The Humble Herring

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I have to admit I was never a great fan of herring.  It’s those tiny pesky bones you get in small fish that annoyed me.  We had fresh herring regularly when I was a kid.  That was back in the days when eating fish on Friday was de-rigeur for Catholic families.

Herring was cheap.  So was Whiting, Mackerel and Cods Roe.  As a kid, at the elbow of my mother when she was shopping, you picked these things up.  So knowing it was cheap probably reduced its desirability in my young mind.

But more to the point, my mother would pan fry herrings or grill them and what made Friday special was deep fried fish and chips.  My favourite was deep fried smoked cod.

But herring was an engine of the Industrial Revolution, and in the time before we figured out canning it was one of the most important foods for armies.  So important that there was a Battle of the Herrings fought, on this day, in 1429.  During the Siege of Órleans a supply column was successfully defended from attack at the town of Rouvray to protect the vital supply of food to the English forces.

The English protector of the herrings was none other than Sir John Falstaff, made famous by the plays of Shakespeare.

Herrings were abundantly available in Northern Europe.  Until the modern era and the arrival of the Factory Trawler it seemed that they would never run short.  Herring stocks recover very quickly as they are a fast breeding fish.  The vast shoals were followed and harvested by great fleets of small fishing boats.  Fishermen derived their living from the abundance of this one fish.  Entire communities were engaged in the processing and preservation of the catch.

The fresh fish is still prized in Baltic countries where it is dipped in chopped onions and downed with a shot of aquavit or vodka.

But it is the fact that you can preserve the little oily fish easily that made them the staple of the working class populations.  First farm labourers, then soldiers and eventually poor industrial town populations relied heavily on this cheap and easily replenshed source of protein.

You can simply fillet them and salt them and store them in barrels.  That is probably what the English were defending at the battle of the herrings.  But you can also use a wide variety of other preservation techniques.  Pickling, fermenting and smoking of some variety turn into hundreds of local variants when you carry out some research.

So popular a fish it is of course celebrated in poem and song.  Here is the Clancy Brothers version of the highly popular “Shoals of Herring”

 

Shoals of Herring

Dry Crusaders

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January 16th 1920, 100 years ago today, was the last day on which you could legally get an alcoholic drink in the USA for 13 years.  Prohibition was enacted and America went dry….. dry-ish.

As we now know prohibition serves as a signal example of why you don’t ban things.  Alcohol production, distribution and sale was taken over by newly created organised criminal gangs.  Fortunes were made by criminals.  And yet we continue to ban drugs, wage war on them and treat drug addicts as criminals instead of a healthcare issue.  Can we not learn from prohibition and decriminalise drugs?

What is little known is that prohibition was successful because of World War 1.  With the USA participating in the final stages of the war Germany became the enemy.  Most of the breweries in the USA were run by German-Americans.  Before the war they were well regarded and well funded to defend the rights of access to alcohol.  By the end of the war it was not popularly acceptable to side with “the enemy” and the brewers lost much of their political clout.  This gave the temperance movements sufficient weight to push the dry agenda all the way into the constitution and make it a federal issue.

 

The Workmans Friend; by Flann O’Brien

When things go wrong and will not come right
though you do the best you can,
when life looks black as the hour of night
a pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
and your horse has also ran,
when all you have is a heap of debt
a pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange
and your face is pale and wan,
when doctors say you need a change
a pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
and no rashers grease your pan,
when hunger grows as your meals are rare
a pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife
you have still got a darling plan,
you still can turn to a brighter life
a pint of plain is your only man.

Strange Facts About Americans During Prohibition

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.