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Archive for the ‘Food as Anthropology’ Category

Wild chestnut trees have flourished in southern Europe since the ancient Greeks brought them from Asia Minor and the Romans spread them throughout their empire. For thousands of years poor subsistence farmers in that part of the world extended their crops with wild foods like chestnuts. In addition to roasting or boiling them, chestnuts were dried and then ground into a flour which was mixed with wheat flour to help it go further. Before maize (corn) became a common crop in Europe in the 16th Century, Italian polenta was made with chestnut flour. When famine threatened, it was often chestnuts and other foraged foods which stood between the people and starvation.

There are many traditional foods in Italy and Corsica made with chestnut flour including a flat bread known as necci, and chestnut flour fritters called fritelli. In the late 1940s an anthropologist interviewed some elderly people in Corsica who said they had never eaten wheat bread, only bread made from chestnut flour. The villages in mountainous Corsica are isolated and at that time there was little trade with the mainland. Corsicans also call the chestnut tree arbre à pain or “the bread tree.”

I’ve made chestnut soup in the past and of course eaten roasted chestnuts while listening to Mel Torme, but to get in touch with the medieval food traditions of southern Europe I chose to make a Tuscan chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio. Many of the ingredients are forageable, it’s really easy to make, and as an extra bonus it is both vegan and gluten free.

Castagnaccio is very rich so you only need a small piece, especially after all that turkey. It has a deep, earthy flavor, punctuated by the sweet raisins and a slight bitterness from the rosemary. The cake’s consistency, and the fact that it is not overly sweet, reminded me of Asian desserts made with red bean paste.

I, for one, am grateful to be using the lowly chestnut to celebrate abundance at Thanksgiving, rather than as a stop-gap to prevent famine.

Castagnaccio

Vin Santo is an Italian dessert wine, if you can’t get it, use a dry sherry instead.

Chestnut flour can be found in Italian specialty stores where it may be labeled farina di castagne. You can also order it from Amazon.com

⅓ cup Vin Santo or dry Sherry
1½ ounces raisins
10 ounces chestnut flour
1½ ounces sugar
a large pinch of salt
1½ – 2 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ounce pine nuts

Put the raisins in a small dish and pour the Vinsanto or sherry over them. Leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Mix the chestnut flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Gradually whisk in water until a batter with the consistency of pancake batter is formed. It should be pourable, but not too thin.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, it should be about 1 inch thick. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the cake. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven. Drain the raisins and squeeze as much liquid out of them as you can, then sprinkle the raisins over the top of the cake. Also sprinkle the chopped rosemary and the pine nuts over the top of the cake.

Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until it is a dark brown color and the top is cracked like parched earth. The cake does not rise as chestnut flour contains no gluten.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out onto a plate. Serve with a glass of Vin Santo or dry Sherry.

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A 1947 ad for the very popular Silex vacuum coffee pot / photo by Flickr user jbcurio

This is part II of an article exploring the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century. Part I can be found here

We last met in 1838 Paris where the French Balloon style vacuum pot was patented. This high-tech, theatrical method of brewing coffee was developed further in Britain in 1850 and eventually exported to the US where it became the basis for the famous Silex vacuum pot.

Another innovation in coffee preparation emerged in France around 1850, a pot with a fine mesh screen attached to a plunger, which would be pressed down when brewing is complete to prevent the depleted grounds from pouring into the cup. This was a great improvement over cloth or paper filters which absorb the coffee oils and hence much of the best of coffee’s flavors. In hindsight this seems like an obvious thing to try, however, the technology to create fine wire mesh screens was not really available until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.

Again, it is the French who are forging ahead with coffee innovations. Messrs. Mayer and Delforge received the first patent for this “infusion coffee maker” in 1852. The only drawback to the design was the fact that it was difficult to make a mesh filter that would hug the sides of the pot tightly enough to keep all of the grounds out. This was improved in the 1930s when Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta redesigned it with a spring coiling around the edge of the filter. Finally, in 1959 Mr. Fallero Bondanini of Switzerland hit upon the solution we see in the modern version of the press pot, with the mesh screen extending out beyond the coiled spring and turning up at the edges. The official name for this style of coffee maker in French is cafetière à piston filtrant, the word cafetière simply means coffee maker. In English it is often referred to as a French Press, or a Plunger Pot.

