Friday 1 February 2008

Food Archaeology.... quite a different thing from Food History. Although interesting in its own right, the latter lacks the dimension of discovery that gives to Food Archaeology its particular frisson. Food History is about facts: terrines and smoked meats and sausages having developed as methods of preserving food for consumption during long, barren winter months, for example - or the fact that the ancient Greeks used sylphium (now disappeared, I think) to flavour food that was probably past its best. Or the small detail that the arrival in Europe of tomatoes from South America shortly after 1492 radically altered the profiles of half a dozen national european cuisines within a lifetime or so......All of these things are interesting, valid, and factually correct - but , when all's said and done, a little two-dimensional.

Food Archaeology, on the other hand, is about discovery and about identifying relationships and connections - and in being so has a richness and a satisfying relevance for us today. What do I mean by it? Well, I suppose it has a number of aspects.....

In part, it's about worrying away at recipes to see where they've come from. Over time - long generations - recipes are repeatedly adapted and altered and revised to meet changing circumstances, such as the availability of particular ingredients, or the fact that people have moved on from using the communal oven at the village bakers to having a fully-equipped kitchen of their own. Often, some of the ingredients that have survived will be a clue to the great age of a particular recipe: the presence of honey, for example, usually indicates an origin at least before the general availability of refined sugar; or else certain spices in savoury dishes such as cloves or cinnamon will suggest a late-medieval provenance. The combination of particular ingredients is a sure sign of substitution having taken place at some point: whenever you find lemons and oranges in the same recipe, for example, you can be confident that the original version was for bitter oranges alone, and that the lemons have been introduced to offset the sweetness of the newer versions of orange that subsequently became prevalent in the market. And, then again, there are certain ingredients which have now somehow achieved 'premium' status on the grocers' shelves, but which were originally born of the direst necessity and poverty - pine-nuts, for example, and chestnut flour, both of which directly relate back to people's desperate wartime need for food from any source whatsoever. (And frankly, I'd need the wartime desperation once again for chestnut flour to have any place in my kitchen - the one time I made the unjustly-renowned Chestnut Flour Cake Castagnaccio, two half-consumed slices later and the remains of the thing was fed to the Pig!)

But the Food Archaeology thing can work in other ways, too. I recall once leafing through the pages of Apicius, the food-writer from Imperial Rome, and coming across a recipe that was indistinguishable from the delicious tyropitas (little phyllo-wrapped cheese pies) that you can find in any village bakers across Greece even today!
And there's the frisson - the sense of direct connection with other people in other times, and the ability to identify exactly with them in eating the same foods and finding them delicious in the same way. Even despite the fact that the World around us has altered out of all recognition. It's not unlike the idea of Christian churches having been built on the sites of pre-christian temples, which in turn had been built where previously pagans had had their sacred groves - the context has changed, but the underlying experience is still the same.....

And then, I suppose, there are other aspects of Food Archaeology, too, which are rapidly and inevitably being lost in our lifetimes. The bits which don't get written down, and which will disappear along with the people who practice them. Like the little old peasant woman in the village in Greece in the seventies who was demonstrating how to make avgolemono soup; as she stirred, she whistled gently to herself, and explained that this was necessary in order to ward off the evil eye, which would otherwise make the soup curdle. As her mother had taught her to do, and her mother in turn, right back until who knows when.....

For me, it's a particularly rich thread in Life's Rich Tapestry.

Tonight's Dinner:

Lentil Soup (no whistling)

Spezzatino alla Fiorentina; Fagiolini, saut├ęd in Butter with Cinnamon and Breadcrumbs.

Panna Cotta.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a lovely article. Food for thought indeed. I do enjoy your writings enormously, thank you.