This is a continuation of a previous posting, which I wrote a couple of years back. And it will cover the histories behind more popular foods which we take for granted today.
Mmm, jelly. Cold, jiggly, wobbly, sweet, wiggly, wriggly jelly! Or, as the Americans call it…Jello, which is actually a brand-name, not an actual foodstuff. But jelly it certainly is.
These days, we associate jelly with dessert, with children, with ice-cream, and with catchy little TV jingles (“I like Aeroplane Jelly, Aeroplane Jelly for me…“). But for centuries, jelly was a luxury food. Incredibly laborious and time-consuming to produce, it could only be eaten by the richest of people, during only the most special of special feasts, dinners, parties, holidays or other significant occasions in a history that dates back to medieval times.
We’re familiar with jelly as that stuff that you buy in a packet. You pour the powder into a bowl, you mix it with water, you pour the sloshy, syrupy mixture into a mold, and then chuck it in the fridge or freezer to cool and set, into pretty, jiggly shapes which are red, and green, and yellow and purple, and which look like everything from flowers to pyramids.
That’s what jelly is today. But in older times, jelly was obtained only after hours and hours and hours of extremely labour-intensive work. Jelly wasn’t simply mixed with water and chucked in a cold spot. It was boiled, and strained, and purified, in a process that would eat up almost all the hours of the day. This is why it was eaten by only the wealthiest people, who could afford the servants and the time to make it.
So how do you make jelly the old fashioned way?
To make jelly as they might’ve done back in the Middle Ages, you first required gelatin. Gelatin comes from collagen, a type of protein. And you get collagen from…
For centuries, well up to the Georgian era, the only way to make jelly was to boil the feet of pigs or cattle. In an incredibly time-consuming process, the salvaged pig’s feet would be placed in a pot of boiling water. The pig’s feet and water would be left to boil for the better part of eight or ten hours. This intense boiling extracted the gelatin from within the pigs’ feet, and mixed it with the water. Once the gelatin had been boiled out, the entire mixture had to be strained. First, it was strained to remove the pigs’ feet. Then it was strained to remove any debris. Then it was strained to remove any fat. Then it was strained to remove any impurities. And then it was strained again. And again. And again.
The repeated straining and purification removed all the impurities from the mixture so that in the end, you were left with nothing but water, and gelatin.
Left on its own in a suitably cool spot, the gelatin would eventually solidify. If you wanted flavoured jelly, then it was simply a matter of mixing in the required fruit-juices, such as lemon, lime, orange, strawberries and so-forth. These extra ingredients being added, the entire mixture was stirred up, poured into a mold, and then dunked in the cellar (or other suitably cold room) to solidify and set.
It seems easy, but when making jelly could take the better part of the entire day, and could require the efforts of at least two people (there’s a lot of water to strain!), you can understand why, for centuries, it remained a food for the wealthy. Poor people simply did not have the time, the money, or the space to dedicate, or waste, on such a frivolous dessert.
It was not until the mid-1800s, when it was discovered that you could dry out the mixture and create gelatin powder, that it was possible to sell gelatin in a convenient packet for the average consumer. All the buyer had to do was mix it with water to help the powder congeal, flavour it to his or her taste, pour the mixture into a mold, and set it. Before that was possible, hardcore boiling and tiresome straining and purifying was the only way to make jelly.
Oooh, we all love sausages. Beef, pork, chicken, lamb…delicious!
These days, sausages are made out of synthetic casings, although there is a significant number of sausage-makers and butcheries, which are manufacturing sausages the old-fashioned way.
We love sausages. Convenient, easy to cook, easy to hold, easy to store and easy to hang up on a peg. We even have gourmet sausages stuffed with herbs and spices and cheese. But the origin of the sausage is far from gourmet.
Imagine a cow, or sheep, or chicken, or a pig. You’ve gutted it, you’ve taken off the ham, the bacon, the ribs, the cutlets, the various cuts of steak, the wings, the legs, the breasts, and everything really worth eating. What did you do with the rest? The carcass that’s left over?
Bones might be used to boil up for soup. Feathers, wool or fur might be removed for clothing. But there’s still the leftover carcass and the organs and innards that nobody wants. Now what?
If you lived in older times, you certainly did not throw it out. Catching and killing animals was hard work, and cooks were encouraged to cook and eat every single part of an animal which was worth eating…even the organs. Or the feet (if they weren’t being saved for jelly…). Or the head. The cheeks. Anything that wasn’t already removed. The offal, basically.
But how to dress the dregs of animals so that they looked appealing?
One way to do this was to take the intestines of the animal, pump water through them, wash them clean, and then fill the intestines with ground up animal leftovers, twist them into convenient lengths…and sell that, if you were a butcher, to your unsuspecting customers, or serve it to your diners, if you were a cook. It was still meat. It was still beef. Or pork. Or chicken. Or lamb. It was just…um…’modified’.
