Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Worts of all sorts.

Today, April 11th …

Joseph Banks, English gentleman and famous botanist, was aboard the Endeavour with Capt. James Cook on his first voyage of discovery – the voyage that observed the transit of Venus and mapped the east coast of Australia. On this day in 1769 he wrote:

I shall fill a little paper in describing the means which I have taken to prevent the scurvy in particular.
The ship was supplyd by the Admiralty with Sower crout which I eat of constantly till our salted Cabbage was opend which I preferd as a pleasant substitute. Wort was servd out almost constantly, of this I drank from a pint or more every evening but all this did not so intirely check the distemper … I then flew to the lemon Juice which had been put up for me according to Dr Hulmes method describd in his book …

Scurvy was the mysterious curse of long sea-voyages, and the eighteenth century was a period of intense experimentation to find a way to reduce the loss of valuable slave cargo as well as seamen.

Sauerkraut, salted cabbage, and preserved lemon juice make sense to us today – and certainly more than ‘elixir of vitriol’ and molasses which were other experiments of the time. But what is this thing called ‘wort’? The OED says it can mean ‘a pot-herb’, ‘any plant of the cabbage kind’, and ‘a potage’, but Banks was clearly referring to the fourth definition: ‘an infusion of malt’, which after fermentation becomes beer.

With ‘wort’ meaning cabbage, pot-herb, potage and unfermented beer, there would have been a clever symmetry in finding a recipe for cabbage soup with beer, especially if it came from Elizabeth Raffald’s “Experienced English Housekeeper”, which was published in 1769, the same year as Banks’ adventure. Alas, its only cabbage recipe is this one:

To boil Cabbage.
Cut off the outside leaves and cut it into quarters, pick it well and wash it clean; boil it in a large quantity of water with plenty of salt in it. When it is tender and a fine light green, lay it on a sieve to drain but dont squeeze it, if you do it will take off the flavour. Have ready some very rich melted butter, or chop it with cold butter.

Sounds good to me. Why is the idea of cabbage as cooked by English cooks some sort of international joke (see the quotation in the sidebar)?

Tomorrow: Dinner in the Digester.

See another diary entry from Joseph Banks for March 3rd. You'll have to scroll down, or use Crl+F - it was a long retrospective posting!

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