I came across a new (to me) old word the other day. I was delighted, of course, as I love rediscovering old words. The fun was enhanced enormously by the fact that I found it in one of my favourite sources of old recipes – a druggists’ manual, or pharmacopoeia. The Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia, being a Treatise on Pharmacology in General (London, 1821) really is a treat – it has an entire chapter on ‘Condita.’
The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the various forms of the word are ultimately derived from the Latin for ‘put or lay together, put or lay away, hide, etc’, which in reference to food means to preserve or pickle, and by extension ‘to season or flavour’. There is a medical usage too, with a condite often meaning ‘an electuary’ such as an apothecary might make as a sort of tonic. Sir Thomas Elyot in his Castel of Helthe (1533) refers to ‘Olyves condite in salte lykoure, taken at the begynnynge of a meale doth corroborate [strengthen] the Stomake’ – a nice early English reference to the custom of nibbling salty olives as an appetiser. If the remedial condite did not work, ‘to condite’ could also mean ‘to embalm’, so it is a useful word indeed.
This particular pharmacopoeia has instructions for ‘conditing’ vegetable and animal matter for botanical and zoological specimens, for medicinal ingredients such as ‘vipers, skinks, cantharides, cochineal etc’ as well as the expected herbs, flowers, and bark, and of course for prolonging the life of various foodstuffs. The relatively new method of preserving ‘vegetables as well as animals’ ‘by heating in well-closed vessels’ is mentioned too – this is the work of the Frenchman Appert which led to the entire canning industry we know now (remember, this was before the scientific understanding of micro-organisms as the cause of food spoilage and many human diseases.) Other food preservation methods which are mentioned are drying, freezing (natural of course, no refrigerators then), ‘bottling’ in water (for fruits), preserving ‘dry’ in sugar or ‘wet’ in sugar syrup or honey, picking in brine or vinegar, dry salting, covering with oil or butter, or a spirit such as brandy, and smoking (meats). Sauer Kraut has its own paragraph, and here it is:
Sauer Kraut. Brassica acidulata.
Large white cabbages are cut into thin horizontal slices, and placed in a barrel with a layer of salt at top and bottom, and between each layer of cabbages. A board with some weights on it is then put on the top, and it is kept in a cool place for some weeks: a kind of fermentation takes place, and vinegar is formed.
Some add juniper berries, coriander seeds, tops of anise, or carui [?caraway] seeds, to the salt, as a kind of spice. It may be dried in an oven without any loss of its flavour.
Quotation for the Day.
Cabbage as a food has problems. It is easy to grow, a useful source of greenery for much of the year. Yet as a vegetable it has original sin, and needs improvement. It can smell foul in the pot, linger through the house with pertinacity, and ruin a meal with its wet flab. Cabbage also has a nasty history of being good for you.