Feb 132017
 

Today is World Radio Day.  It was proclaimed on 3 November 2011 by UNESCO’s 36th General Conference after originally proposed by the Kingdom of Spain. The day is meant to celebrate radio in all its uses, so I’ll follow suit.  Until recently radio was a very important part of my life.  When I was an infant in England in the early 1950s the whole family used to sit around in the living room on a Sunday afternoon with the radio on.  Then when we moved to Australia the radio always had a central role to play.  It was on in the morning at breakfast time, partly for entertainment, and partly to keep track of the time so that we were not late. In the late afternoons there were a number of shows we listened to before dinner including my favorite, The Argonauts Club – a radio show for children featuring games and competitions, with the opportunity to send in your own contributions of poetry, essays, and plays (the best of which were read on the air).  But what caught my most fervent attention for many years was amateur shortwave radio.

My scout troop (1st Gawler) had a very active senior patrol that morphed into a rover patrol and they had an interest in shortwave radio.  They had built a radio shack with a tall antenna on the grounds of the scout hut, and used their old, beat up, valve operated shortwave system to contact scouts around the world, especially during Jamboree on the Air (3rd weekend in October).  Every year I went all day, well into the night, to take my turn chatting with scouts all over the world.  For years after I had a dream that one day I would set up my own shortwave station.  These were the days before easy global communications by telephone, let alone internet, and it resonated with me, as it did with many others.  Here’s two versions of “The Radio Ham” by Tony Hancock (first the radio version, then the television version) to get the general flavor:

“Ham radio” and “radio ham” are slang terms for amateur radios and their operators whose origin is unknown, although you’ll find the usual nonsense about etymology if you poke around – all ridiculous folk legends.  Hancock really does capture the feel of ham radio in the 1950s and 1960s.

Having my own shortwave transmitter remained an unrealized pipe dream, but I did have a shortwave receiver for decades in the United States.  It allowed me to tune into the BBC before the days of the internet, and also to hear the news from multiple countries around the world.  Back then (and still) news in the US is confined to news about US citizens (at home and abroad), or about US interests.  500 people could die in a plane crash in Africa but if there were no US citizens aboard it would go largely unreported.  Shortwave was my antidote.  The BBC was great because it had plays, comedies, soap operas, quizzes and whatnot that I loved, and still love.

US radio is largely for car drivers and tends to consist of music, news, or talk shows. I found it exceptionally dull on my daily commute.  But when I took trips to England I would immediately explore the dial on my rental car’s radio for the wealth of programming on national and regional radio.  I can count the US radio shows that I enjoyed on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. Dr Demento and Whad’ya Know? come to mind.  World Radio Day is all about promoting the potential riches of radio for all people of all ages. I’m up for that.

Since amateur radio is known as ham radio let’s talk about ham as our food of the day. Many, many countries have their own special hams and I have been fortunate to live near many sources.  Currently I live near Parma and have made the obligatory pilgrimage to get the local prosciutto – known locally simply as crudo. You can get ham in Argentina, but it is a rarity in the land where beef is king.  China is a different story altogether.  Ham is an essential ingredient in so many regional dishes.  The most well known varieties are Anfu ham from Jiangxi, Jinhua ham, Rugao ham, and Xuanwei ham. All are richly flavorful, adding complexity to soups, stews, and stir fries.

How long would you like me to wax lyrical about Smithfield ham, jamón Serrano,  jambon d’Ardèche,  Westfälischer Schinken, etc.? I won’t.  Instead I’ll talk a little about production – which you can do yourself at home if you have patience. Ham is a method of preserving and flavoring raw pork leg by salting, smoking, or wet curing. Besides salt, several ingredients may also be used to enhance flavoring and preservation.

Traditional dry cure hams may use only salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams, although this is comparatively rare. This process involves cleaning the raw meat, covering it in salt (for about one month for Parma ham) while it is gradually pressed – draining all the blood. In Tuscan Ham (Prosciutto Toscano PDO) different spices and herbs are added to the salt during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry. They are then hung to air for another period of time.

The duration of the curing process varies by the type of ham, with Serrano ham curing in 9–12 months, Parma hams taking more than 12 months, and Iberian ham taking up to 2 years to reach the desired flavor characteristics. Some dry cured hams, such as the Jinhua ham, take approximately 8 to 10 months to complete.

