The Art of Food

226px-Tomb_of_Nakht_(16)

Tomb of Nakht

Food preparation and consumption is a fact of life. It has been the very cornerstone of our day to day existence as a major part in our social, cultural and aesthetic life.

Is it any wonder then that the appearance of food in our artistic endeavours is so fundamentally interwoven into the fabric of recorded human history when images of food and feasting have been found in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, drawn and painted on the inner walls of burial chambers, and more importantly on coffins, depicting all the good things prepared to sustain the deceased on their final journey to the afterlife.

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A Roman Banquet

In myriad contexts the practice continued into ancient Greece and the Roman Empire where banquets, bacchanals and orgies became consuming passions celebrated in literature, painting, and mosaics.

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A Greek Symposia or Mens Room

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A Greek Symposia Platter

Food remained a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, being celebrated for certain virtues or values or emphasizing eroticism, exoticism or wealth.

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A Medieval Banquet, c.15th century

Since food is intertwined with all aspects of our lives, comestible art history also connects with larger themes such as politics, gender, religion and class.

Medieval Banquet - Feasting with The King of Portugal, 1368

A Medieval Feast, c. 14th Century

Over the years I have been collecting such images, initially for my own interest but sadly with little proper attribution. Mainly I have the names and dates of the artists but hopefully I’m not infringing any copyright regulations by putting them into this blog.

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A Vegetable ‘Descriptive’ (French) c. 17th Century

But be that as it may, I shall carry on in what I hope will be a mini series of posts to show off some of the many images I have gathered together. These are just a small selection from across the ages that I hope will be of some interest.

Foods

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Billy’s Lake

A few weeks ago I took Poppy on a voyage of discovery to Billy’s Lake. Being a dog of the woods and the short mown grass of the local park, she loved running through the long grass, in places taller than herself.

And there we found a man in a digger clearing a path from the car park and off toward the lake.

But not for the building of yet more houses and flats but to provide a hard flat pathway for the visiting fishermen who now cast their lines into the cool, green waters.

Now there are some places that should not be revisited and Billy’s lake is one of those, a place of mystery and adventure that filled many childhood hours with fun, frolics and lots of wet swampy mud! Because Billy’s Lake was part of a large, wet, swampy area to the north of my childhood home.

Back then, legend had it that it was only accessible by bicycle and even then parts of the trek required the bicycle to be physically man-handled across the wetter parts, whilst avoiding the large patches of stinging nettles and the deeper, gloopier patches of black mud that could remove both shoe and sock in one go!

The bicycles were mainly those rickety old death traps handed down by fathers and older brothers, drop handles, five or possibly ten gears, aluminium mudguards and names like Raleigh, Triumph and Ranger.

Unless you were really lucky and some parent with more money than sense bought you a Chopper, like my mate Trevor.

With its exotic orange painted frame, (other colours were available though not nearly as stunning) shoulder high handlebars and central gearstick it was the envy of the district!

Despite being a pig to steer, especially when changing gear, and inordinately heavy it was considered the best thing since sliced bread. Health and Safety would have had a fit!

Under thick hedgerows dens would be constructed as protection against Red Indians, swamp ‘Things’ and seasonal downpours as well as providing a dining hall for the consumption of packets of sandwiches, bottles of orangeade and blackberries picked from the ubiquitous brambles. Bicycles would be taken apart and reassembled just to find out how they worked.

How we survived all that thick, black mud, huge beds of nettles, muddy water and eating sandwiches from hands caked in both mud and bicycle grease I shall never know.  But we did.

A word to the wise out there, don’t grow up!

It’s a trap!

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Make Your Own English Country Wine

A glass of home-made Country wine is a tradition of old English hospitality that stretches back centuries.

Forget grapes! Despite being universally accepted as the most reliable fruit for winemaking, grapes do not fare well in England.

Therefore the juices of fruits, vegetables and flowers found in the hedgerow and orchards of the countryside have been utilised instead, (although raisins and sultanas are often seen in country wine recipes)

More recently a surplus of fruit or vegetables from the garden has also been known to motivate people into making their own wines.

Mind you, it is one of the most rewarding of hobbies going.

The ingredients are often free, or at least very cheap, provided you are prepared to put in the effort to go and gather them for yourself!

Wine can be made from virtually anything. From potato peelings to crab apples, nettle leaves to may flowers.

If it ferments it can be used to make wine.

Every wine made will have its own distinctive personality and characteristics that can, with experience, can be tailored to the majority of tastes from dry to sweet, rich to light, smooth to flavoursome.

