Tea is all the hype in Britain

1610 saw the introduction of tea to Europe by Dutch tradesmen, but it wasn’t until 1658 that it first entered the British market.

An ad from the Mercurius Politicus, the precursor of the London Gazette, on Sept. 30, 1658  reads:

That excellent and by all pysitians approved China drink called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.

Over the next 100 years tea became the drink of choice in the country. Even so, a third of a skilled worker’s weekly wage could only buy a pound of the cheapest tea.

Heavy taxation was the cause for the price hike; in mid-18th century, tea tax had reached 119%. This led to a black market as tea smugglers took advantage of the high demand by mixing fresh product with used tea leaves or other substances, unbeknownst to buyers.

Only when the tea tax was reduced to 12.5% in 1784 did tea smuggling finally end.

The social ritual we know today as afternoon tea is said to have been started in the early 1800s with one person: Anna the 7th Duchess of Bedford. She choose to have tea in the late afternoon as dinner in fashionable circles was often served around 8pm.

And in case you’re wondering how that Epic Tea Time has evolved to this day, here’s Alan Rickman’s interpretation:

References:
Tea in Britain.” Accessed 30 September 2012.
Food and Drink.” Accessed 30 September 2012.

The Mother of French Cooking in America

I grew up like most other kids, waking up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons, but unlike most kids, after cartoons I would watch my cooking shows.

So it was inevitable that I would learn about Julia Child, in all her splendor, at such an early age.

I mean she was a rock star in my eyes. She wasn’t afraid to use butter (but didn’t take it to a gross Paula Deen level), she would nonchalantly whack any piece of meat with her cleaver, but, most importantly, she was such a goofball, and I was hooked!

And I wasn’t the only one. Today we celebrate what would have been Julia’s 100th birthday.

I think we all know a bit about Julia, the woman who brought French Cooking to American homes with her co-authored cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television cooking shows, but here are a few things you might not have known about the woman I call the Mother of French Cooking in America.

Julia_Child-2012-hp

Did you know that Julia Child…

1. Worked with The Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor to the CIA. Some say she worked as a spy, and maybe cataloging highly-classified documents would fall under that position.

2. Was an inventor. During WWII she worked on developing shark repellant for underwater explosives, which were crucial in our fight against the German submarines.

3.  At 6’2, was the tallest student in her class at San Francisco’s Katherine Branson School for Girls, and was described by a friend at the time as being “really, really wild.”

4. Intended to become a famous woman novelist while attending Smith College, which claims Sylvia Plath, Nancy Reagan and Gloria Steinem as alumnae.

5. Was fired from home furnishing company W&J Sloane’s Los Angeles branch for “gross insubordination.”

Quotes from Julia:

  • “I can’t stand those over-sanitary people.” In response to letters from viewers criticizing her for not washing her hands.
  • “I would rather eat one tablespoon of chocolate russe cake than three bowls of Jell-O,” Julia advised after hearing concerns about the high levels of fat in French cooking.
  • “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
  • “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”

 

And finally, here is a great piece from Los Angeles-based illustrator Ann Shen, complete with fun facts about Julia:

 

References:
Cookbook Author Julia Child of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”-Biography.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child: America’s French Chef.” Accessed 14 August 2012.
Julia Child Biography.” Accessed 14 August 2012.

The origins of custards and flan

Flan is one of my favorite desserts. It’s so creamy and fresh, sweet and vanilla-y; what more could you ask for on a sunny day? And in Los Angeles, it’s sunny 360 days of the year.

The name flan comes from the French “flaon,” which has been derived from “flado,” meaning flat cake in Latin.

The dessert I’ve grown to love is your basic Mexican dessert, where it’s considered “comida corrida” or “food on the run”. Essentially, it’s a sweet treat you can enjoy anytime of the day. Perfecto!

Flan first came to Mexico through the Spaniards. Not surprising. But did you know the custards that flan was created from stem all the way back to Roman times?

The Way of Custards

The first flado came about when domesticated chickens and the surplus of eggs they were producing prompted Romans to adopt a trick from the Greeks: mixing eggs with cream. These first custards were either savory or sweet, with the sweet recipes making great use of the region’s honey.

As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the footprint of custard dishes. The sweet versions remained a staple in European society well into the Middle Ages. The Moors began making dishes that included citrus and almond flavors, while the caramelized sugar was added by the Spanish. These custards are much more similar to what we now know as flan as far as ingredients and flavors are concerned.

In 1440 A Boke of Kokery (Book of Cookery) was published with 182 recipes, including one for a dish called “Custard Lumbarde.” Unlike the simple flan that I love, this British recipe is for a type of pie that includes pieces of fruit or meat in a sweet or spicy custard sauce. Look for the text and it’s translation in today’s English after the photos.

Original Text:
Custard lumbarde
Take good creme, and leuys of Percely, and yolkes and white of egges, and breke hem thereto, and streyne hem all þorg a straynour till hit be so thik that it woll bere him self. And take faire Mary and Dates, cutte in ij. or iij. and prunes, and put hem in faire coffyns of paast. And then put þe coffyn in an oven, And lete hem bake till thei be hard. And then drawe hem oute and putte the licoure into þe coffyns. And put hem into þe oven ayen. And lete hem bake til they be ynogh, but cast sugur and salt into þi licour whan ye putte hit into þe coffyns. And if hit be in lenton, take creme of Almondes and leve the egges. And the Mary.

In present day English:
Take good cream, and mix in leaves of parsley. Break the yolks and whites of eggs into the mixture. Strain through a strainer, till it is so stiff that it will bear (support) itself. Then take good marrow, and dates cut in 2 or 3 pieces, and prunes, and put them in nice coffins (pastry cases). Put the pies in the oven, and let them bake until they are hard. Then take them out and put the liquid into them, and put them back in the oven. Let them bake together until done, but add sugar and salt to the liquid when you put it into the coffins. And if it is in Lent, take cream of almonds and leave out the egg and the marrow.”

