The Daily Grind: The Humble Help of the Mortar and Pestle

I wanted to post this last year, but I ran out of time, what with end-of-year things and all that stuff going on. So…anyway, this is my first official post for 2016!! Happy reading, folks!

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Name one thing made by the hands of man, which has been in existence since prehistoric times, and which is still in use today.

Stone tools? Cave-paintings? Leopard-skin cloaks? Fred Flinstone’s sedan?

Betcha didn’t come up with a thing, didja? Betcha thought there wasn’t anything, huh? Huh? HUH??

Well…you’d be…wrong.

Because there is one thing. One tool. One implement. One device, made by the hands of man, which, in over three thousand years, has barely changed its shape, and which to this day, is still widely used by millions of people around the world, and which is still being manufactured, purchased, sold, and even by some people – collected!

You probably have a set of it right now, in your kitchen.

The humble mortar and pestle.

What is a Mortar and Pestle?

A mortar and pestle, or a pestle and mortar, is a stick or club (pestle, from the Latin ‘pinsere’: ‘to crush’), and a bowl or cup (the mortar), which are used jointly to crush, powderise, pound, compound, liquefy, mix and combine whatever is put inside the mortar. These humble tools have had countless uses throughout thousands of centuries, and their use continues right into the modern period.

The First Mortars and Pestles

The first textual mention of a mortar and pestle dates back to around 1500B.C, but their existence goes all the way into prehistory. for hundreds if not thousands of years. As a result, they’re probably unique in being one of the few inventions of early man which can truly have been said to have stood the test of time!

Mortars and pestles have always been used for the same variety of tasks – their simplicity and ease of use is why they’ve lasted so long – but while they’re mostly used in the kitchen these days, they weren’t always viewed as food-preparation tools.

The Pharmaceutical Mortar and Pestle

For several hundred years, the mortar and pestle were actually the center of the pharmaceutical trade, and any pharmacy or apothecary was bound to have one. Herbalists, druggists, pharmacists and apothecaries (who all basically dealt in the same region of manufacturing and selling medicines and curatives), were the chief users of mortars and pestles for untold centuries, to the extent that a mortar and pestle became the iconic tool of the pharmacist, much like how the mortarboard cap is linked to study and education, or how the striped red and white pole is the icon of barbers the world-over.

The word ‘drug’ comes from the Dutch word ‘droog’, meaning dried plant-matter. Originally, herbalists or apothecaries had to go out and scavenge their ingredients for cures themselves. Having gathered the necessary plants, they then had to prepare them for use. Crushing, grinding, mashing, mixing and pulverising the plants in various ways was the best method to extract the juices, saps, nectars and other innards, which contained the active ingredients which went into the medicines that the apothecary would then prescribe to his patients or customers for curing their ills.

And he or she couldn’t dispense a single teaspoon of willow-bark powder (for treating headaches), or crushed nettles (for treating bruises and bumps), without first having processed them with their trusty mortar and pestle!

The Mortar and Pestle in the Kitchen

Although historically, it was most famously used by apothecaries and pharmacists, the mortar and pestle were also used extensively in kitchens. Ancient Greeks and Romans all made use of them in one way or another, for preparing food. It’s one kitchen gadget that went in and never came out again! Most of the people reading this probably have a mortar and pestle sitting on their kitchen counter right now, even if it’s only for display purposes.

Mortars and pestles were essential in ancient kitchens – in an age before food-processors and blenders, your mortar and pestle was your food processor. Sauces, pastes, purees, jams, secret spice-blends, and even the grinding of spices themselves, were all done by dumping the ingredients into a mortar and pestle and mashing and smashing the ingredients to a pulp. To this day, you can still go to the supermarket and buy basil or sun-dried tomato ‘pesto’, which gets its name from how it was originally produced – by being ground up in a mortar with a…pestle.

Mortar Materials

Mortars and pestles are designed to mix, crush, grind and pulverise. As a result, they have to be made of very tough materials! It can’t be anything that will flake off, chip, crack, shatter or break from the constant pounding, grinding, smashing and scraping. The materials which the mortar and pestle are made of have to be easily cleaned, and they cannot absorb the essence of what they’re grinding. This would impart conflicting tastes (in cooking), or contaminate medicines (if grinding herbs for medicinal uses), which would be unpleasant, or even deadly!

With this in mind, a mortar and its accompanying pestle couldn’t just be made out of ANYTHING! The material used to manufacture them had to be strong, inert, heavy, and not susceptible to imparting anything within it to the materials being ground up inside it. Early mortars and pestles were made out of stone, or specially-fired types of clay or ceramics. When mankind attained sufficient skill, mortars and pestles were also made out of first bronze, and then brass. Bronze and brass mortars and pestles could be cast and made to a very high quality. On top of that, both metals were very strong, and neither could emit a spark – very useful, when you consider that one of their chief operators were the people who made gunpowder! These days, mortars are also made of steel, wood, and even specially-manufactured toughened glass.

The Modern Mortar and Pestle

Mortars and pestles became less and less common in its traditional pharmaceutical setting as the 19th century progressed. The rise of mass-production, and the ability of companies to mass-produce pills, lotions, potions and tablets meant that it was no longer necessary for a pharmacist to grind up your medicines for you on-site. By the 20th century, the practice was coming to an end.

Although sometimes still used in scientific laboratories for crushing ingredients used in experiments, the place that you’re most likely to find a mortar and pestle these days is in your kitchen, where many people still use them for crushing herbs, grinding spices, preparing sauces and relishes, and for mixing ingredients. Slower than using a food-processor, perhaps, but it saves power, it burns calories…and hey…it’s lots of fun smashing stuff up in a mortar! Just make sure you do it right, and don’t send stuff flying around the room!

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