And that’s all a sausage is.
…did I put you off of your dinner yet?
In older times, all the leftovers from a dead animal were diced, sliced and minced up. Then, these animal unmentionables were pumped into the cleaned out intestines of the animal in question. The big long sausage was twisted around, every few inches, to make sausages of convenient lengths, and then the whole thing was cooked up.
Some butchers still make sausages like that today, although most cheaper sausages use edible plastic or synthetic sausage-skins instead. But it is, nonetheless, how it was done.
Pies…Cake is the lie
Mmm. We like pies. Chicken pie, beef pie, steak and kidney, apple, blueberry, custard-cream…sweet, savory, spicy, simple, splendid. We love pies!
One of the reasons we love pies is because they’re fun to make. We love creating pretty, patterned crusts, with cris-crossing strips, vents held open by pie-birds, pastry-leaves, and pretty, rippling, wavering sides.
A pie-bird. These painted clay birdies are stuck into the middle of pies to stop the pie-crusts from sagging during baking, and to provide a vent for steam to escape
But for all the effort, we know that before long, the crust and sides will be broken up, carved up, and devoured. And all our efforts will be dashed in a flurry of gravy, cream, sugar and crumbs.
But our love-affair with pies is only the end of a very long journey.
With pies, cakes and tarts, comes an interesting history.
For a long time, pies were not even baked at home. We have a romantic image of pies cooling on the window-sill after they’ve been baked, the wonderful smells wafting around the neighbourhood. Which they may well have done; but it’s a rather modern thing.
For centuries, pies were never baked at home. Until the introduction of the range stove in the 1700s, it was well outside the ability of the ordinary man or woman to do his own baking at home. Most homes did not have ovens. They had fireplaces. Fireplaces are great for roasting meat, for cooking stews, boiling soup and providing heat and warmth, but they’re impossible for baking on. The smoke and flames and soot from the fire would destroy the pie, and the constantly wavering heat from the flames meant that the pie wouldn’t bake properly, anyway.
For a long time, pies were actually sent out to the nearest bakery to be baked. Here, the village baker would bake your pies for you. You dropped them off, and he marked the top of your pie in a manner that made it stand out (so you knew which one was yours, to differentiate it from the dozens of other pies in town!). He baked it, and then you came back later and picked it up.
The nursery-rhyme ‘Pat-a-Cake‘ recalls this era of history:
Bake me a cake as fast as you can,
Prick it, and poke it, and mark it with a B,
And put it in the oven, for baby and me!”
In the rhyme, just like in real life, a cake or pie was marked (‘with a B’, in this case), to differentiate Baby’s cake, or pie, from all the others in town, which were being baked at the same time, in the communal oven.
But before you even baked the pie, you had to put something into it. Filling! Back in medieval times, pie-fillings were a little more creative than what they are today. Two of the most common filling-choices gave us two of the most lasting, pie-related nuggets from history.
Before people got the idea of grinding up animal-guts and turning them into sausages, animal entrails were chopped up, boiled, and stuffed into a pie-casing. This pie was baked in an oven, and then served to the peasantry, low-ranking servants, and paupers. Entrails and guts and organs were called “umbles”. Serving “umble pie” to the poor gave the peasantry a constant reminder (as if they ever needed one!) that they were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, because all they could eat was…’Umble Pie”, or “humble pie”, as it eventually became to be called.
These days, we’re used to separating sweet from savoury. You’d hardly have a beef and custard pie, would you?
Believe it or not, but in medieval times, pies that mixed sweet with meat, were pretty common! Beef would be mixed with raisins and dates and prunes, and baked together in a pie. This wasn’t necessarily because people liked it…but rather because it was one of the few ways that people had, to stop food going stale!
The natural sugars found in fruit were used as a preservative to prevent the meat from going rotten. And often, fruit and meat were baked together, for this purpose.
These days, we don’t bake our meat and fruit together in a pie anymore. But we do have a leftover from that period – the Christmas “mince pie”. There isn’t any beef mince in these pies, but they’re called mince pies because they were originally made with meat, with the fruit acting as a preservative. Over time, the beef was removed, giving us a simple fruit ‘mince’ pie, the kind we know today.
No, not shotgun-shells or bullet-casings…pie-casings!
The tradition of eating a pie, sweet, savoury, or a mix of the two, together with the crunchy pastry crust and casing, is actually a pretty modern development.
For much of history, when a pie was eaten, the pastry lid was removed, the contents (today, the fillings) eaten, and then the pie-casing (and the lid) was put back in the kitchen to be reused!…Again…and again…and again! For as long as the crust and casing remained fresh.
Why bother using the crust and casing when you have a pie-dish, though?
