Saturday, 17 May 2008

The Spice of Life.....

I'm in the middle of Reay Tannahill's 'Food in History', a book that's been hanging around on the bookshelves for a very long time, but which has only now pushed itself to the front of the queue. The subject is fascinating, not least because the title leads one to expect a History of Food, whereas in fact what it's about is the influence that different kinds of food production over the ages have had on the diverse social and political development of mankind in the period since the end of the neolithic age. The author has a tendency to move between millenia with dizzying athleticism - within one paragraph concerned with the evolution of wine production, she skips effortlessly from the third to the first millenium B.C, and back again - and she resorts inevitably to the expedient of 'probably' happened, or 'might' have happened, or 'could' have happened, in the absence of any real evidence, rather too frequently for comfort. Not her fault, of course, since no evidence exists for the way in which the beneficial effects of the fermentation of grapes was identified, for instance, or the way that yeast could be used as a raising agent in making bread - but it does mean that she frames a lot of fundamental questions in these areas which she then has to leave dangling tantalisingly in mid-air.

One thing, though, which she does manage to communicate - almost as a by-product of her main thesis - is the stultifyingly monotonous diet that has been enjoyed by most people in all societies around the World from the end of the neolithic period, probably right up until a couple of centuries ago. What ended up on the table might have varied slightly in the course of the year, as different fruits and vegetables came into season, but essentially the fundamental elements in most peoples' diet would have remained unchanged from a few staple dishes week in, week out throughout the year, and effectively throughout their entire lives.
In our modern Marie-Antoinette tendency to eulogise the idyllic simplicity of peasant life in bygone days, a whole raft of recipe books is available these days which present a colourful tapestry of regional peasant delicacies from days of yore - the result being an idea in our minds that all of this rich and diverse culinary bounty featured regularly in said peasants' diet. Not so. Not so, then, and in many peasant communities, equally not so now. You ate what you could grow - animal or vegetable - and what that tended to be was a small number of familiar and reliable things: chickens, and a pig, on the fauna side of things, and aubergines, tomatoes and onions (for example) on the flora. The peasant housewife learned a handful of recipes at her mother's knee - and by a handful, I mean something like five or six - and that would be what she fed her family unwaveringly, repeating the same things ad infinitum over the years. Oh, and the repertoire would always include a special culinary 'turn' to be brought out on special occasions - like the 'Oeufs Mimosa' that Marcelle Pons would religiously produce on high days and holidays in St Michel par Le Caylar (where the Belfortes used to live), or the Tiramisu that has been served by the Brancolis' contadina neighbour on every single occasion - and there have been many - when they've been invited to dinner over the past fifteen years.

It was the same also in the Greek Islands, when we first lived there back in the seventies - the bulk of all food was produced locally, which meant endless dishes concocted from peppers and aubergines and tomatoes... and after several months, the prospect of yet another Greek Salad was enough to induce dreams of hamburgers, and tomato ketchup, and chips! Not quite as bad, though, as the description quoted by Reay Tannahil and originally produced by Sir Alfred Zimmern, when he said of Athenian menu-structure that it consisted of two courses: .."the first, a kind of porridge, and the second...a kind of porridge".

How wonderfully, decadently better off we are, these days, when it is perfectly normal to go an entire month - or more - without having to repeat a single dish once, and the idea of constantly introducing new recipes into the repertoire is something cooks do as a matter of course. Which naturally justifies the constant and ongoing purchase of more recipe books (yes. ..guilty!), because otherwise, we could well be confronted with a future that consists of little better than..well...a multiplicity of porridge. This weeks arrivals in the repertoire have been Farfalle with a sauce of lemon, garlic, and crushed hazelnuts, and a recipe for sole fillets stuffed with shrimp. I don't think porridge is yet threatening from too close a range...

Tonight's dinner...

Is at Moreton Terrace.

1 comment:

Toffeeapple said...

Isn't that what Gordon Ramsey is trying to do to restaurants? I've been pondering buying that book but I think I'll pass. Thank you for the review. Dinner sounds good!