I’d hate to run a food blog right now. Especially a niche food blog with form for advocating the frivolous purchase of numerous ingredients to turn into unspeakable mush before declaring it all “inedible!” and washing it down the sink. Insensitive bastards.
I’m sure that eventually the shops will be able to restock without needing protective riot shields but that time isn’t quite yet. Be kind to store assistants, people, they’ll be carrying tasers soon (but also be kind to them anyway because they all seem so tired and fed up of repeating that no, Sandra, there isn’t more bread “out the back.”)
The kids at school appear to coping with things admirably. As I write this, it’s unclear whether or not schools will close at the end of the week, and even though it’s clear the students all desperately want them to (“Miss, I’ll pay you to say we can go home now!” “What if we promise we’ll only go on the X-Box after we’ve done all the work though?”) overall they’re doing a pretty good job of getting on with things as normally as possible. The only time I’ve seen a break in resolve is when one year 7 sadly told me that she had to have another apple in her lunch box instead of her usual chocolate muffin for pudding because her mum hadn’t got to the bakery aisle in time before everything was bought up.
At least panic buying has shown quinoa for the unwanted fad food it truly is. Actually, a late night wander round Sainsbury’s reveals in stark relief what the true essentials of British life seem to be; good luck getting a packet of mini rolls in South Leicestershire at 8:00pm is all I’ll say.
As the government releases new information by the hour and shops have today announced restrictions on buyer’s baskets, I began to think how people in the past coped with similar issues. Now, I know the food shortages that will be seen in supermarkets in the coming weeks are the result of numerous issues: problems in supply chains, closed borders and a nation that is newly out and proud about its compulsive fetish for toilet paper, whereas food supply issues of 500 years ago were usually to do with crop failures or wars, but I was still curious.
Unfortunately, it turns out that there were two main ways of coping with food shortages in the past: you had either managed to preserve enough food to eke out through the long hungry months, or you starved. There wasn’t a welfare state in medieval England. If you were a subsistence farmer who had been unable to grow enough grain to set some aside there wasn’t much hope for you, as the Great Famine of 1315-17 showed when approximately 5% of the population perished.
I know that’s no comfort to families who are currently struggling to find baby formula, or vulnerable groups who struggle to get to the shops in the first place only to find that every loaf of bread has gone. If people had realised that there was plenty for everyone if people had shopped normally then we wouldn’t even have a food shortage issue right now. I am exceptionally fortunate that for my family, the worst this food shortage is likely to get is that we’ll start eating more tinned food and my husband will have to self isolate within our own home to protect me and our daughter from the smells caused by his baked bean heavy diet.
So, I’m trying to do a little bit of my civic duty and avoid emptying the shops of things for this blog that others might need for their actual, real lives. It means more space to talk about history, and also involves a switch in how I usually research historical recipes. Instead of Googling “weird recipes from history – no mushrooms” (a standard research starting point, I’m sure historians everywhere will agree), I’m now going to have to look in the fridge or freezer for what we have in and search for things like “chicken nugget recipes from history – no mushrooms” instead.
Which brings me to the focus of today’s food – preserving. We have a freezer. Just the one, unlike some who, in the grip of panic buying mania, have reportedly taken to panic buying extra freezers – presumably to store all their toilet paper in. I can pack it full of
frozen margaritas, ice cream, chips and burgers healthy and nutritious meals which won’t go off and means I don’t need to worry about other methods of preserving food for my family.
The history of the fridge (yes, we’re really doing this – I have more space to fill and less content to fill it with now, so buckle up) starts a lot earlier than I’d realised. In 1748, an Edinburgh professor called William Cullen developed the ‘vapour compression system’ and demonstrated its cooling power to other scientists, who were impressed in a science-y kind of way, but failed to see how it might be used commercially. 100 years later in 1834, American inventor Jacob Perkins showed off his wacky idea of a wooden box that could “cool fluids and produce ice” to some easily impressed Londoners on Fleet Street but, in a surprising turn of events for a city where £11.50 is now a reasonable price to pay for poached egg on toast, the people of London said the cost of the machine was too high and sales failed to take off.
In around 1890, refrigeration experts tried to improve the cooling process by adding methyl chloride gas as a refrigerant. Unfortunately, methyl chloride attacks the central nervous system and causes death if people are exposed to high enough doses of it for too long, which is what happened to several factory workers in Chicago when a faulty refrigeration unit began leaking at their workplace. An alternative was quickly sought and the compound Freon was created – great news for fridge businesses, terrible news for the environment.
In Britain up to the 1950’s, most housewives still preferred a cold marble slab in the kitchen to keep things chilled and people bought groceries to use every day, rather than every week, to ensure food wasn’t kept lying around the house for too long. In 1959, however, Britain experienced one of the hottest summers on record and lots of food struggled to last longer than a day or two. Meat bought in the morning wasn’t necessarily safe to consume by the evening and so Brits began turning to American fridge company Electrolux to store their food for them.
