Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Succulent Esculents.

February 26 ...

Yesterday’s wonderful source – the Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1715) was so happy to be discovered that it has donated several stories. I wasn’t sure why one seemingly ordinary definition – “Esculents: Plants for Food; as Chokes, Carrets, Turneps etc.” - caught my eye initially, but it had something to do with the idea of esculents sounding succulent, and that phrase sounding catchy. I had no doubt that the words had a similar origin, but it turns out that I was wrong. Both are from the Latin: succulent (from succulentus) meaning “full of juice”, but esculent comes from esca (food), and means “suitable for food”.

I have sadly neglected the carrot up to now. It has been a much esteemed vegetable for many centuries, and at its best should certainly be a succulent form of esculent. It originated in what is now Afghanistan, was prized by the Ancient Romans, and was well known in Europe and England by the Middle Ages. By 1533 the English diplomat Thomas Elyot noted in his book The Castel of Helthe, that “Parsnepes and carettes ... do nourishe with better iuyce [juice] than the other rootes”. According to the Doctrine of Humours (the prevailing medical doctrine of the day) this meant that as a “moist” vegetable they would be very suitable for those of dry “complexion” or temperament, or those suffering from diseases characterised by dry humours. Aside from its caloric and medicinal value, the carrot was also prized for its inherent sweetness, as sugar was still far too expensive for profligate use in medieval times. The sweetness came in handy again four hundred years later during both World Wars when sugar was rationed in the U.K, and carrots (which were home grown and therefore in good supply) were made into jam and put into puddings, pies, and cakes.

Early carrot varieties were white, yellow, red, purple, or black. The orange colour that we now know, which was probably the one familiar to Thomas Elyot, came about as a result of intensive horticulture on the part of the Dutch. We have orange carrots today thanks to a deliberate decision to breed a national vegetable in the patriotic colour of the House of Orange during the fifteenth century.

Perhaps we can best pay homage to the humble carrot by skipping through the centuries, sampling as we go.

Here is how to cook carrots Ancient Roman style, from the Vehling translation of the cookbook of Apicius. Authenticity would demand white or purple carrots, as these were the only ones the Romans knew. These colours are being revived again as “heirloom carrots” if you can find an artisan grower, but in the meantime I am sure you will get the idea with “modern” orange varieties.

Carrotæ et Pastinacæ
The carrots [are] boiled [and] sliced, stewed with cumin and a little oil and are served. At the same time [here is your opportunity] make a cumin sauce [from the carrot juice] for those who have the colic.

If sixteenth century German carrots are more your fancy, and you like some meat with your vegetables, try this recipe from Ein New Kochbuch (1581), by Marx Rumpolt.

Yellow Roots
[could be carrots, parsnips or turnips]
Take yellow roots that are large/ hollow them out/ and take cooked veal that is fine roasted/ chop it with beef fat/ and with bacon/ put many eggyolks thereunder/ and little black raisins/ yellow it/ and fill the yellow roots therewith/ block the opening so that the filling does not climb out/ cook it with a beefbroth/ or brown it in hot butter and when you have browned them / so cook them in beef broth. Make it yellow though/ that it is not brown/ chop green welltasting herbs thereunder/ with whole pepper and whole nutmeg blossom. You may season the filling with garlic or onions/ so it is good and welltasting.

Finally, a sweet pudding from the eighteenth century, from a book with one of my favourite titles: Adam’s luxury, and Eve’s cookery; or, the kitchen-garden display’d (1744). It is actually a pie (or tart), and clearly demonstrates the shared heritage of Pumpkin Pie.

To Make Carrot Puddings.
Scrape your Carrots clean, and grate them; to half a pound of Carrots put a Pound of grated Bread, a Nutmeg, a little Cinnamon, Salt, half a Pound of Sugar, half a Pint of Sack [sherry], eight Eggs, a Pound of melted Butter, as much Cream as will mix it together; stir it and beat it up well, then sheet a Dish with Puff Paste and send it to the Oven.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Whetting the Appetite.

Quotation for the Day …

I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond. Mae West.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

That carrot pudding sounds quite tasty. I had no idea that orange carrots were a (relatively) modern invention.

Lidian said...

Blogger just ate my very long and semi-witty comment...dear Blogger! I enjoyed this post immensely, it was most succulent. I loved learning about the House of Orange and its carrots to match.

John said...

More carrot history than you can shake a carrot at - visit the World Carrot Museum!


Vicki Tower said...

We have tasted it all and in all honesty it tastes really good. Now that I've seen this, we're planning to buy succulents and we're planning if it does taste okay.