A French Press or Plunger Pot / photo by Flickr user illustir

It is only in 1901, 256 years after that first coffee house opened in Venice, that we get an inkling of espresso. In the late 19th Century there was much experimentation happening with steam pressure. Naturally, people were curious to see what effect this could have on making coffee. The idea was that if the water could be put under a pressure higher than 1 atmosphere (the normal pressure here on Earth), it might extract more flavor from the coffee.

The first success at this was achieved by an Italian factory owner named Luigi Bezzera who thought his employees spent too much time on their coffee breaks. So he built a machine that forced steam and boiling water at 1.5 atmospheres of pressure through the ground coffee and directly into a cup. All of the coffee preparation methods we have discussed so far take a minimum of 4-6 minutes to complete (depending on how you like your coffee). Bezzera’s new method was fast taking only seconds, which is how it got it’s name espresso is Italian for “fast.”

By all accounts, even though Mr. Bezzera was a skilled inventor, he wasn’t very good at marketing and he didn’t have a lot of spare money to promote his new creation. In 1903 he sold the patent for his espresso machine to Desidero Pavoni who popularized it, eventually shipping it all over the world. If you’re in New York City, stop by Cafe Reggio on MacDougal St. to see their original La Pavoni machine, which dates from when the cafe opened in 1927. It is supposedly the first espresso machine to reach America.

An original La Pavoni espresso machine / photo by Flickr user ohskylab

While these early machines produced a richer, more complex cup of coffee than previous methods, they were fairly difficult to operate and often produced bitter coffee because the water and steam was too hot. Also, the La Pavoni could not produce enough pressure to generate the rich crema that is seen today as the hallmark of a high quality shot. Even so, espresso became very popular, especially in Italy, where every man made a home away from home at the espresso bar.

The fact that espresso could only be obtained outside the home gave an idea to another Italian inventor, Alfonso Bialetti. In 1933, he created a variation on the pumping percolator of 1819. It is made of aluminum, in three sections. The bottom piece holds the water, and a filter basket with a tube extending from the bottom holds the coffee above the water. This bottom assemblage is then screwed into the empty upper container, in the bottom of which is found a rubber gasket to ensure a tight seal, and second metal filter. The pot is then placed on the stove and heated until a pleasant gurgling noise indicates that the hot water under pressure has been forced upwards through the ground coffee and into the upper container from where it can be served. Higher manufacturing tolerances and the presence of a safety release valve in the water reservoir meant that levels of pressure similar to the La Pavoni machine could be achieved, right on the stove top. Bialetti called the coffee pot the Moka Express and used the slogan “in casa un espresso come al bar” or “at home, an espresso just like the one at the bar.”

Alfonso Bialetti's Moka Pot, circa 1933 / photo by Wikipedia user Imm808

The Moka pot sold reasonably well, but mainly locally in Milan. Production was then interrupted by World War II, and did not resume until Mr. Bialetti’s son Renato, who had been a POW in Germany, came home and took over the business. Renato Bialetti succeeded in marketing the Moka Express nationally and by the 1950s the company was making four million coffee pots per year! To this day, most Italian households have a Moka pot tucked away somewhere, even if it’s just for when grandpa comes over and wants to make coffee.

During the rise of the Moka pot, changes were also coming to Italian coffee bars. In 1947 Giovanni Achille Gaggia, a coffee bar owner in Milan, filed a patent for a new style of espresso machine which used a spring-loaded, lever-operated piston. The operator pulled down on a large lever which released hot (not boiling) water, and no steam, from the boiler into a chamber between the piston and the coffee. He then slowly released the lever, expanding the spring which pressed down on the piston and forced the hot water through the coffee at very high pressure (about 3-4 atmospheres). The ability to more finely control the temperature and pressure of the water resulted in a much superior cup of coffee, with a rich, dappled froth on top which no one had seen before.

At first, Gaggia’s customers were suspicious of this “crema di caffe or “coffee cream” as he named it. If there was no milk, then where was the “cream” coming from? A smart man, Gaggia marketed it as a natural cream, extracted from the coffee itself by his new process. He was more correct than he may have realized. The water under the higher pressure achieved by Gaggia’s system, was able to emulsify otherwise insoluble oils and volatile compounds in the coffee, creating the highly flavorful crema. Once people discovered how tasty it was, everyone wanted crema on their espresso and Gaggia had the slogan Crema Caffe Naturale engraved right on his machines.

