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Graters - from sex to high tech

"Bad news: no one's invented the perfect grater. Good news: there are three basic designs to choose from, all with strong points, as well as weaknesses." Richard Ehrlich - The Guardian

We're making gnocchi tomorrow in our resuming Zoom cooking class and we shall need grated cheese at some point. And my older son told me he didn't have a grater, which got me to thinking how one could survive without a grater. It's one of the most used gadgets in my kitchen, always to hand in my mini gadget drawer. I say 'it' but that's not true because I have three different kinds - no more - if you count a mandoline and a food processor. Anyway I decided to do a piece on graters.

I thought I knew more or less what I would be covering but no, there is so much more - including a sex position called 'the lioness on the cheese grater'!

Maybe I should get that one out of the way first. It's a reference from an ancient Greek play (Lysistrata) by Aristophanes when the women are withholding their sexual favours from their husbands and in the dialogue comes the line: “I will not adopt the lioness on a cheese grater position.” I gather that over the years men - mostly men of course - have pondered on this but come to no conclusion. If you want to know more, then read The Lioness and the Cheese Grater: History’s Most Mysterious Sex Position on a website called The Cut. Actually there are several other articles out there - of course. Just do a Google search.

The relevance of all of that, however, is the reference to a cheese grater. I.e. the Greeks had cheese graters - as this little figurine seems to suggest. Others have been found in Etruscan tombs, and in ancient Roman sites too. Probably China as well - the Chinese seem to have had everything.

However, if you look at the history of graters, you will be told that they were invented around 1540 by one François Boullier in response to a glut of cheese which meant that the cheese became very hard because of it sitting around for longer than usual. He made his from pewter - which I somehow don't imagine could have been that effective. The grater as we know it today was revived in the 1920s depression times in the USA by one Jefferey Taylor of Philadelphia, inspired by an implement designed for wood. Which sounds more like a mandoline to me. Anyway that's what the American literature says. From there the size and shape was an ever-changing competitive thing. Here are a selection of vintage graters to give you some idea.

I think the three basic types are the box grater, the flat shape with a handle, and the rotary one with a drum - not shown in that collection above.

The box grater which I'm sure you are all familiar with - a box shaped thing with a handle at the top and different sized holes at the sides, is the one I generally prefer to use. although I know find that I am using it all wrong. A recent internet hack says you would do better to use it on the horizontal as it takes less effort and contains the grated cheese more efficiently, which statement does not make sense to me, as it seems to me that the cheese is much more likely to escape the confines of the grater if you use it horizontally than when you use it upright.

I'll try it next time I grate something to see which is best. I will admit though that it's better to use it on a flat surface rather than over, or even in, a bowl. You keep knocking your hand on the top of the bowl I find. An essential tool in any kitchen though, although I agree with various writers that the slicing function on the side is not very effective. Mind you I also saw that somebody suggested it could also be used as a pastry cutter - the base that is and as a mould for a salad. Amazing what people think of isn't it?

Then there's the flat variety, which mostly seem to come with small holes. If you want more options then you would have to buy more graters, which is why the box grater wins here I think. Still it's rather more trendy and the kind that is used in Italian restaurants - and by Jamie when he wants to show off. It's rather more theatrical in other words. And these days, of course, the game has gone up a notch with the microplane.

"Here's the science bit: the cutting edges of conventional graters are made by punching holes into flat stainless steel or tin sheets. Result? Blunt as your granny's carving knife. A Microplane grater's cutting edges are formed by a process called photo-etching in which holes are dissolved with a chemical, leaving edges so sharp that they slice through food rather than tearing it." David Wood - The Guardian

And your fingers if you are not careful. I have two flat graters in my drawer, and one of them may be a microplane. I'm not sure. But I do find them much more difficult to use because as somebody pointed out, you have to hold it up whilst pushing down with your cheese. There are some that have a sort of foot to rest it on, but, no they are not easy. And if they are very sharp then you have to be even more cautious than with your box grater. It is so so easy to grate your finger when you are coming to the last bit of your cheese. Useful for a little bit of grating over your cheese at table though I suppose. And a variation is a nutmeg grater which is much smaller, but the same principle.

Then there's the rotary kind. I used to have one of these. Actually two - because there was a variant with sort of pins sticking up instead of holes, which was for chopping/mincing herbs. I bought them both in France way back when. Ultimately I threw them both out though because actually they are not much use. You have to exert a fair amount of pressure and you can only do a small amount at a time. A bit like the plane kind I suppose. Useful at the table but not for cooking.

Then there are the others - the mandoline - a potentially dangerous but very effective tool for slicing vegetables very thinly. I have one but I don't use it very much. However, when I do I am impressed. A small ceramic dish which my lovely almost daughter-in-law gave me for grating ginger. you just rub your ginger - or garlic I suppose- over the little bits that stick up. Very effective. And then, of course, there is the food processor which I have to say I use the most when it comes to grating Parmesan because it does a lot very quickly and quite finely.

There are variations on all of these things of course, often electronic, but those are basically your choices.

As to washing - well you should at least rinse them straight away because if you leave the cheese to harden on the grater then it does indeed get very difficult to get it off.

Now why should you grate cheese anyway? After all you can just buy packets of the stuff at your local supermarket. Which is probably what my son does. Well here is one occasion when I agree with the food gurus. It's fresher. Nigel Slater said it smelt like vomit - and you know he's almost right. The stuff you get in the packets has been coated with stuff like cellulose to stop it all clumping together. And it's not super fresh. Not like when you have just grated the cheese from a block. Also apparently the freshly grated variety melts better. I don't quite understand the science, but did you know that hand grated cheese (not the food processor stuff) is thinner at the ends than in the middle and this is helps it to melt quicker and more smoothly? Or you can do like David does, and Nigel Slater too:

"Try adding a handful of Parmesan to your next green salad. With a copious and mustardy dressing, the cheese will make a flimsy salad substantial enough to call itself a light lunch." Nigel Slater

But there is yet more to say about graters. Because you can grate all manner of things other than cheese. Indeed the reason this post came up was because one of the gnocchi recipes I am looking at is a recipe for carrot gnocchi from Bert Greene which is a favourite of mine, and you have to grate the carrots. And pre-shredded and packaged vegetables are not good - they always look tired and slightly brown at the edges to me.

The vegetables are an obvious thing you can grate - although some more than others. I once saw Jamie grate a head of broccoli for one of his improvised lockdown dishes. I think it went into a quesadilla or something, but you could use it for all sorts of things. Quite a nifty thing to do I thought. Tomatoes too are something that I would never have thought of grating, but I have now seen a few recipes calling for this method of preparing your tomatoes. Cut in half and grate.

"Whisk the results into vinaigrettes, quick salsas, and gazpacho, or make tomato jam. The slightly chunky pulp also works well in fresh pasta sauces, frittatas, and as a sandwich topper - no peeling or chopping required." Kay Chun - Bon Appétit

There are several sites that give options for grating but 11 things you didn't know were great to grate from Danielle Walsh of Bon Appétit covers most of them. Breadcrumbs, chocolate, frozen butter for flaky pastry were three. I have tried the flaky pastry one and I have to say it was an excellent idea - I got that from Delia. Frozen bananas and even frozen foie-gras. And I have just realised that I haven't even mentioned citrus zest which is the other major use for my box grater in my kitchen. Though the flat ones are good for that too. And those nifty little zesting implements are yet another form of a specialised grater I guess. The most outlandish suggestion though was to grate the last bits from a soap block, collect them, then melt them and pour into a mould for a new block of soap. A bit extreme but it does show human ingenuity.

Do spiralisers count? I haven't got one of them.


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