ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “food”

A priceless treasure – of crocuses and saffron

From where I am sitting on this cold winter day, I can see a stand of snowdrops. Puny little things, giving little reassurance spring is anywhere close. Unfortunately, no matter how I look, I cannot find the pointy narrow green shoots that presage my favourite among spring flowers, the crocus. But seeing as I am desperately longing for spring, I’ve decided a little excursion into the wild and exciting life of the crocus might be just the thing.

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Photo by KENPEI Licensed under CC BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so crocuses have little of excitement in their lives. Up they grow, and once the spring sun is warm enough, they open their faces to the sun, presenting us with a colourful display that ranges from the most pristine of white to the explosive compo of deep purple and bright, bright yellow. After some days, they’re so exhausted by all this show-casing that they wilt. In truth, a brief display of beauty – and not at all exciting.

Crocuses are among the oldest of our flowers. The name must have very ancient roots, and whether in Sanskrit or ancient Hebrew, English, German or Spanish, the flower’s name is very similar. And it was obviously a very appreciated little flower, what with it being mentioned in the Song of Solomon and depicted for posterity in ancient frescoes found in Santorini.

The reason for its popularity was not the modest flower. No, the crocus was precious because of saffron – yet another word that sounds more or less the same in most languages, indicating just how ancient our relationship is with this particular spice. Personally, I prefer azafrán, the Spanish word that still clings to its Arab roots.

Saffron is a very, very expensive spice. One gram costs approximately two pounds (three dollars), and as always when it comes to pricing, this reflects just how restricted the supply is versus the demand. Harvesting saffron must be one of the most labour intensive jobs in the world, and it takes approximately 250 000 flowers to generate 1 kilo of saffron. Why? Because saffron consists of the three stigma a crocus plant produces, bright red lightweight things that look like short treads.

saffron-cueilleuse_de_safran_fresque_akrotiri_greceNo one really knows where the saffron crocus originated, but as shown in Minoan pottery and frescoes, well over three thousand years ago people were picking the delicate threads. We know the Assyrians held saffron in high regard, as did the Egyptians. After all, saffron is a versatile product, as useful as a spice as in medicine and in colour production. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, and Cleopatra sprinkled her bathwater (or should that be bathmilk? Although as I hear it, it would take a veritable army of donkeys to fill a bath tub with their milk…) with saffron to increase the pleasures of lovemaking. (Which requires yet another parenthesis as we ponder whether this is lovemaking in the bath or after the bath. Well, we will never know, will we?)

In difference to most other crocuses, the saffron crocus flowers in autumn. Bright purple flowers open to capture the rays of the autumn sun for one day, and the pickers must be quick to harvest the stigma – even more so as almost all the crocuses flower within the same week or so. As a word of advice, don’t go around assuming all crocus look-a-likes that flower in autumn are saffron crocuses. Chances are you’re looking at what is called meadow saffron (or naked lady), an entirely different genus to crocuses – and very, very poisonous with no known antidote.

Right: so now you know more than you necessarily feel you need to know about saffron crocuses – except that there is one crucial part missing. You see, the saffron crocus is sterile, so the only way to propagate it is through the corms. This makes it more difficult to cultivate, which of course was great news for whoever already had a nice little saffron plantation going, not so great for those who wanted to enter into competition. A so called high-entry barrier market…

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A medieval market

In medieval Europe, saffron was the thing. Even more so as it was disgustingly expensive, a way to shout to the world just how rich you were. Throughout the ages, rich people have shared this little idiosyncrasy, that of having to ascertain everyone else knows just how loaded they are, whether it be by driving Aston Martin DB9’s (yes, please!) or by having a couple of houses more than they need, or buying Crystal champagne by the crate, or, in medieval times, by splurging on saffron. Somehow, saffron consumption seems quite low-key in comparison.

The saffron prices sky-rocketed in the 14th century in the aftermath of the Black Death, as saffron was a recurring ingredient in all the potions and salves produced to ward off the pestilence. A ship loaded with saffron was hi-jacked by a nobleman and triggered a two week war; Venice imported as much saffron as it could find and sold it at exorbitant prices. Being a saffron-pirate was, for a short time, a lucrative profession. In brief, people went a bit wild and crazy.

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Burn those dratted saffron-cutters!

Now, with such a profitable commodity, many were tempted to cheat – to cut the saffron, so to say, by mixing it with other stuff. This was not approved off. In 15th century Nürnberg, a man was burned at the stake for doing this. Some years later, two men and a woman were buried alive for the same crime. Clearly, tampering with saffron was considered a very bad thing to do.

Even more were tempted to steal some of the precious corms. After all, once you had some, you could relatively quickly (like over 3-5 years) develop bulbs. Obviously, those that had saffron bulbs and corms weren’t about to give them away. What was required was an intrepid and brave undercover agent to somehow infiltrate the crocus fields and dig up the prize. Even more importantly, the corms had to be smuggled out of whatever territory they might be in, as controls were rigorous.

As per legend, the English had one such agent. I have no idea what he might have looked like, but suspect we are looking for a person who blended in well, ergo was rather non-descript and who definitely didn’t make a nuisance of himself by ordering “stirred, not shaken” hippocras. The gentleman in question toddled off to the Holy Land, and I hope he took the opportunity to combine his botanical espionage with some serious pilgrimaging. Some years later, the man returned to England, safe and sound. The pilfered corms were hidden in his walking staff.

Edward III was probably very pleased – finally, England was on the road of self-sufficiency when it came to saffron. His secret agent was dispatched to Essex and an anonymous little place. Over time, this place was renamed as Saffron Walden – no need to explain why, methinks – and for the coming centuries or so, saffron was cultivated in various parts of England, contributing to the relative wealth of the saffron farmers.

saffron-crocus-1Things rarely remain the same. At the dawn of the Early Modern Age, England was inundated by new spices, new commodities. Tea and coffee, chocolate and spices from the New World – they all supplanted saffron as the next hot thing in cooking. English saffron farmers went out of business, and after several centuries of home-grown saffron, English saffron addicts now had to depend on deliveries from Spain.

These days, Iran is by far the largest producer of saffron. Spain comes in as a steady number two, delivering approximately one ton of saffron per year to the market. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not all that much – not when you’re the world’s second largest producer. I guess it reflects the fact that over time the saffron crocus hasn’t changed. Just as it did in the distant past, it produces only three stigma, precious red threads that have to be harvested by hand. And just as in those long gone times, saffron remains the most precious of spices – well worth it, if you ask me, seeing as I am about to dig into a delicious fish soup, in which saffron and cream combine into a golden, fragrant dish.

Ode to the onion

onions-pierre-auguste-renoir-1881Last night was one of those stressful evenings when I came home far too late and far too hungry. Which is why I was delighted to find some cold meatloaf in the fridge.And an onion. What more does one need?

The end result was delicious. Very much due to the onion, in this case a shallot. So this set me to thinking about onions in general which is why the rest of the post is dedicated to this versatile little vegetable.

onions-ribera-c1615-smellFirst of all, we can start off by stating people have been eating onions for ages. In Sweden, where my forebears were of the opinion that anything truly old had to be Egyptian, seeing as everyone knew the Egyptians were a really, really, really ancient civilisation, one of the oldest forms of cultivated onions is called Egyptian onions. Turns out it is called Egyptian Onion in English as well, but so as not get distracted by the Egyptian part (and I could go on: some of the oldest varieties of beets cultivated in Sweden are known as Egyptian flatfeet (?) which of course makes one suspect those ancient Egyptians only ate onions and beets. Not…) let us immediately steer this post back to today’s protagonist.

