Friday, August 31, 2012

A Gallon of Bread.

It is impossible to overerestimate the importance of bread as the staple food of Britain and Europe, and of ale or beer as the staple beverage of all, including children – and hence the enormity of the disaster when the grain crop was poor.

For many centuries, from the early middle ages onwards, bread was commonly sold in the form of a ‘gallon loaf.’ This was not, as is often quoted, a quantity of bread made with a gallon of water. In interpreting historical anecdotes and recipes, it is important to remember that weights and measures have changed over time. It is also interesting that a measure for one commodity might actually be a different amount (weight or volume) than for another.

A delightful dictionary cum household reference text from 1725 explains the concept of a ‘gallon’ at that time. I give you the full title in all its wordy glory:

Dictionaire Œconomique, or, The Family Dictionary. Containing the most experienced methods of improving estates and of preserving health, with many approved remedies for most distempers of the body of man, cattle and other creatures ... The most advantageous ways of breeding, feeding and ordering all sorts of domestick animals ... The different kinds of nets, snares and engines for taking all sort of fish, birds, and other game. Great variety of rules, directions, and new discoveries, relating to gardening [and] husbandry ... The whole illustrated throughout with very great variety of figures ... Done into English from the 2d edition, lately printed at Paris (1725), Noel Chomel, Richard Bradley.

And here is all you needed to know about gallons at that time:

DRY MEASURE; the Measuring of dry Commodities, of which scarce [?] no Body should be ignorant; as Corn or Grain; for whch there is first the Gallon, which is bigger than the Wine-Gallon, and less than the Ale or Beer-Gallon, containing Two hundred seventy-two and a quarter Cubick Inches, and None Pound thirteen Ounces, twelve Drams and a half, of Averdupois Weight. Two of those Gallons make a Peck, four Pecks a Bushel, four Bushels a Comb or Curnock, two Curnocks make a Quarter, Seam, or Raff, and ten Quarters a Last, which contains Five thousand one hundred and twenty pints, and so many Pounds Troy Weight; so that a Garrison of Five thousand Men, allowing each but a Pound of Bread a Day; will consume near a Last, or eighty Bushels every Day; and Two hundred and fifty Men in a Ship of War, will drink a Tun of Beer in two Days, allowing each Man about a Pottle per Diem.

So, a gallon(or half-peck) loaf was made with a gallon of flour or grain, not a gallon of water, and weighed 8 pounds and 11 ounces, or 8.6875 pounds. It was considered that a gallon of bread (a little over a pound a day) was the basic ration for one adult for one week, and it was on this basis that labourer’s wages and parish poor relief were based.

As the recipe for the day, I give you a marvelous recipe that requires grain in both forms – flour and beer – but is a far more manageable quantity for the modern household.

Pearl Beer Bread.
One cup syrup, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 pounds rye flour, 6 cakes yeast, 8 orange peels, 4 cups Pearl beer, 2
pounds white flour.
Heat beer and syrup together until lukewarm; mix yeast and salt and stir in some beer mixture. Cut small pieces of orange peel separately into the rye and white flour. Make a smooth dough by mixing all ingredients; let stand for 3-4 hour. Knead dough into long loaves; rub with flour; and cover dough until it raises. Bake an hour over slow fire; and brush loaves with hot water, rolling them in cloth until used.
Makes 3 loaves. Excellent for sandwiches.
San Antonio Light; Nov 12, 1937

Quotation for the Day.

Man does not live by bread alone, even presliced bread.
D.W. Brogan

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Squirrel Casserole.

Today we return to the list of the top ten forgotten British foods, as decided by a competition run in 2006 by the Guild of Fine Food Retailers. There are still a few left for us to consider: here is the list so far, with links to the stories.

4. Grey Squirrel Casserole
6. Rabbit with Prunes
7. Fife Brooth
8. RomanPie  
9. 16th C Pancakes

Today it is the turn of No. 4, ‘Grey Squirrel Casserole.’

The native squirrel in Britain is the red squirrel, and pretty it may be, but tasty it is not. The grey squirrel from North America was introduced to Britain and Europe sometime during the nineteenth century, for reasons which to me are not clear, but are not directly related to its apparently improved culinary value over its red cousin. Suffice it to say, the good idea went environmentally bad, and by the 1940’s the grey squirrel was officially declared a pest. This coincided with serious World War II meat rationing in England, which gave impetus to its use for the pot. 

Even before the war, there were brave souls prepared to hunt down and eat the appealing little American immigrant. I give you some tips, and a recipe for a squirrel casserole, from The Sportsman's Cookery Book: Containing More Than 200 Choice Alternatives to the Everlasting Joint, (1926) by Hugh Pollard. He comments initially on the ‘strong resinous flavour’ of the native British red squirrel, and notes that it requires marinading before cooking. He then goes on to give a recipe for the very tasty introduced pest.

Squirrel (Grey).
The grey squirrel, since put down in Regent’s Park, has spread through the Home Counties and is doing a good deal of damage. He is fairly edible, and was always a popular dish with the early American settlers.
Quarter four squirrels and put them into a casserole with onions, carrot, juniper berries, garlic, and a glass of vinegar or a bottle of wine. Add water enough to cover, and let them stand thus for forty-eight hours.
Cover the casserole and simmer for two hours, add suet dumplings, and cook for half an hour, squeeze in half an orange, and serve without telling your guests what they are eating.
Alternatively the squirrels may be taken out after half an hour’s cooking and finished with the dumpling by baking in the oven in a brown dish.

