classical britain

The so-called “Colchester Vase,” depicting four gladiators named by inscriptions as Secundus, Mario, Memnon, and Valentinus.  Artist unknown; ca. 175 CE.  Found in a Roman grave at West Lodge, Colchester (= ancient Camulodunum), England, UK; now in the Colchester Castle Museum.  Photo credit: Carole Raddato.

Culinary History (Part 36): Preserving

In medieval Europe, protein foods such as meat & dairy could only be eaten fresh during summer and autumn.  In the winter and spring, they would be smoky or salty, because this was the only way to stop food from going off.

Any meat that wasn’t eaten straight away after killing the animal was salted – layered up with huge amounts of salt in a large wooden cask.  This expensive to do – in the late 1200’s, 2d of salt was necessary to cure 5d of meat – so only good-quality meat was salted.

Pork took salt the best.  The Elizabethans had bacon, ham, salt pork, and gammon (the hind leg after being dry-salted or brined).  There was also souse – a pickled mixture of all the leftover bits except the squeak.

Glazed gammon.

Beef was also salted to make salt beef.  One version of salt beef was Martinmas beef, prepared around the feast of Martinmas (November 11th).  The beef was well-salted, then hung in the roof of a smoky house until it was well-smoked.

There is an urban myth that medieval cooks used spices to disguise the taste of gone-off meat, but this is not true.  Spices were too expensive to waste on bad meat, but they were used to make the salt meat taste less harsh.

Milk was preserved as well as meat.  In the East, it was curdled & fermented into yoghurty foods and sour drinks, such as the Kazakh kumis (a fermented liquor made from mare’s milk, used as a drink and medicine).

Kumis.

In the West, it was turned into cheese and butter, both highly-salted for preservation.  In Aelfric’s Colloquy (late 900’s AD), the “salter” says that “you would lose all your butter and cheese were I not at hand to protect it for you.”

Their butter was extremely salty.  Butter today has about 1-2% salt, but they had 5-10x that amount.  According to a 1305 record, 1 pound of salt was needed for only 10 pounds of butter.  This would be disgusting to eat, and the cooks had to spend a lot of effort washing salt out of butter to make it edible.

Fish had to be salted, too.  The Scottish kipper (salted, pickled, or cold-smoked herring) was not invented until the 1800’s.  But before that, there was a kind of cured haddock produced near Aberdeen, smoked over peat & decayed moss.  They were called Bervies (also Buckies & Smokies? or were they a different type of fish/process?)

Salted cod.

Salted/pickled fish was a staple European protein food, especially on Fridays.  Even before the Classical era, there had been a good trade in salted fish – first from Egypt and Spain; then from Greece and Rome.  In the Middle Ages, salt herring came from the North and Baltic Seas, where it was a major industry.

Salt herring is not easy to produce, because it goes off so fast.  It should be preserved within a day (preferably less).  In the 1300’s, the manufacturers developed techniques for salting herrings on board, and this made it a lot faster.  The fish were re-packed when they got back to shore.

The Dutch were exceptional at this, which may have been one of the reasons they dominated the European market.  Their herring-gutters could process two thousand fish an hour when at sea.  Because they did it so fast, they accidentally left behind a part of the stomach containing trypsin (a chemical which speeds up the curing process).

Only eating fish preserved and not fresh would have been very monotonous, and there are many jokes about this.  In A Pleasant Comedie, called Wily Beguilde (Anon, 1606), one character says to another, “You dried stockefish, you, out of my sight!”

A “red herring” was a rather smelly cured fish which had been double “hard-smoked” and salted.  It is now a literary term.

Sweet preserved foods were much nicer to eat.  In the Mediterranean, the most common way to preserve fruit & vegetables was to dry them.  In this way, grapes became “raisins of the sun”, plums turned into prunes, and dates & figs shrivelled up and became sweeter.  During Biblical times & earlier, juicy fruits & vegetables were either buried in hot sand, or laid out on trays or rooftops.  The hot sun easily dried them out.

In Eastern Europe, the sun was less hot, so they had to develop more complicated methods.  From the Middle Ages, special drying-houses were built in Moravia (CZE) and Slovakia.  A drying-house was a room heated by a stove below it, with many wicker handles inside to hang the fruit on.

The English nobility had “stillrooms”, cool rooms where servants bottled fruits, candied nuts & citrus peel, distilled spirits, and made jams, marmalades (originally from quinces) and sweetmeats.

Candying had many alchemical superstitions and “secrets”.  For example, walnuts should be preserved on St. John’s Day (June 24th). Fruits for preserving were picked just before ripening, because they held their shape better that way.  Preserving was a kind of magic, like embalming the dead, of holding back decay.

Hannah Wolley’s The Queen-Like Closet (1672) gives a recipe for “The best way to preserve gooseberries green and whole”.  They were soaked three times in warm water; then boiled three times in sugar syrup; and finally boiled once more in a fresh sugar syrup.

Even though people had no idea why these methods worked, they succeeded in preserving most of the time.  It wasn’t until the 1860’s, when Louis Pasteur discovered the micro-organisms that made food & drink go off, that we found out.  People believed that the reason was spontaneous generation, with mysterious invisible forces causing mould to grow.  In reality, it’s microbes such as bacteria, yeast and fungi that cause good fermentation for wine & cheese, and toxic fermentation when food degrades.

Drying works as a method of preservation because bacteria need moisture to grow in, and so when the fruit dehydrated, they mostly die off.  Pickling in vinegar works because microbes prefer alkaline conditions, and the acid stops mold from growing.

There wasn’t much innovation in preserving, because mistakes could be deadly.  From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 1800’s, the only innovation was conserving meat in a layer of fat/oil – used in potted meats and duck/goose confit (salt-curing a piece of meat, and cooking it in its own fat).

Duck confit.

@tcmparty live tweet schedule for the week beginning Monday, April 17, 2017. Look for us on Twitter…watch and tweet along…remember to add #TCMParty to your tweets so everyone can find them :) All times are Eastern.

Friday, April 21 @ 10:15 PM
BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)
Two married strangers meet in a train station and fall in love.

Monty Python, Hell’s Grannies - Make Tea, Not Love  

A town is terrorised by gangs of marauding old ladies – ‘layabouts in lace’ – who harass defenceless young men, run riot in matinee performances of The Sound of Music and paint the walls with graffiti reading ‘Make Tea Not Love’.

Policeman: We have a lot of trouble with these oldies. Pension day’s the worst – they go mad. As soon as they get their hands on their money they blow it all on milk, bread, tea, tin of meat for the cat.