In prehistoric offal heaps, like 7 – 8000 years old, scientists have found remains of onions, together with date stones and bits and pieces of figs. Not a combination that does much for me (I hate dates ) but those distant Bronze Age people were probably not all that picky – they couldn’t afford to be. Anyway, those very old onions were probably eaten raw – and they grew wild. But by the time of Ancient Egypt (no way round those Egyptians, it seems) onions were being cultivated, and were considered good for everything from boosting your sexuality to complementing the standard fare of bread, radishes and beets.

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That thing in her hand? An onion…

The Egyptians were fascinated by the onion. They liked the shape, the various layers, and now and then an onion or two would make it into a grave – something to munch on while journeying to the hereafter. In fact, this humble vegetable became a symbol of eternity and the complexity of life (I’m guessing it’s all that layers) and was appreciated in all the ancient civilisations for its various qualities. First of all, the onion is easy to grow. Even better, it stores well, even in colder climates. Once harvested, the onions could be braided into a decorative plait and left to dry somewhere dark and dry.  They could then be used throughout winter – both in food and in various medicinal cures.

The onion was great to carry along on longer treks as it mitigates thirst. It also contains enough vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay. Plus, it added flavour to whatever else you were eating and came in handy should you be bitten by a snake, as onions were supposedly the ideal cure against poison. Hmm.

The Ancient Greeks were major, major fans of onions. They believed this humble veggie came packed with divine strength, and for those participating in the original Olympic games, onions became the equivalent of steroids. They ate them raw, they ate them cooked, they drank onion juice and used it as a rubbing oil. As a result. I’m thinking they glowed with health, had a somewhat obnoxious breath and probably nailed the discus throw.

The Romans were not quite as convinced as to the divine properties of onions – but they were great fans of eating them. Cooked, fried, pickled – the Romans carried the onion with them wherever they went, and while now and then the conquered people grumbled and wondered “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I think the onion would qualify as a major contribution.

The Roman Empire crumbled. Those wild Germanic tribes were on the move, redrawing the map of the known world as they went. But they too liked the onion, and as Europe fell into the chaotic centuries that followed upon the sack of Rome, years in which the veneer of Roman civilisation was lost, thereby plunging the people back into a darker, less comfy place, at least they still had the onion.

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Chopping onions in the 17th century

Come the Middle Ages, and onions were used to combat everything from hairloss to flagging erections. And infertility in women. Plus all those snakebites. And coughs. And tasteless cabbage soups. People set such high store on onions, in some cases you could use onions to pay off your debts. Or bribe an official. Or woo a bride.

So does the onion have medicinal properties? Well, other than being rich in vitamin C, it is also rich in polyphenols, which help combat everything from diabetes to cardiovascular disease. And then there are those flavonids, some of which are very anti-inflammatory. The conclusion is that yes, munching onions is good for you – although I’m not so sure it would help with erectile problems.

Once the Europeans “discovered” the New World, they carried their favourite vegetable over the seas to their new land. As per diaries, bulb onions were among the first things planted by the colonists – together with garlic. After all, what would life be without a good onion soup to warm you to the bone on a cold winter day?

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Photo by Nikchick (Creative Commons)

Onion soup is still quite the thing on a cold, blustery day. French onion soup is even better, with that delicious topping of toast and cheese. A far cry from how those Ancient Egyptians enjoyed their onions, but somehow I suspect they’d enjoy this “modern” variety. Nom nom…

onions-weissbort-george-still-life-with-onion-plaits-wooden-cheese-box-fruit-and-a-bottleThese days, the onion is still going strong. Not that all that many of us ever grow it ourselves, nor do we have plaits of drying onions hanging from the kitchen rafters (likely because most of us don’t have kitchen rafters, more’s the pity). But I’d bet all of you – every single one of you reading this post – has an onion or two in their fridge. Or in your larder/root cellar, should you have one of those.

So when next you cut into an onion, squishing your eyes shut to stop them from watering, remember you are cutting into a vegetable that has accompanied humankind all the way from the hieroglyphs to the digital age. Not bad for a humble bulb, hey? Not bad at all.

 

Why me? Of neolithic genes and sweet-tooths

Give me a choice between a tournedo and a chocolate praline, and I’ll go for the praline. Plant a lobster in front of me, and chances are I’ll still go for the praline – not always, but most of the time. Tempt me with gorgeous salmon sandwiches or a Swiss roll and I’ll be sinking my teeth into the roll.

Why, one wonders, have I been given the sweet-tooth in the family? Why can’t I, like my mother, shine up at the thought of vegetable soup? Why do carrot sticks to nothing for me compared to a chocolate éclair? (Although seriously: anyone who prefers a carrot stick to an éclair probably has issues of their own…)Why me?

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Photo Petr Novak, Wikipedia

“It’s the cavewoman in you,” second son would probably say. “You’re a prime example of a survivor in a neolithic society, going for the sweet & fatty stuff.”

Fantastic. Only problem with that is that I do not live in the Stone Age. I am not subjected to irregular food supply, I am fortunate enough to know today that I will eat tomorrow. In short, that cave-woman gene of mine fills no purpose. Well, it does in the sense that it is also this gene that makes me go “eeek” at spiders or snakes, and we all know such an approach to these dangerous creatures can save your life. Hmm….

Back to the food issue. Stone Age people had no chocolate. They had very ittle sweet stuff beyond honey and berries. No one baked a Swiss roll over the open fire, no one vacillated between apple crumble and toffee pudding. Poor them. The last few years, it has become something of a thing to eat “Stone Age”, which means nuts, roots, more nuts, fruit, meat, fish. No dairy – our cave-dwelling ancestors had not got round to taming cows and such yet. No bread – we were eons away from the first mill. Yes, they ate the grain, but directly from the husk. Nom nom.

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Happy in the Stone Age…note the total lack of women.

Anyway, the Stone Age diet is supposed to be good for you, leading to longevity and health. Hmm. Stone Age people didn’t live all that long, did they? Oh right; this is where my gene comes in. You see, our neolithic forebears had a really healthy diet – assuming they found food. But quite often, they didn’t, and this is where those members of the clan with a propensity for over-eating and scarfing down whatever sweet stuff they could find came into their own. Those extra layers of fat could be the difference between death and survival, between bearing a child and remaining barren.

Obviously, a higher share of “sweet & fat” loving people than the “I adore carrots” made it through the neolithic period. (In which there weren’t any carrots, so that was something of a bummer…) And as history of humanity picks up speed, pretty soon we start seeing desserts on the menu.

