New arrival – History of English food

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I’m never sure how many people enjoy to read about the subject of food history, but I find it very interesting, although I can’t ever see myself making gelatine from a calf’s foot, there’s always an easier way these days! But I do like and enjoy researching and thinking about the history of cooking, and if if I can manage to find the ingredients, some of which are as old as the history itself now, I’ll attempt an to make the authentic recipe, but that can take a lot of research and effort sometimes. It’s often easier to buy a modern alternative from the supermarket.

So these two books were a new arrival to my obsessive book collection, now cookery books are occupying more than any other collection. Though I still use Mrs Beeton‘s books as my bible.

I don’t think I should say this, but I’m going to anyway. I think I have a similarity with  Jane Grigson. When she began to spend three months of each year in France, she became really interested in food. The first time I visited Paris, it stuck with me ever since. Both of us were inspired by French food. I would love to be a food writer as well, there is still a lot to do, but I intend to keep striving, and sharing my exploits with everyone that reads my blog. Jane also reveals the richness and surprising diversity of English culinary heritage, which is so useful for anyone wishing to learn about the wide history and heritage of British food, as modern British food has elements from many different countries and continents. After all, the most popular dish in the UK is now the ambiguous and untraceable Chicken Tikka Masala, an Indian inspired dish concocted by immigrant chefs to the UK, specifically for the UK palate.

Clarissa Dickson Wright… what a character! She’s a typical blue-blooded aristocratic English lady, though she’d probably hate to read that description. She’s famous in the U.K. but that’s not why I’m so interested in her. The thing I most admire about Clarissa is she brought the history back to our ears, as many people tend to forget about where our favourite dishes came from, or how it evolved to modern cookery, such as why we eat turkey during Christmas. I am very interested to know all of that, it’s even become a bit of an obsession of mine, but it’s a good subject to talk about. Beside that, it’s great to pass facts and history on to the next generation about food and it’s history. Most people just turn away when they hear the word of “history”. I am really thankful to Clarissa to lighten up the history of food. I just can’t wait to dig further into her book.

OK it’s time to put my feet up and pour a glass of wine, and one of these books will be open and ready. I hope you can find a copy of either of these books. Happy reading!

Loaded Potato Skins

P1140997A Potato, one of the most versatile root vegetable at all time.

A plant tuber, potato varieties differ in shape, colour, size, flavour and starch content. Their pale or yellowish flesh is covered with skin that may be red, brown, yellow, green or purple-blue. Mostly round, long or smooth, potato tubers are scattered with small “eyes”, from which the buds emerge. Potatoes are fragile and easily damaged.

Did you know a raw potato contains 79.4% of water, and it excellent source of potassium, good source of vitamin C, B6, copper, niacin, magnesium, folid acid, iron and pantothenic acid. Raw potato juice is said to be antispasmodic, diuretic, antiscorbutic and cicatrizing. It can be used as a calmative and to relieve gastric ulcers. Potato is used to treat inflammations, sunburn and other burns, and cracked skin. But do be careful on those potato exposure to light or sun can lead potatoes to form green spots that may contaain solanin, a toxic alkaloid substance. In small doses, it may cause stomach cramps, headaches or diarrhea; in large doses, it can affect the nervous system.

As with the tomato, it’s hard to imagine a time when potato wasn’t aa fundametal ingredient in British cooking, wasn’t introduced into Europe until sixteenth century. At first many Europeans were suspicious of the potato, believing it to contain harmful poisons. To be fair, there was some justification as it is from the same family as deadly nightshade, which is poisonous raw. In 1748, the French Parliament actually banned cultivation of the crop, believing it to cause leprosy, among other things, whilen during the 1770s, a period of recurrent famines, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick the Great of Prussia were rejected by starving peasants, but attitudes soon began to change, thanks to the efforts of one man.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813) was an army chemist who was captured no less than five times by Purssian forces during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). In captivity, Parmentier and his fellow prisoners of war were forced to survive on a diet of potatoes and so, with plenty of time on his hands, the scientist began a detailed study of this unpopular food. When the Academy of Besancon later sponsored a competition to find a ‘food capable of reducing the calamities of famine’, Parmentier submitted his paper, ‘The Chemical Explanation of the Potato’, and won the first prize.

