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

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

De Factoid the Second: Tracing the Sauce

It seems that in the history of our gastric-existence a word, more than any other, has haunted man. I say 'man' in the strictest sense of gender, for to women the word holds no dark power and falls easily to their forks, fat-free ethics and dietary points schemes. The word is question, gentlemen, is salad. Often found lying limp and beaten on top of a burger in a last ditch attempt to trick us into five-a-day or as a piece of parsley perched as bewildered as a lost mountaineer atop your medium-rare sirloin mountain; the salad has for many years been overlooked, shunned and downright feared. So shunned in fact that at some point in our hungry history the mother tongue (or more likely father tongue) favoured an entirely different word, and accompaniment, at the ancestral table.

Salad as a word comes, as one would expect, from the salad-munching Mediterranean. The root of the world, however, belies the health nature of the modern dish. The Roman and the Ancient Greek salads differed dramatically from what one may partake in today and usually consisted of an assortment of raw, chopped root vegetables served with Herba Salata. From the Vulgar Latin (that is the Latin spoken by the people – not rude Latin words like cunnilingus) Herba Salata translates as ‘salted herb’, with the latter part of the phrase garnishing the English tongue (through French) with the modern word. There certainly wasn’t any chicken in Caesar’s actual salad.

So it’s the drizzle, not the green, which produced the word ‘salad’. Salad and getting one’s greens are also associated pretty closely elsewhere in the Roman world, as a ‘salary’ comes from the Roman military habit of paying their soldiers wages (in part) with the expensive commodity sal – salt. The word ‘green’ in reference to money is far more recent, most probably connected to the colour of the American Dollar ($), but the U.S., sal and salads are not our main concern. The notion of eating raw vegetables drizzled in other smaller raw things has only fairly recently entered the British concept of ‘the edible’. Our food was boiled until bland and flavour – if such an indulgence was to be taken – was added afterwards. Ours was not so much the drizzle as the dollop. And sal became the source of another far more complimentary word: sauce.

Sauce is another culinary term shipped over and lapped-up by French tongues post-1066 with exactly the same roots (and root veggies) as salad. The word comes from that same sal and probably developed from Latin salsus (salted) into our sauce through the word salsa (the same Latin word salsus, but with a feminine ending) – it seems women, even in ancient Rome, have always preferred the healthier option. To claim someone is a ‘bit of a savoury character’ comes from the same ‘savoury’ root as the salad dressing and to claim that a Salsa dance is ‘a bit saucy’ is not only a good pun but also a pretty accurate translation. Our word sauce then is the truer linguistic descendent of those ancient dressing drizzlers, and tastes better with chips. So lads, next time the missus tells you to eat more salad, reach for the sauce with confidence.

In De Factoid the Third: Owt in the Frying Pan – I’ll be looking at the historic and cultural roots of the Great British fry-up.

Monday, 11 August 2008

De Factoid the First: Who Moo?

Taking the words from the title above (and the first of many a thinly disguised word pun) I'll start with an appropriate one for the words and food theme: 'ruminating'.

If one takes the French rumin- or better yet Latin (because ultimately we don't want to give Monsieur Grenouille any credit for this interesting little factoid), we get throat or gullet, which is part way there. As ruminant animals (like cows) do, to 'ruminate' is to 'chew something over' (we can also see this in the metaphor 'to chew the cud' - cud from Old English cwidu: 'what is chewed'). The first compartment of a cow's stomach (cows only have one, not multiple stomachs - but the stomach does have four compartments) is the rumen, so to ruminate over something implies the same process as a cow bringing up grass for a second chew! Food for thought, eh?

Cattle, generally, are interesting. Not in a more-than-a-pet-and-less-than-a-lover kind of way (bona et catalla, anyone?), but in that they have been a fair constant across human existence and civilisation: which can be seen in language and will no doubt crop up again in future writings. The word 'cattle' itself is worth a lot for this discussion, and has only fairly recently referred specifically to walking-stakes-to-be. 'Cattle', and its Anglo-Norman (i.e. post-1066 Old-English/French language cocktail) precursor chattel has about it the meaning, not of ruminates but 'wealth' generally (as does a cognate in a few other languages including Anglo-Saxon) and links to that increasingly important word 'capital'. 'Capital' itself is from the latin caput meaning 'head' (think 'baseball/skullcap', the capital - top - on a stone column, capital cities and the phrase: per capita, 'per head'). Chattel as a word comes more to represent property and more specifically moveable property in Anglo-Norman, the most common of which was the moo-vable, cow. Carlos Linnaeus - a Swedish bloke from the 1700's aka Mr. Binomial Nomenclature (he liked to name things) - gave European (and African) cattle the general label, Bos taurus - which became Bos primigenius taurus a bit later on. The other two main groups are Bos primigenius indicus (the zebu) and Bos primigenius primigenius (the Aurochs- extinct 1627). In the former of the three names you'll probably already have spotted the 'Taurus' of star-sign fame. The other greek bit, 'Bos' (the 'cow' bit) crops up in the Balkans with the 'Istanbul Strait', or Bosphorus / Bosporus in what was called 'Rumelia' (translating to 'land of the romans' though I can't help but see that cowish rum-, again) by the Turkish. Understanding the other Greek bit of Bosphorus roughly to mean 'a water crossing', one finds in the name another place where wealth per capita is measured predominantly by the ability to ruminate: Oxford!

De Factoid the Second: Tracing the Sauce - coming soon