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Pomegranates just begging to be picked & shared

Sometimes dessert was just a fruit. Sometimes, said fruit was shared between him and her, the beta version of the Lady & the Tramp meatball scene. Sometimes, said fruit was a pomegranate – an ancient symbol for everything erotic and beautiful – and I really, really want to meet that loving couple who fed each other pomegranate seeds without permanently staining their linens. In actual fact, I’d like to see the fair maiden who managed to eat this fruit daintily and “stainlessly”. I would also like to point out that in my book, a pomegranate does not qualify as a dessert – not on its own. (Sprinkled on a pavlova, yes)

The ancient Greeks must be admired for much, and from a dessert perspective, they did bring a new dimension to things. Sesame pies, honey and yogurt, small baked goods, often containing dried fruits, and, of course, that elegant combo of fresh cheese and honey, preferably sprinkled with nuts. Note the appearance of dairy products. We are approaching a point in time where there will be cream to whip, and what would strawberries be without whipped cream, hey?

So the Greeks gave us cheese and honey, and the Romans gave us ice cream.Okay, not so that your run-of-the-mill person suffering from a sweet-tooth ever got to taste such a delicacy, but it still existed, as did the spira (Danish pastries before the Danish even existed) and an assortment of souffles and puddings. The Romans knew their desserts, people, but most of these toga draped gentlemen and their palla covered wives opted for fruit – waistline issues, seeing as already these our Latin-speaking forebears were struggling with the consequences of the Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene.

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Sack of Rome. Very non-Visigoth gent clambering atop another…

As we all know, the Roman Empire was over-run by the barbarian hordes led by Alaric. These hirsute peeps were more in the mead & meat category than in the dainty dessert group, but I bet you their ladies did not say no to a honeyed wafer or two (or three, or four – that’s what happens with such things: one starts eating and they just take you over!)

However, in the turbulent time that followed upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, people often had more pressing concerns than planning their menus – such as staying alive in a world where the agricultural efforts had been rudely interrupted by nomadic Germanic tribes. Fortunately, the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as people make out, and sometime between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Western world saw the introduction of sugar, this thanks to the Arabs who were more than inordinately fond of this sweet stuff that went so well with filo pastry and pistachios.

Sugar was a luxury. My sweet-tooth ancestress living in a Viking village somewhere to the north of where I live today, probably never even tasted it – but she’d heard of it, had maybe even met someone who’d tasted it. With sugar, the art of desserts exploded to a new level. With sugar, one could create confections and marchpane, candy fruits and petals. I bet many a pastry cook wept happy tears when presented with a sugar loaf – a commodity so precious it was kept behind lock and key. It sure beat parsnips as a sweetener!

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Hernán

By now, man had progressed in leaps and bounds from than ancient existence in a cave. Now there was sugar and cream, honey and nuts, fruits and berries, eggs and flour. There was marzipan and nougats, there were meringues and pastries, and one could almost believe Dessert Nirvana had arrived. But one major ingredient was still missing. Yup. Sadly missing. Fortunately for all us dessert maniacs – but not at all for the mighty Aztec civilisation – a certain Hernán Cortés would soon set things right. Ladies and gents, I give you that elixir of all things sweet and wonderful – chocolate.

In the late 16th century, chocolate became available in Europe. Not, I hasten to add, a chocolate that bears any resemblance to what we call chocolate. No, the drink the Spanish explorers brought back from the court of Montezuma was bitter and frothy, something of an acquired taste.  But if you drank it early in the morning, it was supposed to be invigorating, and the Spanish were all for invigorating stuff, now that they had a continent to conquer.

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Morning chocolate, anyone?

Someone came up with the brilliant idea of combining chocolate with sugar – and a tad of cream, and suddenly chocolate as we know it was in the making. Chocolate fondants, chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse – the Neolithic lady up my family tree would have done cartwheels.

And so here we are, in a world where things that are sweet and fatty are constantly available. We sigh happily, and in the depths of our DNA that Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene prods us into action. Eat, it says, eat, eat, eatyou never know when next you will see food. The “I adore carrots” people nod and pick up a carrot. The rest of us dive for a Snickers – or spend our lives fighting the urge…

I fight the urge – most of the time. But sometimes I cave before the cave-person in me. I am weak, I tell second son, a victim to my mitochondrial baggage. Second son snorts – he is not fooled. He rarely is. But happily, second son can be bribed – after all, he has his fair share of that ubiquitous and utterly indestructible Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene. So: chocolate cake, anyone?

Of Alcohol and Devious Merchants – a brief history of Armagnac

äppelblomThe other day, I went into the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Armagnac. It was time, I’d decided, for me to acquire a sophisticated adult vice, and I quite liked the mental image of me curled in the sofa, book in hand and with a glass of Armagnac within reach. Now, buying Armagnac – well, any kind of alcoholic beverage – in Sweden, requires a visit to the state owned Systembolaget, which has a monopoly on all such sales. They earn a mint, are among the world’s largest purchasers of wine and spirits, and never spend as much as a penny on promoting their wares. No, Systembolaget spends a considerable budget on trying to convince Swedish people NOT to drink – or at least not as much. (Swedes have a conflicted relationship with alcohol, let’s leave it at that)

Anyway, obviously this anti-spirits propaganda had not had much effect on me. There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (Umm…) and asking one of the knowledgeable staff where they kept the Armagnac. He laughed when I explained why I wanted to buy it – and it’s not only the pretty colour, but also the name. I mean, say Armagnac, really slow, and it conjures up men lounging in the shade of a giant beech, legs extended before them, polo-mallets littering the ground…Ahem: back to order.

The guy in Systembolaget tried to get me to go for something else instead.
“A nice aged Tequila,” he suggested, and I shook my head, no matter just how much I love The Eagles and Tequila Sunrise. So, fifteen minutes later, I was back outside, now the proud owner of a liquor that as per the guy was “rough on the palate and hot in the belly”. Sounded promising. Sounded ADULT. Sounded sinful – a nice little vice to cultivate.

IMG_6020So why all this hang-up on vices? Well, I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to cultivate an edgier profile. Maybe dye my hair henna red, and start wearing only black. Or start drinking Armagnac – seemed easier. You see, I worry that I am too proper. Outside my books – where adventures, high drama and romantic moments occur recurrently – I am a tad boring. “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee,” I could almost croon, what with preferring water to wine, books to wild parties and nice comfy pants to sexy stockings. Okay, so I do now and then put on those sexy stockings, and yes, I have a collection of lacy bits, but it’s not really me. Me is a day-dreamer who can sit for hours on the meadow at our summer house, surrounded by flowering lupines and the drone of happy bees, while I pretend I’m elsewhere, preferably somewhere that involves horses instead of cars and long, swishing skirts instead of yoga pants.

Being a to-do-list person, I therefore added a couple of items to my (interminable) list:
1. Do something wild and crazy
2. Develop an adult vice
Hubby laughed at me when I shared this with him, winking as he told me that there were some adult vices in my life. Yes, yes, of course there are, but we were talking sophistication here, something to be combined with a husky voice and slinky evening wear. I conveniently forgot I rarely wear slinky evening wear, and my voice is relatively dark anyway.

So there I was with my newly acquired bottle of Armagnac. A beautiful colour, like bottled carnelians. It smelled like the devil though, but as per the guy in the liquor store this was good stuff, however rough on the palate, single-distilled as all good Armagnacs have been since the 15th century. Okay, so now it wasn’t only the colour. Now I had a spirit in my glass that came with history. Anna was a happy camper…

600px-Armoiries_Armagnac-Rodez.svgIt comes as no surprise that Armagnac comes from the Armagnac region. This, in turn, is part of Gascony, famous for important (however fictional) people like d’Artagnan, and for having been under English control for a number of centuries before the French got their act together and ousted the English once and for all in the 15th century.