An original Gaggia spring and piston espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

The final change which brings us into the age of truly modern espresso, occurs in 1960 when Ernesto Valente of the FAEMA company, created a machine which used an electric pump to pressurize the water and force it through the ground coffee. And so the final curtain fell on the mesmerizing scene of a trim Italian barista theatrically pulling the levers on his machine to create that special brew. On the plus side, while baristas still need training to make good coffee, FAEMA’s E61 machine was easier to learn than the lever and piston style machines. It was also capable of 9 atmospheres of pressure which is pretty much the pressure at which modern espresso is made today.

FAEMA's E61, the first truly modern espresso machine / photo by Flickr user Ciccio Pizzattaro

Some of the coffee preparation methods discussed above have fallen out of favor (good riddance, pumping percolator!), while others are very much in use. Naturally, there is much argument on coffee enthusiast web sites, but there is no one way to make a good cup of joe. Home espresso machines are getting better and better, but are expensive and require quite a bit of skill to approximate what a good barista can create with a top of the line La Marzocco. The Bialetti company has a new version of the Moka Express called the Brikka which supposedly with some practice, can create crema. If you’re more of a minimalist, go with a French Press or make the time jump to 1645 with a Turkish cezve. However you brew it, here’s mud in your eye.

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Café Procope since 1686, one of Europe's oldest coffee houses / Photo by Flickr user Sergei Melki

A two part article in which we explore the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century.

Europeans have been drinking coffee since about 1615 when Venetian traders obtained it from the Ottoman Turks. The first European coffee house outside of Istanbul opened in Venice in 1645. But if you were to hop into that secret time machine I know you’re working on in the basement for a trip to Venice in 1645, you might be surprised at the equipment being used by the baristas.

Here in the 21st Century we associate Italy with espresso, that intense potion that clears your foggy head even after the most dissolute of nights out. But back in 1645 coffee was being made the way the Turks still do it today. Finely ground coffee is boiled together with water and sugar in a small copper pot with a long handle called a cezve, and then poured into a cup for you to drink. If it’s done properly the grounds will settle to the bottom, but be careful of that last sip! Turkish coffee is a fine beverage, but it’s quite different from espresso.

Turkish style coffee shown here with the cezve in which it was prepared / Photo by Flickr user blhphotography

How did we get from a Turkish-style preparation of coffee to the more complex and machine-dependent ritual that is today’s espresso culture? About 50 years after coffee first entered Europe through Venice, it could also be found in the Netherlands, England, France, Vienna and Germany. The Dutch had even begun farming it in their colony of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). For the next 285 years or so, the French were the taste-makers in new and fashionable coffee preparation methods. In the first move away from Turkish-style coffee, the French placed the ground coffee in a linen bag and infused it in the water, thus eliminating that final gritty sip. Around the same time, aficionados also discovered that making coffee with boiling water destroys the delicate, volatile essences where much of coffee’s flavor resides. A temperature just below boiling, makes for a vastly more flavorful cup. At this time a “coffee pot” was just a serving vessel, not the container in which you prepared the coffee.

Archbishop Belloy's drip coffee pot circa 1800

In about 1800 Jean Baptiste de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, invented the first drip coffee pot. This French drip pot had two parts, the ground coffee was placed in the upper container which was then stacked on top of an empty lower container with a cloth filter placed in between. Then hot (not boiling) water was poured over the grounds in the upper pot and the coffee would slowly drip through the cloth filter into the lower chamber from which it was then served. The main problem with this method was that it took quite a while, and by the time it was finished the coffee might only be lukewarm.

While doing research for this article, I discovered that the French drip pot is still widely used in Louisiana where it is called une grégue. This page has some lovely reminiscences from people who grew up drinking coffee made that way.

A French drip coffee pot still used today in Louisiana, virtually unchanged in design from 1800

An eccentric Anglo-American inventor by the name of Benjamin Thompson stepped in at this point to solve the temperature issues with the original French drip pot. Thompson fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War and moved back to London afterwards where he became a minister in the government and knighted by King George III in 1784. Beginning in 1785 he worked for the Bavarian government where he helped the military with everything from food to explosives. In 1791 he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and from then on is referred to as Count Rumford. He left Bavaria around 1799, after which he lived in both England and France.

On one of his sojourns in France, Count Rumford improved on the Archbishop’s drip coffee pot by enclosing it in an insulating jacket which could be filled with hot water, keeping the pot warm throughout the dripping process. Sometimes Rumford is credited with creating the first percolator, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The verb “to percolate” describes what happens when a liquid passes through a permeable substance. In that sense, the first drip coffee pot was a percolator. Modern usage of the term “coffee percolator” usually refers to the “pumping percolator” — more on that later.