There were, of course, other methods of preserving food. Most people know that we have been making food last longer for millennia through the use of salting or sugaring and drying or smoking. As a deliberately jarring example of preservation, the ancient Egyptians used to pack corpses in natron salt for 40 days to dry the body out before mummifying it. In a similar vein, Herodotus – that most dubious of historians – indicates that the Assyrians used to embalm their dead with honey and after his death in 323BC, Alexander the Great was reportedly laid to rest in a sarcophagus filled with honey. Centuries later, in Victorian slums, racks of herring were sometimes hung up in the communal lavatory (think a wooden bench over a big hole inside a garden shed and you’ve pretty much thought of a slum loo), and smoked to turn them into kippers. The favourable effects of this would be threefold: firstly, the fish would last much longer after being smoked which allowed shopkeepers to put them on sale for longer, secondly the smell of smoked fish would go some way to disguising the smell of a rapidly filling cesspit, and thirdly the acrid smoke would cause people to cough and their eyes to water which would mean people wouldn’t take too long on the toilet – perfect if there’s a queue of 15 slum dwellers all waiting for their turn.
There’s one type of food preservation that’s used less commonly today, and when it is used it’s usually for taste reasons rather than preservation ones: potting.
In the 16th century, cooks discovered that if you placed cooked meat in a pot, covered it with melted butter and let it set, it would last much longer than if it was left out. Sir Hugh Plat advised that potted meat would keep “sweet and sound” for at least three weeks, even in summer and thus a craze was born. Potting was quicker than salting or smoking, which took days to do properly, and it took up less space in a busy (or tiny) kitchen too. Plus, if you only had to worry about preserving enough food for your own family, there was less chance of getting faeces splashed onto the food than there was from the cesspit kippers. Odd as it may sound, not having human excrement smeared onto food has been a universal goal for all cooks, in all time periods, in all cultures.
It wasn’t necessarily cheaper, though. You couldn’t be stingy with the butter or else it wouldn’t work and you’d just be left 3 weeks later with bowls of rotting and particularly greasy meat. In very hot weather the butter could melt or turn rancid, which would cause the meat to spoil anyway and another downside was that it only tended to be useful if scraps of leftover meat were used, rather than an entire carcass, because you had to have enough pots (and therefore butter) in the first place.
The recipe I used for my potted shrimp comes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which I’ve talked more about here. Mrs Beeton advises this recipe would set a household back 1 shilling 3 pence, equivalent to £3.70 today, so wouldn’t have been a recipe for those looking to preserve entire meals out of extreme poverty.
The only thing that I’ve changed in this recipe is substituting shrimp for small prawns. A few weeks ago, I was being forced to drone on to my form about the NHS Eat Well Guide as part of PSHE and we all had a horrible moment of realisation when it became apparent that microwave pizzas did not count as part of the Eat Well advice. That evening I vowed, as I had so many times in the past, to do better both for myself and as an example to my daughter. The next day I bought some frozen prawns that were on special offer to fling into healthy stir fries and curries. It will come as no surprise to any of you that I’ve made approximately 0 healthy stir fries or curries since that week, and if anything my consumption of microwave pizza has gone up. But the point is I had prawns in, not shrimp, and in the spirit of not doing any needless shopping, Mrs Beeton was going to have to deal with it.
I defrosted 1 pint of pre-cooked prawns, trying to ignore the whine of cognitive dissonance of un-preserving something in order to preserve it for a shorter amount of time in a riskier way, and placed them in a saucepan, to which I’d added 1/4 pound of butter, and a pinch of mace, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. This all cooked together for about 5 minutes and then the prawns were scooped out and placed in two ramekins.
After they’d cooled a little I poured the melted butter over the prawns (I had to melt a little more to cover both pots). I stuck some earplugs in to drown out the now siren-like wail of dissonance as I placed the ramekins in the fridge to speed up the preserving and setting process of the butter, and waited.
It took several hours until the butter was solidified, which meant these were ready just in time for a late lunch. Again, totally defeating the point of potting since we were eating them on the same day, but we’re in a time of National Crisis; people aren’t thinking straight and pyjamas now count as work attire – so what if a few potted prawns get eaten two days too early!
A bit of prawn mashed up with butter, slowly melting on toast made a very pleasant lunch. Faintly warming because of the cayenne and nutmeg, and because it wasn’t something we would normally eat, it felt like a bit of a treat. It wasn’t better than a microwave pizza, but it wasn’t worse.
Hopefully you’re all safe and sound and have enough food, loo rolls and soap to last you just as long as you need without depriving others, especially innocent year 7’s who are being forced to suffer the indignities of eating fruit instead of muffins, for God’s sake! If you can, it’s worth checking that your neighbours are all set too and, if you can manage it, offer to help out with shopping or collections or dog walking etc for those who can’t leave their homes for a bit. Sometimes even just swapping numbers and having a phone conversation every couple of days with an isolated person is all that’s necessary.
Oh, and remember to wash your hands. Especially if you’ve been smoking herring in the public loos, you dirty beast.
120g butter (possibly more to cover)
Pinch of mace
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
- Cook butter, prawns and spices together in a pan until heated thoroughly and prawns are pink and cooked through.
- Using a slotted spoon, divide prawns between two ramekins.
- Pour over melted butter until it completely covers the prawns.
- Leave to set.