Thursday, 6 November 2008

De Factoid the Thirteenth: Sarnie-rhotica

In this De Factoid we move back from the bottle to something thankfully more absorbent and join the rank and file of the sarnie-army in appreciation, and investigation, of the sandwich.

Sandwich as a word was used as a place name before its more common (and edible) usage: that of the town of Sandwich in Kent, South-East England. The latter part of the name -wich comes from the Anglo-Saxon meaning either ‘dwelling’ or ‘stream’ depending on context. Elsewhere in the country (particularly the four –wich’s of Chester: Middlewich, Nantwich, Norwich and Leftwich; and Droitwich in Worcestershire) –wich refers to a spring of salt-water. This may well be the probable meaning of the –wich of Sandwich as the town, though now two miles from the sea, was once a busy sea-side port (which may also go a fair way to explaining the Sand- element of the name) – important enough to be included as one of the five Cinque Ports (from Anglo-Norman i.e. ‘the French spoken in England after the conquest’, meaning ‘five’) given the task of maintaining ships for the Crown. During the year 1255 AD the port of Sandwich saw the arrival of the first elephant to the island (a gift from the French) since the departure of the Romans in 410 AD (there had been one before – the war elephant of Emperor Claudius brought to Colchester during the invasion of the island in 43AD) and had served – in 1216 AD – as the landing point for the forces of Prince Louis of France, who fought against King John in the Baron Wars. Queen Elizabeth I granted Dutch refugees the right to settle near Sandwich in 1560: bringing with them the techniques of market gardening that provided Britain with its first batch of home-grown celery (see De Factoid the Eleventh for other veggies); and Dutch building techniques that can still be seen in the many windmills all over Kent. Another word for ‘dwelling’ in Anglo-Saxon – ham (from where we get the word ‘home’ by the same process that saw stan become ‘stone’ and ban become ‘bone’: think Birmingham, Cheltenham, Wrexham, Rotherham and the word hamlet, ‘small town’) – gives its name to the nearby village of Ham. Though of no major historical significance, the hamlet does provide the nearby village of Worth with a road sign reading: ‘Ham / Sandwich’...

The sandwich-as-food takes its name, not from the place, but from the supposed inventor of the layered food: John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792) – also after whom Captain Cook named The Sandwich Isles, later renamed Hawaii. Hawaii is another ‘homeland’ name, this time from Proto-Polynesian (see De Factoid the Ninth for a meatier description of its European brother) with cognates (i.e. ‘words of similar meaning’ from Latin cognātus – through Greek – meaning ‘descended from common ancestors’: see nate in De Factoid the Eleventh) in Māori, Hawaiki and Samoan, Savai‘i. Montagu was responsible for a large proportion of the funding required for Cook’s Pacific exploration (reflected in the Captain’s island-naming exercise) and was both Post-Master General and Lord of the Admiralty during his working life. The tale accrediting the sandwich to Montagu claims he (as a supposed gambling addict) invented the food so he could eat meat at the card-table whilst keeping his playing cards (and gambling hands) grease free. Though no doubt a useful application, the bread slices and filling probably gained the name of the earldom as a token of credibility: as upper-class tastes swayed toward a dish more commonly associated with the hungry lower-classes.

And dish, indeed, it was. Bread has always been a popular stomach-filler for the English poor (see De Factoid the Fourth); and though sandwiches existed in other cultures (Hillel the Elder – a famous Jewish Rabbi: meaning ‘my teacher’ i.e. spiritual leader – was wrapping lamb in bread as early as the 1st century BC), the first widespread usage of bread at mealtime (in a form even close to the sandwich) came with the medieval trenchers (from Latin truncare, ‘lop’, ‘cut off’: think truncated, from where we get the word trench): thick slices of bread used as dishes – to be eaten by the diner, given to the poor or discarded. This trend also hailed the invention of the Yorkshire pudding, used originally to catch the juices and fat of roasting meat, then eaten either as a side-dish or fed to children. Both trencher and pudding as words have roots in Old French and/or Latin (the latter from Old French boudin: as in the Boudins Noirs, ‘black pudding’ of De Factoid the Third) suggesting that the sandwich may originate from the Mediterranean in form, if not in name. But the foody-word sandwich is but one potential label for the dish, which changes with region and accent as frequently as filling.

One name already mentioned – sarnie – is the result of both a shortening and mutation of the longer word sandwich. The /r/ of sarnie is a product of what is technically referred to as a rhotic accent (taking its name from the equivalent of the Greek letter ‘r’ pronounced ‘rho’): prominent in the South-West and North-West of England (and due possibly to the longer lasting Celtic language influences still heard in the long Welsh and Cornish ‘rrr’) which puts an /r/ into words like khaki (rhotic pronunciation: ‘karki’): the dusty uniform colour of British Empire soldiers – from Urdu khaki, ‘dusty’; the /r/ into sandwich to sound closer to ‘sarn-widge’; and the “champagne supernova[r]” in the sky of Oasis’ hit song. Sarnie’s wide-spread usage seemed to have come from the Liverpudlian (i.e. Liverpool resident’s) usage – entering major London newspapers as a buzz-word during the 1960’s when the Merseybeat music phenomenon and its champion The Beatles were in the height of their power and linguistic influence (think: “I saw[r] a film today, oh boy” in A Day in the Life on the fantastically named album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967). A similar word for sandwich – the non-rhotic, sannie – occurs in certain places around the world: used notably by (majority non-rhotic) Australians (who also use the word sanga and sammie - to name but a few variants) in a simple shortening trend that also turned ‘sun-glasses’ into sunnies and ‘barbeque’ into the world-famous Aussie, barbie. Another sandwich word found in the mouths of hungry Scousers (see De Factoid the Fourth for the origin of scouse) is buttie, which one has found (excluding the Liverpudlian trend of calling the old red-and-white police cars, jam butties) to have several possible sources of origin.

Butty as a sandwich-word is ultimately of unknown origin, but may be a shortening of the longer Latin word butyric (which gives us the English word butter and the seldom used word butyraceous: described in dictionaries as ‘resembling butter in form, substance or property’) meaning ‘to butter’. Another possible origin of the word is found in the ‘cut-piece’ idea mentioned earlier in the trencher word, as a diminutive (i.e. ‘little’ from Latin dīminuere: think ‘diminished’) version of Old English butt/bytt and/or Old Norse, butr meaning ‘a small piece/strip’, initially referring to land. Such embankments were used by the French to hold targets for archery practice (in a similar ‘landed’ meaning in French from where American-English gets the word butte, ‘isolated hill/ peak’): hence to be the butt (i.e. ‘target’) of a joke. The idea of ‘striking’ is also remembered in the head-butt (though perhaps not by the person on the receiving end…) and the thrust of a supporting buttress (though this word, with an Anglo-Latin root, may be more of an associated meaning). Another sandwich-word found predominantly in the Newcastle area – the Geordie (possibly from their support of King George II in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745; or from the George Stephenson ‘Geordie’ Safety Lamp, used by miners in the North-East) word stotty/ stottie is supposed to take its name from the Geordie-English verb ‘to stott’ (i.e. ‘to bounce’). It is probably more likely though that ‘to stott’ playfully took its name from the occasionally hard nature of the stotty-cake, which itself is likely to be related to the Old English steort: another word for ‘tail/ tongue of land’ – supporting the idea that a butty may well have started as a piece of land before it became a piece (or rather two pieces) of bread. Other butts can be found through the Middle Dutch bot, ‘stumpy’, from where we get the fish names halibut and turbot and a possible influence on the Old English word buttuc, ‘the thicker end piece’ (also originally ‘of land’) which gave English the modern word buttock.

Another usage for the word butty familiar to anyone using a Geordie lamp is found in the mining industry: referring to the ‘middle-man’ in a chain. The word itself was used earlier to mean ‘confederate’, ‘partner’ or ‘mate’ and is thought to be an adaptation of booty-mate – using ‘booty’ in the sense of ‘stolen wealth’, from Old French butin (and possibly though Old Norse býta, ‘to deal out’, ‘exchange’). Booty in its American usage (referring to the buttocks – usually of a woman) is most likely to be of imported African origin – possibly as an adaptation the Bantu (Middle and lower Africa) word bunda: though refers to the whole body, rather than just the bottom end. Bottom as a word comes from the Anglo-Saxon boþm, referring firstly to the bottom of a valley (hence the true meaning of amusing place names like Ramsbottom) and secondly to the underside of a ship (otherwise referred to as Old English: ċēol: ‘keel’) before coming to be used in reference to the buttocks. The Norse word for the small streams found running through Norwegian valleys – vík – gave its name in Icelandic tradition to the group of men who set out from their valley homes to line the bottoms of boats with booty of both the mineral and human kind: the Vikings. Bootylicious as a word first surfaced in 1992 in the lyrics of a Snoop Dogg/ Dr. Dre song entitled: “F**k wit Dr Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)”, to again be taken up in a song (and song-title) by Beyoncé Knowles of the girl group Destiny’s Child in 2001. The word combines the American usage of booty with the word delicious (‘highly pleasing’ from Latin dēlicia, ‘allure’ through Old French – think: elicit). Delicious and highly pleasing indeed, though not, perhaps, quite as edible as a sandwich...

De Factoid the Fourteenth: coming soon...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

De Factoid the Twelfth: Ginspiration

This De Factoid strays from food to once again address the social history of drink, and since De Factoid the Fifth discussed the origin(s) of the word cocktail, this De Factoid shall look at the hidden history of one of the oldest, and best: the Martini.

