Turks Head anyone?

Turks Head

The Turks Head was a culinary joke of the Middle Ages in Western Europe which had a distinctly dark origin.  The classic Turks Head is a game pie with pistachio nuts, dates, sugar and spices indicating its origins in the Arabic world.  Very similar to the modern pigeon pie of Morocco; the Pastilla.  It is likely that the dish came to Western Europe during the Crusades.

The Turks Head gains its name from the habit of decorating the pie with the head of a Saracen.  It was normal practice to decorate a pie with an image of the animal used to make the pie, and using a human head is intentionaly shocking.

One suggested origin of the pie is the apocryphal tale of Richard Lionheart at Acre.  After feasting on a pie he asked the cooks to show him the “Head and Feet” of the animal (a tradition recorded all the way back to ancient Persia by Herodotus when King Astyages fed his General Harpagus is own son).

The cooks brought Richard the head of a Saracen slain in the siege.  Instead of being offended the Lionheart guffawed that his soldiers would not go hungry with such a good supply of meat available.

Making light of cannibalism in Outremer (the Crusader Kingdoms) goes back all the way to the first Crusade and the fall of Maarat in Syria on December 12th.  The crusaders besieged the town in November and on December 11th they took the walls.  Breaking into the city they found it had been cleaned out of any food by the inhabitants.  The starving crusaders then resorted to cannibalism.

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Nixtamalisation

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The process of nixtamalization is one of my favourite cooking stories from history.  It is a sophisticated process involving empirical chemistry to convert maize from useless bulk into a nutritional food.

The nixtamalization process was vital to the early Mesoamerican diet.  Unprocessed maize is deficient in vitamin B3; niacin. A population that depends on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra, niacin deficiency, or kwashiorkor, the absence of certain amino acids that maize is deficient in.

To unlock the niacin you must cook the maize in a solution containing lime, and ideally calcium.   This can be done by adding lye (wood fire ash) to the kernels during boiling or by the addition of lime as a slaked rock.

Nextamalli is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the processed grain – also called Hominy which comes from the Algonquin word uskatahomen.

The spread of maize cultivation in the Americas was accompanied by the adoption of the nixtamalization process.

How this process developed may be understood by looking at cooking in Ancient Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish did not need the process.  If you look at the cooking arrangement in the photo above you will see what is called a Fulacht Fiadh.  In bronze age Ireland people did not have good cooking pots.  If you are really careful it is possible to boil a stew in a bark container or an anmial skin, but it’s not easy.

The Irish used a cooking pit.  The pit was lined with timber to prevent the sides from collapsing into a muddy hole.  It was filled with water.  Then a fire was built in the hearth and limestone rocks were placed on the fire.  When they heated up the “cooks” used large wooden paddles to lift  or roll the hot rocks and place them in the pit, which caused the water to boil and the meal to cook.

Using the same process in South America the locals found that the combination of slaked lime stone, and the wood ash from the fire had a magical effect on the maize.  It converted maize from a vegetable into a staple food that gave almost everything you needed to live.  Add a few beans, potato, tomato, chile and you have a feast.

When Europeans discovered maize in the new world, and saw how it formed a staple food, they brought it home and used it as a food in their colonies, especially in Africa and India.  But they didn’t know about nixtamalization and famine soon followed.  To this day pellagra remains a problem in some parts of the world where the grain spread without the process.  South Africa, Egypt and Southern India still see problems.

The British attempted to feed the Irish with maize during the potato famine.  Robert Peel imported Indian Corn from America and had it distributed at cost price.  Most people could not afford it and those that could were appalled by the garish yellow rock hard grain that was unfit to make bread.  They labelled it “Peel’s Brimstone” and many thought it was a plot to poison them.  They had no idea how to cook the food.  Those who persisted and boiled it down to a tasteless porridge were not feeding themselves in any case, because they had no niacin.

 

Sloe time

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In cold November weather when the first frost strikes you wrap up in winter woolies and harvest the sloes.  You have been walking by them on your country rambles and you know where the best cropping bushes are.

Plump black fruts of the Blackthorn which pricks a fair few fingers as you pick.  Prunus spinosa, the thorny plum, the fruit is smaller than a damson, far more bitter and the most astringent thing you can think of.  A sample bite will dry out your mouth, like tanin on speed.

The frost helps sweeten the fruit slightly, but if you delay picking the creatures of the field and stream will beat you to the punch.

Back home in the warm kitchen you prick the fruits with a fork and toss them in a kilner jar.  Douse them in sugar and give them a few days for the sugar to leach the juice from the berries.  When you have a jar of fine pink coloured sugar you can top up the jar with vodka or gin and seal it.  Store in a cool, dark, dry place for as long as you can bear.

The result is sloe gin.

 

 

Sloe Gin; by Seamus Heaney

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.

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Sushi LVI

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Sevens are powerful.  Seven is the building block of the calendar, the week has seven days.

