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Archive for the ‘Traditional Foodways’ 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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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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Today is Comestibles’ first anniversary, so what better corner of food history to explore than that of the birthday cake.

People have been celebrating holidays with special baked goods for thousands of years, but the white fluffy birthday cake with sweet icing we associate with every child’s party is a fairly modern invention. It could not exist without two important technologies that came out of the industrial revolution, grain mills equipped with porcelain or metal rollers, and baking powder.

Before the invention of roller mills (about 1870) flour was made using grind stones resulting in flour that contained some of the bran and all of the germ of the wheat. To get white flour the miller then had to sift or boult the flour through a succession of cloths of differing weaves which filtered out the bran and the germ. The oil that comes out of the germ during milling stayed in the flour giving it a gray-ish yellow color. The presence of that oil shortened the shelf-life of white flour to about six months after which it would go rancid. All of these limitations meant that white flour was expensive and used only by the wealthy or for special occasions.

When flour is ground using rollers, the grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. Scraping off the germ before grinding meant that no germ or germ oil got into the flour. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. The new technology made it much less expensive and the longer shelf-life meant that it could be shipped all over the country. Everyone could have white flour.

The other invention important to those towering, sugar-laden birthday treats is baking powder. It was Initially created in England in 1843. The first American manufacturers were Evan Norton Horsford and George F. Wilson who founded the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857. Before chemical leavening, cakes had to be raised with the power of eggs alone, which requires a lot of elbow grease with a whisk (remember, no stand mixers in the 19th Century), and speed to get it into the oven before it begins to collapse. It took an expert baker with lots of skill to make a fluffy, high angel food cake. Baking powder changes all of this, anyone could just add some to their recipe and poof, a cake as light as a cloud.

According to the incredibly useful Food Time Line, the first recipe printed in an American cookbook that was specifically referred to as a “birthday cake” was in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book by Jane Cunningham Croly, published in 1870. To celebrate Comestibles’ first anniversary I decided to try making it, or I should say them, as the recipe is for cakes plural, in individual servings.

The most intriguing aspect of this recipe is the topping. It calls for colored caraway seeds. Candied caraway seeds (also called comfits) have been an after-dinner treat since at least the Medieval period, caraway being thought of as good for the digestion. It is also common to see candied fennel and cumin used in the same manner. It is quite easy to use natural food colorings to make comfits in a variety of cheerful colors. Perhaps these are the ancestor of the rainbow sprinkles which adorn our ice cream cones.

I was not able to find anyone selling candied caraway seeds, but I came close. Kalustyan’s in New York, had candied anise in their baking section, although sadly it was not brightly colored, just pure white. They also had candied fennel seeds in pink, white and yellow which are often served at the end of a meal in Indian restaurants. Finally, I also brought home some green mukhwas which are another Indian mouth freshener in bright red and green. There was no ingredient list on the package, but common ingredients for mukhwas include fennel seeds, anise seeds, coconut, and sesame seeds. They are sometimes also flavored with essential oils like peppermint. As you can see in the photo above, I tried various combinations of toppings on the cakes.

I also found a recipe for caraway comfits which I would love to try. I’ll post more about it here when I do.

These cakes are more like scones than what we might think of today as a birthday cake, but still good to eat. They are quite rich with butter and the currants combine nicely with the slightly savory “sprinkles,” giving a flavor similar to a spice cake.

Birthday Cakes

Adapted from Jane Cunningham Croly

Makes 8 scone-sized cakes

¾ cup dried currants
1 pound flour
4 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, chilled (1 stick)
1 large egg
about 1 cup milk
⅓ cup candied caraway seeds, or candied fennel, or sprinkles

Preheat oven to 425F.

Soak the dried currants in warm water for 10-15 minutes as you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Use a fork to stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into smaller pieces, and work it into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers until the resulting mix resembles breadcrumbs or peas.

Add the egg and stir with a fork.

Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough just comes together. When you pick up a handful it should stick together and not be too crumbly. Be careful not to add too much milk, you don’t want the dough to be wet. You may use a little more or less than 1 cup of milk depending on the humidity on the day you make the cakes.

Drain the currents and add them to the dough mixing throughly with your hands to distribute them evenly.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle the candied caraway seeds or other toping on each one, pressing it into the dough slightly to help it stick.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are light brown.

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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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Left: Boiled Topside Corned Beef, Right: Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon

This is the second post in 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. This year’s theme was Cured, Fermented, and Smoked Foods. You can find Part I here.