For those who don’t know, a Martini Cocktail is traditionally made with a good, neat (i.e. no ice or mixers) English gin and a small wash of French or Italian vermouth (another spirit), stirred in an ice shaker and strained into a chilled martini glass over a couple of olives. It has become popular in recent years for vodka to replace gin (as a vodka martini) as the main spirit, but the gin-based drink is the original. One can usually tell the age of a cocktail (i.e. the time of its invention) by the contents from which it is made. Purely spirit based drinks are the oldest (of which brandy, gin and whisky are the oldest set – circa 1800’s – with vodka coming across from Russia much later: after the October Revolution in 1917, when Smirnoff moved outside the country and licensed production to America in 1933) with mixers i.e. non-alcoholic fruit-juices to mix with, coming much later. The martini glass (shaped like the letter ‘Y’) is likely to have been named after the drink (in a fashion that named the short glass as an ‘old fashioned’ – after the venerable whisky cocktail of the same name), and the drink is likely to have been named after the vermouth produced by Martini & Rossi in Italy. To order a ‘dry’ martini at a bar is a throw-back from an older tradition when the only martini spirit produced – martini rosso, ‘red martini’ – was very sweet. To request a ‘dry’ martini was to ask for less sweet vermouth, but was no longer required after the introduction of the less-sweet martini bianco, ‘white martini’ in 1910 (with similar products subsiquently becoming available in France). It is said that Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister during the Second World War – enjoyed his Martini Cocktails so dry that it was enough to pour his gin while looking towards France (where a popular Vermouth was produced). James Bond’s martini (the famous “shaken not stirred/shhterd”) was a mixture – according to Flemming, the author – of three measures Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet (a bitter, quinine filled wine-based drink) shaken until cold and served with a slice of lemon – but this seems to have been forgotten in recent films. Quinine (from the Peruvian word kina, ‘tree bark’ – first brought back to Europe by the Jesuits) is very useful for keeping the disease malaria at bay, and was dissolved in water to make ‘tonic’ water. Gin was added to the tonic water to make it more palatable for colonial Brits and the G&T was born.

Gin as a word derives from the Dutch drink jenever/ genever, a grain spirit flavoured with juniper berries (from where the Dutch drink gets its name: the French for juniper is genévrier) which was thought to have been first introduced to the mouths (and livers) of Englishmen during wars with Holland when soldiers were given Dutch courage before battle. The popularity of the drink in England (and a large stock of grain too poor in quality for brewing into beer) led to the government approval for unlicensed gin production and the establishment of gin bars when the spirit became cheaper than beer. William Hogarth’s famous engraving Gin Lane provides a (somewhat over the top) look at how this affected the working classes and what led to the drink’s nickname Mother’s Ruin (though I think it probably ruined the mothers and children in equal measure).

Vermouth – the other ingredient in the martini – comes from the French name for the drink, vermout, which in all likelihood from the German word wermut, seen earlier in German as wermuth (remember the German ‘v’ is pronounced ‘w’) – related to the English (and Germanic) name for the proverbially bitter plant wormwood (‘proverbially’ i.e. ‘widely known or spoken of, from Latin proverbium: pro, ‘for’ – think ‘pros and cons’ + verbum, ‘word’ – hence ‘a set of words put forth’). Though the origin of wormwood’s Germanic name is ultimately of unknown origin, one can assume that the second ‘w’ in wormwood is a corruption of the ‘m’ in the Old German wermuth. If that is true, then the traditional use of the extract as a means of removing worms (causing stomach irritation and vomiting) may suggest it to be a kenning of ‘something that expels worms from the mouth’ (mouth from Old English mūþ = muth). A kenning is the Anglo-Saxon poetic version of a metaphor (see De Factoid the Eleventh), and describes something unknown by combining two known elements (e.g. whalepath, ‘sea’; skycandle, ‘sun’) so could quite easily have been applied to describe the proverbial vomit-inducer. Vomit is ultimately a Latin word (though is linked to Greek, emeîn: hence something vomit-inducing having emetic properties). A good northern-English equivalent is the word spew (from Anglo-Saxon), where the southern equivalent chunder (spreading northward, if you will, through the Universities) is thought to come from the practice of shouting the warning “watch under!” when vomiting over the side of a ship. Nice…

Letter interchanges (that is, the swapping over of letters) such as wermut becoming vermout are common, especially when the letters are pronounced differently in one country to how they sound across a border. Another such example is the change between p/v/f that gives us Latin pater, German, vater and English, father as we go from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. The Romans would not have to worry about a w/v interchange though, as the letter ‘W’ was an English invention (albeit with a lot of help). The letter ‘V’ in the Roman alphabet (that is, the alphabet you are now reading – give or take a few letters – though the word alphabet come from the first two letters in the Greek alphabet: A/α ‘alpha’ + B/ β ‘beta’) derived ultimately from the letter ‘Y’ (with the bottom chopped off), a Phoenician symbol from the Semitic alphabet (Semitic i.e. Jewish, is a cultural term which derives from ‘the descendents of Shem’ in the Bible) and could stand as either the vowel ‘u’ or the consonant ‘v’ for a Roman writer (hence why one might sometimes see ‘v’s written in the place of ‘u’s in words written in capital letters on classically styled BVILDINGS and why in a Latin manuscript describing a baby, the child cried ‘va va va’). ‘W’ was first written down in the 7th century (601-700 AD) by Anglo-Saxon scribes to represent the longer ‘oo’ sound of putting two U’s together which the standard Roman alphabet did not provide: hence ‘double-u’. This was not immediately accepted across Britain though, but gained in popularity after the Norman Conquest (post-1066) when it began to more formally replace the letter Ƿ (the runic letter ‘wynn’), which had been brought over from Germanic northern Europe when the Saxons first landed on the island. Other runic letters (rune from Old Norse rún, ‘secret’, due to the mystical use of the language) that have fallen out of the language, include two(/four) other ways of writing ‘th’ – lower-case: ð; capital: Ð called ‘eth’ (representing the un-aspirated/ ‘voiceless’ ‘th’ in the word ‘Eth’) and lower case: þ; capital: Þ called ‘thorn’ (the aspirated ‘th’ of the word the), from where we get (through the progressive corruption of Þe, ‘the’) the ‘ye’ word that often turns up on black and white tourist trinket shop signs as ‘Ye Olde etc’.

Aspiration, for those interested, is the technical term for the sharp burst of air given out with certain words (hold your hand near your mouth and say ‘eth’ and ‘the’: the second aspirated word should hit you with a sharper air burst), but little of this would have matter to a Roman or a Saxon had they enough of the drink which derives its name from wormwood’s Latin botanical label (Artemisia absinthium): the emetic, mind-corrupting, Absinthe.

Absinthe (Absinth in central Europe) is a type of pastis – a clear, aniseed flavoured spirit (traditionally beetroot alcohol in France, now more often grape) that goes cloudy in water. The word derives from this idea of ‘mixture’ and is linked to the Italian word pasticcio, ‘pie’ and Old French pastiz from where we get ‘pastry’ and ‘pasty’ (see De Factoid the Ninth for further explanation) and the ‘mixture’ word pastiche. Other examples of pastis include Ouzo from Greece, Raki from Turkey, Italian Sambuca, Arak from Lebanon and Mastika from Bulgaria – to name a few. Absinthe gets its name from the infusion of wormwood as one of its ingredients which can, if ingested in large enough amounts, lead to wild hallucinations (a popular one being a vision of a beautiful green fairy which, one imagines, was part of the appeal) and eventual poisoning (which led to its banning in most European countries by 1915). The main French manufacturer continued to produce absinthe without the wormwood under his own name, creating the famous French pastis Pernod. Britain never banned Absinthe as it was never really popular, but then again we were probably too drunk on gin to try…

De Factoid the Thirteenth: coming soon.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

De Factoid the Eleventh: the fruits (and vegetables) of labour...

On the average trip around a supermarket, farmers’ fair or greengrocers, one might not consider too deeply the different fruits and vegetables on display – or their countries of origin. When biting into an apple at lunch time or pretending to eat sprouts at Christmas, history is usually a subject left neglected. But it shouldn’t be. The grocery section of an average shop is a secret back-catalogue of trade, conquest, empire and occupation. This De Factoid considers a few.

The Nativity:

Nativity is a useful word to begin this section as one deals first with the truly native edibles of Britain. Both nativity and native are linked to the word nation (from whence we also get national, nationalists, nationality and nationalize) from Latin nātiōn(n-): which refers (as one may have gathered) to ‘breed’, ‘stock’ and the matter of ‘race’; further linking to the process of ‘birth’ with the word-element nat- giving English the word natal (‘birth’ – think: ‘post-natal depression’), the new-born term, neonate, ‘new birth’ and the Nativity Scene in the story of the birth of Christ. Race as a word carries three meanings (though two are now more prominent). Race in the sense of ‘running a race’ comes from Germanic origins (northern Europe) and referred originally to the rushing movement of running water. It is a fair assumption that the word was introduced to England from Scandinavia, and worked its way south from the north of the country (which is why it is pronounced with the northern short ‘a’ sound, reading ‘reis’ as oppose to the long southern ‘raas’) at a time when ‘race’ (as in ‘breed’) was a point of conflict with Viking invaders. The meaning of race now less often used is of the name of the root-piece of the spice ginger, where race comes ultimately from the Latin rādīce-/ radix (meaning ‘root’) from where we get the vegetable name radish (itself introduced to British plates and palates in the 14th century by the French). This may give us the origin of the collective noun race in the sense of a ‘breed’: in people being metaphorically ‘rooted’ in the same place (and indeed wine-buffs are known to talk of a ‘race’ of wine in reference to the flavouring characteristics of the soil). The fruits and vegetables we now enjoy are a process of the birth of nationhood, each flavouring our natives and native soil as they are conquered and in turn conquer.

Think of a fruit or vegetable that you consider typically British. If you suggested ‘apple’ or ‘strawberry’; ‘sprouts’, ‘tomato’, ‘carrot’ or ‘peas’; ‘leaks’, ‘onions’, ‘pear’, ‘plum’, ‘parsnip’ or ‘potato’ you would (along with a vast list of others) be quite wrong. Those indigenous (i.e. ‘native’, from Latin indigena, ‘native’ – corresponding to Greek -genēs from where we get genus and genital) fruits and veggies are but few: Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Broad beans, Crab Apple (those who said ‘apple’ get half marks), Raspberry, Redcurrant and Samphire. England was good for berries – an Anglo-Saxon word: beri(g)e – though had few enough that we could differentiate them by little more than colour. That is not to say that the names of the plants are ‘native’ though: raspberry may relate to the ‘scratchy’ hooks on its skin – think French rasper, ‘scratch’ suggesting the French may have given us the name post-1066, or ealier via monks from Anglo-Latin raspeium; current is French (ultimately from Latin); apple is Old-English (just about: see De Factoid the Fourth), but crab (apple) probably comes from Scandinavia again in skrabba, ‘wild apple’. Samphire comes from French, (herb de) Saint Pierre, ‘St. Peter’s Herb’.