And because Country, or fruit wines, mature within six to eighteen months you will not have to wait very long to enjoy the results of your labours. And generally they are well worth the effort.

So, in order to propagate the art, I give here an illustrated recipe for  mayflower wine taken from a ‘Country Wine’ book dating back to the early fifties.

To the best of my knowledge the equipment suppliers on this post are no longer in business but since most of the necessities are now obtainable on-line why not give it a go?

Everybody should try it at least once.

 

 

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The Origins of English Wine

During their occupation the Romans introduced wine making to England, even trying to grow grapes as far north as Lincolnshire.

And winemaking continued at least down to the time of the Normans with over 40 vineyards in England mentioned in the Domesday Book. (although a great part of the harvest was for making communion wine for the Eucharist)

From the Middle Ages, the English market was the main customer of clarets from Bordeaux, aided by the Plantagenet kingdom, which included England and large provinces in France.

When Henry VIII was crowned in 1509, 139 vineyards were recorded, 11 of which were Royal vineyards, dedicated to the monarchy while later, in the 1660’s Lady Batten, wife of Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy, had a vineyard at their estate at Walthamstow. Samuel Pepys thought their wine, a red, was “very good”.

The Methuen Treaty of 1703 imposed high duties on French wine which led to the English becoming one of the main consumers of fortified wines like sherry, port wine, and Madeira from the Iberian Peninsula. Fortified wine became popular because unlike normal wine, it would not spoil during the long sea journey to England.

Just as English wine began to recover from the epidemics of Phylloxera and Powdery Mildew that were brought back in the mid 19th century, by the Explorers of New America, it was dealt another heavy blow in 1860 when the government, under Lord Palmerston, supported a policy of free trade which drastically cut the tax on imported wines from 1 shilling (5p) to two-pence, (½p) a decrease of 83%.

And then, later in the 19th century, many upper and upper-middle class people, with reasonably cheap access to European wines, began to drink them once more and things went from bad to worse.  The short, ignominious twilight of British winemaking tradition, which stretched back to the first Roman explorers, was brought to an abrupt end with the onset of the First World War.

As the need for land to produce food took precedence over wine production and the subsequent rationing of sugar pushed the knife even deeper until, for the first time in 2,000 years, English wines were no longer being produced, not even in Wessex. (and all Alfred did was burn the cakes!)

It was not until 1936, when George Ordish planted vines in Wessex and the South of England that winemaking returned, bringing about a voyage of rediscovery for English wines and wine making.

With many individuals keen to produce their own wines from home, and with equipment and methods becoming more available, the government characteristically outlawed the production of homemade alcohol at the beginning of the 1960’s! (until the law was retracted after a mere 5 years, when the fashion for the home-brew escalated considerably, and there were taxes to be reaped!)

The effective reboot of English Wine (in the post-monastic era) can be traced to 1952 when English viticulture pioneer John Edginton (born 1936) planted his first experimental commercial grape vines at Lackham College in Lacock, Wiltshire. These vines still exist to this day and are believed to be the oldest surviving commercial wine grapes in the UK.

For the next ten years, Edginton continued to experiment with training and pruning systems, as well as vine varieties, experimenting with new cutting edge hybrid varieties and turning those grapes into palatable wine.

By 1962, he’d planted an experimental vineyard of half an acre of new advanced hybrid varieties of Müller, Reichensteiner, and Seyval grapes, believed to be the oldest surviving examples of these variants in the UK.

This vineyard at Teffont in Wiltshire, later joined by Awbridge and Dinton in Hampshire, still produces wine grapes and Edginton continues to pioneer viticulture and wine making. methods of wine and beer production.

Viticulture itself as a procedure was revived in the 70’s, possibly helped by a rising local temperature due to global warming making many parts of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent Essex, Suffolk, Berkshire, and Cambridgeshire dry enough and hot enough to grow grapes of high quality. The first English wines of the new era were influenced by the sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch and Hock that were popular in the 60’s and were blended white and red sweet wines, called “cream wine” The largest vineyard in England is Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey, which has 265 acres under vines, and a visitors’ centre that is open all year round.

Some random cheese

From a peak of over 400 vineyards in the late 1980’s, by 2000 one-third of these had given up, but have since accelerated, helped by the growing success of English sparkling wines. In 2004, a panel judging European sparkling wines awarded most of the top ten positions to English wines with the remaining positions going to Champagne.

Such results have encouraged an explosion of sparkling wine plantings. Winemaking has spread from the South East, South West, the Midlands and the North of England, with Yorkshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lancashire boasting at least one vineyard each as of 2007.