Saturday night’s dinner celebrated the rich cornucopia that is the modern cuisine of Ireland and was cooked for us by Padraic Og Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House in Dublin. Before we ate we were shown a lovely video in which the chef (and his brother the videographer) traveled around Ireland and introduced us to some of the artisanal producers of the ingredients which made up the meal we were about to taste. Here’s the extensive menu, with links to producers where possible:

Cold Starters

Wrights of Howth Organic Smoked Salmon, drizzled with Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey
Sally Barnes’ Smoked Mackerel
Ummera Smoked Silver Eel
Fingal Ferguson’s Venison Salami and Irish Chroizo
McCarthy’s of Kanturk Guinness & Cider Spiced Beef
McGeough’s Air-dried Lamb

all served with Treacle & Soda bread, Horseradish cream & Ballymaloe Relish

Warm Starter

Gallaghers Boxty House Boxty Potato Dumplings in a Crozier Blue Cheese Cream Sauce.

It's not an Irish feast without New Potatoes.

Main Course

Roasted Loin of Fermanagh Bacon
Boiled Topside Corned Beef both from Kettyle Irish Foods
Kishes of New Potatoes from the gardens of Lissadell House

served with Cuinneog Irish Butter, Sauteed York Cabbage, Champ Potato, Parsley Sauce, and a Cider & Wholegrain Mustard Sauce.

To Finish

A selection of Irish Cheese with Ditty’s Home Bakery Traditional Oatcake Biscuits and Foods of Athenry Porter Cake.

Cashel Blue Cheese
Knockdrinna Goat’s Cheese
Gubbeen Cheese
Coolea Cheese

All of this abundance was accompanied by the following beverages:

White Bordeaux – Pessac Leognan – l’Abelle de Fieuzal, 2003
Red Bordeaux – Château Bahans Haut-Brion 1999
Red Bordeaux – Clarendelle Rouge 2004, Clarence Dillon

Porterhouse Oyster Stout
Porterhouse Red Ale

and finally the pièce de resistance:

Irish Coffee made with Kilbeggan Finest Irish Whiskey.

Proper Irish Coffee, with fresh cream poured over the back of a spoon

If you think that was a banquet (and it was!) wait until you hear what we had for lunch on Sunday for the final meal of the symposium. Several members of different Slow Food Convivia in Norway conspired to bring us a traditional (and sustainable!) Norwegian Lunchbord. The ingredients arrived via sailing ship from Bergen via Cardiff and were then prepared, under the direction of Pål Drønen and Margareth Tislevoll.

The groaning boards of our Norwegian Lunch

If you wanted to demonstrate to someone the meaning of the phrase “groaning boards” when referring to a great feast, this lunch would do the job. There were long tables full of carefully labeled delicacies, some rarely found outside of Norway. It was impossible to try everything, but what I sampled was amazing. It really demonstrated to us that the scandinavians are the kings of cured, fermented and smoked foods, getting the most out of their short growing season. I think a trip to Norway is in my future. Here’s the menu, with producers where possible:

Cold Fish Dishes

Sølvisild, sullsid, and hardrøykt sild – silver herring, gold herring, and hard cured herring from Jnardar AS, Leinøy, Norway.

Kryddersild – marinated herring from H.J. Kyvik AS, Haugesund, Norway

Rakørret – fermented trout from Skarvheimen Fjellfisk, Ål, Norway

Røkelaks “Lærdalslaks” – smoked salmon from Sognefjord Gourmet, Årdal, Norway.

Røykt gjeddepølse, varmrøykt gjedde, and raket gjeddekaviar – smoked sausage of pike, hot smoked pike, and fermented caviar of pike Esox lucus
Gravet sik, varmrøykt sik, and raket sikrogn – cured whitefish, hot smoked whitefish, and fermented caviar of whitefish Coregonus lavaretus
all from Villfisken AS, Hallingby, Norway.

Hot Fish Dishes

Klipfisk – salt cod from Olga Godø,Godøy, Norway

Tørrfisk – stockfish from Lofotskrei, Ballstad, Norway.

Rødsei – red saithe or old salted saith Pollachius virens from Seløy fisk, Herøy, Norway.

Cured Leg of Lamb

Cold Meats

Speket viltpølse – cured game sausage from reindeer, red deer, and lard from Li gardstun, Aurland, Norway.

Speket Geitepølse – cured goat sausage from Sturle Ryum, Gudmedalen Fellsfjøs, Aurland, Norway.

Fenalår, and speket lammepølse – cured leg of lamb, and lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Spekeskinke – cured ham from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Hot Meat Dishes

Saltet og røykt lammebog – salted and smoked shoulder of lamb from Holo gard, Flåm, Norway.

