Monday, January 28, 2008

On Coconuts.

January 28

Francis Drake may not have been responsible for bringing the potato to England, but he did have some interesting food experiences. On this day in 1578 in the Cape Verde islands he was in search of provisions, and came across the coconut.

“Yet the next day (28th) our General sent to view the island [Mayo, Cape Verde], and the likelihoods that might be there of provision of victuals, … Amongst other things we found here a kind of fruit called cocos, which because it is the fruit groweth in clusters, hard at the top of the stem of the tree, as big every several fruit as a man's head; but having taken off the uttermost bark, which you shall find to be very full of strings or sinews, as I may term them, you shall come to a hard shell, which may hold in quantity of liquor a pint commonly, or some a quart, and some less. Within that shell, of the thickness of half-an-inch good, you shall have a kind of hard substance and very white, no less good and sweet than almonds; within that again, a certain clear liquor, which being drunk, you shall not only find it very delicate and sweet, but most comfortable and cordial.”

The name ‘coconut’ is a puzzle, and the OED almost gives up on it, eventually seeming to agree with the opinion that it comes from a Spanish or Portuguese word indicating a grin or grimacing expression – referencing the appearance produced by the three ‘holes’ at the base. One of the OED’s own supporting quotations however (from 1555) suggests that it may have been an ‘Indian’ word for the cry of a monkey, as the holes ‘doo represent the gesture and fygure of the cattes cauled Mammone, that is munkeys, when they crye: which crye the Indians caule coca.’ The credibility of this writer is somewhat in doubt as he says there are four holes in the coconut shell (‘there are seene two holes, and aboue them two other naturall holes’), whereas most of us can only identify three – so perhaps the expert had never seen one himself.

That the coconut is an incredibly useful tree and fruit has never been in doubt. One Polynesian wanderer in the 1840’s summed up its usefulness by quoting:

‘The Indian’s nut alone,
Is clothing, meat,and trencher, drink and can,
Boat, cable, sail, and needle – all in one.’

It seems to me that there is too much dried, sweetened (for Goodness’ Sake!), packaged, dessicated coconut in the world. Coconuts with their hard shells don’t have the packing and transport problems of soft and rapidly ripening fruit like the banana for example, but of course the problem for those of us without a single machete in the kitchen is how to extract and shred the flesh. I understand that there are special gadgets that will do this, but I do not have one. Do they work? If they do, I will try recipes such as the following, taken from The Indian Cookery Book, published By Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta, circa 1900.

Cocoanut Rice Pudding
Soak a breakfastcupful of fine rice in water until quite soft; scoop out the contents of a hard cocoanut; extract all the milk with a little boiling-hot water, then boil the rice in it, sweeten it to taste with some date jagree or treacle, and put in a few grains of aniseed. Pour the mixture into a buttered pudding-dish and bake it slightly.

Cocoanut Pittas
Scrape finely a cocoanut, brown it with some jagree and a few grains of the black cardamom seed, and set it aside; then prepare a pastry of finely-sifted rice-flour (it must be kneaded with boiling-hot water, and will not roll out); take as much as the size of a duck's egg, and press it out flat in the palm of your hand to the size of a large saucer; put a tablespoonful of the fried cocoanut into it, and close it up in a half-moon shape, with the help of a little water. Have a wide-mouthed large earthen pot of boiling water; stretch and tie over its mouth a napkin, and steam the pittas or cakes over them; they will be ready in half an hour, and may be eaten hot or cold.

Cocoanut Cheesecakes
Grate a good-sized nut very fine, and add to it four or five spoonfuls of rich syrup and one spoonful of rose-water; set it over a few coals, and keep stirring till it is mixed; then take it off the fire and let it cool; next mix the yolks of two eggs well with it, and bake in small paps in the shape of cheesecakes. The pastry for the pans must be made with flour and yokes of eggs, rolled as thin as possible; wet the tops of the cakes with rose-water; sift some refined sugar over them, and bake them in an oven at a gentle heat.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Diet Gurus.

Quotation for the Day …

One of these nuts is a meal for a man, both meat and drink [on coconuts]. Marco Polo.

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