Monday, April 21, 2008

Curry Crime.

April 21 ...

Compared with, say, those of Charles Dickens, the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle are pretty minimalist in terms of food references. Charles Dickens’ stories with the food removed would be diminished indeed, but one could be forgiven for believing that food was of no importance at all to Sherlock Holmes. Unless the food is a clue towards solving a dastardly crime, of course.

In Silver Blaze, Sherlock quickly realises that a mutton curry is crucial to solving the mystery of the disappearance of the favourite runner for the Wessex Cup, and the murder of its trainer. He explains to the ever-present Watson:

“It was the first link in my chain of reasoning. Powdered opium is by no means tasteless. The flavour is not disagreeable, but it is perceptible. Were it mixed with any ordinary dish the eater would undoubtedly detect it and would probably eat no more. A curry was exactly the medium which would disguise this taste. By no possible supposition could this stranger, Fitzroy Simpson, have caused curry to be served in the trainer’s family that night, and it is surely too monstrous a coincidence to suppose that he happened to come along with powdered opium upon the very night when a dish happened to be served which would disguise the flavour. That is unthinkable. Therefore Simpson becomes eliminated from the case, and our attention centres upon Straker and his wife, the only two people who could have chosen curried mutton for supper that night. The opium was added after the dish was set aside for the stable-boy, for the others had the same for supper with no ill effects. Which of them, then, had access to that dish without the maid seeing them?”

The stable-boy may have run another risk in eating curry at that time in history. Food adulteration has occurred for centuries, perhaps millenia, but by the nineteenth century science was catching up with the perpetrators. A common adulterant in cayenne and curry powders was red lead. Lead is not good for one. Lead can cause a lot of nasty things, including paralysis and death. A Lancet report of 1855 reported an analysis of a number of samples:

“The consumption of curry powder and cayenne pepper is so limited, and so much confined to classes of society, to the members of which, cheapness, particularly in articles used on so small a scale, is no great matter, that we might have expected they would escape adulteration. The very reverse, however, is the case, - curry powder is extensively adulterated both with innocent and poisonous admixtures…. . Eight samples contained the dangerous poison - red lead. As the saturnine preparations are accumulative poisons, and produce various chronic diseases of the nervous system, and also of the organs of secretion, the amount of illness induced by the frequent use of adulterated curry powder is probably very considerable.”

I am not so sure about the accuracy of the first statement. ‘Curry’ seems to have been popular with the English ever since the Empire expanded to include India, and curry powder was affordable by all but the poorest folk.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s) has some wise words to say on the general topic of curry, saying “it is often rendered unpalatable by the same curry powder being used for every dish, however differently may be the viands of which it is composed.” It goes on to give several recipes for curry powder, but then says “ we think it will be found quite as satisfactory and economical to purchase curry powder of a first-class dealer as to make it at home.”

Mutton, Curried, Good.
Put four ounces of mutton into a stewpan, and pound six middle-sized onions in a mortar; add the onions to the butter with an ounce of curry powder, a tea-spoonful of salt, a dessertspoonful of flour, and half a pint of cream. Stir until smooth. Fry two pounds of mutton, cut in neat pieces, without bone. Let them be of a light brown colour. Lay the meat in a clean stew-pan, and pour the curry mixture over. Simmer until the meat is done.
Time, two hours to simmer.
Probable cost, 1s per pound.
Sufficient, two pounds for four or five persons.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Table d’Hôte.

Quotation for the Day …

This curry was like a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that I'd once heard. … especially the last movement, with everything screaming and banging 'Joy.' It stunned, it made one fear great art. My father could say nothing after the meal.
Anthony Burgess.

1 comment:

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

I do own a Sherlock Holmes cookbook, but it is indeed more "in the spirit" of what Holmes might have eaten. So many literary detectives are associated with food, but mostly the food they obsess over. Here in the U.S. we have California private eye Kinsey Milhoune and her peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, and Boston detective Spenser, who is a gourmet chef. Then, there are those detectives who just drink ...