Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Ground Almond soup, could this have been a medieval favourite?

Following my post yesterday on Spanish hams and their Medieval ancestry I have discovered something even more exciting in terms of its Medieval food heritage. And all whilst enjoying my holiday here in Gibraltar. Staring at me from a chilled foods counter in the "Eroski" supermarket was ground almond soup! Intended, like its cousin vegetable gazpacho soup, to be eaten cold this thick pureed concoction is made with very few, but all natural ingredients. 

The ingredients of "El gazpacho de almendras ajoblanco" , an obviously still popular dish from rustic Andalusia, are (and I am testing my abilities to read Spanish here): water, almonds, lemon juice, virgin olive oil, ground bread, vinegar wine, salt, and garlic. And all are staples from Medieval days too...cooks then  were fond of ground breadcrumbs as a thickening agent. 

I am a little surprised the soup has only 7% almonds - now I am a little less excited since I thought it was almost purely an almond milk concoction! Certainly in Medieval times water would not have been added to the mix unless the whole batch was to be boiled.

Here is my discovery, in a Tetrapak of course. Its not a dish I shall be replicating for the Medieval or Tudor dollshouse though. I think it lacks a little presence!

Almonds were a very versatile cooking ingredients whose flavours was much appreciated by the medieval palate. They were put to many uses in both sweet and savoury dishes, certainly they were very important in Medieval cookery. Almond milk was used in the range of “white food” or blancmange dishes incorporating shredded white meat or fish. Used with eggs or butter and various flavourings it made sauces that counteracted the excessive saltiness or smokiness of preserved meat or fish. Fried whole almonds were popular as a garnish for many dishes.

Cultivation of almonds, which are related to apricots and cherries, goes back into pre-history. The food historian Alan Davidson notes that today the almond is actually the most important commercially produced nut. It was introduced to Europe from Asia, via Spain, by the Phoenicians in the 8th century. Well, here in Gibraltar at the southern tip of Europe, and surrounded on three sides by Spain, those trading Phonecians did came calling and they settled awhile leaving archaeological evidence, including fine glassware for which they were reknowned 

"El gazpacho de almendras ajoblanco" is starting to make historic and geographic sense now. My excitement levels are rising once more. And I have not even tried the chilled soup yet, maybe tomorrow for lunch...

Monday, 27 July 2015

Cured hams - an Iberican speciality

Whether you are a vegetarian or not, whilst in a bar or market cafe in Southern Spain you can’t help but notice the legs of ham hanging above you. Well I can’t anyway, with my  eager “modern medieval food” eyes wide open. Some hams, I notice, have white trotters and some, producing the superior quality “pata negra”, have black trotters - or at least black toes.

And then there are stacks of hams in the supermarkets all year round. In years gone by you might only have seen them in the supermarkets in the run up to Christmas, but why not celebrate any special occasion with “jamon serrano”?

Curing a hog’s leg with salt goes back to time immemorial. Cato the elder wrote over 2000 years ago in  “De agri cultura”  “On farming” as follows: “Spread salt in bottom of (my edit: very large!) jar, lay a ham cover with salt, lay another meat not touching, cover with salt. After five days, remove and reverse order hams are placed in. 12 days later remove hams, brush off salt, hang in a draught for 2 days. On the 3rd day clean with sponge and rub with oil (my edit: olive oil of course). Hang in smoke for 2 days. On the 3rd day take them down, rub in a mixture of oil and vinegar, hang in the meat house. No moths or worms will touch them.”

This method of curing the larger cuts of meat from swine (hogs, pigs) changed very little in 2000 years in today’s artisanal ham making - except the time allowed for curing is much longer - up to two years for a jamon serrano and up to 4 years for a jamon iberico. The curing process alters the flavour and the natural enzymes have longer to break down the tissues and make the ham mouth wateringly tender. Patience is rewarded!

History bears witness that the pig (hog or swine) produces the world's best tasting flesh, it is the only animal where a specific vocabulary has developed for its different meats - namely pork, ham and bacon. Pig meat of all three types was highly valued by all classes of Medieval society, and it was no exaggeration to say that every part of the animal was eaten. MedievalMorsels models ham legs and ham sides at 12th scale for your period or contemporary dollshouse, roombox or diorama. My online shop re-opens on 1 August after a short holiday break. take a look then!

The pig (Sus scrofa domesticus) is the oldest domesticated creature besides the dog. All pigs are descended from the wild boar (Sus scrofa). Bones from Turkey show human/pig association as early as 8000 BC, pre-dating man's cultivation of barley and wheat. This seems to disprove the commonly held theories first, that goats and sheep were the first domesticated animals and second, that man engaged in crop growing before animal husbandry. Pigs were, however, domesticated at different times around the world.