it up better than anyone, in “On the Road”. In case you didn’t read it in the 60’s (and if not, why not?), here it is:

“In the window I smelled the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the buns were hot and the baskets were good enough to eat too; where the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too. Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I'd eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where the hamburgers sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from chinatown, vying with spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman's Wharf-nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausilito across the bay, and that's my ah-dream of San Francisco … ”

The city is famous for its sourdough bread and its cioppino (fish stew by a far nicer name), and many famous dishes have been invented at its hotels: Oysters Kirkpatrick, Green Goddess Salad, and perhaps Chicken Tetrazzini at the gorgeous Palace Hotel, for example. From the gorgeous St Francis hotel come a number of dishes named for the chef Victor Hertzler. His signature dish was his celery salad:

Celery Victor
Wash six stalks of large celery. Make a stock with one soup hen or chicken bones, and five pounds of veal bones, in the usual manner, with carrots, onions, bay leaves, parsley, salt and whole pepper. Place celery in vessel and strain broth over same, and boil until soft. Allow to cool in the broth. When cold press the broth out of the celery gently with the hands, and place on plate. Season with salt, fresh- ground black pepper, chervil, and one-quarter white wine tarragon vinegar to three-quarters of olive oil.

Tomorrow: The Baron’s hat and other mysteries.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A sweet start to the New Year

Today, January 2nd …

Today is the eighth day of Christmas, and two right royal Frenchmen were given a great treat on this day in 1701. The Dukes of Burgundy and Berry, grandsons of Louis XIV were passing through the city of Montelimar in Provence, and were presented with one quintal of white nougat – the town’s specialty - by the mayor. Like so many other units of measurement, a quintal has varied over time and place, but in 1701 used to be about 48.95 kilos, so it is to be hoped that the royal grandsons didn’t eat it all at once.

Montelimar is “the nougat capital of the world”, but it was not invented there. The ancients all had sweetmeats based on honey, but it was the Arabs (who gave us the word “candy”, from their qandi) who were true confectionary artists. A thirteenth century manuscript in Istanbul – the only surviving medieval Arabic cookbook – contains a number of recipes for sweetmeats, and many of these are based on honey and nuts, and sound just like nougat (or halva). The Arabs took their nut trees and their recipes to Spain, and from there they spread to the rest of Europe, with the almond trees finding that they liked the area around Montelimar.

By amazing co-incidence, today is also the feast day of St Macarius, who was a merchant of candy and pastries before he became a hermit, so is the patron saint of pastrycooks and confectioners. Sweetmeats can be “wet” (fruit in syrup) or “dry” like nougat and “sugarplums” (candied fruit), but the latter are tricky for the faint-hearted and candy-thermometerless, so I give you this recipe for a sugared fruit, which would make a fine dessert, and is from a little cookbook from 1718 by Mary Eales, “Confectioner to her late Majesty, Queen Anne”, who must have been very busy as her boss was variously called “The Gouty Queen of the Gourmands”, “Brandy Nan” (because she liked a drop), and “the fat old bitch”.

To sugar all Sorts of small FRUIT.
Beat the White of an Egg, and dip the Fruit in it; let it lye on a Cloth that it may not wet; then take fine sifted Sugar, and rowl the Fruit in it ‘till ‘tis quite cover’d with Sugar; lay it on a Sieve in a Stove, or before a Fire, to dry it well; it will keep well a Week.

Tomorrow: Food in the city.