So to take the list of wrong answers from above, we shall explore three: the apple, carrot and potato – considering where they come from, and who first brought them to Britain:

The Apple was introduced to Britain during the Roman period (AD 43-410) from the warmer climates of the Mediterranean, ultimately coming from further east. Crab-Apples were already native to Britain and northern-Europe, but with Rome came the sweet fruit that replaced the bitter crab-apple as a mainstay fruit. The apple has had quite a history in literature and myth and feature in Norse legends (where the Goddess Iðunn provides apples to the gods to give them eternal youth) and Greek myth (where a similar life giving apple was found in The Garden of the Hesperides). Later Christian tradition of the apple as the ‘forbidden fruit’ (which according to the Book of Genesis in the Bible – also from Greek: genēs – was eaten by Adam and Eve against God’s will thereby leading to the fall of man and his banishment from paradise) was likely to have been borrowed from Greek tradition by Renaissance painters. The ‘forbidden fruit’ is never claimed to be an apple in the Bible: the Greek for apple, melon (from where we get the name of the fruit melon) was also the word for fruit generally. It must be remembered that the English Bible (King James, Dewey Rhymes and others) came from the Latin translation (re-translated into Latin by Jerome in 382AD) of the Greek translation of the original works (though the Tyndale Bible comes straight from the Greek). That the Latin for ‘apple’ (singular, malus) and ‘evil’ (singular, malum: think malevolent) were so similar (and identical – mala – if talking about more than one), probably presented too artistic a flourish to pass up, and the un-named ‘forbidden fruit’ became the apple in the Christian eye. Apple of my eye as a phrase itself comes from a Bible translation, that of the Anglo-Saxon Bible (Deuteronomy 2:10 and Zechariah 2:8) where æppel mean ‘round’ or ‘ball’: hence something being the ‘apple’ of your eye being the centre or whole of ones vision. The word translate is Latin meaning to ‘carry across’. Its Greek cousin is metaphor.

The Carrot is another colourful example of change in translation: changing colour in its own ‘carrying across’ from Arabia to the Netherlands by European traders. The carrots of Holland are orange – a product of the minerals of Dutch soil – and were bred into prominence through their colourful patriotism to the House of Orange during the battles for Dutch independence against Spanish rule (1568-1648). In their desert-home of origin (thought to be modern day Afghanistan) the carrot – through a differing of base minerals in the soil – was purple. The purple carrot had made its way to England via the Romans, but the orange carrot came to England (and stayed) from Holland in the 17th Century, when William of Orange became King of England in 1689. The word carrot comes to English through Old French and Latin from Greek karōtón (which probably itself has an Arabic ‘root’).

Finally, the Potato: another ‘carrying across’. The word potato is from Spanish patata (now most readily recognized in Tapas bars) which itself comes from combining a Taino (the pre-Spanish colonisation natives of the Bahamas) word batata, ‘sweet potato’ and the Quechua (the official language of the Incas) word papa, ‘potato’ when the Spanish took control of most of South America. About a third of all food eaten today can be traced back to South America, including potatoes, the chilli and all types of peppers (see De Factoid the Eighth), the tomato, chocolate and tobacco (to name but a few). The potato was introduced into England by John Hawkins in 1563, only later being re-introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh (who is fabled to have introduced the veggie to Ireland). Hawkins is an interesting character in himself: another made famous (and infamous) for his ability to ‘carry across’. He was treasurer and eventual commander of the Royal Navy, helping to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (though that was, in fact, more down to the bad weather) and is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of the slave trade, as the first man to run the Triangular Trade (England to West-Africa; West-Africa to America; America to England) making a profit at every docking. Some scholars suggest he was also responsible for introducing tobacco to England (another piece accredited to Raleigh) since he mentions Ltobaccoj (meaning tobacco) in his 1564 journal. The Oxford English Dictionary also accredits his crew with the introduction of the word shark into English (possibly from the Mayan work xoc, ‘fish’ – spoken in Yucatan, Mexico) after they brought a specimen back for exhibition in London in 1569 – no doubt more marveled at than the sack of spuds. Spud as a name for potato is of unknown origin, though may be related to the digging instrument of the same name first quoted in the first English-Latin Dictionary: the Promptorium Parvulorum (1440).

Try saying that with a mouth full of veg...

De Factoid the Twelfth: coming soon

Monday, 13 October 2008

De Factoid the Tenth: “Blessed are the cheese-makers”

The title of this De Factoid comes from a line cribbed from Monty Python’s 1979 film comedy The Life of Brian (the result of the back-reaches of a crowd gathered to listen to Christ’s teachings mishearing “Blessed are the peacemakers...” – found in The New Testament, Book of Mathew, Chapter 5: Verse 9) and is, in some respects, quite true. Many of the methods of cheese production that formed the first batches of what are now viewed as ‘English’ cheeses were brought over by Norman (i.e. North French) monks, after the defeat of the English Saxon King Harold II (via, as legend would have us believe, a stray arrow to the eye) by William ‘the Conqueror’ of Normandy (or rather, more accurately, one of his many archers). But one somewhat jumps the gun – cheese was well matured before it reached our little island...

Cheese has been with us for a long time – the process probably developed alongside the domestication of milk giving animals at the end of the Stone-Age (otherwise known as the Neolithic period: from Greek, neos, ‘new’ and lithos, ‘stone’) beginning about 10,000 B.C. in the Middle-East, where animal skins and internal organs were often used as storage containers for liquids on desert trips. A proposed Proto-Indo-European root (see De Factoid the Ninth) for the word ‘cheese’, *kwat- is related to the process of ‘souring’ and suggests that the dairy product, like many of life’s culinary wonders, was probably an accident (for further acts of serendipity see De Factoid the Seventh on Port and Champagne). The process of cheese making could occur naturally if the rennet (made of little enzymes – biological factories – called rennin) in the stomach lining of an animal/drinking-flask were to come into contact with milk. Hot climate and the steady churning movement of a walking camel would probably also help the process a fair bit. It’s not ‘water to wine’, but back then ‘milk to cheese’ could well be viewed as an Act of God...

That said, the English cheese-tradition doesn’t come direct from the deserts of the Middle-East. The language we use to describe it is closer to home, and can be traced back to two differing – though occasionally linguistically-converging – European traditions.

The first, which might reasonably be called the ‘native’ method, lives on in products like ‘cottage cheese’ (the ‘cottage’ element of the name suggests the small-scale, homely origins of this type of cheese production): a mixture of lumpy curds (solidified/ soured pieces of milk – hence curdle – of unknown origin though plausibly linked to Gaelic/ Middle-Irish, gruth) and whey (the watery part of milk remaining after the curd has formed). Whey as a word comes from Old English, hwæg (the ‘g’ is pronounced like a ‘y’) and is related to other Germanic words like hui in Dutch and Middle-Low German huy / hoie. Churn is another Old English word – cyrin – meaning ‘butter-making machine’: hence ‘to churn up’. The point of relation between the Germanic whey and Celtic curd alerts one to the other social group to whom we owe our (or rather to whom the Continent owes its) cheese making tradition. The group who once ruled over both the Celtic Britons and the Germanic Europeans: the Romans.

Cheese, as a word, is the name for the product made by pressing curds together and originates somewhere in the swap-shop of language exchange between the tribes of northern Europe and their Roman rulers. The vast Germanic language groups and Rome both seemed to possess their own word(s) for cheese, which combined to create the word we have today. Latin, cāseus (which itself may ultimately have come across from the Middle-East in the Sanskrit word, kãsi) gave the world the words for cheese in several languages: Spanish, queso, Portuguese, queijo, Romanian caş and Welsh caws as the language of Roman soldiers was taken up and altered in the mouths and on the tongues of the native peoples of each Rome-ruled country. An earlier borrowing from Latin is thought to have produced the word *kasjus – a shared root for many of the northern-European (Germanic) languages – and is related to words like Old English/ Anglo-Saxon, ćēse; Old High-German, chāsi; Old Saxon, kāsi / k(i)ēsi and Modern German, käse. The English word cheese developed out of the northern Europeans’ take on this Roman word. The early Latin borrowing is related to Latin jūs (from where we get the word juice) and refers to the watery curds-and-whey cheese already discussed. Solid cheese had a different Latin name – formāticus i.e. ‘cheese made into a form’ (from the bowls – forma – in which the whey was pressed out) and replaced the word cāseus (and we can also assume it replaced the runny cheese type) in the Gallo-Roman region of the Empire (now more readily recognised as France), developing into the tradition the monks brought over to England after 1066. One still sees the remains of the word formāticus in French as fromage.

Not just created to provide the French with a different word to the majority of other Europeans, the Roman formāticus was developed (like black-pudding: see De Factoid the Third) so as to be easily transportable for the soldier on the go. Should they need to ‘cheese it’ from a hoard of enemies they’d be crackers to try and do it with a load of runny cheese. The phrase ‘cheese it’ i.e. ‘run away’ is thought to have developed as school-yard slang – probably as a more vigorous version of ‘beat it’ (i.e. ‘beat it so fast it turns to cheese [were ‘it’ a liquid]’). This may well be considered a cheesy joke. That phrase is related to the idea of a broad, forced smile (think: ‘cheesy grin’) from the photographers’ call: “say ‘cheese’!”. The word forces a closed mouth position with teeth showing (try saying it) – which is good for a picture. Though somewhat fallen out of common usage, ‘cheese it’ has gained some currency recently on the cartoon programme Futurama as one of Bender the Robot’s catch phrases.

