Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Whetting the Appetite.

February 27 ...

There is not much that is new under the sun, after all, is there? And I don’t mean in terms of technological ideas. The vague (or not so vague) unease or fear about Pleasure and an ‘unnatural appletite’ for eating has been around for a long time. A Mr. John Norris who wrote A Practical Treatise Concerning Humility in 1707 may have been a worthy Christian gentleman, but he had a killjoy attitude to food, if the following paragraph is any indication:

Pleasure is the thing proposed, and because there can be none without some Appetite, new ways are invented and contrived to make an Artificial one, when that which is Natural is either wanting or satisfied. They must have whets before they Eat, and lest that should not do, they muft have the most studied and exquisite sauces when they eat, and if by the help of both thefe they fhould happen to eat too much, then they must have proper stomach Liquors to carry it off, and to create a new Appetite. So that Mens Lives seem to be a continued Circulation of Eating and preparing to Eat; and the great intention of Cookery is to make Men Eat who have no mind to Eat, and to Eat on after the natural and reasonable ends of Eating are serv'd.”

I don’t see what is wrong with Life being a continued Circulation of Eating and Preparing to Eat, do you? Sounds like a summary of my own life.

Some words do fall by the wayside as time progresses however. We don’t use the word ‘whets’ much anymore to describe things we use to whet our appetite before a meal. The word comes from the word “whetting”, to mean “an act of sharpening” (on a whetstone), and of course originally referred to the sharpening of a blade. When it was first used in respect of sharpening the appetite, it meant a drink, but somewhere along the way it became attached to little food items, and further along the way it got displaced by hors d’oeuvre, appetiser, savouries, amuse-bouche, etc.

In medieval times, cooks-who-would-be-artists and sculptors made huge constructions resembling figures of saints, castles, mythical animals, etc out of “food”. Sometimes they even had moving parts, made noises and did such things as produce fountains of wine. These were called “subtelties” and were the original “entrements” (“between the courses”) which functioned as entertainment and as statements of power or propaganda to impress or awe the guests at a feast. They knew how to have fun with food in the Middle Ages.

“Whets” or little appetisers are an opportunity for the smaller-scale modern cook to have artistic fun with food, and a little English book called, most appropriately Artistic Savouries (undated but probably late 1930’s) has some hilarious ideas. If you feel like deveopling your bread-carving expertise you can make appetisers in the form of little tea-cups (how could I resist Mock Tea Cups). The book also has such delights as appetisers in the style of Window boxes, Washing Tubs, Mock Ears of Corn, Cigarettes, Mock Radishes, flowers, pipes and all sorts of other lovely mini-sculptures suitable for those who want to play with their food before they serve and eat it.

Tasses à Thé Fausse.
(Mock Cups of Tea)
Plain light pastry.
A little white of egg and beetroot colouring.
Shrimps.
½ oz. Shippam's anchovy paste.
1 tablespoonful white sauce without salt.
1 small teaspoonful of cream.
½ teaspoonful caramel.
Cut some shapes of stale bread to represent tiny tea-cups and cover with pastry. Pinch one side to form a handle, make a slit in the opposite side and fold over, having brushed the overlap with white of egg, press well into the little shape and prick all over with a small fork. Bake in a quick oven and having carefully removed the bread, brush edges and handles with white of egg, to which has been added colouring. Having made the saucers by covering little rounds of bread with pastry, brush the edges of these with the colouring. Now place a little anchovy in the centre of each saucer and set a cup on each. Three parts fill the cups with shrimps and having mixed the anchovy sauce, caramel and cream, pour a little over each cup of shrimps.
Serve cold garnished with mustard and cress, or parsley.

Radises Fausse
(Mock Radishes)
Plain pastry.
¼ Ib. minced ham.
1 oz. oiled butter.
1 oz. white bread-crumbs.
1 egg.
Beetroot colouring.
Mint or watercress.
Mix together the ham, butter, crumbs and enough egg to make a smooth paste, then roll into shapes to represent small radishes, cover with pastry and bake. Add beetroot colouring to a small portion white of egg and brush over each little shape, replace in the oven to dry and if not the desired shade repeat the process. Make a small opening in the larger end of each and insert a tiny branch of watercress or mint.
Serve hot or cold.

Tomorrow’s Story …

On Foie Gras.

Quotation for the Day …

The true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection. Ludwig Bemelmans.

2 comments:

Rachel Laudan said...

That's a really great quote. It captures precisely the radical wing fashionable in the eighteenth century that the less cooking we do the better because we do not want to stimulate the appetite which would lead to overindulgence, and all kinds of undesirable social consequences.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Rachel. It is a great quote, isnt it? There are plenty of people still around who feel like life is one big slippery slope down to unspeakable sins and miseries - must be a sad way to be. I'm off to get stuck into some lovely cheese with lovely friends and lovely wine right now: not a bad way to be.