Significant plantings have been happening across the south of the country too. The return per tonne for grapes over more traditional crops, are quite astounding. A field of wheat might yield 3 tonnes per acre at around £120 per tonne while grapes can yield 3 to 4 tonnes per acre at around £950 to £1,100 per tonne.

One concern is that growers need to invest a chunk of money for no initial return, as crops tend to come in the third or fourth year. In England, it is only in about 2 years in every 10 that grape production will be really good, 4 years will be average and 4 years poor or terrible – largely due to weather and/or disease exacerbated by weather.

However English vineyards share common European weather patterns and so 2006 was a bumper year while 2007 saw ripe grapes but low volumes. 2008 was very poor, but both 2009 and 2010 were good years. 2011 was average, 2012 dreadful, and 2013 good. Typical British weather one might say, if one were a cynic that is!

But be that as it may, English wine was given a boost when HRH the Duchess of Cornwall became the new President of The United Kingdom Vineyards Association on 25 July 2011 and further added prestige in June 2012 during the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

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The Origins Of European Wine

Cotes De Nuits harvest, Burgundy

EW 18The majority of the images on these pages come from a volume on wine published in the late sixties, early seventies in the ‘Cordon Bleu’ series on general cookery themes.

I have also located in recent months a volume on Dinner Parties, again shamelessly seventies style, that I shall come to in due course.

The Romans seem to have had an extraordinary knack of recognising a good wine producing landscape and many of the major wine making regions of today emerged during the Roman period to create the principal wine producing regions we know today.

Many of the best vineyards are to be found on high-ground and while steep hillsides are good, the EW 6best are to be found on the steep banks of some of the greatest rivers in Europe, the Rhine, the Rhone and the Moselle.

By the time they began to conquer Europe the Romans had developed wine making into a precise husbandry that fostered the emergence of many different grape varieties and cultivation techniques.

Now, neither I nor anybody I know, have ever suggested that the Ancient Romans (not the modern day ones naturally) were in any shape or form actual piss-heads but hey, if the laurel wreath fits . . .

Fleurie, Beaujolais

In the following centuries barrels for storage and transportation were developed and bottles were used for the first time.

As time passed and the reputations of certain regions gained a reputation for fine wines, wine production became progressively more refined and as its popularity increased, the Wine Shop and the Tavern became a common feature in cities throughout the Empire.

As they are wont to do, centuries passed and the art of wine making spread to France, Spain, Germany and parts of Britain.

Vineyard in Bacharach

By the beginning of the 10th century, wine was an established part of the daily diet and people began to lean towards the stronger, heavier wines, not in small part to the fact that drinking water was still notoriously unreliable.

European appreciation of wine endured during the Dark Ages to emerge as a popular alternative to beer to accompany meals. Most definitely the merchant and noble classes had wine with every meal and maintained well-stocked cellars. Due in no small part to the husbandry of Church, monasteries across the continent gave rise to some of the finest vineyards in Europe.

The Benedictine monks, for example, became one of Europe’s largest wine producers with vineyards in France’s Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux regions, as well as in the Rheingau and Franconia regions of Germany.

During the 16th century, wine became appreciated as a more sophisticated alternative to beer by the lower classes as production increased and costs dropped. Consumers began to value the concept of varying their drinking habits, people discussing the virtues and vices of wine with greater gusto than in previous centuries.

In Elizabethan England, Shakespeare remarked that “good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used”, a sideways snipe at the misuse of wine in some social circles. But the Elizabethan era also saw a welcome increase in the availability of fresh drinking water in London.

This and the improved production techniques in the 17th and 18th  centuries resulted in the emergence of finer qualities of wine. Proper glass bottles with proper corks began to appear, and, as a necessity, the corkscrew was invented.

All figures from late sixties

The French wine industry took off at this point, with particular recognition being given to the clarets of the Bordeaux region by merchants from the Low Countries, Germany, Ireland and Scandinavia. Bordeaux traded wine for coffee and other sought-after items from the New World, helping to cement the role of wine in emerging world trade.

Although the 19th century is considered the golden age of wine for many regions, it was not without its tragedy. In 1863 many French vines suffered from the disease known as  Phylloxera, an aphid that sucked the sap from the roots.

When it was discovered that vines in America were resistant to Phylloxera it was decided to plant American vines in affected French regions. This created hybrid grapes that produced an even greater variety of wines.