Crackers, is an interesting word and carries with it several different meanings. The sense I used above – ‘they’d be crackers’, meaning ‘insane’ – is an alteration of an earlier phrase, brain-cracked (English language users still talk of ‘cracking under pressure’) and refers ultimately to the noise of something breaking, from Old English cracian, meaning ‘sound’. Other noises – particularly that of laughter – are related to the word: as is evident to anyone cracking-up after someone cracks a particularly cracking joke. Something fun being referred to as ‘good crack/ craic’ (the latter if you are in Ireland) also comes to mind. A cracker on which one might put cheese gets its name from the breaking noise, and crackling (the salted, cooked back-fat from a piece of pork – called ‘pork scratching’ in British pubs) again has sound in its name (that of it cooking). The American slang name for the drug crack cocaine (cocaine processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate i.e. ‘baking soda’) may well combine several of the above meanings: the crackling sound of the bicarbonate during heating (which removes the hydrochloride allowing the product to be smoked) and the ‘enjoyable’ experience (‘good craic’) combing with the drug’s other ‘street’ name, rock. High-flying ideas cooked-up during smoking such substances were referred to as crack-pipe dreams during early usage, which gave English the phrase ‘pipe-dream’ after a little clipping. The other pejorative (i.e. ‘derogatory’, ‘offensive’, ‘insulting’ from late Latin pējōrāre, ‘make worse’: hence French, pējor, ‘worse’) use of the word cracker comes from black communities in America in reference to racist white Americans. This most likely comes from a shortening of ‘whip-cracker’ in reference to the slave trade (though has older roots elsewhere in English) and has found currency, like ‘cheese it’, in American cartoons: this time in the frustrated words of South Park character, Chef. Chef, as a word, means (and is the origin of the word) ‘chief’ (a shortening of the French phrase chef de cuisine: ‘head of kitchen’). The English word – cook – comes from the Old English cōc, ‘preparer of food by boiling’ (pronounced with a long ‘oo’ sound, children!) – hence ‘cooking’ – and is related to the Latin word, coquus. French coqeure, (meaning ‘cook’) comes from here, as do the English words concoction and concoct (from Latin concoquere, ‘digest’, later ‘consider’, ‘reflect upon’ – see De Factoid the First): hence to ‘cook up a plan’. From coquus English is also granted its equivalent of the word for the edible ‘cracker’ – through Medieval Latin biscottus (meaning ‘twice cooked’: hence Italian biscotti bis, ‘twice’: think bisect, ‘cut in two’; the number of wheels on a bicycle or lenses in binoculars): the word is biscuit. Equally good with cheese, and not nearly as racist.

De Factoid the Eleventh: coming soon...

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

De Factoid the Ninth: Shut your PIE-hole...

In this De Factoid one addresses a subject close to every northern-Englishman’s heart – slicing across the social, cultural and linguistic history of the grandest and humblest of deep dishes: pie.

Pie has been with us for a long time. Archeologists (diggers of old things) discovered etchings of a pie-like dish on the walls of the tomb of King Ramesses II (who we know to have rather enjoyed his pepper from De Factoid the Eighth) which was likely to have consisted of honey, nuts and fruit wrapped in a primitive dough/pastry. Pastry, as a word, is French (from Old French, pastaierie) and is linked through late-Latin, pastāta (from where we get the name of the Italian mainstay: pasta) to the word paste – another substance originally made using flour and water – and also linked to the word pasty: the popular meat-pie-like dish popular in Cornwall, England. Pasty entered the English language as the Middle-English word paste(e) through Old French, pastée – a corruption of the Latin paste-word. The ‘paste’ element of the pasty is in the minced meat and vegetable filling, rather than the flour and water of the surrounding pastry. Back in France the word continued to evolve and from Old French pastée, Modern French was granted the similarly minced word, pâté.

The equivalent ‘native’ English word for the Old French, pastrydough – came from Old English dāg and is, from the point of view of language(s), even further reaching. The word is linked to the process of kneading (another Old English word, cnedan) the flour and water together to make the dough, and shares linguistic links across Northern Europe with most Proto-Germanic languages. Proto-Germanic (proto- from Ancient Greek, prôtos meaning ‘first’: think ‘prototype’) is the name given to one of the several off-shoots of language groups from which nearly all European and Asian languages are thought to originate (Proto-Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Flemish, Frisian, Swedish and English – as well as many other languages now considered ‘dead’). The hypothesized ‘central’ language has been labelled Indo-European and was thought to have been brought to Europe and Asia by the first tribes of Homo sapiens (the ancestors of modern man: Latin homo-, ‘man’ – think, ‘homosexual’ ; sapiens, ‘knowing’ – think, ‘sapient’) to arrive from the Middle-East/North-Africa, replacing the languages of Neanderthal man (an earlier sub species of humans, named after the German valley where remains were first discovered, ‘Neander Thal’ – Neander being the classicised German name ‘Neumann’ + thal, meaning ‘valley’) as well as the people – though Finnish (North Eastern Europe) and Basque (in Northern Spain/Southern France) are the exceptions, thought to have evolved from Neanderthal language elements, surviving due to the isolated nature of the regions. As a result of a shared language heritage, many words seem to echo across languages. ‘Dough’ is one such example, with Indo-European roots dhoigh-, dheigh-, dhigh, relating to the kneading, smearing and form/forming of clay. The root spirals across Europe and Asia giving us (amongst other things) dih (‘smear’) and dēhas (‘body’) in Sanskrit, relating to the word diz (‘mould’) used by Xenophon (another clever Greek person) combined with pairi (‘around’), when describing the walls around the desert gardens of Persian Kings. These gardens, as well as the word created to describe them, became an ever-lasting symbol when taken into the Greek Bible: parádeisos in Greek became paradise in English. The language hypothesized to have preceded Indo-European has rather ingeniously been dubbed, Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

Pie is another word related to the mashing of languages and miscellaneous meats, but not as straightforwardly as one might think. When pie, as a word was first spoken in English, it wasn’t a pastry-surrounded lump of meat: it was a bird. In English bird names we still have the Magpie, though the ‘Mag-’ element (likely to be an abbreviation of ‘Margaret’) is from a later tradition of adding personal names to animals (similarly, Americans can still be heard talking of Jack-rabbits). The root of this pie in English is in the magpie’s Latin name, pica (relate to the Latin for woodpecker, picus). The adjective pied comes from the bird, originally referring to something with black and white elements (think piebald horses – the ‘bald’ bit refers to the white patches) before moving to mean ‘multi-colours’ (as in the multi-coloured robes of the ‘Pied Piper’). As well as its colouring, the magpie is noted for its kleptomanic (i.e. ‘thieving’: from Greek, kléptēs, ‘thief’ related to Gothic, hlifan, ‘steal’ – think ‘shoplifter’) gathering tendencies, often creating a jumble of different items in its nest. The pie we eat today is reasonably assumed to have taken its name from the nest arrangement, itself a jumbled assortment of ingredients. The meat or fish pie chewet has been similarly linked with French, chouette (‘jackdaw’ – another personal-named bird), and an alternative 16th century English name for the magpie, haggess, suggests a similar origin for the Scottish food-jumble, haggis.

Before this move, pies were referred to in writing as coffins/coffins: resembling their body-housing namesakes, with tall sides and a lid. These large coffins were often used as centre-pieces at Royal banquets and would conceal exotic birds and animals, or even people (I can only assume they were lightly baked). The nursery rhyme ‘Sing-a-song-of-sixpence’ is based on the practice. Jeffrey Hudson (1619-1682), a famous 17th century dwarf, was served up as a child in a cold pie to King Charles I and his Queen. Hudson climbed out of the pie clad in a miniature suite of armour and was later dubbed Lord Minimus, before going on to serve as the Queen’s trusted companion. He was twice kidnapped by pirates and fell from his high position as court-favourite to eating humble pie as a slave in Africa.

Humble-pie is the punch-line to a joke which long preceded Lord Minimus, based on word-play that might not be recognized now that the word umbles has fallen out of common usage. Umbles, as a word, came to England with William the Conqueror and his French lords and originates in Latin, lumulus, ‘loin’. ‘Umble pie’ was made from the heart, liver and other off-cuts of deer: eaten by huntsmen and servants while their lords ate venison (see: De Factoid the Fourth). Umble pie was thus associated with people of a more ‘humble’ position (‘humble’ comes from another Latin word, humilis, ‘low’, ‘slight’ from where we get humility and humiliate) and was probably helped toward the current association by the southern verbal tendency to drop the ‘h’. The lads of the Essex-born super-group ‘Humble Pie’ may have shared in this linguistic practice while painting the town red in the 1970’s. That colourful phrase is claimed to have originated with the paint brush practices of the ‘Mad Marquis’ Henry de la Poer Beresford in the great English pie town of Melton Mowbray. The town’s pork pie tradition arose as a by-product of its cheese industry when the whey from its famous stilton was discovered to make excellent pig-feed. The Marquis was supposed to have painted the town the aforementioned colour after getting pie-eyed (i.e. ‘drunk’, from the wide-eyed, blank expression likening to a pie-top) on too much booze. One thinks a nice pie might have done him some good…

De Factoid the Tenth: coming soon...

Friday, 3 October 2008

De Factoid the Eighth: Hindi an’ a Jones...

In De Factoid the Seventh, one mentioned in passing the origins of the ‘vindaloo’ curry in name, if not in location. The vindaloo is one of many examples of food birthed as a product of empire: a child of conquest and (if you will) a happy mixed marriage. But the British love affair with the curry is not a new one, and the courtship is mapped across several continents.