I’ve never been to this region of France, but from what I understand we are talking countryside – even more so back in the 15th century. Situated to the west of Toulouse and south of Bordeaux, Armagnac nestles into the foothills of the Pyrenees, a region that does not invite easy travelling. Historically, Armagnac used to have its own count, and through an elegant balancing act between English and French demands, the region managed to retain a high level of autonomy – until the Black Prince decided to bring Armagnac to heel. Didn’t work all that well, as the Count of Armagnac appealed to the King of France to come to his help, and from this point on, the rulers of Armagnac held to La France.

This far south in France, the cultural influence from Spain and the ancient Moorish kingdoms was substantial. The University of Montpellier – one of the oldest universities in the world, with a medical school that goes back to the early 12th century – had extensive intellectual exchange with Islamic institutions, which is why the Arab invention of alcohol distilling reached the Languedoc – and Armagnac – as early as the 1410s. Now, the Arabs distilled alcohol for medicinal purposes. The Armagnacs – and others – quickly cottoned on to the other effects of distilled spirits, namely that they could “relieve pain and bring joy”.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyThe reason why the winemakers of Armagnac eventually took to distilling their precious wine is one of geography and controlled trade. Bordeaux was the wine-trading capital of the Gascon region, and the merchants of Bordeaux had a tendency to protect their own local vine-yards by refusing to sell the wine from the Haut-Pays (the Highlands, eg an area which, among others, encompassed Armagnac). By the mid-15th century, the refusal became a prohibition, whereby Haut-Pays wines could not be traded in Bordeaux prior to December.

This was more or less a catastrophe for the Haut-Pays winemakers. At the time, wine was a fragile product, bottling and preservation techniques far from modern standards. Come December, there was a major risk the wine had gone sour, so the beleaguered Armagnac winemakers had to look elsewhere for the distribution and trading of their product. Enter Bayonne, a smaller city right at the south of France’s Atlantic coast. Problem was, to get the wines there, they had to be transported in barrels on carts, thereby risking the quality. This is when some bright young thing suggested they distill the wines before they sent them off.
“I don’t know,” one of the older wine-makers said. “Does anyone want to drink something as…as…fiery as that?”
“You bet,” Mr eager-for-change said. “Our distilled product – our burned wine – will take the world by storm.”
“Hmm.” The older wine-maker sipped at his mug. Sipped some more. “It does grow on you doesn’t it?”
The other assembled wine-makers agreed it did – most definitely, it did. In a corner, one of the men was slumped on a bench, too drunk to button his cotehardie. One of the more senior wine-makers, a dour man name Jacques, was beaming at the smoky room at large, the cup of brandy in his hand already empty.

And so the beleaguered Armagnac wine-makers decided to embrace change, and soon enough they were all doing their own little distilling – the wine-makers of the region were per definition more prone to experiment than to standardise, which is why to this day there are as many methods of making Armagnac as there are Armagnac brands. Hmm. To me, that seems to overcomplicate things. To the true fans of Armagnac, this means the variety is huge.

Whatever the case, to this day the people of Armagnac proudly insist their brandy is the oldest in the world. There are people who mutter and grumble that being first is not always best – notably the gentlemen of the Cognac region – but in recent years there’s been an explosion in demand for Armagnac, that demand now augmented by my desire to explore the world of adult vices.

the-summer-poppy-fieldIn the event, I am sad to report that I remain of the opinion that nothing beats water or tea. That single glass of Armagnac was the equivalent of swallowing fire, and I must say I’m with the ancient Arabs in this: as a medicinal device, designed to revive the almost-dead, distilled wine is a great and magnificent thing. For me, I’m thinking I’m more like Ferdinand the Bull – I prefer to sit among the flowers. And as to what I did that was wild and crazy, well, some things are best left unshared 🙂

Snippets for our lazy brains

We live in the age of the immediate turn-around. I’m not entirely sure that is a good thing, but there you are, that’s the way things are. E-mails crave instantaneous replies. To have them jamming up the inbox, hovering like angry gnats in the “unread” category, is, for most of us, somewhat unbearable. So we read, reply, forget and get on with the next e-mail.

When I started working, e-mails weren’t even on the horizon. Ok, I’m not that old, but as a junior accountant in the 1980’s it was still very much paper. And telex. Anyone remembers telex? As the youngest on the team, I was often sent off to the Swedish phone company’s central office to send and collect telexes. Long reams of paper that required translation from a Telex person somewhere. Like an expanded version of the telegram. And let me tell you, it was leading-edge technology back then, in the eighties…

A telex took like 24 hours back and forth. Someone sent it, someone had to collect it, someone had to read it, someone had to consider a concise but informative reply, someone had to trot back to the telex office and send it off to the other end, where someone had to collect it.

24 hours today is like considering paddling across the Atlantic – utterly ridiculous.

A year or so into my work life, and the telex was dead. Gone, buried, laughed at. The new hot thing was the fax, and the first one I ever saw was the size of a freezer. I recall standing beside the receptionist, utterly awestruck by the fact that the drawings presently appearing on the paper before us had been sent from Sydney, Australia less than five minutes ago. Boy, oh boy: the Brave New World was upon us, and soon we would all have our own little home fax so as to be able to scrawl things on paper and fax them across the globe. Well, that never happened, because hot on the heels of the fax came…taa-daa…the e-mail.

Despite faxes and telexes, business in the eighties was still mostly conducted through regular letters. You know, sheets of cream coloured paper beginning “Dear Sirs” and ending “Yours Sincerely” after which would follow a more or less illegible signature. Consider the letter-writing process:
Person A decides to send a letter to person B in which it is suggested their two companies discuss a common venture. Said and done, Person A calls in his secretary (and sadly, at the time Person A would in 99% of the cases be a man while the secretary would be a woman), dictates while she stenographs – a dying art in this day and age – and some hours later Ms Secretary presents Person A with a letter to sign.
The letter is sent off. Two, three, seven days later (depending on where it is going) the letter reaches Person B. Well, Person B’s secretary, if we’re going to be correct, who opens it and places it in Person B’s in-tray. Person B reads it sometime just before lunch.
“Hmm,” says Person B, rather intrigued by the proposal. Person B mulls it over for some days, and then he calls in his secretary. Some hours later, a responding letter is on its way to Person A.

It may be important to point out that Person A won’t have put his entire life on hold while waiting for the response. That would have been stupid. And when the letter finally arrives, close to three weeks after it was sent off, Person A doesn’t necessarily throw himself at it. You see, both Person A and Person B know that time is money, but they also know that using some of that time to THINK before surging ahead generally pays off. Now that may be a novel thought for some of today’s young action-oriented lions…

Even more miraculously, life actually worked back then. I know, quite inconceivable, that there was a life in an age in which the internet was ridiculed as a “fad” (a gaff the then Swedish Minister of Communication will never live down…).