Over the last 150 years, wine making has been totally revolutionised. Refrigeration has allowed wineries to control the temperature of the fermentation process and produce high quality wines in the hotter climates. Harvesting machines have increased the size of vineyards whilst improving efficiency, whilst meeting the demands of an ever-expanding market. Technology helps to ensure a consistent supply of quality wines on the market without losing the individual characteristics of its wines.

Yugoslavian Grape Harvest

The timeless art of wine making, the importance of wine in the history and the diversity of European culture demonstrates the degree of homage modern wine appreciation pays to ‘the old traditions’

It is generally conceded that the best table wines are French, even though the Italians have begun to outstrip them in recent decades. Italian wine production now exceeds French wine to the tune of several million gallons a year although the French will always stress that their commitment is to quality rather than quantity and so quantities of their better known wines will not change significantly.

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A Brief History Of Wine

Wine, that panacea of the world’s woes, is in fact, older than recorded history. The earliest evidence for the cultivation of grapes and the fermentation of their juices dates back to 6,000 B.C. The Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on the walls of their tombs; bottles of wine were even buried with pharaohs in order that they might entertain guests in the afterlife!

The evidence from tablets and papyri found in Egyptian tombs fills volumes, charting its emergence alongside civilization itself from the East. Man emerges boldly from the shadows, jug of wine in hand, to create an Empire. But sadly, however vividly depicted for us to see, the wine of the ancient Pharaoh’s is too far distant, too remote to have any real meaning.

Fortunately the wine we know of today has far more traceable roots that begins with the Greeks and Phoenicians who colonized the Mediterranean around 1,500 BC. That was when wine emerged to where it was ultimately to make its home. Italy, France, Spain, Africa, Sicily and the Black Sea all had their first vineyards in the time of the Greek and Phoenician Empires.

The wines of Greece were lavishly praised and documented by her poets though being flavoured with herbs, spices and honey and regularly diluted with water (sometimes even seawater) does tend to throw doubts on its quality.

What is indisputable is that the wines of the Aegean were highly prized for their distinct characters, and when the Greeks industrialized winegrowing in southern Italy, the Etruscans in Tuscany and the Romans followed suit.

In ancient Rome, the great writers, wrote instructions to winegrowers while others were much more calculating, discussing how much work a slave could do for how little food and sleep without losing condition. Roman wine was mass produced and business calculations were at the heart of it. It spread across the Empire, until Rome was eventually importing countless shiploads of amphorae from her colonies in Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Some Roman wines had extraordinary powers of keeping, suggesting that it was well made. It was frequently concentrated by heat, and even smoked to achieve what must have been a Madeira-like effect.

Pliny, whose ‘Natural History’ recommends that the boiling of wine to concentrate it be done in vessels made of lead in order to sweeten it. The resulting lead-oxide poisoning must have been excruciating, leading eventually to blindness, insanity and death. But many of the resulting symptoms and pains were never connected with their cause, many were merely put down to bad vintages.

The Greeks may have taken wine north into southern Gaul but it was the Romans who domesticated it. By the fifth century, when they withdrew from what is now France, they had laid the foundations for almost all of the most famous vineyards, Burgundy, Mosel, Bordeaux, Alsace, and Galicia in Spain of the modern world.

After the fall of Rome, wine continued to be produced in the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It spread eastward to Central Asia along the Silk Route; grape wine was known in China by the eighth century.

(It’s a little known fact but the spread of Islam largely extinguished the wine industry in North Africa and the Middle East) Throughout Europe, wine-making was primarily the business of monasteries, because of the need for wine in the Christian sacraments. During this period stronger, more full-bodied wines replaced their sweeter ancient predecessors.

The journey from this point to the infamous cheese and wine party is a tortuous one but be that as it may, I shall endeavour to get there . . . next time!

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Feeding The Family On £3/10/-

Soup?The second world war saw the end of a lot of things, some great, some less great. While more and more women  were becoming employable in the world of work, many of the older ‘positions’ such as house staff in middle class houses were becoming out-dated.

But in this article on family and budgeting taken from the war years the family of five being accounted for includes a live-in maid as a part of that calculation! Mother, Father, two children and the house-maid.

A brave new world world indeed!

As a general rule of thumb:

£1 in 1910 = £109.34 in 2010.

£10 in 1910 = £1,093.40 in 2010.

In 1940, £200 would have been a good annual salary, so this example is obviously at the higher end of the earnings bracket.

Not that 1940 could be considered as a ‘normal’ working year  by any stretch of the imagination but it serves as a fairly good indication.

That being as it may and me being a cynical old sod at the best of times, I note with interest that one thing that has not been costed into the carefully prepared budget is the maids wages!

Is it just me?

I sense another article coming on . . .

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