‘Curry’, as a word comes (as one would reasonably expect) from India – from the Tamil word kari and/or the Canarese word karil, from the southern districts of the country/ Sri Lanka (which may both be linked to the name of the traditional Indian cooking pot, the karahi – also spelt karai – in which the dish was made) and crops up in Europe and England with thanks to traders as early as the 17th century (though we know from De Factoid the Third that trade had been going on much earlier, when the chilli-pepper – amongst other less spicy things like Christianity – was introduced to India from South-America by Spanish and Portuguese traders a hundred years or so earlier). Dutch and Portuguese explorers wrote favourably of ‘carriel’ (from the Portuguese corruption of the Canarese word meaning ‘curry’), suggesting that Europeans were naturally inclined toward the spicy dish. Europe did already have a special idea of ‘spice’, with the word finding its origins in Latin, speciēs (initially in the sense of ‘visible appearance’, ‘specific kind’ from whence we get words like spectacles, special, specialist, specific and species) and the related late-Greek word eîdos, ‘merchandise’, ‘wares’: the singular of which idéā also meant ‘look’, ‘form’ or ‘kind’ (and entered Latin as idea: giving us the words idea, ideology, ideal), which later also comes to mean ‘goods’ and more specifically ‘groceries’ as is apparent in modern French for ‘grocer’ (when pronouncing the ‘c’ with an ‘s’ sound): épicier. ‘Grocer’ and ‘spicer’ are fundamentally the same word and both link back to the idea of trade, and buying up what one sees. Grocer as a word comes from the medieval Latin grossarius/ grossus (from where get gross and GDP – ‘gross domestic product’ i.e. the value of all goods and services produced in a country in one year). The grocer wasn’t just a man selling veggies, he was selling (and buying) everything in gross quantities: he was the medieval equivalent of the wholesaler. The Worshipful Company of Grocers (established 1180AD) is listed second in the Livery Companies (i.e. medieval trade-regulators) of the City of London, who traded in spices, gold, and other luxury goods from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and the Mediterranean. Also called the Guild of Pepperers through their very profitable trade in peppercorns, which was (until the introduction of the chilli) the primary method of spicing food (and hence why we call the latter and its less-spicy relations chilli peppers, despite being completely unrelated to the genus that yields Piper nigrum, ‘black pepper’). That Latin word, piper (from Sanskrit, pippali - the 'long pepper') spawned similar words across the continent with Old English, piper; German, pfeffar; Italin, pepe and Old French, peivre (modern French, poivre) and proved such good business generally that pepper corns were often used as payment of rental agreements (from where we get the legal phrase ‘peppercorn rent’: though now in relation to a small payment based on size, rather than worth), and to well-seasoned soldiers (who could also have their salary in salt – as discussed in De Factoid the Second). Perhaps it gave them some pep on the battlefield (a shortened Americanism of ‘pepper’ in the sense of ‘spicing things up’) or in the after-life if things didn't go to plan (black peppercorns were found lodged in the nostrils of the Egyptian King, Ramesses II: part of the mummification process performed shortly after his death in 1213 B.C. – i.e. 'Before Christ'). The majority of peppercorns in Europe came, by land, from India until sea-routes were established by the early trading empires of Portugal and the Netherlands. Trying to open up a sea-route westward to the country, Christopher Columbus unwittingly discovered the east coast of what is now the United States. Believing to have landed at his appropriate destination, he called the natives ‘Indians’. Chilli, as a word, comes from the Aztec name for the plant (of the same spelling), and gets imported into Spanish during their trade with (and later conquest of) South America. A similar process occurs with the later British East India Company: a shift from couriers (in the sense of ‘a servant/running messenger’ from Latin currere, ‘run’: hence the ‘current’ of a river) of Indian goods to conquerors and grocers by force – with the curry being but one of the things brought back home.

The other meaning of ‘curry’ i.e. ‘to rub down with a comb’, ‘arrange’, ‘equip’ comes from the Old French verb conraier – ‘to prepare’, ‘to put in order’. To ‘curry a horse’ (a phrase which today usually only turns up in horror stories about back-door eateries in The Sun) carries (another word also coming from the French) the meaning – now usually only inside the horsey-set – of the rubbing down and dressing of horses: hence curry-combing. This is linked (by a slightly odd-route) to the phrase, to curry favour.

The phrase does not mean ‘to arrange favour’ as one might expect and is actually the result of mishearing the French medieval phrase ‘curryfavell’ (translating roughly as a ‘flatterer’) from the story Roman de Fauvel or ‘The Romance of Fauvel’. In the story, Fauvel is a donkey who deceives and corrupts the greedy leaders of the church and state and, as with the curry-combing of a horse, so too is Fauvel the donkey ‘curried’ as the rich and powerful humiliate themselves. The name Fauvel (or Favvel) is formed from ‘fau-vel’ (in English ‘veiled lie’), which in turn is made (in a very clever fashion) from the initial letters of a French version of the seven deadly sins: flaterie (flattery/pride), avarice (greed/gluttony), vilanie (wrath), variété (inconstancy), envie (envy), and lacheté (cowardice). The method is called an acrostic (from the Greek meaning ‘row or line of verse’) and is from where we get the word across.

When curry itself was brought back across the waters to England it yielded some interesting results. The once popular breakfast dish kedgeree (consisting of flaked smoked-haddock, boiled rice, eggs and butter) is as much an Englishman’s botched attempt at a curry as any: deriving from an Indian dish called khichdi in Hindi – once popular with the Mughals (whom the British deposed from the Indian seats of power, if not a seat at breakfast). Curry has had other royal connections – one was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Coronation Chicken), which in turn was based on ‘Jubilee Chicken’: the dish of cold chicken, mayonnaise and curry powder created for the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935. The preserve ‘piccalilli’ seems to be another fair attempt at an English curry sauce and ‘devilled’ (i.e. spiced) eggs, kidneys etc. are another product of the influence of Indian food (and a fair indication of the Victorian temperament toward the ‘heathen’ – i.e. non-Christian – country). Heathen, interestingly, contains the word ‘heath’ (as in a hill) and refers to the barbarian practice of performing their rituals on hills outside the city proper (though it’s now tourists, not pagans, that gather at Heathrow). You may well encounter several other Indian words on your way to Heathrow airport so long, that is, as you’ve remembered to pack your shampoo, pyjamas and bangles; a cummerbund (a posh girdle-type belt for men); a pair of jodhpurs (riding trousers) for playing polo; a bandanna; a cot for the little one; your cashmere wooly jumper and any other general loot. And that’s just a few words from Hindi! Other Hindi words might crop-up if all is pukka (meaning ‘cooked’, ‘ripe’ and used in Southern England in a positive sense of ‘well’: think Jamie Oliver) or if you travel to a jungle, stay in a bungalow, or cross a border guarded by a sentry. You can thank the Urdu language if you get yourself a cushy job (from khushi, ‘soft’); if you act like a thug (from the Thagi: a collective of criminals who were fabled to have dressed as wandering priests and murder travellers) you may fall from favour you may be labelled a pariah (from Persian through the Tamil language). To name but a few! It is apparent that things to eat weren’t the only exports from India back to Blighty.

Blighty as a word comes (though the Army) from the Hindi, bilāyatī/ vilāyatī meaning ‘foreigner’. A similar naming trend occurred much earlier in the history of English when the Saxon tribes landed on the English east coast. The word for ‘foreigner’ in Anglo-Saxon is wealh and was used generally to refer to any native inhabitant (the Celtic Britons) who needed to be hacked through to make some living room. The largest concentration of these foreigners was named appropriately with the plural of the Anglo-Saxon wealh word – wealas: modern-day Wales (as well as the elements of Cornwall, and the wal- of the walnut, ‘foreign nut’). Welsh is an older language than English, as are Scots/Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Manx and Breton (in northern France): all the residues of Celtic languages pushed back to the north, south and west coasts by the invading Saxons. Another Indian word for ‘foreigner’ (ferengi) turns up more readily in Star Trek.

Trek is one of a few Afrikaans (South-African Dutch-English) words to work its way into mainstream English. Others that spring to mind are kommando (independence soldiers who fought against the British and from whence we get commando) and the quite-loaded word apartheid (literally ‘apart-ness’). Animal names such as meerkat (literally ‘lake cat’), springbok (a small deer/ tasty cocktail shooter); wildebeest (from Cape-Dutch: an Afrikaans forerunner) and aardvark (‘ant-eater’ to any Americans reading) are Dutch-English South-African imports to the language. The drink advocaat is another Anglo-Dutch word, originating with Dutch speakers in South-America and translating roughly as ‘egg-nog’. One says ‘roughly’ as egg-nog is not a direct translation, as advocaat was originally made, not with eggs, but with avocadoes (hence the name): only being replaced with eggs when avocadoes were discovered to be few in number back in the Netherlands. ‘Nog’ may well come from the name for the English wooden cup used for drinking the concoction (and used later to refer to ‘wooden’ heads), called a noggin. Other names for the English focus more on appearance and appetite. An Englishman in Australia might be called a Pomm or a Pohm, though which one is tricky to determine. The Englishman-as-Pomm may refer either to pomegranate (the red fruit) rhyming through Aussie-accent with immigrant or (which is more likely/amusing) refer to the colour into which the average Englishman turns in the sun (and lines up nicely with our Afrikaans nickname, rooinek – ‘red neck’). Pohm is more likely still as an acronym for (i.e. initials of) Property Of Her Majesty – reflecting that fact that Aussie, for all its charm now, used to be a British prison. Another food related name is found in limey: referring to Royal/ Merchant Navy sailors eating limes to ward off the vitamin deficiency scurvy (think stereotypical pirate “ye scurvy dog!”) and the title awarded to us by the French for our meat-eating tendencies: rosbif (‘roast-beef’) – which we return to the frogs, in kind.

De Factoid the Ninth: coming soon.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

De Factoid the Seventh: Plonk-ers and Porters...

In this De Factoid one goes a bit upper-class in search of the origins of two drinks close to the landed-gentry’s hearts and livers: Port – the thick, ruby-red gout-inducer; and Champagne – the pale, bubble-filled Frenchy-corker. While to look at in the glass these two may seem as different as chalk and cheese (though in some parts of France the difference between chalk and cheese is debatable) their histories are more intermixed than one might first be inclined to believe...