Ham can also be preserved through the smoking method, in which the meat is placed in a smokehouse (or equivalent) to be cured by the action of smoke. The main flavor compounds of smoked ham are guaiacol, and its 4-, 5-, and 6-methyl derivatives as well as 2,6-dimethylphenol. These compounds are produced by thermal breakdown (i.e., combustion) of lignin, a major constituent of wood used in the smokehouse.

Wet curing (also known as brining) involves the immersion of the meat in a brine, sometimes with other ingredients such as sugar also added for flavor. Meat is submerged in the brine for around 3–14 days, during which time the meat needs to be kept submerged, and the brine mixture agitated periodically to prevent separation of the ingredients. Wet curing also has the effect of increasing volume and weight of the finished product, by about 4%.

I’ve smoked and wet cured hams at home. The processes are not complex, just time consuming, and require special equipment.  The results have always been excellent, but I’m happy to pop down to the local market when I need ham for any reason. Brining is probably your easiest bet and you can find plenty of recipes online.  Here’s one that’s OK:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/245724/home-cured-holiday-ham/

Sep 172016
 

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On this date in 1716 Jean Thurel, or Jean Theurel (6 September 1698 – 10 March 1807) enlisted as a fusilier in the French Army (Touraine Regiment) at the age of 18. He remained on active duty for 75 years, refusing all promotions, and died at the age of 108, still registered as a soldier in the army. Technically, therefore, he was a soldier for 90 years. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am averse to writing about war and soldiery, but I’ll make an exception for Thurel because of his extraordinary life. He was born in the reign of Louis XIV and died when Napoleon I was emperor; Thurel lived in three different centuries, experiencing extraordinary changes in France and Europe.

Thurel was born in Orain, Burgundy in 1698. As a soldier Thurel was severely wounded in battle on two occasions. In 1733, during the siege of Kehl, he was shot in the chest with a musket, and at the battle of Minden in 1759, he received seven sword slashes, including six to the head. Three of his brothers were killed in the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. One of Thurel’s sons was a corporal and a veteran in the same company. He died at the Battle of the Saintes, a naval battle that was fought off the coast of Dominica, West Indies during the American Revolutionary War, on 12 April 1782. Thurel was a survivor!

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Thurel was a notably well-disciplined infantry soldier of the line infantry and was admonished only once during his entire career. During the 1747 Siege of Bergen as the French troops occupied the citadel he was disciplined because, the doors of the fortress were locked, so he had to scale its walls to get in so that he would not miss muster. Another example of Thurel’s discipline and physical fitness occurred in 1787. When his regiment was ordered to march to the coast to embark on ships of the French Navy he was given the opportunity to travel in a carriage due to his advanced age – he was 88 at the time. Thurel refused the offer and marched the entire distance on foot, saying that he had never before traveled by carriage and had no intention of doing so at that time. His humility is evident in his steadfast refusal to accept any promotions. He remained a common fusilier for his entire military career.

In hopes of improving re-enlistment rates, Louis XV established the Médaillon Des Deux Épées (Medal of the Two Swords) by a royal decree in 1771. This was the first military decoration in France for which an enlisted man could be eligible. This medal was initially awarded to soldiers who had served in the French Army, as a reward for their longevity of service. The decree was extended in 1774 so that sailors of the French Navy were also eligible to receive the medal. A soldier or sailor would have to serve for 24 years to be eligible for the Médaillon Des Deux Épées. Thurel was awarded two Médaillon Des Deux Épées in 1771, the year the medal was established, in recognition of the two 24-year periods of time (1716–1740 and 1740–1764) he had served up until then.

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On 8 November 1787, Thurel was presented to the royal court at the Palace of Versailles. The 33-year-old king of France, Louis XVI, addressed the 88-year-old Army private in a respectful manner as “père” (“father”), and asked whether Thurel would prefer to be awarded the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis (Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis) or a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal, in recognition of the period from 1764–1788. This was a highly unusual request—not only because enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were not normally eligible to receive the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, which was reserved for commissioned officers of the Army or the Navy—but also because Thurel still had four more months of military service to complete before being eligible for a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées medal. Thurel opted to receive a third Médaillon Des Deux Épées, on the condition that the king himself attach the medal to his uniform. Louis agreed. The Comte d’Artois offered Thurel his sword, and the ladies of the court put a carriage at his disposal during his stay in the Paris area. The king also granted Thurel an annual pension of 300 livres. Very few men ever completed the 48 years of military service required to receive a second medal. Thurel was the only one to have received it three times. In 1788 the officers of his regiment jointly paid for a portrait of Thurel to be painted by Antoine Vestier (lead image).

