Wednesday, June 30, 2004

summertime

To clarify, yesterday's post on Paleolithic diet has nothing to do with the date that humans began to farm, contra the confused Mefi post on the subject. Instead it demonstrates the wide variety of wild plant foods people were eating in the fertile crescent 25,000 years ago. This is significant for archeologists because it helps to date the "broad spectrum hypothesis," which is: for whatever reasons (population, climate), hunter-gatherers were at some point compelled to turn their alimentary attentions to ever more labor-intensive food sources. If you can just eat some figs and kill a mammoth or something once a month, why fuck around with little plants that require laborious processing (like grains)? As they spent more time with these plants, they gradually began selecting for desireable traits, a process that eventually led to domestication and sedentary agriculture. That did not occur anywhere near 25,0000 years ago.

The most interesting thing about that article, however, is the prominent role of the "Mediterranean trinity" -- wheat, grapes, olives -- in the Paleolithic Levantine diet. These were, and remain, the staples of peasant diets all around the sea, although the importance until recent times of "regular" wheat (Triticum aestivum) relative to lesser grains (including its ancestor, emmer wheat, which is what they found at Ohalo II) has perhaps been exaggerated. There were people in Corsica in the twentieth century who had never eaten wheat bread, depending entirely on chestnut flour for sustenance. [See Piero Camporesi's Bread of Dreams for the guesome details of what people resorted to for bread in olden times].

Several years ago, John Thorne described his Mediterranean bread epiphany in an article called "Cuisine of the Crust" [in Pot on the Fire]. Peasants historically baked their bread once a week, or every two weeks. [Mills and ovens were valuable medieval monopolies, not affordable on a daily basis; even in more recent times, when people had their own ovens, bread-baking has been at most a weekly activity (see, on Sardinia, Carole Counihan, "Bread as World," Anthropological Quarterly 57/2 [1984], 47-59; rpt. in Food and Culture, ed. ead. and Van Esterik [New York, 1997]). Longevity, therefore, was the most desirable quality in bread, best achieved with minimal leavening (the result, in any case, of reliance on wild yeasts) and the absence of salt. Thus the dense and rather flavorless "peasant" loaves that persist to this day, most notably in Tuscany.

In order to appreciate this bread, it must be employed in a suitable way -- or, conversely, you have to come up with something to do with bread that is always already stale. Thorne discusses, inter alia, bruschetta and the Catalan pa amb tomàquet. [No matter, for the moment, that he conflates the former with crostini, crostone, and fettunte, all of which are different ways of ennobling a slice of stale bread]. But he does not mention the far (liquid) end of the continuum that starts with pa amb tomàquet and runs through panzanella: gazpacho.

Gazpacho began as nothing more than an emulsion of oil and stale bread -- along with wine, the "payments in kind" of agricultural laborers from prehistoric days -- perhaps diluted with water and/or flavored with garlic [see esp. Janet Mendel's My Kitchen In Spain (New York, 2002) for a discussion of gazpacho in its native habitat. Under no circumstances defer to Penelope Casas on the subject]. It was, simply, a mashed-up fettunta. Eaten with wine, as it invariably was, it literally embodied the Mediterranean trinity.

It is interesting that all of these archetypal foods depend, for us, on the tomato, which has only been eaten in Europe for around 200 years. Their continuing popularity is a testament to how well they frame what we think is their key ingredient. And in fact, barring the Colman Andrews method (slice, salt, eat), they are perhaps the best way to capture the tomato. Gazpacho might be the best of all, because it capitalizes on all the juice, and because you don't even need a toaster. You need to eat gazpacho now, until the tomatoes run out.

You have undoubtedly seen recipes for "gazpacho" which feature all sorts of monstrosities. Today's case in point. Some of these may even be good, but they are not gazpacho -- not unless they begin with the primal emulsion. Tomatoes, even, are optional, but not bread and oil. (This explains the existance of "real" white gazpachos [made, usually, with grapes and almonds], which memorialize the dish's pre-Columbian origins). The following recipe, based on a friend's exhaustive Spanish researches, showcases all the glories of the tomato, but without ever forgetting the real point of the dish.

1/2 cup olive oil
a few slices of slightly stale white peasant bread, crusts removed
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes
1/2 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 clove garlic
salt and sherry vinegar to taste

Puree everything in a blender, force through a seive, puree again. Chill for several hours or overnight before serving.

I hardly need to add that the quality of the raw materials determines the outcome. Particularly the tomatoes and oil.

Yes, you can use a food processor or a mortar and pestle if you have to, but they are not ideal. Remember, you're trying to create an emulsion here.

Bell peppers, though no less "authentic" than tomatoes, add an unpleasant taste. They are good as a garnish, however, along with croutons, red. onions, and so on. Use a light hand.

[Certain experts have written in to point out that hard-boiled egg and ham, which I elided with an etc. above are common and traditional garnishes. There are obvious reasons for this, but the glorification of the tomato is not one of them.]




Other things that you might want to eat this summer are raita [the minimalist], grilled favas [Judy Rodgers via Regina Schrambling in the LA Times], and corn [Sauté Wed.] And something that we all want to eat is Iberian ham [via Sauté Wed.]. And something we've all already eaten is the so-called engagement chicken: duh, it's just (a half-decent recipe for) roast chicken [research by J.]

Finally, food porn: Clotilde in Burgundy, tfs guest editor Samin Nosrat in Florence (don't miss the pistachio test).

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