Port’s country of origin is (quite obviously when one is told) Portugal. The bottle’s contents can only come from here, specifically the region of Oporto (of which the drink ‘port’ is an abbreviation: from O Porto, meaning ‘the port/harbour’). If they don’t, then it isn’t port! Portugal takes its modern name from its Latin map-tag: Portus Cale – with Cale naming an early settlement on the mouth of the Douro River, and Portus – meaning ‘landing-point’, ‘door’, ‘gateway’, ‘entrance’, ‘opening’ etc: think port-hole (the round windows on ships), portcullis (‘sliding-door’: the latticed fence-like defence door at the front of a castle/the back of a penny-piece – cullis from Old French for ‘sliding’), portal (science-fiction/internet gateway) – indicating where those first Italian tourists parked their boats. Latin, Portus, gave us the Old English word port (meaning the boat-mooring area) when those same Roman tourists fancied somewhere with a bit more rain and headed north for the weekend. Portus, as a word, is closely linked to another Old English word, ford (meaning ‘a point of easy crossing’ – see De Factoid the First) and the word fare, meaning ‘travel’. Now used almost exclusively in departing calls of “fare-well”, fare was once also used to describe the transport of food. The word still occasionally appears in mock-Old English bar-signs offering “traditional pub fayre” to the hungry drunkard. The idea of the travelling of goods in fare was also (and still is) prevalent in French conduit: think ‘conduct’, ‘water conduit’, ‘conductor’ – and even more so in portus. Words like import and export; portmanteau (a type of suitcase for carrying clothes); portfolio (originally a case for keeping shipping-documents including passports: a document to allow travel); porter (the poor soul forced to carry them all); the medical name for the vein he might rupture in the attempt (vena portæ); and deportment (the gentlemanly way to act after such an incident – or how to ‘carry oneself’) all come from the idea of the traffic of goods. Port was destined to be portable, even if only in name. But it was precisely the portable nature of the drink that bore its success with the Brits.

The English aristocracy (ironically from Old French aristocratie, through Medieval Latin translations of Aristotle’s – an important Ancient-Greek thinker – opinions on who was deemed worthy to rule) i.e. toffs (a word originating in the ‘tuft’ or tassel on an Oxford University undergraduate’s hat!) have always been big drinkers: predominantly of wine (fermented, i.e. brewed, from grape-juice) and brandy (same idea x2 = stronger result), which was transported (another port word) from our nearest medieval equivalent of an off-licence: France. This was all well and good when on good terms, but the English medieval tendency to have a peck at the French over land-rights (I say ‘medieval’ tendency as today we use words rather than pieces of sharpened metal – excluding, of course, the antics of any and every European cup match) soon meant that drinking French wine was not only unpatriotic (i.e. against the father-land: Latin pater, ‘father’ – think Catholic Lord’s Prayer paternoster: ‘Our father...’), but also fairly impossible. But the rich must have their after-dinner tipple so a new off-licence had to be found. Not bothering with Germany’s godforsaken sugar-water excuses for vino, we tried Spain: but this proved to be too far away. Anyone who leaves a bottle of wine open overnight (i.e. falls asleep glass-in-hand) will notice that it has gone-off. The wine oxidises (gets exposed to air – namely oxygen) turning to ethanoic acid i.e. vinegar. This also happened on the trip over from Spain as air seeped through the ‘breathable’ oak barrels the wine was shipped in. The toffs ended up with several-hundred bottles of stuff that would taste great on chips, but was rubbish to drink. The solution came in a process called ‘fortification’. Just as one might fortify (from Latin, fortis, ‘strenght’) a building from being attacked, so too could wine be fortified from attack on the long, hot journey, with a shot of brandy added to the mix (Madeira wine – another type of fortified wine introduced by the Portuguese to the island that gives it its name – is indeed supposed to taste better after a stint on a radiator). The fortifying method so popular in Oporto meant that the region’s wine could make the long trip, unspoilt, to English ports: and the association of port-drinking with the upper classes was born! The Portuguese aren’t all toff-orientated with their exports, though, with one of England’s favourite spicy dishes taking its name from a corruption of Portuguese ‘garlic vinegar’ – vin de alho – the World Cup song-inspiring, vindaloo...

But just as port gained fame for being particularly hardy en route; champagne – the other bottle of our discussion – became famous for, or because of, the opposite.

Champagne, the drink, comes (in a similar naming trend to Port) from the region Champagne in France. Grapes have been grown there to make wine for two millennia (one millennia = one-thousand years, hence ‘millennium’) and grew natively before cultivation (i.e. purposeful growing). Even in 92 A.D (short for Christian-Latin phrase, anno domini: ‘In the year of our Lord’ i.e. years after Christ’s birth – think ‘annual’) when the Roman Emperor Domitian had most of the vineyards in France destroyed (to encourage the drinking of Italian wine), grapes were still grown in the region (albeit in secret) until a later Emperor (called Probus) lifted the ban two-hundred years later (!). Wine from the region was happily drank in England after that, novel in its unusually light colour (called vin gris – grey wine), but not yet bubbly. This oddity occured thanks to a particularly cold winter...

To go sciency for a moment: alcohol is made in wine as a by-product of brewing when yeast (a team of little living microbes added to the barrel) feed on the sugar in (in this instance) grape juice. An unfortunate side-effect of producing the toxic alcohol (so far as the yeast is concerned) results in their poisoning (cf. particularly heavy nights in college bars), but only if a certain amount is produced. But thanks to a cold winter in Champagne this did not happen, and the yeast in a batch of vin gris instead became inactive (hibernated/fell asleep, if you will) before it brewed itself to death. Bottled, transported and warmed in transit, the yeast started working again producing more alcohol and another by-product (the same that makes bread rise) – carbon dioxide (the stuff added to drinks today to make them fizz). In a barrel this could escape, but in a sealed bottle it could not and instead resulted in a surprise for the first Englishman to pop the cork upon arrival. This is still replicated in modern champagne production by super-chilling bottles in liquid nitrogen! So there we have it: on the one hand a drink whose rugged ability to survive the long boat trip to Blighty won a place in the English Lord’s hearts; on the other the result of a French marketing genius who flogged us a load of soured white-wine. Cheers!

De Factoid the Eighth: coming soon

Monday, 15 September 2008

De Factoid the Sixth: Look bake in anger

This De Factoid began with some difficulty. That is not to say that there was any difficulty in its writing, but that difficulty was the inspiration – specifically as often expressed by the odd American phrase: “it ain’t no cakewalk”.

The phrase originates in the slave-plantations of the American South with the tradition of the ‘chalk-line walk’. Slaves would dance up and down a chalk line in imitation of Western ball-room dancing: the winners receiving a slice of hoe-cake (a corn-based break cooked over flame on a metal griddle – often substituted for the head of the land-tilling instrument), giving the dance its alternative name. It has been claimed that both the slaves performed these dances to ridicule their white oppressors and that slave-owners made their chattel perform these dances for their own amusement (which is somewhat more likely). The phrase itself is an example of the rhetorical (i.e. persuasive writing or speaking) device litotes (from the Greek meaning single, simple, meagre). Far from being ‘simple’ to describe, litotes expresses ‘an affirmative by the negative of the contrary’ i.e. it says what something definitely is by describing it as not being its opposite. The ‘cake walk’ phrase is used in the sense of ‘this is going to be difficult’, because a cakewalk itself may have been considered an easy way to earn some food (or at least a much easier activity than the usual plantation workload). The fact, though, that the winners traditionally received hoe-cake (a typically home-made slave food) suggests the practice may have been absorbed into slave-culture and given the positive twist of defiance; and later being adapted into a popular ragtime dance (from Ragged-Time due to its odd beats) for white Americans and emancipated (from the negative of Latin manus, ‘hand’ + capere, ‘take’) African-Americans. It seems the slaves really took the cake (we also get that phrase from the dance), whilst the slave-drivers got their just deserts...

And no, one has not miss-spelt the above phrase. ‘DES-ert’ with the stress falling on the first syllable (part of the word) describes the sandy, arid wasteland (from Vulgate Latin desertum/ desertus – ‘abandoned’; ‘left wasted’ – hence ‘deserted’); whilst the same spelling with the stress falling on the second syllable – ‘de-SERT’ – though sounding like the word dessert (the practice of serving fruit/cake after dinner: from the French, desservir – ‘remove what has been served’) actually means an action or quality deserving appropriate reward/ punishment (from Latin deservitus from where we get ‘deserve’ and ‘deserving’). It’s an easy mistake to make, but in writing could mean the difference between death and death-by-chocolate.

Another cake-based mix-up may have sparked the French-Revolution, when the teenage Queen, Marie Antoinette, upon being informed that the French-peasantry could not afford to buy bread, replied: ‘Let them eat cake’. While ultimately this may have been a miss-translation (the French: qu'ils mangent de la brioche, translating more accurately as ‘[then] let them eat rolls’); and has been accredited elsewhere to princess Maria Theresa of Spain: whatever she said still somewhat missed the point, and her own head rolled via guillotine on 16th October 1793. The guillotine – a machine first used in the last years of French Royal rule for the humane (!) execution of prisoners by speedy decapitation – was named after its conceptual designer Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Other than those killed by firing squad for breaches of national security, the guillotine was the only legal method of execution in France from its first use in 1792 to the abolition of the death penalty in 1981. During the period from June 1793 to July 1794 (known in France as the Reign of Terror), ‘Madam Guillotine’ or the ‘National Razor’ was responsible for between 15,000 and 40,000 executions. Dr. Guillotin died of natural causes in 1814. Other cake-related terrors can be found closer to home. In 1666, a fire at a bakery on Pudding Lane, off Eastcheap in the City of London (the medieval boundaries of the Capital), resulted in the ‘Great Fire’ in which seven-eighths of the city was destroyed between 2nd and 5th September. Sir Christopher Wren was set the task of designing and re-building the city: including fifty new churches and the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The modern day cake, then, should probably come with a disclaimer, ‘Delicious: but may lead to oppression, dancing, genocide and new churches’...