Parmentier then spent the rest of his life promoting the humble spud throughout Europe as a cheap, nutritious and realiable crop, and in 1785 finally managed to  persuade Loius XVI (1754-1793) to encourage cultivation in France. The king allowed him to plant one hundred acres on royal land, close to Paris, and Parmentier engaged a heavily armed guard to protect the crop. This strange move aroused the curiosity of local farmers, who became desperate to know more about this obviously valuable crop, and as word spread among the puzzled population, Parmentier delivered what turned out to be his masterstroke. He dismissed the armed guard and, as he anticipated, the French flocked into the fields, dug up the potatoes and replanted them in their own farms, smallholdings and gardens.

The habit of growing potatoes then quickly spread throughout the continent, such that by the time of the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, they were a staple in the diet of every French family, including that of the soon-to-be-headless king and his queen, Marie Antoinette, who were both known for their love of potatoes. (So much so in the case of Marie Antoinette that she even wore a headdress of potatoe flowers at a fancy-dress ball). And for this, the name of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier has become synonymous with the potato in France. Indeed, many potato-based recipe are called after his – including hachis Parmentier, a form of French cottage or Shepherd’s pie – so the next time you pick up a bag of Parmentier potatoes at supermarket you will know exactly who he was.

How the Potato killed a million people

But one European country had already cottoned on to the benefit of potato: Ireland. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), the British explorer known for his expeditions to the Americas and for throwing his best cloak across a puddle so Elizabeth I could walk across it, had introduced potaoes to Ireland, planting them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork. Legend has it that he then invited theb local gentry to banquet featuring potatoes in every course.Unfortunately, his cooks, who knew nothing about the vegetable, tossed out the tubers, bringing to the table a poisonous dish of boiled stems and leaves instead, which promptlymade his noble guests extremely ill. Unlike in France, where the potato worked its way from the top of society down, inIreland its popularity frew from the bottom up. Ireland’s rain-soaked climate meant that few crops propered and before the seventeenth century its peasants depended very heavily on oats. Offering two-to-four times the calories of grain per acre, and much simpler to cook, potatoes rapidly took over as the country’s main crop. The Irish became for their expertise in cooking them: the favourite street snack of eighteenth-century London was the baked potato, preferably cooked and sold by an Irishman, although its popularity was eclipsed in the nintheenth century by another Irish potato speciality, the chip.

The problem was that the Irish put all their eggs (or rather potatoes) in one basket. Depending so heavily on a single crop meant that one bad harvest represented a catatrophe. And when one bad harvest turned into four, people started dying in their thousands. At the height of the famine (around 1845), at least 1 million people died of starvation, leaving many poverty-stricken families with no choice but to emigrate. Towns became deserted and many businesses closed: with no customer, shop owners were forced to leave too. Over 1.5 million people sailed for North America and Australia, and within a few years Ireland’s population had dropped by half, from around 9 million to little more than 4 million. And it was all because of the potato.

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Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

A simple ingredient tells hundred stories. Now we had know about the potato and humble potato became our favourite dish on table that everyone enjoyed it. Even this simple loaded potato skin, not much effort to put in but it has all the nutrition I need for a day too. Go on, cook your favourite dish of potato. Bon appetite!

Madeleine

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In the picture doesn’t it look promising to you? But this little cake has a history behind, as I know it was from France. Here is a article from a writer named Albert Jack.

In the remembrance of Cakes Past: The Petite Madeleine

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’. which looks as though they had been moulded in fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place… at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…

Small sponge cakes baked in distinctive shell-shaped moulds, madeleines are now among the most recognizable cakes in the world compared to financiers and visitandines thanks to Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and his In search of Lost Time. Eating a madeleine (in the passage from the book quoted above) sends the narrator off on a very long journey into involuntary memory. But who was the original Madeleine that they were named after? Some sources suggest that she was a French pastry chef working for the deposed king of Poland, Stanislaw Leszczynski. Forced by an assassination attempt to seek exile in France, he and his family moved to the Chateau de Commercy in the commune of Commercy in north-eastern France. When in 1755 Madeleine Paulmier became his pastry chef, she supposedly invented the cake to cheer up the exiled king.

But the cakes are much more likely to be named after a very different Madeleine, for Madeleine is also the French name for Mary Magdalen, the former prostitute and follower of Jesus. Several orders of nuns have taken her name and that, twinned with the cake’s distinctive scallop-shell shape (the points out above), would suggest that the cakes were originally baked with more religious purpose in mind, and scallop-shell been worn as a protector in those day, perhaps to remind those who ate them that while, like Mary / Madeleine herself, we are all sinners, we are also pilgrims on a hopeful journey to find God.

No matter what happened in the past of madeleine, now we remembered a little story about it and pass it on to the next generation. Let’s bake it and enjoy! Stay tuned for my recipe update tomorrow, you will going to have a lift by madeleine.