So what’s my point, you may be wondering – unless it is to wax nostalgically about a past in which fountain pens and embossed paper still played a crucial role? Well, dear readers, I don’t miss the paper, or the pen. I’m a major fan of internet, and consider e-mail most efficient. BUT where did the thinking time go? When did we stop reflecting, looking at the bigger picture?

It is my belief that the speed in communications has resulted in knee-jerk decisions – often with a very short time perspective. In the world of business, this is further fuelled by the focus on quarterly results rather than on longevity of vision and strategy, but even in our private spheres, we tend to react rather than reflect. Plus, of course, we’ve all been tarred by the “immediate gratification” brush.

Patience is as virtue we no longer have – or appreciate. We become bored and restless, we want our news served in appropriate bite-size chunks. Yes, we want to be informed – but not too much. In essence, this means we end up knowing WHAT has happened, not WHY. And even worse, many of us don’t care about the why.

We’ve become headliners, and if the headline snags our attention we might read the introductory paragraph. Might. As a consequence, media is pandering to what we want, namely “snippets” of reality. Stories become truncated, and with the exception of a handful of high-brow, intellectual newspapers and magazines, media churns out endless pages with inconsequential information about inconsequential people and events. But hey, how can we protest? This is what we want, right?

Without reflection, we allow “someone else” to tell us what to think. Unless we exercise our brain cells, we abdicate the right to correct and complete information – “someone else” will decide what we need to know, will interpret the facts. From there, the step is very short to manipulation, to repressive government.

As a citizen in a democracy, it is my obligation to keep myself informed. It is my obligation to assess alternatives, to penetrate the important issues and demand answers – before making up my mind. It is, in brief, my responsibility to think. Doesn’t sound too onerous, does it?

Back in the heyday of fountain pens and paper, people did think. They had time to. In our world of info-inundation, we have a frightening tendency to go with the flow and take all at face value because our poor brains just can’t handle the constant bombardment. But as Descartes one said, “Cogito, ergo sum”. Unless we think, we don’t exist. Not really.

Eating yourself to death

Back in the good old times, the possibility of eating so much you would actually die was restricted to the upper classes. The common folk never got the chance of overindulging in anything much, and as a consequence obesity was often a sign of wealth. In some cultures, to this day obesity is used as a class marker, dividing the have-a-lot’s from the have-not’s. I guess these cultures haven’t bought into the beautiful=skinny notions that predominate in the Western world. (As an aside, beauty has very little to do with weight: it has much more to do with the light from within that some people have and others don’t)

Henry_I_-_British_Library_Royal_20_A_ii_f6v_(detail)Anyway, if we leap back in time to the early 12th century when Henry I supposedly died due to a surfeit of lampreys, obesity was not a problem. (And I do find it difficult to comprehend why someone would choose to stuff themselves with lampreys – but as the 12th century is sadly lacking when it comes to chocolate and ice cream, maybe poor Henry I settled for what he could get hold of to soothe his nerves. The man was in the midst of putting down his rebellious daughter and her even more rebellious and ambitious husband) Actually, Henry I is never referred to as being anything but healthy and ruddy, so maybe he was just unlucky in his choice of comfort food.

lampreys Tacuinum_Sanitatis-fishing_lamprey

Fishing lampreys

In the following centuries, the majority of the population had to make do with a restricted diet. Barley seems to have been a staple throughout Europe – in Sweden most people lived off barley porridge, bread and cabbage. Full stop. Oh, for Christmas, there might be a knob of butter in the porridge, but that was splurging madly in a world where food – as a general rule –  was scarce.

The higher up the income ladder one went, however, the better the diet got, but even then we’re talking about a world where food was not as readily available as it is now. We rarely consider just how easy our life is in some aspects. We want milk, we drive to the nearby store and buy a litre. The medieval mother wants milk, she has to go to the cow (and boy is she lucky if she has a cow) milk it, decide if she really can afford to drink the milk instead of making cheese from it, strain it and drink it. And those of you who have drunk milk directly from the cow will know it is warm – an interesting experience…

Now, if you were a king, food was not an issue. There was plenty of it – all the time. Most necessary, given the size of the average court, so it wasn’t as if people went about bloated. The economically minded king went on progress and visited his nobles, thereby forcing them to foot the food bill. Of course, in return the selected noble had the pleasure of the king’s company, and if he was (un)lucky the king might be so pleased with his host and fare that he extended his stay, thereby leaving a household scraped bare of anything edible when he left. One can imagine just how happy they were to see the king leave…

Fast forward to the 18th century. Things were picking up, the average man now could add potatoes to his thrilling diet of cabbage and barley gruel. Now and then, there was meat on the table, quite often salted. The not so average noble consumed venison and partridge, quails and pigeons. Rich sauces, flaky pastry and a lot of wine complemented all this meat. Meals among the wealthy consisted of up to nine types of meat. Kings and queens, of course, had access to the best of the best, and in some cases these royal personages were quite the gluttons. Like Adolf Fredrik.

Adolf_Frederick,_King_of_Sweden_-_WGA13779Adolf Fredrik was the king of Sweden from 1751 to 1771. By all accounts he was not the brightest or most confident of men, and other than being a loving husband and father, he expended most of his time on making snuffboxes. And, apparently, swooning with joy over food. As can be seen from his portrait, this was a somewhat plump man (and he does look rather sweet, doesn’t he? That armour he’s wearing is only for show). Other than the fact that he was Gustav III’s father – the king who was so famously shot at a Masquerade Ball, thereby inspiring a number of books, plays and an opera – Adolf Fredrik is remembered for only one thing: his last meal.

Maybe things would have gone differently if it hadn’t been Lent. Lent, you ask, recalling that Sweden is a Protestant country, so surely Lent is no big thing up there, is it? Too right, it isn’t – except for the tradition of eating a certain type of pastry during the Lent period, a soft bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste and generally served in a bowl with hot milk. This is called a semla, and in general, one of these delicacies leaves you quite, quite stuffed. In the 18th century, eating a semla was a once in a year experience for most people – this was a luxury product, what with the wheat flour bun, the cream and the almond paste.

Semla88

Semla88 by einarspetz

Adolf Fredrik was very fond of semla. It was with enthusiasm he approached his meal on February 12, 1771. Lobster, sauerkraut (!), caviar, and smoked herring was washed down with plenty of champagne, and Adolf Fredrik rubbed his hands together in expectation as the dessert was presented. A huge tray, full of semlas. Adolf Fredrik ate one. Two. He reached for a third.
LuiseUlrikevonPreußen01“Really, Adolf Fredrik?” said Queen Louise Ulrika, frowning slightly. (Now this was one bright lady, tough as old boots and with a fine grasp of politics – and not, as far as I know, all that much into food. Takes all kinds…)
“One more, my little pigeon,” Adolf Fredrik replied, and because he smiled so sweetly, she smiled back. She wasn’t smiling when he bit into the tenth. Or the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth… And there, dear people, Adolf Fredrik had reached his limit. So much so, in fact, that he died that same night.

And so, Adolf Fredrik is recorded as the king who ate himself to death – an honour he potentially shares with only one other that I know of, namely Henry I with the lampreys. Except, of course, that Adolf Fredrik did in fact eat so much he killed his digestive system, while Henry seems to have chosen the wrong dish – one hopes. Because seriously, to eat lampreys until one bursts a gut? Yuck!