Up until now you needed two containers to make coffee, one for boiling the water, which was then poured into the coffee maker proper containing the ground coffee and a filtering device. That changes in 1819 when two different Frenchmen came up with a way to do it all in one pot.

A Parisian tin smith by the name of Morize made a clever design innovation to the drip pot. He created a pot with three chambers instead of two. The water goes in the bottom section, the ground coffee in the middle, and the top chamber is left empty. The pot is placed on the stove, when the water boils you take it off the heat and flip it upside down. The now no-longer-boiling water drips through the coffee grounds into the empty pot, which is now on the bottom of the apparatus, and from which the coffee can be served. This design was taken up with great enthusiasm in Italy where it became known as the Napoletana or Neapolitan pot.

The Napoletana or flip pot / photo by Wikipedia user Csant

In that same year of 1819 a French patent for the first pumping percolator is given to a man named Laurens. This design was improved upon in 1827 by his fellow countryman Jacques-Augustin Gandais, resulting in a two-chambered pot with a tube connecting the top and bottom. The pot was placed on the stove with water in the bottom part and ground coffee in the top. When the water boiled it was forced up the tube and would spray over the grounds in the top chamber and drip through them back down into the bottom chamber (which was now empty). It is important to note that this cycle happened only once. In future, modifications were made to the pumping percolator so the coffee could be cycled through the grounds multiple times. This is a recipe for insipid coffee that has lost all of its volatile aromas and flavors. Some people blame the ubiquitous use of pumping percolator machines in America during the 1950s and 60s for the destruction of American coffee culture.

Fourth from the left, an early pumping percolator

Improvements in the manufacture and availability of glass, along with scientific advances in the understanding of fluid dynamics and vacuums paved the way for the next innovation in coffee preparation methods, the glass vacuum pot. The first patent for such a device was granted to a Frenchwoman, Mme. Jeanne Richard in 1838. Mme. Richard based her design on an existing German pot made by a company called Loef in Berlin. In 1841 another French woman, Mme. Vassieux of Lyons, made some important improvements which solidified what became known as the “French Balloon” design. These pots were not meant to be hidden away in the kitchen, instead they were proudly displayed in the dining room where guests could witness the spectacle of the coffee being made.

The glass vacuum pot consists of two globes, one on top of the other, which are connected by a tube that reaches almost to the bottom of the lower globe. There is a filter at the top opening of the tube. Water is placed in the bottom globe, and ground coffee in the upper one. The water is then heated (for dramatic effect it can be done with a candle or spirit lamp). As the water heats it expands and is forced up through the tube, where it mixes with the waiting coffee grounds. When most of the water is gone from the bottom globe and the coffee has been steeping in the water for an amount of time that suits your taste, the candle or lamp is extinguished. As the water vapor cools, a partial vacuum is created which draws the coffee through the filter and down into the lower globe, from which it can be served.

Several examples of the French Balloon style of vacuum coffee pot / Photo by Flickr user Bradley Allen

Around 1850 the design of the vacuum pot changed and the two glass containers were placed side-by-side and connected via a siphon tube. Britain’s James Napier in particular is well known for this design. The principle of how the coffee was made however, remained the same. Interestingly, the French Balloon style vacuum pot was revived in the United States in the early 20th Century where it became the basis of the famous Silex coffee pot. As in France, the double globe vacuum pot design was promoted and improved by women. In 1915 two sisters from Massachusetts, Mrs. Anne Bridges and Mrs. Sutton had it manufactured from Corning’s newly invented heat resistant Pyrex glass which made it much more durable than the previous incarnations of this almost century-old design. The Silex pot became so popular in America that it became a generic name for any glass vacuum pot. The company was sold to Frank Woolcott in 1924. It then merged with Proctor to become Proctor-Silex in 1957.

An advertisement for the Silex vacuum pot circa 1917 / credit: Flickr user Joan Thewlis

Stop by Comestibles next week when we will continue our investigation of coffee preparation techniques through the ages in Part II of this article.

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The Ninnion Tablet (circa 370, BCE) depicting the Eleusinian Mysteries / photo by Wikipedia user Marsyas

I first ran across barley water when reading a novel set in early 19th Century Britain, where it was prescribed as a drink for the ill and infirm. It turns out to be a lot older than that. For almost 2000 years barley water was the sacred drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious harvest celebration.