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On 26 October 1804, at the age of 106, Thurel became one of the first recipients of the newly established Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor), the highest decoration in France. Napoleon also rewarded him with a pension of 1,200 francs. He was later appointed as the “oldest soldier of Europe.” He remained healthy in body and spirit throughout his remarkably long life. He died in Tours on 10 March 1807, at the age of 108, after a brief illness.

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In researching Thurel’s life I came across a brief discussion about his date of birth. Was he actually born in 1699 and not 1698? Apparently a baptismal record was discovered at some point listing 1699 as his date of birth, but some people believe that this is a forgery. I’d file this under “who cares?”  I’m sometimes given to wonder about the sanity of people who get all bent out of shape by insisting that he was 107, not 108, when he died. Our whole view of French history is hardly going to crumble because of this. Either way he lived a remarkable life.

Inasmuch as one can know anything about people of past centuries I’d have to say that I’d likely have found Thurel a bit hard to stomach in large doses if I’d ever met him. On the one hand, his dedication to service is admirable. I take my hat off to anyone who devotes his entire life, with energy and passion, to a single pursuit. On the other hand, Thurel reminds me of old men and women that I have met over the years who have an unwavering devotion to a fixed concept of duty that won’t bend under any circumstances. It’s not the devotion itself that I have any quarrel with, it’s the underlying inflexibility of mind that often goes with it that can be a tad annoying.

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Given that Thurel was on active duty for 75 years, he would have had one main meal per day throughout the 18th century, as was the custom for rich and poor. That works out to over 27,000 meals. I would imagine that an awful lot of them were the same, and I don’t imagine that Thurel was a gourmet nor used to fine dining. So let’s start with the basics. Standing armies did not develop much in Europe until the 18th century. Before that, militias were raised as needed. With the development of standing armies, budgets and rations had to be codified. They were more or less the same for France and Britain, for navies as well as armies. That is, in theory, each soldier (or sailor) was assigned something like 1 lb salt beef, 1 lb bread, and 1 pint legumes or rice. Whether they actually got this is another matter. Of course, individual circumstances would have varied enormously. Campaigning soldiers could ransack farms and farmhouses for provisions (and did), and when at home were encouraged to raise chickens and livestock, and tend gardens (usually turnips, carrots, and cabbage). What soldiers actually ate routinely would depend on both what was available and the abilities of the camp cooks. My surmise is that Thurel ate a lot of boiled beef and beans with bread. The common habit on campaign was for soldiers to eat in “messes” of 5 to 6 men, that is, the occupants of a single tent. Each mess would build a fire and cook their meals using an issued pot and kettle. The quality of cooking is anyone’s guess. Bread was supplied by local bakers or they ate hard tack.

I’ve covered military (naval) recipes, including salt beef, dried peas, and hard tack, in the past quite fully. You can search for them easily enough.   Whilst I can’t imagine that Thurel ate omelets terribly often, he must have had them once in a while. So I’ll stretch things a bit by giving an 18th century omelet recipe from Les Soupers de la Cour, Menon (1755). I gave his recipe for Omelette à la Gendarme (Military Omelette) here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thomas-paine/ . This name does not imply that the omelet was made for the military, but that it looks like soldiers on guard (sort of). Close enough.

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What intrigues me about this new recipe, omelette au jambon (ham omelet), is that it calls for “coulis” with ham as a sauce for the omelet. A coulis (the term used also in English by chefs) is a form of thick sauce made from puréed and strained vegetables or fruits. In this case the recipe specifies that the coulis be very sweet:

Mettez dans des oeufs une petite cuillerée coulis avec du jambon cuit haché; battez & faites l’omelette; dressez sur le plat; servez dessus une sauce faites avec coulis bien doux & jambon haché.

Roughly translated: Put a small spoonful of coulis with chopped ham into some eggs. Beat (the eggs), and make an omelet. Put it on a plate. Serve with a sauce of sweet coulis and chopped ham.