Of hamburgers and other stuff

When I was a child, my father would now and then ask my mother to prepare him a hamburger. This consisted of one slice of fried bread (in plenty of butter, so it was nice and crispy), a beef meat patty – at times enhanced with finely chopped beets and capers(ugh!) – and a fried egg, sunny side up. Voilá, my childhood’s hamburgers… Needless to say, this was not eaten with your hands, but with knife and fork. Sometimes, this little meal was called a Parisian instead, which had me very confused: was this a German or a French invention?

Still life with lobster

stuff one may eat w hands

I was a teenager when I had my first real hamburger. By then, I knew what a hamburger was, but all the same, it was quite exciting to study my first Whopper – and realise I was supposed to eat it with my hands. We didn’t do “eating with your hands” in my home, the only exception being chicken drumsticks, shrimps and seafood in general. We even ate our chips/french fries with fork and knife.

Some years later, I introduced my mother to the delights of a real hamburger. Or not, as she was more than stumped when she realised there was no cutlery forthcoming. We decided to agree that in the future, I would invite her to restaurants with forks and knives.

These days, there is a lot of food that you eat with your hands. Most people don’t seem to mind – as long as wipes are provided. And it helps if the finger food is bite-size and not too greasy.

The other day, I was watching my colleague eat water melon. We were at a lunch restaurant, and dessert consisted of water melon cut into small triangular wedges, with the rind left on to hold on to. Except my colleague was attacking his wedges with fork and knife. I watched, somewhat amused (and even more amused when he dissected each piece to scrape out the seeds), and chomped into my own slice. Chomp, chomp, it was gone, so it wasn’t as if we were talking huge uncut slices, was it?
“What’s with the fork?” I asked.
My colleague visibly shuddered. “I can’t imagine eating something with my hands.”
Come again? I must have blinked – or looked very surprised.
“Too right,” said my other colleague. “It gives me the creeps.”
Okay, so I eyed my remaining slice of water melon and decided I would forego, listening with incredulity as these two men went on to describe acute angst at having sticky or oily fingers, and how important it was to always have a supply of wipes available.
“So how do you eat shrimp?” I asked. Very valid question, as in Sweden we eat a LOT of boiled, unpeeled shrimp, and part of the fun is to peel them as you eat.
The younger of my colleagues looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t.”
Ah.
The other shifted on his seat before admitting that generally he cut off the head and ate the rest – shell included.
Ah.
Turns out these gentlemen don’t eat ribs. Too messy. They don’t eat hamburgers – unless in dire straits. And I didn’t even ask what they do with lobsters. These are not the men to dip strawberries in melted chocolate and feed them to you (And just to make things clear, I do NOT want these particular men to feed ME strawberries. This is just an example).

CoorteStrawberries1705TheHagueMhuisWAll this set me to thinking. Once upon a time, there were no forks, no knives. There were fingers and teeth – and not a wipe in sight. So either you ate and got messy, or you didn’t eat at all. I guess back then my two colleagues would not have made it to the reproduction phase, poor sods, because seriously, a man who won’t feed you strawberries? Sheesh!

 

 

 

The saucy consequences of a naval battle

Yesterday, I treated my family to one of my favourite summer dishes – salt-fried prawns with aioli. I make the aioli myself, and what is not consumed with the prawns is eaten with chunks of bread, dipped in this delicious Spanish sauce that tastes of garlic and oregano.

The first time I ever had aioli was on Menorca. This is one of the Balearic Islands, and as its name implies it is smaller than Mallorca – but bigger than Ibiza, even if that is neither here nor there. Menorca is famous for an absolutely fantastic lobster soup/stew called caldereta, for its aioli – and for being the birthplace of mayonnaise.

Mayenne-charlesWhat? I can see some of you straightening up from your summer slouch. Mayonnaise is a French sauce, you say – derived from Mayenne. Hmm. I am less than convinced, even if I do find the French version of this sauce’s pedigree historically interesting. As per some, one of the more capable (and likeable) generals in the religious civil war that plagued France in the 16th century was addicted to this thick, creamy sauce. I am talking, of course, about Charles de Mayenne, a son of the House of Guise and leader of the Catholic League. So fond was he of this sauce that it was given his name, and all that mayonnaise consumption is supposedly why our Charles grew stout with age.

Now, if we take a step back and study the ingredients of mayonnaise, one can but conclude that they are very, very similar to those of ailoi – bar the garlic. Okay, so to combine egg yolks, oil, salt and other seasoning and whip it all up into a sauce is not exactly rocket science, but all the same: aioli and mayonnaise are sister-sauces. For all those who prefer to view mayonnaise as a French sauce, I offer the comfort that even in the Menorca based mayonnaise myth, the French play a central role. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Minorca_by_Piri_ReisMenorca is an island with a fascinating history. Prehistoric inhabitants have left the island littered with strange neolithic buildings, the Romans have left their imprint on the island, it was a haven for early pirates, it has been raided by Turks and by Barbary pirates – in brief, Menorca has suffered a long string of wannabe owners. In the early 18th century, the British took possession of Menorca (this in the aftermath of the Spanish War of Succession).

At this point in time, the British Empire was still in expansion mode. Backing the right horse in the Spanish War of Succession gave the British not only Menorca but also the far more strategically important Rock of Gibraltar. Suddenly, the British Empire was a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean, and Menorca with its excellent  natural harbour at Mahon (Aha! Mahon-aise…) became an important British outpost. The French were not pleased. The Spanish were not pleased. The Ottoman Empire was probably not pleased, but who cared about their opinion anyway? Consensus among the French and the Spanish was that the British were intruders in the Mediterranean, and for some decades they gnashed their teeth and whetted their claws, waiting for an opportune moment in which to strike.

In 1754, the Seven Years’ War exploded, involving more or less all major European countries and their colonies. The Mediterranean became one of the war zones. The Mediterranean probably sighed and grumbled, shifting its waters in restless waves, but through the ages it has become quite accustomed to being contested waters so I guess it groaned dramatically and went “here we go again” while feeling somewhat flattered by the fact that people were STILL fighting over it.

duc de richelieuIt is time to introduce one of the central character in this our history of mayonnaise, namely the French Duc de Richelieu, Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – Armand to his intimates, among which he counted the king of France, Louis XV. In 1756, this gentleman was sixty, and per the standards of the time he should have been either dead or ailing, but our Armand was a vigorous man, and so he was put in charge of the French force that was to oust the British from Menorca.

Our French dandy set to with enthusiasm, besieging the British garrison of the Fort St Philip which looms over the Mahon harbour. 15 000 French soldiers were landed on Menorca in April of 1756, five times the number the British had. Severely outnumbered, the British garrison set their hopes to the relief forces commanded by Admiral Byng.

John_ByngAdmiral Byng was an experienced naval officer, who at the time was serving in the Channel. He was ordered to immediately set off for Menorca, his protests along the lines that he needed more men and more money so as to repair his ships ignored. Byng had no choice but to follow his orders, despite serious misgivings. His ships leaked, he was seriously undermanned, and further to this he had been forced to replace his experienced marines with boatloads of soldiers to be landed on Menorca.

