Friday, February 18, 2011

A Weighty Topic.

One of the cookery books I recently quoted from used the term avoirdupois in relation to a quantity of some staple ingredient. It reminded me that I have been meaning to look up the origin of the word for a very long time. I thought the wordsmiths amongst you might be interested in my mini-summary. Naturally, my first and major source is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Avoirdupois is ‘a recent corrupt spelling’ of avoir-de-pois or aveir de peis, which translates roughly as ‘of good weight’, and, as you might guess, comes to us from the French. It is presumably a legacy of ‘1066 and All That’ as it has been in English use since at least the thirteenth century. ‘Avoirdupois weight’ is ‘the standard system of weights used, in Great Britain, for all goods except the precious stones, and medicines.’ The word avoirdupois alone is used to refer to ‘merchandise sold by weight.’

Why specify the standard system of weights? Because what constitutes a pound, or a pint, or a dozen, and many other units of measurement that you can think of, have varied over time and between products - and still vary between nations. Cooks know this of course, as this is a frequent source of grief when using recipes from other countries than one’s own.

The other standard system of weights - that used for precious stones - is troy weight (weight of Troy). Interestingly, for those of us interested in food, this was also formerly used for bread and ‘all manner of Corn and Grain.’ My first assumption was that Troy weight had something to do with the ancient site (in what is now Turkey) of the Trojan wars, and of the beautiful Helen whose face launched a thousand ships. According to the OED however ‘the received opinion is that it took its name from a weight used at the fair of Troyes in France’, and ‘a pound troy is less than the pound avoirdupois.’
Mrs. Dalgairns, in The Practice of Cookery: adapted to the business of everyday life (1830), uses the term in her lesson on cheese making, so this is our ‘recipe’ for the day. The recipe also nicely demonstrates that Scottish volume measures were different from English measures at this time.

In cheese-making, it is of the utmost consequence to have good rennet, which may be obtained from the stomachs of calves, hares, or poultry; that from the maw or stomach of calves is most commonly used, and the following Scotch method of preparing it seems to be the simplest and best:—When the stomach or bags, usually termed the yirning, in dairy language, is taken from the calf's body, straw, or any other impurity found in it, ought to be removed from the curdled milk, which, with the chyle, must be carefully preserved; a handful of salt is put inside; it is then rolled up, and put into a basin or jar, and a handful of salt strewed over it; after standing closely covered for eight or ten days, it is taken out and tied up in a piece of white paper, and hung up near a fire to dry, like bacon, and will be the better for hanging a year before it is infused. When rennet is wanted, the bag with its contents is cut small, and put into a jar or can, with a handful or two of salt; new whey, or boiled water, cooled to 65°, is put upon it. If the stomach is from a newly-dropped calf, about three pints of liquor may be employed. If the calf has been fed for four or five weeks, which will yield more rennet than that of one twice that age, eight pints or more of liquid may be put to the bag in mash. After the infusion has remained in the jar from one to three days, the liquid is drawn off, and about a pint more of whey or water put on the bag; when it has stood a day or two, it is also drawn off, strained with the first liquid, and bottled for use us rennet. Some people put a dram-glassful of whisky to each quart or choppin of the rennet. Thus prepared, it may be used immediately, or kept for months. One table-spoonful of it will coagulate, in ten or fifteen minutes, thirty gallons, or sixty Scotch pints, of milk, which will yield more than 24 lbs. avoirdupois of cheese. In England, the curdled milk is generally washed from the stomach, and in consequence, the rennet is so much weaker than that made in Scotland, that double the quantity is used, and it requires from one to sometimes three hours to form the milk into curd. The milk ought to be set, that is, the rennet put to it, at 85° or 90° of Fahrenheit, when the heat of the air is at 70°; but as the season gets colder, the heat of the milk should be increased, and covered till it coagulates.

Quotation for the Day.

A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
Benjamin Franklin.


Foose said...

Troyes, in France, seems to have been a gold standard in other ways too - a livre of Troyes was the preferred coinage in early medieval France. I'm not sure why - perhaps the city, or its rulers, controlled prosperous trade routes (hence the fair), or got their financial act together early.

Marcheline said...

Uhhhhhh.... I used to like cheese. Before I read that.


I'm not giving up my single malt, though.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Foose. As always, your comments add value to my post.Many Thanks!
Hi Marcheline: nothing could put me off cheese!

Veronica said...

I would like to post your piece about the making of rennet on a cheese-makers page "CÁIS", and would like to name a book or source for it if that's possible. Your blog is really engrossing and enjoyable. Thank you.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Veronica - the piece on making rennet came from the book I mentioned in the post - Mrs. Dalgairns, in The Practice of Cookery: adapted to the business of everyday life (1830)