In 1475, an Italian cookery text elevated custards to the level of health food. I think we should go back to this way of thinking!

Custard at that time was believed to help those with liver, kidney and chest ailments, and was also thought to increase fertility. It was the eggs used in these dishes, praised for their benefits, that led to these associations.

In the late 19th century, American food companies seemed to adopt these ideas by marketing custards as health foods, particularly for invalids and children. Although their claims might have actually been born from marketing strategies rather than actual health concerns. Around this time cookbooks began carrying numerous recipes for quick custards, citing arrowroot and tapioca as the health ingredients.

By the 1930s these recipes became obsolete as companies made instant custard mixes available to Americans.

Flan, The Sweeter Cousin

According to Maquelonne Toussaint-Samat’s “History of Food,” Arabs are noted for inventing caramel. When they traveled and then settled in Spain, their caramel came with them.

Flan was born when caramel, one of the dishes most important ingredients in my opinion, was introduced to the custard dishes already being perfected in the region.

In France, flan is known as crème caramel.

And to complete this exploration into the history of flan and the custards that predate it, here’s an Interesting fact:

In 18th century Mexico City, monastery cook Friar Geronimo de San Pelayo wrote down a recipe that included caramelizing the sugar for the flan on a wooden paddle that was set on fire.

References:
A History of the Elegant Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
FAQs: puddings, custards & creams.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Flan.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Flavorful flan: Making Mexico’s classic dessert.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.
Jennings, Lisa. “Flan gone wild.” Nation’s Restaurant News; Feb 6, 2006; 40, 6; Alumni-Research Library. pg. 27.
Recipe for ‘custarde’.” Retrieved 29 July 2012.

The goddesses of rosemary

Rosemary is often linked to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who in some versions of the myth is cloaked in the herb at the time of her birth.

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, fertility, and love, was born from the foam of the sea after the Titan Cronos cut off his father Ouranos’ penis and threw it in the sea. She arrived ashore on a seashell, as Boticelli infamously painted in The Birth of Venus, her Roman goddess counterpart.

Rosemary is as strongly tied to the sea as Aphrodite; the herb grows along the coast of the Mediterranean and can survive simply on the moisture in the air that is brought from the sea by gusts of wind, hence its name Rosmarinus, which means “dew of the sea.”

The goddess of love and the mother of several children with various gods has also imparted attributes of an aphrodisiac and a fertility enhancer to rosemary.

The herb has also been thought to contain memory boosting powers, thus it has been associated with the Titaness Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the nine Muses.

Mnemosyne was thought to have given humans their capacity for memories, but at the time of their death, so as to ease their suffering in the underworld, would take all their memories by having them drink from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

Because of this association Greek scholars would wear wreaths of rosemary while taking exams so as to enhance their memory and improve their performance. Even to this day, students keep a sprig nearby and brides and grooms keep the herb close so as to not forget their vows.

 

References:
Bites of History: Remember Rosemary.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.
Goddess of the Pillar: The Mythology of Upright Rosemary.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.
Rosemary, an Honored Member of The Botanical Family Lamiaceae.” Retrieved 24 July 2012.

 

The origins of pasta

Most Americans tend to think of pasta as an Italian food. And that’s not surprising as it is a popular cuisine in the nation and varieties such as lasagne, spaghetti and fettucini have become regular features in our diets. Yet a couple of countries have been involved in a heated debate, both claiming that pasta originated on their soil.

According to various sources, there is evidence that the earliest pasta being made was between 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and its first producers were nowhere near the country we now know as Italy.

Instead these late Neolithic pasta-makers lived in and around what is now the small town of Qijiaping, China. Belonging to the Qijia culture, they lived along the Yellow River, and were agriculturally-based.

In 2000 scientists found and began excavating the archaeological site of Lajia, China, where a catastrophic earthquake followed by a subsequent flood left a Pompeii-like city eerily frozen in time.

According to a 2005 BBC report, those scientists found a ceramic bowl with 4,000-year-old noodles made of foxtail and broomcorn millet, or native domesticated grasses. The noodles highly resembled Lamian noodles, which are traditionally made in China by stretching the dough by hand.

Lajia

4,000-year-old noodles

You would think that would settle the issue, but it didn’t.

Instead in 2008 Chinese and Italian officials fought valiantly in a North Carolina court for the right to claim that pasta was invented on their soil.

While the Italians claimed the ancient Etruscans, who lived in today’s Tuscany, were cooking pasta in the 11th century, Chinese officials were not convinced as the pasta was baked instead of boiled. Who knew this was the defining characteristic for pasta.

The Italians replied with a description of what might just be the lasagne we know today from the 3rd century CE Apicius cookbook De re coquina. The Apicius collection of recipes takes its name from three gourmet, or food connoisseurs, by the name of Apicius, although none of them worked on the manuscript. According to an article recounting the legal battle, Marco Polo was credited for bringing what you and I know as pasta to Venice from Sicily.

Because wheat-based pasta is more prevalent and popular in today’s society than its rice-based equivalent, the jurors granted Italy the right to the claim. According to Alfonzo Fiorelli, the first pasta and tomato sauce recipe was invented in 1839, over 350 varieties of the food were created since the 19th century, and about 60 lbs. of pasta per capita are consumed annually in Italy.

References:
Errington, Jennifer. “Origins of pasta spark saucy debate.” The Davidsonian. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Maolin, Ye and Houyuan, Lu. “The earliest Chinese noodles from Lajia.” Chinese Archaeology. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Oldest noodles unearthed in China.” BBC. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
Qijia culture“.  Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 17 July 2012