Byng made a brief stop in Gibraltar to provision. He begged the governor for more men to augment his numbers, but the governor refused. From Byng’s correspondence, it is pretty clear he knew his chances of success were slim. He was more than aware that his ten ship of the line would be no match against a determined French squadron.

On May 19, Admiral Byng and his ships made contact with the French. Outnumbered and outgunned, reluctant to attempt any heroics and constrained by his standard approach to sea battles plus the doubtful sea-worthiness of some of his ships, Byng had no choice but to retire. His intention was to return to Gibraltar, repair his ships and try again. That was not to be.

Prise_Port_Mahon_Minorque_20_mai_1756After three months, the British garrison in Mahon gave up. Always the gentleman, the Duc de Richelieu treated his vanquished foes honourably, and they were allowed to depart the island, leaving the French in charge. And this, dear people, is when the French decided to party – and as we all know, when French people party, they do so with excellent food.

The Duc de Richelieu was fond of his palate. He enjoyed his food and sauces, and therefore where Armand went, there went a cook or two. In this case, the cook was put in charge of a massive banquet in which a sauce made of eggs and cream was to figure prominently. Gah! No cream! The cook cursed, he gnawed at his apron, he threw a wooden spoon or two at his kitchen boys, wondering what sort of uncivilised place this was that there was no cream. Which is when a local may have suggested he use the “salsa mahonesa” instead (like aioli but without the garlic). Or maybe the cook  himself had the brilliant idea of replacing cream with olive oil. We will, I fear, never know.

What remains undisputed is that it was a very good party, with very good food, and ever since mayonnaise has been one of the staple sauces any chef worth his salt must learn to make. Personally, I don’t like it much.

Ultimately, the French dominion over Menorca was to be short-lived. The British won the Seven Years’ War and Menorca was returned to them in 1763, only to be wrested from them again in 1782. And as to Admiral Byng, he was to bear the full opprobium for the loss of Menorca. Upon reaching Gibraltar, he immediately began preparing for a second campaign, but before he could sail, ship from England arrived, relieving Byng of his command and placing him in custody.

What was to follow is one of the worst legal scandals in British history. To save its own hide, the Admirality hung Byng out to dry, and his honour and reputation were torn to shreds by the broadsheets of the time.  As a result of the furore that swept the country, Byng was court-martialed for his failure to relieve Menorca, and found guilty of not having done his utmost to win. Under the new Articles of War, there was only one punishment for this: death.

The_Shooting_of_Admiral_Byng'_(John_Byng)_from_NPGDespite repeated attempts by Parliament, by the Prime Minister William Pitt the elder, to urge the king to show clemency, George II refused. And so, on a March day in 1757, Admiral Byng was led out on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarque, knelt on a cushion and was shot dead by a platoon of Royal Marines.

These days, Menorca is a sun-drenched island that welcomes thousands of tourists to its beautiful coves and beaches each year. Very few of those tourists have any interest in history – whether of Menorca or of mayonnaise. But for those of us that do, maybe this post will serve to make us recall Admiral Byng whenever we open a jar of mayonnaise. Or maybe we should remember Louis Francois Armand de Vignerot du Plessis – but seriously, who can possibly remember all those names?

 

 

Drinking potatoes – a woman scientist in the 18th century

EvadelagardieLittle Eva de la Gardie was a fortunate girl. Born in 1724 into one of the more affluent and progressive Swedish families, she was destined to make a very good marriage, populate the world with very many babies, and in general thereby live a full life. What else could a girl want for, hey?

Not much, according to Eva (and Eva’s mother) and therefore little Eva’s early years were spent educating her into the perfect wife. Not a wife that would need to do much cooking or mending – Eva was destined to be a lady, and as such was trained to oversee, to drag a gloved finger over the mantle-piece to ensure it was adequately dusted, to be capable of planning meals for huge parties, of doing the accounts for a large country estate. Further to this, she was taught to sew, to sing a little tune or two, to dance – by the time Eva’s mother was done, little Eva was the perfect future bride, and even better, she was perfectly happy with this rosy future.

However: Eva was a very bright girl, and on top of all her domestic skills, she also read a lot, having a most surprising interest in factual books about horse breeding and crop improvement rather than the romances the gentler sex were supposed to enjoy.

At the age of sixteen, Eva became a wife. Her husband, Claes Claesson Ekeblad, was twice as old as she was – and rich. At an age where modern girls dream about boys and spend their weekends partying, Eva was the mistress of a large country estate and already pregnant with her first child. Apparently she did a very good job of things. Her husband was more than happy with his little wife, and they were very devoted to each other – so devoted for there to be a baby every other year, and for her to have the reputation of being the only woman in the higher circles of society who had not dishonoured her husband (Swedish sin was alive and kicking already back then, one gathers).

hankins_still_life_potatoAt the time, Sweden’s educated elite was spending a lot of time discussing this new arrival, the potato. The same elite was also rather worried about the lack of cereals – present yield of oats and barley was not enough to keep the country in food AND in snaps (Swedish version of vodka). No one seems to have considered eating the potato – it was a well-known fact one could contract leprosy from doing so. But the strange plant could be used to feed the beasts with, and someone had heard that in Germany they made snaps from potatoes. This latter statement mostly made the learned elite (all men, we can safely presume) laugh. Who would want to drink something produced from a potentially poisonous tuber?

Eva – Countess Ekeblad – had a more hands on approach to the problem. She grew potatoes on one of her husband’s estates, mostly because of the decorative flowers which she used to adorn her hair with. She was also quite familiar with the scarcity of barley and oats, and as she’d heard the potato could be used as food she started experimenting with it. Potato flour was one of her earlier successes – even more so when she discovered the flour could be used instead of arsenic as face and wig powder. And sometime in 1748, the countess succeeded in producing snaps from her potatoes. Immediate success. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (which included that learned elite we discussed earlier) nearly fell over their feet in their haste to congratulate the young countess. So impressed were these gentlemen, that the 24-year-old countess was elected a member of the Academy – the first female so to be honoured.
“Umm,” said the bashful countess, “I was only experimenting based on what my dear husband was sharing with me.”
Dear husband gets full points for refusing to take any credit, insisting this was all due to the little wife.

potato-bwflower1After Eva’s discovery, everyone wanted to cultivate potatoes. Not to eat them, of course – only idiots or truly desperate people would lower themselves to eating this strange crop – but to make snaps out of them. Eventually,  someone discovered one could eat them as well, these odd little tubers, but not until the mid 19th century was the potato established as a food crop. And in the intervening years, Eva’s discovery would lead to a worrying growth in alcohol consumption, which was not a good thing for women in all the walks of life. Inebriated men are dangerous men – especially if you’re a woman.

After these successful forays into the world of science, Eva seems to have exhausted most of her enthusiasm for experimenting. (She did present some further findings to the academy in the years to come, this time concentrated on how to bleach cotton) Instead, she reverted to being what she was born to be, namely be a perfect wife and mother – and the mistress of her husband’s estates, a role she clearly excelled at. Somewhat fiery, the countess kept her stewards on their toes, her husband happy and her children well cared for.