De Factoid the Seventh: coming soon...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

De Factoid the Fifth: Moo-vers and Shakers

In this De Factoid ones usual subject matter is shaken up slightly by finding its measure in liquid – as opposed to chewable matter. Indeed we are going from Cockneys and male-chickens to the latter’s (somewhat confusing) namesake: cocktails.

The liquid-lunch mainstay of swiller and sophisticrat alike; opinions on the origin of the word ‘cocktail’ are as mixed as the drinks themselves, with several clearly the product of knocking back a few strong ones. Everything from drinks served in French-eggcups (coquetier) to the glasses of American Revolutionaries being furnished with chicken feathers (cock – male chicken – tails) from Royalist coops, have been cited. The claim that the drink name comes from the occasional late-medieval English practice of flavouring a gallon of beer with a herbed chicken-carcass may fall a little foul of its true origins; and ‘Cocket-Ale’: (cocket – from an Anglo-Latin corruption of the signing-off of documents: quo quietus est on the King’s Seal of the Custom House) is an attractive, if unlikely explanation for the modern drink. Another less taxing suggestion is easily visible when watching anyone making a cocktail at a student party – usually involving the combination of lethal looking concoctions in plastic containers / funnels / teacups to be rapidly consumed to prove one’s worth (if not one’s sense). To make up a drink by taking the last dregs (tail) from a barrel via the tap/peg (originally the cock) is a fair claim to making a glass of cock-tail. To take a man ‘down a peg or two’ comes either from the tradition of outdoing your opponent at drinking pegged-measures from large tankards; or reducing someone’s erroneous croquet score by lowering their peg (the game that also gives us ‘pipped at the post’ when one knocks an opponent’s ball off track). As much as the modern Pimms-drinker may favour the latter explanation, I’m pretty sure it involved booze. Booze as a word comes from Middle Dutch busen (Mod. Du. buizen): ‘to drink to excess’; and dregs as a word is likely to come from Old Norse dreggjar describing the alcoholic sediments in the bottom of barrels. If nothing else the origins of the average drinker’s vocabulary suggests that the Northern stretches of Europe (where we also find the birthplace of the word drunk) certainly knew (and know) how to get the best from their barrels.

But while chicken-flavoured Cosmopolitans and feather-tipped Tequilas read distinctly more tall-tale than cocktail, a good ‘cock-and-bull’ story does at least claim to share some bar space with our dubiously named drink. Two neighbouring pubs in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire: ‘The Famous Cock Hotel’ and the (pun-flinging) ‘Inn-famous Bull’ claim the phrase ‘cock-and-bull’ came into being to describe the coachmen’s stories poured (and thoroughly embellished) between them. While a nice story, the phrase is probably more likely to refer to the medieval fancy for the ‘bestiary’ tale – stories akin to Aesop’s Fables where anthropomorphic (i.e. ‘people like’) animals take centre stage – than cross-pub banter. Banter as a word seems to be of unknown origin. First recorded in writing in the play Madam Fickle by Thomas D’Urfey (1676), it may well be something analogous to the low-talk of a bantling – a term (possibly introduced corruptly through German bänkling) formerly with the implication of the born-out-of-wedlock ‘bastard’. That the phrase cock-and-bull became negatively associated with made up stories may be a reaction to the rejection of the fable for more serious works in later centuries (combined with more than a little retrospective association with the more modern phrase ‘bullshit’); and that Burton uses the phrase ‘cock and bull’ (though not in a negative sense) in his The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some men’s whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot” also suggests that the coachmen of the two pubs probably didn’t coin the phrase in the 18th century as claimed.

But these tall-taled taverns aren’t the only ones to claim such linguistic lineage. The phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ is staked by Hook Head and the nearby village of Crook, in Waterford, Ireland. That hook and crook are synonyms (the latter from the French influenced Middle English croc or the older Norse krókr meaning a ‘curve’) and combine in the phrase to become a metaphor meaning ‘by one means or another’ seems lost on the little Irish village. The metaphor itself most probably arose from the shifting of stubborn sheep with a shepherd’s staff – the crook; or (failing that) tripping them with the ‘hook’ at the other end (though 'hook' could quite simply have been included for no more reason that it’s rhyming quality with 'crook'). It is worth noting that a Bishop's staff is also called a 'crook' (continuing the 'Lord is my Shepherd' motif), though does not tend to feature the lower tripping facility. The Cock Hotel also claims to be the originator of the nursery rhyme line “ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross” due to the proximity of the coach-house to Banbury. But while this cock-and-bull tale may well fall limp (one finds that a ‘cock-horse’ is generally recognised as one in which the horse’s tail-hair has been cropped short so as to stick up straight as akin cockerel’s tail feathers, not a horse hired from the Cock Hotel) it does provide us with a very sensible suggestion for the origin of our original word. To ‘cock one’s tail’ with a stiff drink presents us with the ancestral action akin to the modern day publican drinking a vodka-Red Bull as a ‘pick-me-up’!

De Factoid the Sixth: coming soon

Thursday, 28 August 2008

De Factoid the Fourth: Have a butchers…

An interesting little fact bubbled to the surface during the frying session of De Factoid the Third: namely that ‘bacon’ – the greasy-spoon mainstay of million – is (as a word at least) French. The British grease-gastro may well swallow his pride as well as his meat and accept bacon’s Gallic origins as little more than a mildly bitter additional flavour; or even savour carving it up with a well made piece of Sheffield steel – but the language of meat in English is recognisably, with but a few fleeting (and we shall see ‘flighting’) exceptions, the product of Monsieur Grenouille: the forever linguistically-pervasive, Frenchman.

To take a step back from bacon (and a step even further back from back-bacon) we get the humble pig: an animal that Churchill regarded as his equal (a sentiment, I feel, which may well have been more-than-readily shared by German nationals of the period). But a pig, when slaughtered (a fantastically Old Norse word – you can practically hear the blade going in to the cow/pig/monk) becomes pork. Something here isn’t kosher…

Cows as well may have some beef with their French carver. To ‘have beef’ with someone is interesting and probably refers to the type of conflict arising between ‘beefy’ combatants. The origin of the phrase is recorded as 18th century American, but ‘beefing up’ has earlier origins. The bovine body has been eaten as a good source of muscle-building protein for as long as cows have been there to provide it. One need only consider the short title for British soldiers garrisoned (from 1485 to present) at the Tower of London who recieved payment, in part, with the meaty-equivalent of the energy bar. The full title of these men – The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London – may have been shortened out of kindness as well as dietary considerations: the locals called them ‘Beefeaters’. Etymologists who may be thinking too hard about the subject have noticed the analogy to the Anglo-Saxon compound word for a menial servant, hláf-æta – literally translated as ‘loaf-eater’. The label, however, is unlikely to have applied to the Yeoman Warders: their social position denoted more beef than bread. Interestingly the hláf-æta’s Anglo-Saxon master the hlaford gives us the term ‘land-lord’ (though literally meaning ‘loaf-lord’): the owner of the fields and produce that the hláf-æta tended and relied upon – quite literally the original ‘bread-winner’. To ‘use your loaf’ – a call for the application of common sense – has its origins in Cockney rhyming slang (the phrase ‘loaf of bread’ rhyming with ‘head’). The title of this De Factoid comes from ‘butchers-hook’ rhyming with ‘look’. Cockney as a title links itself to food from an Anglo-French mixture of French cokene – a ‘cock’ (in the sense of a male chicken) and ay from the Old English æg – ‘egg’. Cockneys were literally a diminutive individual liking relatively to a small-misshapen egg when compared to other Londoners. Other food-related social labels have been applied further north with the ‘Scousers’ of Liverpool originally noted for their consumption of the lower-class sailors’ soup: lobscouse (poss. from lob - in the sense of a lump of meat - hence 'ear-lobe'). Cockney rhyming slang itself may have arisen as a cryptic language to allow illicit communication without the ‘pork chops’ (i.e. cops/coppers – hence ‘pig’ in reference to a policemen) being able to understand. But the pork chops we is interested in today come from the four-legged variety, rather than its two-legged namesake.

The pig, we have seen, becomes pork under the knife, and cows become beef. But why is this? The answer, it seems, lies in the languages of differing social classes after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The French may have ruled the Royal house (royal is a word of French origin from a Latin root that also gives us the word regal, and monarchy is also French), but the country outside the courts did not cease to speak English with the crowning of a new monarch. The words we have for certain meats are the produce of those words being chewed over in different circles of the new English society. To the conquered Saxon farmer tending their animals a cu was still a cu whether calf or carved (the English, indeed, were strained to find why the French monarchy had granted a title to the cut of meat now called sir-loin); and a picga was a pig whichever way you sliced it. But not to their new hlaford. It had happened before with previous invaders, though to the slightly opposite effect of the preservation of the Saxon word ‘orchard’ (‘farmer’s yards’ – consider Gothic aurtja – ‘farmer’) over the Norse apaldgarðr (‘apple-yard’), as whilst the Norseman ate an apple, the Saxon’s still gathered them in their orchards. But in the now French court the mooing bovine animal (bovine itself being a French word from Latin bovum and Bos) was a boef (roughly translation as ‘ox’ in English) and the picga was a porc. The same is true of English deer and French venison; English sheep and French mutton. There is no French equivalent to the Old English clucking cycen however, though the French-rooted word poultry suggests they owned them in sufficient quantities. Perhaps they were more game for rabbit – introduced to Britain by the conquerors after 1066 and only actually becoming wild in the country after escaping from captivity in the last few hundred years. This may be why a chicken is ‘chicken’ whether clucking or ‘clucked’: where there is no class division between consumer and producer, there is no difference in the language. The French words then did not refer specifically to meat, but became associated thus because, ultimately, while English speakers raised cows, their French lords ate boef.

De Factoid the Fifth: coming soon

Monday, 18 August 2008

De Factoid the Third: Owt in the Frying Pan

The Great British Fry-Up: more important to truck drivers than petrol and eaten everywhere from greasy spoon cafes to Buckingham Palace. A cacophony of animal and vegetable, fried until even the tomato is unhealthy enough to destroy a hangover in a blast of slaverous, satisfied consumption.

