We’re many of us on a first name basis with chocolate varietals now; so I conclude from the dessert menu with which The Red Lion in East Chislebury (Wiltshire) presented me last week: “Olive oil genoise with Wiltshire strawberries, candied almonds & guanaja pudding”.
Guanaja is an island off the coast of Honduras, a small, densely-inhabited place only about three by eleven miles in size. It’s where Christopher Columbus first encountered chocolate. It’s the name of a well-known bitter chocolate Valrhona bar, named in its honor. The chocolate is, as I understand, no more made from purely Guanajan beans than hamburgers are all made in Hamburg, although the beans are likely to originate from fewer possible continents.
Interest in food origins is likely to only exacerbate this trend, which already shows itself in varietals of squash and rare breed meats which end up on menus by their first name alone. I’ve yet to have anyone be surprised that I had not already met these cryptically-labeled foods – a side of Crown Prince, for example – but it’s only a matter of time before a mystery intersects someone else’s commonplace.
As for the guanaja pudding, it was a delicate dollop, rendered smooth and gentle with sugar and cream, a small island in an archipelago of sponge cake and strawberries.
Sometimes, I will learn a new word or concept and then see it everywhere. “Jostaberry” hasn’t been like that. Attuned, I looked out for it all over Taste of London and grocery shopping this week, but to no avail. (To be fair, none of these places sold aniseed either, which I had thought a staple spice.)
Jostaberries made no appearance because their commercial cultivation is, worldwide, negligible. The only places I have located which sell related products are things like jostaberry wine or jam on a few farms in Canada and the U.S. Jostaberries must be more widely cultivated than they used to be, however, a growing interest in the thirty-three years since hybridization created them.
The jostaberry is a hybrid between the gooseberry and the blackcurrant, plump, deep ruby-purple oblong spheroids which grow more like gooseberries but without the thorns, and taste sweeter, more like black currants. (Photo) Their North American relatives the Worcesterberry – I am not making this up – tastes more like a gooseberry, apparently. (See? You can mail-order them in the U.S.)
Developed over the course of the mid-twentieth century in Germany, the jostaberry was commercially released by the Max Plank Institute in Cologne in 1977. The institute continued to work on refining the hybrid. I note, as evidence of this, a 2000 article in Vol. 538 of the Acta Horticulturae entitled, “Progress in breeding Ribes X Nidigrolaria Jostaberries adapted to mechanical harvesting”. The “Josta” in the name comes from a verbal fusion of the German words for blackcurrant and gooseberry, respectively, “Johannisbeere” and “Stachelbeere”.
Their existence arrived in my life fully-formed. In the current issue of Olive (July 2010), an article on “British Fruit” helpfully notes that Jostaberries are in season in Britain in June through September, as if all readers of the magazine might nod to themselves and say, “Ah yes. I wondered when my local shops might be stocking jostaberries”.
Olive‘s advice is only helpful if one can figure out how to track them down. I could grow them myself, but I’ve read that it can be a good four-or-so years before they bear reliable fruit. I would really love to try some sooner than that. In theory I can: they are, after all, in season right now.
I was reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s autobiography, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Each chapter ends with a recipe, or helpful mini-guide to some aspect of Chinese cookery, which is how the lure of trying some of them out set in. Those recipes reminded me of a series of posts on reading Chinese menus. One of those posts told me, amongst other things, of a shop which sells a good brand of Sichuan chili-bean paste, as recommended in Dunlop’s blog.
Then, a few days ago, I was heading out to meet a friend at the National Portrait Gallery for afternoon tea when I realized I would be passing by Chinatown in central London. Chinatown, where that shop was, and shouldn’t I stop in as long as I was going to be passing by? As long as I was buying one ingredient, I bought others, including a large package of Chinese flour-and-water noodles. (In addition to being useful, the translation on the back charmed me: “Extra addition of meat and vegetables are suggested for palatable enchancement.”)
And that’s how we ended up cooking Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan noodles (p. 46) for dinner tonight, even though it involves no chili-bean paste. It was richly spicy-hot, but easier to eat because it was not also temperature hot. The noodles, fried mince, and pickled vegetables were cooled by the room-temperature oily sauce. The kitchen now smells beautifully of sesame and chili.
