Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Seemlie Feast

From reading Lark Rise to Candleford, it became clear that bacon, and pig products in general, were the main staple of the English peasant class. Examination of the early laws of England, back to the time of Alfred and before, show that the family pig was the most important food item for the whole year and the loss of or injury to a pig was a serious matter. In later, post-Catholic England, when the Church no longer had the power or the will to care for the poor, the peasant classes lived very close to the edge of disaster and the difference between subsistence and the workhouse for the whole family could be decided by the fate of the pig.

One thing that LR. to C makes abundantly clear is that the Protestantisation of England, followed by the Enclosures that so coloured the post-Catholic economy and social system, was devastating to the landless peasants. The feudal system of which the Church had been so much a part, certainly allowed for many abuses, but it is a Victorian/Protestant myth that the peasants under that system starved or lived in misery. A scurrilous lie, in fact.

The importance of bacon in the peasant diet is demonstrated by the large section in the book Good Things in England showing a few of the many ways English housewives prepared it for their husbands and sons who worked in the fields and took it with them for their lunch.

[Remembering of course that English people have two kinds of bacon; regular bacon and “streaky” bacon. Their streaky bacon is about the same as N. American bacon you buy in those flat plastic packages. But eaten much more regularly is what we N. Americans might call “English bacon”, slabs of yummy cured pork with very little fat in pieces about four mm thick and the size of the palm of your hand. This might be substituted with “back bacon” in Canada, which is (oddly) called “Canadian bacon” in the US.]

More from the very charming Good Things in England:

Yorkshire way of cooking bacon:
Mr. A. Dupuis Brown writes:
‘Recollections of my boyhood in Yorkshire remind me of the method of cooking the breakfast bacon, which was always roasted in an oblong tin dish suspended by hooks from one of the bars of the open fire range. It was not fried.’

Another bacon method:

If you have any cold cooked bacon, you may make a very nice dish of it by cutting it into slices about ¼ inch thick. Grate some crusts of bread and powder the rashers well with it on both sides. Toast them in front of the fire (or under electric grill). They will be browned on one side in about three minutes. Turn them and do the other.

While cooking bacon by frying was not recommended, it describes the frying pan that is quite different from our modern ones.

“Good frying is in fact boiling in fat, and the frying pan should be perfectly flat with a thick bottom, 12 inches long, 9 inches broad, with perpendicular sides and must be half-filled with fat.”

I have seen these pans for sale in Italy where many old domestic customs survive from earlier times (you should see the ladies out on washing day at their outdoor sinks scrubbing their husbands’ shirts with a soap stick). The pans referred to in the book would, of course, be cast iron.

It also describes a “Double Hanging Grid”:

“Wherever there was an open range with bars, sprats [a kind of fish like a sardine], bloaters, fresh herrings, dried or finnan-haddock, as well as sausages, kidney and bacon, chops etc., were all beautifully and easily cooked between the wires of a double grid which possessed a tin tray underneath to gather the ‘drips,’ and hooks on top to attach to the bars. There were hooks on both sides and a handle on top by which the contraption could be easily turned completely round when one side was sufficiently cooked; the double grid was kept together and the food kept in its place by means of a strong, wire band which was fixed on the handle side and slipped over the other.”

The book adds a NB:
“This is worth mentioning because it required less attention and gave better results than a frying pan, and we are apt to think the 20th century takes the palm for labour-saving! It is also worth noting because a correspondent writes, ‘my mother used to say ‘good cooking in England went out when closed kitchen ranges and stoves were introduced and generally adopted’.”

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

I have a book called "Irish Traditional Cooking" by one Theodora Fitzgibbon awhile back. Believe it was published in the early 1960s. Most of the recipes in it are from 19th and early 20th centuries, i.e. pretty recently, but does mention that before the arrival of the potato the Irish ate a lot of oatmeal, e.g. a recipe for leek and oatmeal soup (which is quite tasty, actually). The book contains many recipes for both fish and bacon/pork. Occasionally mutton (e.g. Irish stew), but only rarely beef. So pigs seem to have played a prominent role in the Irish diet, too.