Friday, May 21, 2010

On Taste, Nutriment, and Salubrity.

Before Harold McGee on Food & Cooking, there were other writers on culinary chemistry. Perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most important was the Friedrich Accum (1769-1838), a German-born scientist who relocated to England as a young man..

Accum was a chemist – a rather broad term at the time, his training and interests including pharmacy, anatomy, and other medical fields. He became a passionate crusader against the adulteration of food – an increasing problem in the early nineteenth century due to the rapid rate at which food production was becoming industrialised. Accum’s best-known work - A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons was published in 1820, and it was the subject of an earlier post on this blog. The book quickly became very popular, and, not surprisingly, it made him a lot of enemies in the food business, which had a great deal to do with his eventual exile to his native Germany.

A year after publication of the Treatise (which became popularly known as There is Death in the Pot), Accum published Culinary Chemistry: exhibiting the scientific principles of cookery. I give you a few extracts from his initial chapter on ‘Cookery as a Branch of Chemical Science.’

‘... cookery ... is a branch of chemistry ... but it is also one of the least cultivated branches of that science’

‘... and much waste of the material, as well as labour of the parties might often be spared, were those to whom the performance of such tasks is committed, made acquainted with simple chemical truths which would invariably lead to certain results. And besides, the same knowledge would enable them to attain a much greater degree of perfection in curing and preserving all kinds of animal and vegetable aliments, and in combining the three grand requisites of taste, nutriment, and salubrity, in whatever manner they may be prepared.’

‘A kitchen is, in fact, a chemical laboratory; the boilers, stew-pans, and cradle-spit of the cook, correspond to the digestors, the evaporating basins, and the crucibles of the chemist. And numerous of the receipts of cookery are, the general operations (like the general processes of chemistry) are but a few.’

‘ ... and , there is reason to believe, that among the variety of circumstances which produce diseases, the improper modes of cooking food, are often the primary cause. Will it be believed, that in the cookery books which form the prevailing oracles of the kitchens in this part of the island, there are express injunctions to “boil greens with halfpence, or verdigrise, in order to improve their colour!” That our puddings are frequently seasoned with laurel leaves, and our sweetmeats almost uniformly prepared in copper vessels?’

Accum’s comments about the use of verdigris and cooking in copper pots refer to the very beautifully green but very poisonous copper salts that result from those practices, and which were, as he says, widely recommended in cookery books of the time. But ‘laurel’ leaves? Bay leaves, without which I could not cook?

It appears that the bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, has been cultivated since very ancient times – certainly since before recipes were written down. This ‘sweet bay’ as it is also called, is, thankfully, not poisonous (although there are a few members of the laurel family which are toxic). Large amounts of fresh leaves apparently can have a mild narcotic effect – a property used to advantage, it is said, by the priestesses of Delphi as an aid to prophetic inspiration.

Most of us however only want to put a leaf or three into our beef stew or Spaghetti Bolognese, and I can assure that at this level there will be no effect on your dinner-time demeanour. The situation is a bit like that of nutmeg – a little of what you fancy, flavouring-wise, will do you no harm.

So, why Accum’s anti-bay leaf stance? Perhaps, brilliant though he was, his botany was not quite up to scratch? Or perhaps the toxic laurel varieties were a common substitute in his time? I don’t know, do you? 

The recipe I have chosen for today uses laurel (bay) leaves both as an ingredient and as a mini-platter for stuffed quail. It is from an English cookbook of Accum’s time - The Professed Cook, by B.Clermont, published in 1812

Quails with Laurel.
Stuff the quails with a farce made of their livers, scraped lard, chopped parsley, shallots, pepper, salt, and one laurel-leaf chopped very fine; roast them, first wrapped in slices of lard, and then in paper; put a slice of ham into a small stew-pan, and simmer it some time; when it begins to stick to the pan, throw in a glass of white wine, a little cullis, and half a clove of garlick; reduce it to a good consistence, sift it ,and add a lemon squeeze: when ready put the quails each upon a laurel leaf and serve the sauce upon the birds.

Quotation for the Day.

Everything I eat has been proved by some doctor or other to be a deadly poison, and everything I don't eat has been proved to be indispensable to life ... But I go marching on.
George Bernard Shaw


Anonymous said...

Or maybe he just didn't like the flavor. I don't. Judy

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Judy - perhaps he didnt, but that shouldnt have affected his scientific judgement, should it? I love bay leaves myself, - have a lovely big bush of it on my deck. Wouldnt do for us all to be the same, would it? - as my dear old Mum used to say.