The people of Eleusis worshiped Demeter, a grain goddess. The myth connected with the Mysteries is as follows: One day Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was gathering wild flowers in a meadow when she was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter searched high and low for her daughter but to no avail. Finally, several gods of Olympus took pity on her and told her where to find Persephone, telling her that it was all part of a plan set in motion by Zeus. In her anger and grief, Demeter stopped all the plants from growing, causing a famine on the earth. Even the gods were hungry due to a lack of sacrifices. Finally, Zeus and Hades struck a deal so that Persephone might be returned to the world above. But Hades tricked her into eating some food before she left the underworld, some pomegranate seeds. This created a mystical connection between them which meant that Persephone must spend one third of every year in the underworld with Hades — the winter.

The Mysteries at Eleusis were celebrated over the course of nine days in late September. We only have a patchy idea what the rituals actually were since participants were warned not to reveal them on pain of death. However, we do know that it was a sought-after experience. Many famous people of the day were initiates including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch. The piecemeal writings we do have about people’s experiences at Eleusis contain descriptions of a positive, life-changing event including sacred visions of paradise and apparitions of the gods.

We know that participants would make several processions back and forth between Athens and Eleusis which were about 13½ miles apart and there was fasting involved, along with the ritual sacrifice of young pigs. The initiates would break their fast by drinking a beverage called the kykeon. What may be a recipe for this drink has survived in a 7th Century, BCE poem called “Hymn to Demeter”. According to the hymn the kykeon consists of barley, water, and a type of mint. The barley is said to represent Persephone because every year it dies and spends winter in the underworld, only to return with the spring.

The fact that the ritual was essentially kept secret for almost 2000 years is a testament to how powerful the experience must have been. This has lead some modern scholars to hypothesize that the kykeon contained a hallucinogenic substance. Research is still being done and papers are still being written; suffice it to say that the Eleusinian Mysteries remain a mystery.

Even if you’re not interested in joining the cult of Demeter, barley water is a pleasant, thirst quencher which supposedly contains lots of healthy nutrients, although I was unable to find any analysis in my research. Inspired by the recent heat wave we’ve had in New York, I decided to try it out. I made two different versions, the first is in a more ancient style, containing only barley, water, mint and some honey. The second has added citrus juices, turning it into a sort of orangeade. A similar orange barley water is sill served to the athletes at Wimbledon every summer.

Barley Water With Mint

Makes about 1 quart

When you shop for barley you’ll most likely see “pearled barley,” but you might also find “hulled barley,” or “hull-less barley.” Hulled or hull-less barley is a whole grain still containing the germ. I used hulled barley for this ancient version of the drink because the pearling of grains didn’t begin until about the 16th Century.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup hulled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
1 bunch fresh mint
honey

Put the leaves from the bunch of mint in a bowl.

Bring the barley and water to a boil in a medium saucepan on the stove and then turn it down to a bare simmer and let it cook half covered for about thirty minutes or until the barley is cooked.

Strain the barley water into a large bowl. Reserve the cooked barley for another use. Bruise the mint leaves by mashing them with wooden spoon or a cocktail muddler. This will bring out the flavorful mint oil. Put the bruised mint leaves in the hot barley water, pushing them under as best you can and allow it to steep for about five minutes. Taste it and if you want it mintier let the leaves steep longer.

Strain the barley water into a pitcher, add honey to taste, stirring until it dissolves completely. Then chill in the refrigerator for several hours until completely cold. Serve over ice, with a sprig of mint to garnish.

Orange Barley Water

Adapted from Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Makes about 1 quart

Here I used pearled barley which is more commonly found in shops, but feel free to use hulled or hull-less barley if that’s what you’ve got.

Since you’ll be using the peel of some of the fruits try to buy oranges and lemons that have not been sprayed with pesticides.

You can use white sugar if you like, but Demarara gives a little extra complexity.

Do save the cooked barley for another use, it makes a nice breakfast re-heated with some milk and honey, or you can use it in a soup or salad.

1 cup pearled barley (see above for types of barley)
8 cups water
6 oranges
2 lemons
Demarara sugar

Bring the barley and water to boil in a medium saucepan and then turn it down and let it simmer, half covered, for about a half hour or until the barley is cooked.