You have to understand a couple of things here…
This is a time before widespread refrigeration. Meat had to be cooked and eaten within 48 hours of being purchased fresh from the local market. There was nowhere to store it for longer than overnight without it going stale (unless you froze it, smoked it, or salted it).
To prevent meat going bad, cooks would bake it in a pie. And cooking the meat meant that it lasted longer and you could eat it, of course!
But why save the pie-crusts?
Until relatively recently, flour, the main ingredient in pie-casings, was an expensive commodity. Very expensive. In medieval times, the only way most people could get flour was to grow their own wheat, thresh their own grain, winnow their own wheatgrain, and then grind it by hand, or grind it at the mill owned by the local landlord (for which the peasantry had to pay taxes to use!). Even in later times, flour was expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to eat the fine, sifted, refined white flour which we love so much today. This was because the extra effort required to refine it made it more expensive.
The result? Most people couldn’t afford enough flour to bake a pie for every day of the week. You’d use up your flour to bake your pie and the meat inside. Then you’d use the same pie-crust over and over and over again until it started going bad, before eating it on the last night of the week. This was to make your flour last for as long as possible.
And the pie-crusts of older times are a lot different to the ones made today. Most people would complain…loudly…if you served them a pie with a crust that was too thick, since it would be impossible to crunch into, or get a fork or knife through. In the days of serfdom and lords, pie-crusts could be upwards of an inch or two in thickness! This was so that they would last through the repeated bakings without burning and charring in the oven.
Not for nothing is bread nicknamed “the staff of life”. For centuries, millenia even, all over the world, mankind has survived on bread of some variety. Whitebread, wholemeal, mixed-grain, sourdough, rice-bread, cornbread, pita-bread…the list is almost endless. But what is the history of bread?
The origins of bread go back to the dawn of civilization. And its importance is just as up-there as its history. Hell, the Romans even created a whole ROOM just for bread. Ever wondered why your kitchen has a ‘pantry’? It comes from the Latin word ‘Panna’ or…bread. A ‘pantry’ was the room in which bread, a staple of life, was stored. But here’s a few things you may not know about bread…
The Upper Crust
The “upper crust” is a common expression meaning those of a higher social status, up there in the upper-class economic group. But have you ever wondered where the term ‘upper crust’ came from?
Before the first modern stoves were invented in the Western world (Ca. 1700), baking bread was a hot, dangerous and ashy affair. Here’s how it was done…
The dome-shaped bread oven was filled with wood, which was then set on fire. The oven door was left open and the huge fire inside the oven was allowed to burn for hours, until it finally burnt out. Once the fire was out, the baker had the unenviable task of raking out the hot ash, charcoal and cinders, and shoving in dozens of loaves of bread at a time, using those big, wooden baking-paddles (so he didn’t burn his hands).
Burning a fire in the oven, and letting it burn down to ash made the brick (or stone) inside the oven extremely hot. And it’s this heat, and not the heat from the fire, which actually bakes the bread. Once the bread was shoved in as quickly as possible, the oven door was shoved on, and extra bread-dough was stuffed around the edges of the door. This had the double-job of sealing in the heat, but also acting as an oven-timer. You could tell when the bread inside was baked by checking whether or not the dough on the door was also baked.
When the bread was baked, the door was ripped off, and the bread hauled out on paddles again.
Everything about baking bread relied on speed. It took so long to build, light and burn down the fire that bakers wanted to get the ash out of there, and the bread in there, as fast as possible. The result is that there was always a thin layer of ash on the oven-base. And during baking, this ash and soot would stick to the bottom of the loaves of bread. Eugh!
Picky rich people who wanted the best bread, would slice the loaves horizontally instead of vertically, so that the burnt, sooty bottom crust of the bread was given to the poor – the paupers, beggars and lepers, while they…the rich…kept the crunchy, soft, soot-free…upper-crust…for themselves!
Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree…
Anyone who’s ever baked bread at home will know that one of the most frustrating things is the wait while the dough rises. After the bread-dough has been mixed and kneaded, it’s necessary to leave it alone so that the yeast inside the dough can expand and let off gas, which allows the dough to rise, before it can be put into the oven.
But what if you didn’t have yeast, one of the key ingredients in breadmaking?
If you don’t have yeast, you could do what medieval bakers used to do. Take the bread out into the back yard, or nearest available orchard, find a suitable apple tree, and stick the yet-to-rise bread-dough underneath it! And let nature take its course, as they say.
Yes. This actually works. And it works because apples, which grow on apple trees (see, you learn something reading this blog…), are full of yeast. And apples on the ground, rotting off, let off yeast fumes, which will help your flaccid loaf to fluff into life before its date with destiny. The yeast in the apples is the same reason why it’s possible to make alcoholic apple cider; yeast is also a key ingredient in beer!
Hungry for More?
The “If Walls Could Talk” documentary episode “The Kitchen”, and the documentary “Tudor Feast” will supply you with some tasty information.