“Noodle” is such an odd-looking word, the more I think of it. Perhaps it’s because the available rhymes are still more ridiculous: oodle; kaboodle; poodle. (“Feudal” is close enough for most poetry, but not quite so silly-looking.)
How fitting, then, that its etymology is surmised, but not certain. Is it a derivative of knödel, dumpling in Middle High German, which itself might come from the same room as “knot”? Does it come from the same root as minute, by way of the Ladin language from the Val Gardena, whose word “menùdli” means “a small dough piece in soup”? The OED does not know and neither do I. It is a small knot of a mystery.
Once, I went on a cruise, from New York City to the Bahamas and back again. One evening, one of the appetizer options was chocolate soup. I was excited by the concept, and the realization was good enough that I had it for dessert too. (It was remarkably difficult to talk staff – bound by default rules and habit – into letting me have an appetizer again instead of dessert; after that, they wondered if I wanted another main again too.) The soup was light, a little milky, and not too sweet. It was, as chocolate goes, refreshing. In retrospect, on the basis of nothing more than style, I wondered if it had gone out of fashion in the ’70s.
The second time I encountered chocolate soup, at least verbally, was at a conference paper at last month’s Renaissance Society of America meeting in Venice: “Of Chocolate Soups and Stuffed Sturgeons: Feasting for Power in the Archbishopric of Karlovci”, given by Jelena Todorović of the University of the Arts in Belgrade. The talk used chocolate soup (along with the stuffed sturgeons) as passing, if eye-catching, examples of power-claims expressed through food. In other words, while really quite an interesting topic, what it told me about chocolate soup was that it was made and eaten in eastern Europe by the late sixteenth century, and that it was (no surprise) a luxury, high-status dish at the time. Had there been late sixteenth-century cruise ships, few of us would have been rich enough to afford such an opulent soup.
That chocolate soup I ate aboard ship didn’t remind me of hot chocolate. It wasn’t just that it was cold – it had something else to it. Savory stock? Fruit purée? I know, I would have been able to taste the difference, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking of analyzing it in that way, and now it’s years too late to do so. Looking around, many of the recipes for it sound just like cold hot chocolate, such as one from the Food Network. Damian Allsop‘s version suggests fruit purée as an alternative to water for thinning it. Waitrose suggests folding in the cream-and-chocolate mixture to a sabayon, adding eggy depth, a little like a chocolatey egg nog. Jacques Torres‘ version is specifically conceived of as an innovative of desert. Really, all of these think of this soup as a dessert.
If modern recipes all conceive of chocolate soup as a dessert variant – as, indeed, did the sellers of the rich chocolate ravioli I had the other week, which we, contrarily, ate as a main with a spicy tomato-based sauce – then why was it strongly conceived of as an appetizer when I first encountered it about a decade ago? When, for that matter, I now wonder, in the course of feasting, might the Archbishop of Karlovci have enjoyed his soup?
Today’s exciting realization is that, etymologically, “laminate” is related to “omelette”. The English comes from Middle French, which comes from the Old French lemelle, a thin, flat blade. (OED)
The prefix derives from the definite article, one of many reasons – in addition to lack of standardized spelling – for the many early variants in Middle French as well as in earlier English versions. My favorite of these is “an amulet of eggs”, a moderately common seventeenth-century spelling. A recipe for this, from The Compleat Housewife (1727) is reproduced in the Hess’s Taste of America. (74-5) The recipe calls for thinning the eggs with meat gravy, and finishing it with a squeeze of lemon or Seville orange.
Lemelle, in turn, derives ultimately from the Latin lamella, the diminutive of lamina, meaning a thin slices or leaf – from which, more obviously, comes laminate.
There need not be a specific label for a dish to exist, of course. In Apicius, which used to be the world’s oldest cookbook (c. first century CE) until the much earlier Babylonian tablets were found (from c. 1600 BCE), there’s a recipe for a “patina versatilis vice dulci”, or, “a sweet omelette-style patina” which, as the editors observe in a footnotes, “seems to be an omelette in all but name”. (Grocock & Grainger, 186-7)
© S. Worthen 2009