Røykt lammepølse – smoked lamb sausage from Ekta Skåramat, Granvin, Norway.

Norwegian Cheeses

Norwegian Cheeses and Dairy Products (all made from unpasteurised milk)

Pultost – a crumbly sour-milk cheese from Helen Dave, Vesterhaugen Gårdsysteri, Våler, Norway and Tore Skarpnord, Høgda Gardsmeieri, Brumunddal, Norway.

Gamalost – a cooked sour-milk cheese from Maria Ballhaus, Sogn Jord-og Hagebruksskule, Aurland, Norway.

Jærost – semi-hard cows’ milk cheese (10 months old) from Voll ysteri, Voll, Norway.

Kvit Undredalsost – semi-hard goats milk cheese (3-6 months old, and 2 years old)
Undredal Stølsysteri, Undredal, Norway.

Brimost – brown goats’ milk why cheese (fresh) from Rallarrosa Stølsysteri, Flåm, Norway.

Tjukkmjølk – “thick milk,” organic cultured milk from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Rømme and smør – organic sour cream, and butter from Rørosmeieriet, Røros, Norway.

Flat Breads

Lefser – soft flat bread from Leveld lefsebakeri, Ål, Norway.

Flatbrød – crisp flat bread from Veitastrond flatbrødbakeri, Veitastrond, Norway. and Gardsbutikken, Øystese, Norway.

Desserts

Molter – cloudberries Rubus chamaemorus

Hermetiske moreller and “Mallard” plommer – preserved sweet cherries and “Mallard” plums from Nøring ANS, Øystese, Norway.

Hermetiske epler and pærer – preserved apples and pears from Syse gard, Ulvik, Norway.

Sirupstynnkake – syrup wafers from Brynhild Levang, Rendalen, Norway.

Ale and Aquavite

Nøgna Ø India Pale Ale and Nøgna Ø Imperial Brown Ale from Nøgna Ø, Grimstad, Norway.

Lysholm Linie aquavit from Arcus, Oslo, Norway.

Next year, the theme at the Oxford Symposium will be “Celebrations.” After this, I can’t imagine what they will come up with.

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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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Photo by Erik Forsberg

Just a quick note from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. As this year’s theme was Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, I got to try lots of unusual preparations from around the world, the most striking of which was Swedish surströmming.

Food science maven Harold McGee spoke about it in his Plenary presentation titled “A Chemical Introduction to Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods.” Surströmming is made from herring that is caught in the spring, the heads are chopped off, but the guts are left in. The fish are then packed in a barrel with salt which is put in the sun for several months. It is then re-packed into unsterilized cans and aged for six months to a year. Fermentation continues in the cans and sometimes they bulge.

To those of us (including me) whose mothers taught us never to buy a bulging can from the supermarket, this all sounded rather terrifying. However, it is important to note there are many types of bacteria, some of which are helpful to us humans allowing us to make cheeses, pickles, sauerkraut, and other cherished foods . In many fermentation processes, the “good” bacteria create an acidic environment where “bad” bacteria (like botulism) cannot survive. A Japanese laboratory analyzed some of the cans used for making surströmming and found and important (non-harmful) bacteria on their surfaces which contributes to the fermentation process. In other words, if the cans had been sterilized, the process may not have worked properly.

In concluding his presentation on the science of fermentation, Mr. McGee quoted Alan Davidson, one of the founders of the Oxford Symposium, who had actually gone to Sweden to observe the opening of the surströmming barrels and the transfer of the partially fermented fish into cans:

As the smell billowed upwards, birds began to drop dead from the sky.

During Saturday’s tea break we all got a chance to try some of this pungent concoction served with pieces of soft Swedish tunnbröd. The can was opened outdoors due to the odiferous nature of this traditional food. Considering that they only opened one small can and you could smell it about half a block away, I’d say this was a good decision.

When I ventured outside to see what was going on, I was struck by a very strong earthy, loamy odor which reminded me of durian. Surprisingly, it did not smell fishy. I got up my courage and tried some. The flavor was not fishy either, it was very ammoniated like a cheese that has been allowed to ripen too long. One of my fellow tasters commented that if there was such a thing as fish cheese, it would taste like surströmming.

I don’t know that I’ll be rushing out to buy some, but it was not nearly has bad as I thought it would be. In another part of his presentation, Harold McGee told us that scientists have recently discovered that the brain can differentiate between smells that enter only through the nose and those that go from the mouth to the nose. The brain treats these differently, so sometimes something that smells revolting can taste pretty good.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that your parents were right to say that you should at least try everything.

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