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


spacedlaw said...

For some reasons, I thought rösti was Swiss rather than Scandinavian, but I suppose it just spread.

Thanks for visiting Word of the Day.
Interesting blog, you have here, Adam.

Adam James Nall said...

I'm pretty sure they are big with the Swizzers as well. Not sure the exact point of origin. Though if it sounds like IKEA furniture and turns out to be food it's generally scandanavian in my book.

With thanks,