Tuesday, August 07, 2012

‘Caviar to the Vulgar’

I became interested in the idea of wild vegetable foods from the sea-side when I was in the UK recently, and attended the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, at which one of the amazing meals included samphire - or 'Poor Man's Asparagus',- which I had never eaten before. It was delicious. As it turns out, a week earlier I had been on the coast of Norfolk, at a spot where it apparently grows in great abundance. Sadly, there was no opportunity for foraging at the time. I was surprised that I did not see it on any of the menus at the local restaurants, so perhaps it is – in the way of such things – scorned where it is abundantly wild, and sought after where it does not grow and must be imported at significant expense. 

But I digress, for this post is not about ''Poor Man’s Asparagus', but about ‘Caviar to the Vulgar.’ Here is the article which brought this food to my attention:

Laver. This is not likely to become a popular dish, for like olives, it is "caviare to the vulgar." it is, however, much admired by those who have acquired a taste for it, though something depends upon the mode of dressing it. The laver to which we allude is not the crude state of the seaweed as gathered on its native rocks, but as sold by the so-called Italian warehouses.  The following is thee most aproved way of preparing it:- A sufficient quantity is placed in a perfectly clean saucepan with a few spoonfuls of stock, but only just enough to moisten it, and prevent it burning. When it is thoroughly warmed, some lemon juice should be added, but with caution, and after a few moments additional heating, poured out upon fresh made toast, either plain or buttered, and served as rapid as possible. We believe that there is no better mode of preparation, and it is one which has been practiced within our personal knowledge for more than sixty years. Butter is sometimes added, but if so, it should be perfectly fresh.
Food Journal: a review of Social and Sanitary Economy , Vol 2 (London, 1872) 

Just to clarify: I feel certain that the author intends ‘vulgar’ to refer to ‘persons belonging to the ordinary or common class in the community, esp. the uneducated or ignorant’, not persons ‘having a common and offensively mean character; lacking in refinement or good taste; uncultured, ill-bred’ (Oxford English Dictionary.)

Laver is another sea-side wild food which I have not had the undoubted pleasure of trying. I understand that several things go by this common name, but essentially, laver is edible seaweed, and it has been used as a food since ancient times. Its importance to many coastal communities over the milennia is hard to underestimate, but is indicated by the common name of its commonest preparation – which is ‘laver bread.’ This does not mean that it was made into loaves and baked, or added to regular dough – ‘bread’ can be a metaphor for any staple food. 

We have a nice example of the OED acting as a cookery book and giving us a ‘recipe’ contained in its description of laver bread:

Laverbread (Welsh: bara lafwr or bara lawr) is a traditional Welsh delicacy made from laver. To make laverbread, the seaweed is boiled for several hours, then minced or pureed. The gelatinous paste that results can then be sold as it is, or rolled in oatmeal; it is generally coated with oatmeal prior to frying.

In places where it is found in abundance, laverbread is a  traditional accompaniment to bacon – or is it that bacon is a traditional accompaniment to laver? To the really 'vulgar' – strangers in most times and places to such luxuries as bacon – laver was more likely to be an accompaniment to freely foraged cockles or other shellfish scorned by the well-to-do.

The well-to-do did not completely scorn laver however, they were quite happy to enjoy its salty tang as a side dish or sauce to their mutton, as in the recipe below, from one of the Victorian era’s celebrity chefs.

Saddle of Mutton au Laver.
Roast the saddle quite plain, put two pounds of fresh laver in a stewpan, with two tablespoonfuls of catsup, four ounces of butter, a teaspoonful of salt, a little pepper, four tablespoonfuls of brown sauce, and one ounce of glaze, make it very hot, pour in the dish, dress the saddle upon it and serve.
The Gastronomic Regenerator: A Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery, by Alexis Soyer (1847)

Here is another, similar version, of the idea:
Laver Sauce
Put into a stewpan the strained juice of two lemons, a table spoonful of red currant jelly, one ounce of good glaze, 
 pinch of castor sugar, and four tablespoonfuls of good thick Brown sauce (vol. i.); boil these together for about ten 
minutes, during which time keep the scum removed, then mix with half a pint of laver, boil up again, tammy, 
re-warm, and use, either with roast lamb, mutton, or venison.  
Mrs. A. B. Marshall's Larger Cookery Book, (1902)
Quotation for the Day.

You don't get moor mutton with hot laver sauce every day.
M. Collins, Squire Silchester, 1873


Anonymous said...

The way I know the phrase, it's "caviare to the general," and not the military officer. It's from Hamlet, our indecisive hero speaking of a play that "pleased not the million."

I don't have much occasion to eat Welsh cuisine; the likely context for seaweed is Japanese.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi bklynharuspex. I meant to check _ I think Japanese nori is the same as laver?
Interesting, the alternative phrase!

Unknown said...

I am afraid I cannot share Dylan Thomas's wistful desire for that mushy seaweed: "I was a stranger to the sea town, fresh or stale from the city where I worked for my bread and butter wishing it were laver-bread and country salty butter yolk-yellow..." However another Welsh favorite, Faggots,does take me back to Swansea “an ugly, lovely town ... crawling, sprawling ... by the side of a long and splendid curving shore."

The Old Foodie said...

HI 'Unknown' person. I am always delighted when a story rings a personal bell for someone. thanks for sharing!