New is old, old is new
and sometimes old is old and new is new and what do old and new mean anyway?
I was very struck by Elizabeth David's quote about food evolving which I included in yesterday's post and will repeat here, just to remind you:
"In the lands bordering the Mediterranean, as indeed almost everywhere else, the cooking is constantly evolving; traditional dishes are being adapted to modern techniques and to new ingredients, or to old ones which, as a result of modern methods of cultivation, transport, preservation, and storage, have undergone material modifications or even a basic change."
It was sort of unexpected from her as she is generally pretty dismissive of new ways of processing food. She was writing at a time when people were buying more and more processed foods - my mother certainly bought a few - partly because the fresh versions were either not available or were far too expensive. I'm sure that some contained additives banned today, and rather more undesirables such as sugar than today.
But it was also a time when not only were old foods being processed in new ways, but also a time when ordinary people were beginning to travel overseas, and writers like Elizabeth David were extolling the glories of foreign food to the great unwashed, which ultimately led to the availability of 'new' vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant and coriander and new foods such as pasta, couscous and pizza. Yes pizza - hard to imagine a world without pizza and pasta is it not, but believe me it existed in post war Britain. Not to mention new machines like food processors and electric mixers, and new methods of production, transport and storage.
Then today I finished my book group book - Tracey Chevalier's The Last Runaway, which is largely about the Underground Railway - the route along which runaway slaves were shepherded on their way to freedom in Canada in the nineteenth century. It was all seen through the eyes of a young English Quaker girl, who had married a farmer's son. Why is this significant? Well somewhere (I can't find the passage now) she wrote about making fruit leathers, and there is also this passage:
"If thee could see the pantry here, thee would be amazed at the rows and rows of jars filled with all the food from the garden: beans and peas and cucumbers and tomatoes and squash. The cellar is full of potatoes and turnips and carrots and beets, and apples and pears. The cherries and plums are in syrup or dried. We are now making apple sauce, apple butter, and drying apple rings as well ...
It is satisfying to look in the pantry and see it brimming. And the hay is topping haymow; the corn crib is full of dried corn. The pigs are fattening fast and will be slaughtered in a month or two, the chickens will be bottled (yes they put them in jars!), and Jack is hunting for deer." Tracey Chevalier - The Last Runaway
Back then you had to do this or you would starve in the winter. It was a necessity. And there in the latest Coles Magazine in their How to section is How to make pickles. Because pickles are suddenly trendy again are they not? Well pickles have always been popular. They are one of those store-bought products of vintage provenance that have improved over the years due to technological developments. No, what is new is twofold - the fact that it is fashionable again to make your own pickles - even 'branded' kinds of pickles like Branston pickles, and also the appearance of new pickles like kimchi, sauerkraut (not quite so new), and fermented this and that. The pickles that are shown here are also new/old. At the top of the page we have pickled baby corn - a product that has only recently become available in any other form than tinned. Well it seems like that to me, but then I don't keep much of an eye on the freezer section of supermarkets for example. I now feel I should. The recipe specifies Coles Australian Baby Corn - and yes - it's fresh. The red cabbage pickle is rather more traditional and not quite as new - but it would have been new in Elizabeth David's time - both the cabbage itself and the fennel and cumin seeds which are used to spice it up. Then we have curry spiced baby carrots. The presentation is what is new here I think - the rest of it speaks of colonial India. And zucchini dill pickles. Commonplace you might say. Well cucumber dill pickles yes. But in my youth there would have been no zucchini and no dill either.
And let's not forget the instantaneous pickles that you serve sprinkled over salads - well anything really - like onions and radishes and cucumber. They have, of course, been around for a long time, particularly in Asia, but they are a very recent big thing here.
All of which made me wonder what else I would find in the magazine which would illustrate the new/old, old/new thing. Here are few specific things:
That fruit leather that Tracey Chevalier mentions. Here it's part of their back to school section. They present it as a novel idea because the obviously ancient practice of drying fruit purées and concentrating their flavour has mostly been a 'new' food from manufacturers. You buy 'roll ups' in packets. Now the secret is out and you can do it yourself and they tell you how. And guess what - it's the same process as it has always been. Well no because we now have modern ovens which control the temperature to 5 degrees celsius which is somewhat easier than drying in the sun, or a wood-fired oven. Essentially old/old with new technology and new pretty presentation and names.