As the barley cooks use a vegetable peeler to peel just the colored part of the rind from three of the oranges and one of the lemons. Try not to peel the white pith which is bitter. If you find some strips of rind have pith on them, you can scrape it off with a knife. Next, juice all of the fruit.

When the barley is finished cooking, strain the barley water into a pitcher. Add the citrus rinds and the fruit juice to the pitcher and stir. Taste the barley water to see if it needs any sugar. Depending on how sweet your oranges are, it may not. Add Demarara sugar to taste and stir with a long spoon until it is completely dissolved. Chill the pitcher in the refrigerator for several hours until it is completely cold. Serve over ice accompanied by a slice of orange.

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Tudor-Era Charcoal Stove at Hampton Court Palace

One of the best things about attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery is the chance to meet people with all sorts of interesting food-related jobs. Two years ago I met Marc Meltonville, who runs all of the kitchens in Britain’s Historic Palaces. These are historic buildings that are owned by the Crown but are no longer used as residences by the royal family. They include: The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. This year, I had a little extra time in London after the Oxford Symposium and Marc kindly showed me and some friends around the restored Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court, favorite home of King Henry VIII (1491-1547).

These kitchens are the largest Tudor kitchens in the UK, occupying 55 of the palace’s 1000-plus rooms and covering 3,000 square feet. When the palace was in use as a royal residence there were about 600 courtiers who were entitled to two meals a day provided by the palace. So this was a huge cooking operation, much bigger even than most modern hotels and restaurants. We have the palace provisioning lists from the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) which tell us that during the course of one year 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boar were cooked at Hampton Court.

Marc and his crew have done a masterful job outfitting the kitchens as they would have been in the 16th Century. They decided that process was the key so they began with the recipes of the time and decided what implements were needed to make them. Once they had a list, they went out and found artisans who could make replicas using the techniques of the time.

For example, the ceramic bowls are all made locally by a potter who through extensive historical research has determined that for a 16th Century potter to make enough money to feed his family, he had to be able to make one bowl in about three minutes. So he makes each of the bowls for Hampton Court in one throw. When a bowl breaks, the staff keeps the pieces and makes a note of how old it was and what caused the accident. In future they hope to compare their broken pottery with real 16th Century shards from archeological digs to see if it has broken in the same way.

The pots are bronze (tin-lined copper was not used for cooking until the late 17th Century) and the skillets are hammered or wrought iron, not cast iron which is also 17th Century innovation. The wooden bowls used in the kitchen are turned on a pole lathe which is operated with a foot treadle. They are made in “nests,” multiple bowls coming from one large piece of wood and fitting one inside the other when completed.

All this research was not just done so the place would look good, Marc and his team fire up the charcoal stoves and actually cook in these kitchens on a regular basis, experimenting with recipes of King Henry’s time. Unfortunately, due to health and safety regulations, they are not allowed to serve the results to the public. For example, when cooking in bronze pots it is important not to allow the food to cool in the cooking vessel which could cause copper poisoning (bronze is an alloy of copper and tin). If you’d really like to sample some of their work you can find a few authentic dishes served in the modern cafe at the palace.

Meat Roasting Fireplace at Hampton Court. Can you see the little bench where the spit boy sits?

One of the most impressive parts of the kitchens is the meat roasting fireplaces which are large enough for an adult stand up inside. Through experimentation the cooks at Hampton Court have learned a lot about how to spit roast meat. The spits are mounted on a huge rack that slants in front of the fireplace allowing the spit boy to move the spit closer or further form the fire depending on the temperature. Spit roasted chicken is far tastier than what you get baking in a modern oven. As they slowly turn in front of the fire, the chickens constantly baste themselves. Serving roasted meat was also a way for wealthy kings to demonstrate their power to visiting political guests. It costs a lot more money to roast meat than boiling or frying because most of the energy created by the burning wood is lost, going right up the chimney. It is estimated that six to eight tons of seasoned oak was burned in the kitchen fireplaces each day during King Henry’s time.

I’ll end with a couple of terrific videos made by the kitchen team at Hampton Court. The first shows how to cook using a charcoal stove, including how a 16th Century cook would start the fire (hint, they didn’t have matches). The second video is all about spit roasting meat. Enjoy!