Quotation for the Day.

Always take a good look at what you're about to eat. It's not so important to know what it is, but it's critical to know what it was.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Giant Mushrooms.

Today’s story is for the foraging fungivores amongst you. It is a story from (yet again!) The Food Journal, Volume 1 (1871)

African Foods.
Gigantic Mushrooms.
In an interesting account of the Petras Negras of Pungo-Andongo, published in the “Journal of Travel,” Dr Welwitsch, the Angolan explorer and botanist, incidentally mentions having met with a mushroom of enormous dimensions. He says “among a great number of cryptogenic plants, I shall only mention a gigantic agaric which I found growing in the neighbouring Panda woods, distinguished by the immense side of its head, which sometimes measures more than three feet in circumference, as well as by the delicate flavour of its flesh.”
Wishing to know something more of this extraordinary vegetable production, we turned for information to Dr. Welwitsch’s description of the fungi collected by him, the first part of which has appeared in the Transactions of the Linnean Society, but found that it had not reached the agarics. We thereupon applied to our friend, who, with his usual kindness, readily told us about it; and as it is of special interest to the readers of the “Food Journal,” we have asked and obtained permission to repeat his informaton. It appears that on a botanical expedition in a district called Calungemgo, near Pungo-Andongo, his provisions began to run short, and towards the close of the day’s ramble he came upon some of his men carrying one of these enormous mushrooms home to camp for supper. He had not himself previously met with it, but the natives had; and the short commons on which they found themselves had sharpened their eyes and led to their picking it up. Some idea of the size of the speciimen may be formed from the fact that that single mushroom made soup sufficient to feed his party of twenty. It was as large as an umbrella. Subsequenlty he met with it repeatedly, and also found that it was familiar to all the inhabitants, a  few being regularly, or rather irregularly, brought to market during the season, at the presidium of Pungo-Andongo, where they were sold at 1d. to 3d. a piece, according to size. The natives usually brought them, one or two hanging at each end of a stick, carried Chinese fashion over the shoulder. It is a true agaric, as yet undescribed, but which we hope will not long remain so.

This story set me off on an interesting trail. Mushrooms have been eaten by humans for millennia, and have presumably been added to the cooking pot for as long as humans have been cooking. The question is – when did they become the primary ingredient in soup, rather than simply flavor ingredient? Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery is my primary go-to reference for English recipes of the 1870’s, but it does not contain instructions for Mushroom Soup amongst the thousands of offerings within its pages.

I did eventually find a recipe for Mushroom Soup – in a cookery book published in 1847, in Carolina.

Mushroom Soup.
Put about a pint of mushrooms, well cleaned and washed, and cut into small strips, with three ounces of butter, into a saucepan, over the fire; let them stew until they fall in. To this put two quarts of bouillon, and let the whole boil together half an hour. You may thicken with the yolk of an egg and some parsley; add some nutmeg. Pour the mixture over toasted sippets of bread. Either dried or fresh mushrooms may be used. If the former, they must be boiled first an hour in fair water, so that they may be softened and freed from sand.- German Receipt
The Carolina housewife, or House and home: by a lady of Charleston (1847)

I am most intrigued by the giant mushrooms mentioned in the article, but know nothing about them. If you have some information on them, will you share it with us via the comments, please?

Quotation for the Day.

Strange that mankind should ever have used the mushroom. All the various species of this substance are of a leathery consistence, and contain but little nutriment. The condiments or seasonings which are added are what are chiefly prized. Without these, we should almost as soon eat saw dust as mushrooms.
‘The Young House-keeper’ , William Andrus Alcott (1846)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Electrical Eel Pies.

You know the old saying ‘if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t’? There is another situation, known to the researcher. It goes like this: if something sounds too fascinating and quirky and intriguing to be true: it may well be a spoof.

I recently read the following fascinating, quirky, and intriguing snippet in a journal from 1842:

“The London Electrical Society met … its other activities included eating electrical eel pies, and consuming Whitbread stout to 'trace the galvanic action produced by the contact of the pewter pot with the moisture of the under lip'.”

It was not until I noted – really noted – the name of the journal that the moment of suspicion and then the moment of disappointment kicked in. The snippet appeared in the notoriously tongue-in-cheek Punch, in an article purporting to be a report on the recent activities of a number of societies, all of which sounded equally spoofy.

I was about to reject the piece, as being an unworthy, albeit amusing, inclusion in this terribly serious food history blog. But then I thought – there is nothing wrong with the idea itself, even if the event didn’t actually happen. It sounds like the sort of idea that will appeal to those cutting-edge quirky modern chefs who like to incorporate many sensory experiences into their meals.

Some species of electrogenic fish are edible, apparently, in the sense that they are not actually poisonous. They are obviously not ‘electric’ when they are dead and cooked of course, but that should not stop a creative chef having fun with the idea.

I was, not surprisingly, unable to find a recipe for electric eel pies, but will stick broadly to the fishy theme with a gem from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1784)

To make a salmon pie.
Make a good crust, cleanse a piece of salmon well, season it with salt, mace, and nutmeg, lay a little piece of butter at the bottom of the dish, and lay your salmon in. Melt butter according to your pie; take a lobster, boil it, pick out all the flesh, chop it small, bruise the body, mix it well with the butter, which must be very good; pour it over your salmon, put on the lid, and bake it well.

Quotation for the Day.

What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.
Lucretius (c. 99 B.C. 55 B.C.)