Still on sweet things for children and their lunch boxes are jellies or fruit jelly squares as they are called. New? Pasteurised fruit juices in packets, and even newer - no added sugar in the fruit juice. Cranberries, also reduced sugar - I'm not sure when cranberries became available. A while ago now but not in Elizabeth David's time. New - decorating the jellies with the cranberries. Old - the method.
Passata. New - not so new now and ancient to Italians, but new to the Anglo world until relatively recently, which is strange really. After all we had tomatoes. We made them into tomato ketchup/sauce though, or just ate them as they were or fried for breakfast. Also new in this particular recipe is the fact that the tomatoes are roasted in the oven with garlic, red wine vinegar, basil and oregano. This is a very modern and trendy thing to do to tomatoes - ah and they are 'vine-ripened'. They used to pick tomatoes before they were ripe until transporting them became more efficient. Then it's all just blended in a food processor. We didn't have passata - or food processors -in the 1950s. But really this is fundamentally an ancient thing, and we all know about the Italians gathering together to process a year's supply of passata.
My last specific example is Curtis Stone's Raspberry brioche summer pudding, which is really entirely new although inspired by something old - summer pudding, in which ripe berries are placed in a pudding basin lined with white bread, covered with the same bread, weighted down and left for the fruit to seep into the bread. It's divine. What Curtis Stone has here is really more of an update on trifle - layers of fruit, sugar and brioche - new and trendy - topped with yoghurt - very ancient but relatively new to us Anglos, to be specific Greek yoghurt - newer still and trendier.
I have picked on Coles magazine to illustrate the old/new thing because it is a sort of barometer, and to a lesser degree, a trend setter, of food fashion. As such I find it a fascinating read. Scattered throughout the magazine though are endless examples of foods that might now be staples in our homes - pizza, pasta, stir fries, noodles, endlessly varied salads but which were unkown to us back then. Those dishes - ancient in themselves in their places of origin have been updated with modern 'cheats' such as pizza bases, bottled pesto, bottled pastes and spices, bottled sauces. Then there are new vegetables that have arrived in our supermarkets with each new wave of immigrants, or development by producers - qukes, broccolini, merino tomatoes ... and the new products that are the result of the 'health' revolution. Ancient grains such as quinoa and freekeh and couscous are new again, and really new are milks made from oats and nuts. Not to mention all those fermented things like kombucha, kefir and kimchi. And of course the makers of things like tim-tams continue to come out with new iterations of their basic product, that tap into the new trends. The tim tams tap into the trend of emphasising provenance - Murray River double choc, Dimbulah Mountain Estate Coffee and Choc, Moreton Bay raspberry and dark choc. Who knows whether they actually have anything to do with those places, but the makers obviously think it's important.
Shortly I shall be launching into yet another preserving operation - my peaches are almost ripe and I shall be making jam. Now I don't need to make jam - or chutney or even a fruit leather. I could just leave the peaches for the birds. I have lots of jam, but it is a curiously satisfying thing to do and also curiously reassuring to have a whole shelf full of jam and marmalade, even if I only have a tiny bit every morning for breakfast. I think it's something to do with a deep down fear of wastage.
Elizabeth David lived and died a long time ago now but the revolution she started has gained in pace and breadth from those small beginnings. She herself, often used recipes by past masters to her. In her book Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen she speaks of how, when bedridden for a short period, she turned to her favourite cookbooks. The two she mentioned were from the twenties and thirties - well before her time. In her own books she zeroed in on what was worth keeping and what could be improved. Each of her books was updated by herself to keep pace with the availability of ingredients, and the updated and totally new kitchen gadgets and equipment. To us she is now ancient:
"But the true legacy of this remarkable woman is her recipes, still passing the test of time 60 and more years after they were written. Savour them." Tony Rennell - Daily Mail
I'll leave her alone for a while now - Coles too - although both keep popping up at unexpected times, but I will include this last quote which really doesn't have much to do with food, but which is worth holding on to anyway - particularly on dark days.
"Every day holds the possibility of a miracle." Elizabeth David