There were seven wonders of the ancient world.  The seventh son of a seventh son has the healing hands in Ireland, becomes a vampire in Romania.  Seven virtues and seven sins.  Highly effective people have seven habits.  Seven is the most significant number in the septet of Harry Potter books.

Multiple sevens birthdays are important and I celebrate one today.

My wife decided to make sushi for the first time ever and the result is delicious.  It is also extremely pretty.  I have never made sushi and I love it, and Louise is a vegetarian so on all levels I am impressed.  But then she is a great cook as my waistline can attest to.

Take more exercise you say!  I heard the best quote today “You can’t outrun a bad diet”.  Exercise is great for your heart, it reduces cancer risk, it reduces risk of dementia, it makes you feel good both physically and mentally, but the sad truth is it does almost nothing to make you lose weight.  The way to lose weight is eat less.

But today is my birthday and its my party, I’ll eat if I want to.

Now I remember this song so well.  It came out the year I was born.

Since you asked…

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It tastes of the warmth of a turf fire on a cold winters night.

It tastes like a draught from a deep cold well on a hot summers day.

It tastes like a fair wind in the face in a good running sea.

It tastes like a strong winded stallion leaping a hedge.

It tastes like a fine salmon taking the fly in a stream.

It tastes of the air you breathe when you reach a mountain top.

It tastes like the smell of a peacefully sleeping child.

It tastes of a job well done, a match well won,

a race well run

and of home,

and that special someone.

Bank Holiday Sunday Morning

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Sitting here in the kitchen on a sunny Sunday morning of a Bank Holiday and I am wandering the wide spaces of the world with deft strokes of my fingertips.

And here I found Billy Collins, the Irish-American poet with a poem about Irish-Dutch cows, if they are Holsteins, or Dutch-Irish cows if Friesians, or they could be a US bred strain of Holstein-Friesians imported back into Ireland.  He didn’t say.

Cows it seems are not like people.  We bring in a Friesian, or a Limousin, a Belgian Blue or a Scottish Angus.  We set it on the land and it eats the green grass of Ireland and magically becomes an Irish steer, an Irish Bull, or an Irish Cow.

We don’t point at it in the field and shout “Go back to Hungary”, or “We don’t want your type of cattle round here”.

Ireland is sometimes personified as a cow.  In his lament for Thomas McDonagh, Francis Ledwidge uses this analogy very powerfully.  And of course the greatest ancient epic in Ireland, central to the tales of Cúchulainn and the Cycle of Tales of the Knights of the Red Branch is the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Afternoon with Irish Cows

 

Industrial landscape or green island?

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If you look really carefully at the skyline in the photo above you will see a line of electricity generating windmills.  In the field are dairy cattle and on the gate is a warning  about a bull and electric fencing.  All these elements got me thinking about the environment.  But don’t believe a word of what I say – the “Beware of the bull” warning applies to my posts too.

I hear a lot of people complaining about windmills in the countryside, and how they are ugly things, and how they ruin the landscape and how they kill birds etc etc etc.  These are the kind of people who look into this field and see nature.  Then they go to the shops and feel very morally superior when they drink soy instead of milk.

I look at this landscape and what I see is a factory.  The field is not natural, it is a creation of man.  The cows are not natural, again we created them through breeding.  There may be a bull in the field but I guarantee he is only servicing the cows that missed out impregnation with the top quality AI sperm.

The windmills in the distance are no less “natural” than any other element in the picture.  The countryside is a factory, a unit of production, an industrial landscape.

There is a balance to be struck.  Hardline vegans say that the dairy industry is engaged in the rape of cows and the forcible kidnapping of their calves.  It is emotive language.  At the extreme conclusion of their philosophy we plant a fraction of the currently farmed land with vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses and the remainder becomes rewilded.  This is a dystopian horror future for farmers.  More importantly for the nation it results in the depopulation of the rural countryside.  If you want a vibrant rural economy there must be jobs.

We have already seen the conclusion of the extreme commercial approach to farming.  Cows so heavy with milk they cannot walk anymore, riddled with infections which are controlled by massive amount of antibiotics.  Meat animals in cramped conditions where diseases are controlled by antibiotics and where hormones are used to accelerate growth.  Widespread use of insectisides, weedkillers and fertilisers that are undoubtedly harming the environment and killing off pollinators.  Destruction of biodiversity in favour of commerical monoculture.

Funilly enough the result of both extremes – High intensity automated commercial farming at one end, and a rewilded vegan world at the other, is rural depopulation.

I believe Ireland can and should lead the world as a Green Food Island.  A place where the most environmentally positive farming practices are the minimum standard.  A place with a reputation for compassion in husbandry.  A country that keeps people in the countryside by valuing less profitable family size farms that provide employment on the land.  And keeps people in the countryside by rewarding the situation of production in the rural infrastructure.

That is a vision of a world in balance.