Potato_flowersEva died at the  age of 62, in 1786. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences thereby lost its first (and only) female member. Not until 1951 would a woman be elected a member of the academy again. By then, Sweden was a country where everyone ate potatoes – and drank snaps. And all because of a young countess and her fondness for the blue potato flower.

Of the potato – the true gold of the Andes

800px-PatatesI love them fried, I love them boiled, I love them very much when they are mashed. I like them new when they’re the size of quail eggs, I love them just as much when they’re covered with thick peel and are the size of a large fist. I like them red and yellow, blue and white. I never eat them green, because EVERYONE knows a potato that shifts into green might be poisonous.

IMG_0548Potatoes are one of the most widely disseminated food crops today. People add them to curries in India, they savour them with fermented herring in Sweden, they eat them with stew all over the place, and where would the world be without the famous Spanish Tortilla –  an omelette with… taa-daa… potatoes?

People seem to think potatoes have been around for ever, but no sir, that isn’t the case. The potato entered the global cuisine in the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire. In my view, a far more valuable asset than all those tons of gold and silver Spain filched from the Incas.

The potato is a native of the altiplano, that very cold, very arid highland that lies at the heart of the former Incan empire. The altitude is staggering. The air is so thin you can suck yourself blue in the face and still feel depleted of oxygen. Luckily, the soroche only lasts for a couple of days, after which your lungs forgive you for taking them there and begin to work relatively normally again. Very little grows here except coca – and the potato. How fortunate, then, that the potato comes in hundreds of varieties.

(c) Mrs Darnley McGuffey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationtaking the right decision?

As a child, I would accompany my mother to the supermarket in Bogotá, where we lived. I remember her discussing at length – very boring length – with our driver as to what potatoes to buy for what. Not the most riveting of subjects when you’re like eleven and can’t wait to get to the candy aisle, but I do remember the endless (well) line of bins, all of them with a different kind of potato. Round, elongated, deep purple, bright orange… No wonder it took my mother ages to buy her spuds; faced with all that variety, how can one ever be certain one is making the right choice?

180px-Trabajo-inca8Anyway: back to the beginning of the potato’s world colonization. The Spanish weren’t all that impressed with the potato. Maybe because the Incas mainly ate it as some sort of gruel, maybe because the varieties back then were somewhat harsher on the palate. But they quickly realised that the tuber travelled well and that it could be used as food if the need arose, and so the potato went back to Europe in the hold of a Spanish ship, no doubt jostling for space with all that purloined gold.

The potato didn’t do all that well in Spanish heat – it probably missed its cold highlands. Crops were anything but impressive, and further to this the tuber was viewed with suspicion. Nowhere in the Bible was the potato mentioned as a foodstuff, so were good Christians supposed to eat it? Besides, the plant was poisonous, right? I mean, it belonged to the same family as belladona, and everyone knew that plant could definitely kill you should you ingest it. But the potato had a nice little flower, so why not cultivate it as a decorative potted plant instead?

For its first few hundred years in Europe, that was precisely what the potato became. A potted plant. Yes, the Spanish cultivated it as emergency food on their ships, and soon other nations did so as well, but the people not obliged to eat it, stayed well clear of it. Not only was the potato related to belladona, it was also related to mandrake, that magical plant which sprout roots that at time resemble human bodies. And as no one in their right mind would ever dream of consuming mandrake, well then…

potato-bwflower1In 1662, the Royal Society in England recommended the government to encourage people to start growing potatoes. At that point in time, it was only grown by botanists and the odd enthusiastic herbalist, as the English farmers viewed it with distrust – as did the Dutch, the German, the French, the Danish, the Swedish – well, more or less all European farmers. If it was grown, it was grown to feed the beasts. The few intrepid souls who dared to taste it were not impressed – and actually I think we wouldn’t be all that thrilled had we been served a potato in the 17th century. The level of solanine was high enough to cause a rash, and the taste was a tad bitter. (Solanine is a poison, but levels in the varieties grown today are so low we don’t need to worry overmuch about dying of potato poisoning – not at all, actually)

By the early 18th century, the potato had achieved a toehold in the European cuisine – as food for rough sorts such as sailors and soldiers. The rest of the population stuck to cabbage, porridge and meat, and would continue to do so for some time more. However, people were trying to come up with uses for the tuber, and so the potato was ground into flour (excellent for making almond cakes, equally good as an alternative to arsenic based powder, a must in every fashionista’s life – the powder, I mean, not the arsenic) it was fed to the animals, and, most importantly, people discovered how to make alcohol from potatoes, which saw the birth of the snaps (potato based vodka). All of this before anyone had even tried mashing them with milk and butter… (and nutmeg, I think. Mashed potatoes are at their best with a pinch of nutmeg)

So, well before anyone was eating potatoes, people were drinking it – and dusting their faces or wigs with it. But all of that would change somewhere halfway through the 18th century, when starvation and a growing population would more or less force farmers to grow potatoes – in the process discovering just how tasty this tuber could be.  Mind you, not everyone embraced the potato. When Frederick the Great of Prussia tried to force his farmers to plant potatoes in 1744, most of the tubers were pulled up, this due to a common fear that the potato could spread leprosy. Frederick was forced to post troops to protect his potato crops. When the Swedish king in 1754 commanded his people to start growing potatoes for food, his subjects chose to ignore him, muttering under their breath that the king was obviously off his rocker. And in Great Britain, the potato was at best a garden crop until the 1780’s.

potato pickersThe only exception to all this skepticism vis-a-vis the potato was Ireland. The Irish fell in love with the potato already in the 17th century, and well before anyone else had gotten to the point of consuming them on a daily basis, the Irish had embraced the potato as a staple. This probably goes hand in hand with the rampant poverty of the Irish peasant class. They couldn’t afford fields of sufficient size to grow wheat or barley, but the potato thrived in small patches, and an acre sufficed to feed a family of six. By the 1840’s, more than 40% of the Irish population depended on the potato – which was when Ireland was struck by several consecutive years of potato blight, and in the following famine two million ( two million!) people died, while another million emigrated.

Leaving aside the terrible plight of the Irish during the potato famine, the economical importance of the potato was huge. Rich in nutrients, easy to grow, the inclusion of the potato as a staple food is the reason why the European population grew as much as it did in the 18th century, thereby producing the labour needed to drive the Industrial Revolution forward. A cheap source of food, the potato was also easy to transport, making it possible to feed the hungry workers that converged on the rapidly growing towns and cities.

By this time, the potato had become quite the globetrotter. Wherever Europeans went, they carried the potato with them, and with time potatoes were growing on all continents (well, minus Antarctica). But it is still to the Andean altiplano that one must go to see the potato in all its glory. It is only in the markets of its homeland that the potato can be found in all its multiple varieties, from spuds the size of pinkie fingers to huge gnarled things with skins that shift in deepest purple. This is where it came from, this humble and versatile little tuber that most of us can’t quite consider doing without.

hankins_still_life_potatoIt’s like Samwise Gamgee says: “Potatoes, boil ’em, mash ’em stick ’em in a stew” And if nothing else, why not grate one and apply as a cheap and rather effective facial mask? Hmm. Right now I’m thinking chips – freshly cut and fried, dusted with salt and greasy enough to have to lick your fingers afterwards. The gods can keep their nectar – but woe to them if they try to steal my spuds!

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