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August 16, 2010

Delving into the origins of the food we cook

Food Archaeology is quite a different thing from Food History. Although interesting in its own right, the latter lacks the dimension of discovery that gives to Food Archaeology its particular frisson. Food History is about facts: terrines and smoked meats and sausages having developed as methods of preserving food for consumption during long, barren winter months, for example – or the fact that the ancient Greeks used sylphium (now disappeared, I think) to flavour food that was probably past its best. Or the small detail that the arrival in Europe of tomatoes from South America shortly after 1492 radically altered the profiles of half a dozen national european cuisines within a lifetime or so……All of these things are interesting, valid, and factually correct – but , when all’s said and done, a little two-dimensional.

Food Archaeology, on the other hand, is about discovery and about identifying relationships and connections – and in being so has a richness and a satisfying relevance for us today. What do I mean by it? Well, I suppose it has a number of aspects…..

In part, it’s about worrying away at recipes to see where they’ve come from. Over time – long generations – recipes are repeatedly adapted and altered and revised to meet changing circumstances, such as the availability of particular ingredients, or the fact that people have moved on from using the communal oven at the village bakers to having a fully-equipped kitchen of their own. Often, some of the ingredients that have survived will be a clue to the great age of a particular recipe: the presence of honey, for example, usually indicates an origin at least before the general availability of refined sugar; or else certain spices in savoury dishes such as cloves or cinnamon will suggest a late-medieval provenance. The combination of particular ingredients is a sure sign of substitution having taken place at some point: whenever you find lemons and oranges in the same recipe, for example, you can be confident that the original version was for bitter oranges alone, and that the!

lemons have been introduced to offset the sweetness of the newer versions of orange that subsequently became prevalent in the market. And, then again, there are certain ingredients which have now somehow achieved ‘premium’ status on the grocers’ shelves, but which were originally born of the direst necessity and poverty – pine-nuts, for example, and chestnut flour, both of which directly relate back to people’s desperate

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