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A Selection of Irish Cheeses

This is the first of a two-part round-up of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery which took place from July 9-11, 2010 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

The weather was unseasonably warm and I was glad the College Bar — why don’t American colleges have official bars? It’s so civilized — opened at 6PM on Friday evening providing a refreshing Gin and Tonic. Not long after, our first meal began with a glass of German Sekt and some Prosciutto di Parma in the garden as Chef Raymond Blanc announced the winners of this year’s Young Chef’s Grant who got to help prepare Friday evening’s dinner along side Chef Jeremy Lee of London’s Blue Print Cafe. Congratulations to winners Max Barber, Elaine Mahon and Daniel Penn.

Baked, Salted, Middle White Pork

To kick off the weekend Mr. Lee conceived a Feast of Cockaigne, the imaginary land of Medieval legend, where there is always plenty of food and drink and no one has to work very hard.

In keeping with the theme most of the courses contained foods which had been preserved. Here’s the menu:

Salt cod, vegetables, and aioli

Baked salted Middle White Pork from Huntsham Court Farm, Herefordshire, UK
with abraised green beans with a green sauce.

Almond meringue with berries and whipped cream, sometimes also called Eaton Mess.

The meal was accompanied by the following Spanish red wines:
Ribera del Duero Crianza 2006
Ribera del Duero Reserva 2005

On Saturday afternoon after fascinating plenary talks by food scientist Harold McGee and anthropologist Sidney Mintz and some papers about ancient Roman fish sauce. I was ready for lunch.

Bang Bang Chicken

Lucky for me, it was provided by renowned Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop and the chefs from London’s Barshu Restaurant where she is a menu consultant.

The Chinese are known for their prodigious use of fermentation (thousand year eggs anyone?) and lunch did not disappoint:

First Course

Bang Bang Chicken
Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
Spicy Cucumber Salad
Refreshing Green Soybeans.

Second Course

Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts
Bear’s Paw Beancurd
Choy Sam with Fragrant Oil
Steamed Rice

The wine was a 2008 Riesling Trocken “Kraut wine,” weingut tesch from the Nahe wine region in Germany.

And so it was back to the intellectually stimulating portion of the program. During the afternoon I attended presentations about a fermented bread from Transylvania which is purposely cooked in such a hot oven that the outside layer turns to charcoal; the history of eastern European Jewish pickled foods in Canada; and Ken Albala’s inspiring talk on the “Missing Terroir Factor in Historic Cookery.” His new book is right at the top of my to-buy list.

Part Two of this summary of Oxford 2010 will go up next week. See you then.

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Fermented Salted Eggs in Hong Kong / Photo by Flickr user Tracy Hunter

The highlight of my food history year is coming up this weekend. I’ll be attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in the UK. This annual gathering of food historians includes both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs and focuses on a specific theme. This year we’ll be exploring cured, fermented, and smoked foods. These are some of the most ancient techniques for preserving food and are used all over the world. Some of the papers to be given at the symposium include: “Sausages of the Classical World” by historian Joan Alcock, “Rotten vegetable stalks, stinking beancurd and other Shaoxing delicacies” by Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, and “Smoke and Mirrors? Montreal smoked meat and the creation of a tradition” by Alan Nash who specializes in the geography of food.

Aside from all of this intellectual stimulation, as you might expect, there is lots of good food. On Friday evening we will be treated to a Feast of Cockaigne by chef Jeremy Lee of the Blueprint Cafe in London. For this menu, Mr. Lee imagines the kinds of food which might be served in the mythical land of Cockaigne where no one has to work very hard, and luxurious food is just an arms-length away (think Big Rock Candy Mountain).

Saturday’s lunch is a Sichuan meal brought to us by the chefs at London’s Barshu Restaurant where the aforementioned Fuchsia Dunlop is a consultant. Having cooked several dishes from her superb cookbooks, I’m really looking forward to this one.

On Saturday night Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin will ply us with traditional Irish foods using first class artisanal ingredients.

Finally, our lunch on Sunday will be particularly historic as the ingredients will reach us by sailing ship! A Dutch company has decided to go back to the old ways and is providing sustainable transport using sail power to ship goods around the world. The Brigantine “Tres Hombres” is one of their ships and it will be used to send traditional Norwegian foods to the symposium, which will then be transformed into a buffet for us by Ove and Svein Fossa from the Norwegian branch of the Slow Food Movement.

After the symposium, I’ll be spending a little time in Oxford, trying out some local Real Ale and poking about in libraries. Then it’s off to London for some research on another project. I’ll be posting short notes from the road when I have Internet access, and I’ll do a more detailed round up of the Oxford Symposium when I get home.

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