Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Salmon of Knowledge

Did you ever wonder what food was like in Europe before the “discovery” of the New World? For instance, what did Italians eat in pre-tomato days?

After my life as a librarian and before I became a novelist, I spent more than a decade running a small Celtic gift shop. Ten years immersed in the culture taught me a lot about Scottish and Irish history and ways, and every year on St. Patrick's day, when all the pubs and restaurants and grocery stores are touting green beer, corned beef and cabbage and mashed potatoes, I am given to think on what native Irish food was like before the advent of the potato.

Potatoes weren’t introduced into Ireland until the late 1600s. Before that, and before the English made themselves such a presence in Ireland, the native cuisine consisted of lots of meat and milk, honey, fish, wild fowl and eggs, herbs, grains, some veggies like leeks and onions, and later, turnips and cabbage.

A Roman writer (of course) described an Irish feast thus [my words] - they spread the ground with dried grass and cow hides and sit in a large circle so that none has his back to another. In the center is a fire over which hangs a cauldron full of boiling meat, plus many spits of roasting meat, from which they would cut chunks and joints with their daggers and eat with their bare hands.
The meat was usually beef. A person’s wealth was measured in cattle. The Celts mostly ate their beef in the winter, and milk, cheese, curds, and butter in the summer. Pork was common, and mutton, too, though less so. They also liked geese and ducks and their eggs. I remember seeing an article that described a common Celtic way of cooking birds by covering them, feathers and all, with wet clay, then placing them in the fire until the clay was rock hard. Then it was broken off, taking feathers, skin, and all with it. I thought this was interesting, since I know certain American Indian tribes do exactly the same thing with fish.

The Celts were big beekeepers as well. Honey wasn’t just a sweetening. They used it to baste meat and as a sauce and condiment at the table. They made mead, too, which is a fermented honey wine seasoned with herbs.

They grew oats and barley to make porridge and flatbread. They didn’t bake bread in ovens, but on a flat stone by the fire.

Depending on where in Ireland you lived, you ate lots of fish and shellfish, and seaweed, especially for thickening. There is a lovely traditional pudding made of milk and seaweed (carrageenan) that is still eaten on some islands. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? Salmon was particularly prized. It was considered a wise fish and eating it would make you smart. In fact, there was said to exist one particular magic salmon called the Salmon of Knowledge, and if you caught and ate it, you would know everything. It was finally caught by an old Druid named Finnegas, who asked his acolyte, Finn McCool, to cook it for him before he ate it. Finn poked it with his finger to see if it was done, and got burned. He stuck his finger in his mouth, and thus sucked up the knowledge himself. Finn McCool became a great hero, and every time he needed to know something, he sucked on his finger.

When potatoes came in, the Irish population exploded. You can get all the nutrients you need from eating nothing but potatoes and milk. Remember those traditional cauldrons of meat? Throw in some potatoes, maybe a bit of cabbage and a turnip, and what have you got? An Irish stew.

The Celts were a very hospitable people, apparently, for they taught that one should never fail to feed a stranger, nor do business before eating together. Words to live by.


Vicki Delany said...

There's a lesson there on monoculture. And what happens when you destroy your traditional food sources. Thanks Donis, interesting stuff. Despite my last name, I don't know much about Irish heritage at all.

Sara Thompson said...

I love learning about food history. There's something amazing when you think about how foods were discovered. Like potatoes - who ever came up with the idea of eating this bit of root from the dirt or grinding wheat into flour.