Five of the six great food groups (greasy, gooey, meaty, salty and stodge) are all catered for in this dish of dishes; with the sixth – sugary – usually found in the drink you wash it down with. But the British eater – looked down upon by Euro-hippies from their grease-free plinths – is not as alone as he might think, and joins a long line of worthy forerunners when he proudly (if shakily) raises that first forkful. Pliny the Elder suggested deep fried canary for a Roman recovering from last night’s centurion; and ancient Greeks were known to go for fried sheep’s lungs and owl eggs (the antecedent of the Breakfast McMuffin?) after oozes of ouzo. Though one might enjoy a fry-up quite happily without the buzz of yester-nights sins as a side dish, to those yet to sample the dish I’d wholeheartedly recommend you appreciate it at least once while sat – plate on knee – firmly (if somewhat infirmly) in the ‘sin bin’.

But just how ‘English’ is the Full English? To answer that one must look at the components of the dish tracing, as ever, their origins and histories:

Bacon – there are an estimated two-billion pigs alive in the world today, and 15% of that (the bellies) can be turned into bacon. Native to Europe and Asia (rather pleasantly grouped as Eurasia), the pig is estimated to have been domesticated between 5,000-7,000 years ago (I imagine the tribes were probably too busy eating and trying to invent HP Sauce to record the event for two-thousand years) and has formed a staple part of the omnivorous diet ever since; with breeds of pigs bred particularly for bacon, notably the Yorkshire and Tamworth. The word itself seems to come from a common stock (bacon in Old French, through to bacho / bakkon in Common and Old High German) referring to the ‘back’ or underside of the animal (Old English bæc – ‘hinder surface’). It has been suggest that Middle-English bacoun once referred to all cuts from the animal, though this to me makes little sense looking at the etymologies unless one considers the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’; coming from the 12th century tradition (still active in Dunmow, England) of awarding a ‘flitch’ of pork (poss. from Norse origins for ‘side’) to any couple whom can satisfy a Judge and Jury of six maidens and six bachelors that in “twelvemonth and a day” they have “not wisht themselves unmarried again”. Other cuts such as ham also show a similar pattern across northern European languages suggesting this meaty morsel has always made the cut in the northern countries’ ideas of good food. HAM radio and ham-acting come from the original metaphor of being ham-handed – clumsy and close-fisted like a ham joint. The religious practice forbidding the consumption of pork is usually related to the un-cleanliness of the animal. The Italian word for pig – suino, further suggests that the northern countries were first to take the bacon (think ‘swine’ in English, or that fantastically stereotypical German ‘pig-dog’ insult: swine-hund!). However much the continentals may ‘ham up’ their culinary achievements, that’s one point closer for us to the Full-English.

Black Pudding – Whilst the north can joyfully claim bacon as their own, the same alas (and surprisingly alas!), cannot be said for Black Pudding. To those not in the know, black pudding is a blend of onions, pork fat, oatmeal, seasonings and pig’s blood, boiled or fried in a length of pig’s intestine / sausage skin (Ok, I admit that sometimes ignorance is bliss). But hold off your retching, for just as the fry-up itself has noble classical antecedents, so too does this dish.

Homer’s Iliad noted a soup of blood and onions that Agamemnon, leader of the Ancient Greek armies, fed to his men before they sacked Troy. This soldier super-soup was taken up with gusto by the Romans who – with their usual engineering skill – adapted the dish to be cooked in a skin and spread across the Empire. Anywhere the Romans were, black-pudding and its cousins followed. Think Morcilla in Spain; Bludwurst/Blutwurst (blood-sausage) in Germany; Boudins Noirs (and its many variants) in France before its shipping to the Creole states in America; Bloedworst in Belgium; and Blóðmör, a staple in Iceland (shipped over by the Vikings). The town of Bury in Greater Manchester, England – famed world-wide for its black-puddings – helps to unravel the spread of the dish, as it was not just that Romans had to be there for black pudding to follow, but that they had to be fighting. We may enjoy it now as a good bit of fried food, but as the Iliad entry shows, black-pudding was proper fighting-food. All those fancy foreign names for the pud’ are flag posts for the numerous tribes the Romans had to chop through on a daily basis. Further evidence comes in the form of a Roman Urn containing a number of small bronze coins dated between AD 253-282 found north of what is now the town centre of the black-pudding capital of England. Bury then, from the Anglo-Saxon burh/burg (from where we get borough) meaning ‘fort’ or an encampment was a Roman re-fueling station in every sense and strongpoint against northern scrappers. That the pud’ is a dish recognized in England as ‘northern’ may well suggest which end of the country caused the invaders the most trouble. Other battles involving the pud’ still rage in the north in Ramsbottom (outside Manchester), where hundreds compete annually in the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships. The contest is said to date back to a battle during the War of the Roses (1455–1487) when opponents resorted to throwing puds when they ran out of weapons. Contestants now hurl them at a 20ft-high stack of Yorkshire puddings. Whoever knocks the most Yorkshire puds off the stack is declared the winner. (Seems like a waste to me…) Woe-betide if internal injury is suffered however: in 2002 an article in the British Medical Journal warned that its methods of testing for colorectal cancer were useless in Bury due to the abundance of blood regularly featuring in healthy stool samples. A quite literal interpretation of 'happy as a pig in shit'.

Sausage - The sausage seems to be the logical outcome of the butchering process, collecting all off-cuts of meat, fat and gristle into a skin to be cooked or preserved and eaten later (cf. Big Macs / TV-dinners). Homer, this time in his Odyssey (Book 20), notes a ‘paunch full of blood and fat’ cooking on a fire and Epicharmus (550-460 BC) wrote a comedy titled The Sausage, but the sausage seems to be uniformly present in every society with animals worth eating. Emperor Nero aligned the sausage with the Roman (and possibly pre-Roman) festival Lupercalia in honour of the she-wolf which suckled the brothers Romulus (of ‘Rome’ fame) and Remus, which fell on what is now Valentine’s Day (it seems Nero would probably have liked ‘Carry-On’ films). The festival was outlawed by the Catholic Church, making eating sausages a sin (though nothing seems to have been said about suckling a she-wolf?) which, combined with the story of Jesus sending demons from possessed men into pigs (Matthew 8:28-34 and elsewhere), made for a pretty raw deal for pork-butchers. The idea of preserving meats may have given the sausage its name (if not its reputation), with the Old French saussiche coming from the Latin word salsus, meaning 'salted' which I discussed in the last entry. Walking-sausages (or ‘pigs’) are collectively grouped under the genus Sus within the Suidae family. Whether sus-age and sausage are linked linguistically I cannot yet determine.

Egg – possibly the best of the dish for curing a hangover thanks to its high glutathione content (which breaks down toxins), the egg (specifically the chicken egg) has a much longer lineage than most breakfast foods, with recent biological and archaeological research suggesting that the humble clucker shares a gene or two with Tyrannosaurs Rex. Most likely descended from Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), it seems the first human egg-eaters may have been Indians. They wouldn’t have been served as spicy as they might today though: the chilli-pepper was introduced to India from South-America by Spanish and Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century. It’s probably (or at least hopeful) that Shakespeare and Elizabethan England cooked its eggs in hot fat, or the stabbing insult from Macbeth; “What, you egg? Young fry of treachery!” wouldn’t be nearly as funny...

Mushrooms – whilst a key component in the breakfast there is very little to say. Origins are impossible to trace, mushrooms are a spores-based fungus and spread wherever the wind is strong enough, including onto the plate of the more-than-occasionally-windy British-breakfast consumer.

Baked Beans – the most famous brand of which to grace the Full-English plate – Heinz – was founded by a German in Pennsylvania, America in 1869. The company’s first products were horseradish, pickles and tomato-ketchup. The beans themselves weren’t produced until after the the ketchup became popular, but have been so popular since that they have spawned their own subtle variation on the name: not beans, but beanz, recalling the popular slogan Beanz Meanz Heinz. The French may lay claim to the invention of the baked bean, though which end of the country is disputed. Cassoulet, a regional bean stew from the South of France was thought to be one possible source, though Normandy claims a similar recipe. The baked-bean as we know it is more likely the product of several cutlers: European, Native American, African, Mexican, Cajun, Creole (etc!) colliding in the Americas. The tin can, the iconic storage device for the baked bean was invented by an Englishman, Peter Durand, in 1810.

Hash Brown – a patty-style chuck of diced potato, fried until lovely. Possibly an adaption of the Scandinavian dish Rösti, the current form cannot have existed before 1563 for the simple fact that we didn’t know the potato existed. I say 1563 as John Hawkins brought the potato back to England twenty years before its re-introduction by Sir Walter Raleigh. The ‘hash’ element comes from the French hacher/hachis referring usually to diced meats from an early Roman root (and also I imaging, the roots of the term ‘hash’ as a diced drug product, though hashish may have Arabic origins linked, interestingly, to the word assassin - 'Hash-eater').

Fried Bread – quite possibly the logical result of frying everything else, fried bread may well be of English origin, though has a particularly strong following in Ireland, and the antecedents of 'French Toast' may also place a claim.

Tomato – like the chilli pepper and the potato; the tomato is of South American origin and only began to grace our plates after its introduction in 1570. The tomato was originally believed to be poisonous and eaten in small amount, in the French fashion, as an aphrodisiac. Mrs. Heinz would be pleased...

So there we are, a somewhat rambling, though hopefully interesting consideration of the Full-English breakfast. And I can, after all of those doubts, still call it just that. The Romans may claim the word 'fry' as theirs (from frigere), though Sanskrit bhrjyati suggest other competition, but as a country founded and moulded by successive waves of meat-eating Saxons, Vikings and Normans; with an Empire that spanned the globe and with trade networks reaching every corner of the world, the thought of bringing together so many cultures and so much history into one dish, savouring the collection, and frying the lot is, to me, quintessentially English.

De Factoid the Fourth - coming soon