Today’s choice from this week’s source, The Dictionaire Œconomique, or, The Family Dictionary (1725) is a bit of a mystery that I hope you will help me solve. Here it is:
EARTH-NUT: a bulbous Plant, whose Bulb has a double Root, which they eat commonly in Spain: It shoots its Root first in Winter, and then in the Spring it diminishes, and its Bulb grows bigger: It’s like the Hyacinth, the flowers are blue, and but of a short Continuance, and the Seed is like that of Rape, being round and small: It grows in Spain and Portugal: and its Root being sweet and good to eat, seems to be of a temperate Nature, and to have good Juice; but it is a little windy, and promotes Venery, like the black Truffles.
The mystery is – what, exactly, does this entry refer too? The term ‘earth nut’ has been applied at various times to a number of underground roots, tubers, and pods including the truffle, the potato, the tuberous pea (Lathyrus tuberosus), and the peanut. Another contender is Conopodium majus, a member of the carrot family, related to cumin, and found growing wild in Britain and Europe. The root is said to be particularly good roasted, and to taste of almonds. To confuse matters, this plant (Conopodium majus) is also called the pignut (or hognut), which also happens to be one of the common names for some types of hickory nut.
The author of our source for the week appeared to be clear which plant he referred to – and presumably the French and British readers of 1725 were equally confident. A little over a century later however, there was a different interpretation. Here are the words of the eminently food-curious Peter Lund Simmonds, in 1854, in his book The Commercial Products of the Vegetable Kingdom.
The EARTH-NUT (Arachis hypogaea, or hypocarpogea)*. This very singular plant has frequently been confounded with others, partly through the carelessness of travelers, and by the improper use of names, which tended to mislead and confuse. Its common appellative, the eath-nut, has led to the conclusion that it was a species of nut, such as is known in England under thename of “pig-nut,” “hawk nut,” and “ground nut.” This, as well as the “earth chestnut,” belongs to a totally different genera. On the Continent, and in the East Indies, a similar confusion has long existed by the appellation of “ground pistachio,” which caused the fruit to be confounded with the nut of the tree Pistacia vera. Some resemblance, on the other hand, existing between these – as well as their being eaten by different nations, and used as an article of food, and also for producing oil – rendered the true description still more difficult. Botanists are, however, no longer at a loss, having well established the nature and character of these plants. The Arachis “nut” partakes of the nature of the pea or bean of our own country, and is a low annual plant of the order Diadelphia decandria of Linn. originally from Africa, but now extensively cultivated in every quarter of the golobe. It has been naturalized in Europe, and with the climate of the South of France it may be turned to good account.
[*the peanut][thanks to the commenter who pointed out my omission; note that Lund says that the peanut originated in Africa, which is incorrect; it is indigenous to the South American Continent]
One thing I am clear on, is that the authors (French and English) of The Dictionaire Œconomique did not mean ‘truffle’ when they referred to the ‘earth-nut.’ The dictionary had quite a long entry on Truffles, and in the absence of any cooking instructions for the earth-nut in the book, I give you instead its advice on the preparation of that luscious fungus.
The way of dressing Truffles most in Vogue is that of Court-Bouillon, so that they may be stew'd n White-Wine or Claret, and season'd with Pepper, Salt, and Bay-Leaves. They may also be broiled upon Coals, slitting them in half, tomput,in some white Pepper and Salt, and closing them up again, in order to be wrapt up in Paper, and put over a Fire, that is not too quick; then they may be served up to the Table on a folded Napkin. Or else after you have cleansed your Truffles, cut 'em into Slices, and fry 'em in Lard or Butter, with Flower, then they must be stew'd in a little Broth, with fine Herbs, Pepper, Salt, and Nutmeg, and [?] soaking in a Dish till there be little Salt left, so to be serv'd up with Mutton Gravy and Lemon Juice; Several Ragoos may be made of Truffles, as alos Tourtes or Pan-pies.
There are many false paths and distracting byways on the food history road, are there not? Please do give us the benefit of your own theories via the comments.