Your only issue is going to be how to make the coulis (I’m assuming you know how to cook an omelet). Well, technically that’s not a problem. Blend some fruit to a fine purée.  The question is what fruit to use. First off, I’d say that you need to add some stock to the coulis to give it more character whatever fruit you use. Beef stock would be all right, but ham stock or broth would be better. Still, if you are going to be true to this recipe it needs to be a sweet coulis. That means using a properly sweet, ripe fruit. Pineapple would serve, but would not be very 18th century. Plums would fit the bill better. But it’s your choice.

Mar 012016
 

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Today is National Pig Day one of many pseudo-holidays held in the United States to celebrate the pig. The holiday celebration was started in 1972 by sisters Ellen Stanley, a teacher in Lubbock, Texas, and Mary Lynne Rave of Beaufort, North Carolina. According to Rave the purpose of National Pig Day is “to accord the pig its rightful, though generally unrecognized, place as one of man’s most intellectual and domesticated animals.” The holiday is most often celebrated in the Midwest where pig farming is extensive. Seems like a suitable holiday on which to indulge my ramblings.

National Pig Day includes events at zoos, schools, nursing homes, and sporting events around the United States. It is also recognized at “pig parties” where pink pig punch and pork delicacies are served, and pink ribbon pigtails are tied around trees in the pig’s honor. According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, National Pig Day is on the same day as pseudo-holidays Share a Smile day and Peanut Butter Lover’s day, so take your pick if you don’t like pigs. The question of whether the holiday is a time to honor pigs by “giving them a break” or to appreciate their offerings is an open question.

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Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated from wild boar as early as 13,000–12,700 BCE in the Near East in the Tigris Basin being managed in the wild in a way similar to the way they are managed by some modern New Guineans. Remains of pigs have been dated to earlier than 11,400 BCE in Cyprus. Those animals must have been introduced from the mainland, which suggests domestication in the adjacent mainland by then. There was a separate domestication in China which took place about 8000 years ago. DNA evidence from sub-fossil remains of teeth and jawbones of Neolithic pigs shows that the first domestic pigs in Europe had been brought from the Near East. This stimulated the domestication of local European wild boar resulting in a third domestication event with the Near Eastern genes dying out in European pig stock.

The adaptable nature and omnivorous diet of the wild boar allowed early humans to domesticate it readily. Pigs were mostly used for food, but early civilizations also used the pigs’ hides for shields, bones for tools and weapons, and bristles for brushes. In many parts of Asia, pigs have been domesticated for a long time for pig toilets. Though ecologically logical as well as economical, pig toilets are waning in popularity as use of septic tanks and sewage systems is increasing in rural areas.

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A pig toilet (sometimes called a “pig sty latrine”) is a simple type of dry toilet consisting of an outhouse mounted over a pig sty, with a chute or hole connecting the two. The pigs consume the feces of the users of the toilet. Pig toilets were once common in rural China, where a single Chinese ideogram (Chinese: 圂; pinyin: hùn) signifies both “pigsty” and “privy”. These arrangements have been strongly discouraged by the Chinese authorities in recent years; although as late as 2005, they could still be found in remote northern provinces.

Pigs were brought to southeastern North America from Europe by de Soto and other early Spanish explorers. Escaped pigs became feral and caused a great deal of disruption to Native Americans, who had no domesticated livestock. Domestic pigs have become feral in many other parts of the world (e.g. New Zealand and northern Queensland) and have caused substantial environmental damage.

Pork is a well-known example of a non-kosher food. This prohibition is based on Leviticus 11:2–4, 7–8 (as well as Deuteronomy chapter 14):

These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the land. Everything that possesses a split hoof, which is fully cloven, and that brings up its cud—this you may eat. But this is what you shall not eat from what brings up its cud or possesses split hooves—the camel, because it brings up its cud but does not possess split hooves…and the pig, because it has split hooves that are completely cloven, but it does not bring up its cud—it is impure to you and from its flesh you may not eat.

Why pork was prohibited in ancient Israel is a source of ongoing debate. When undercooked pork was discovered in the 19th century to be a cause of the parasite trichinosis, many scholars jumped on this fact as the principal reason for the pork taboo in ancient times. But this is a lame argument. Animal borne diseases such as salmonella (chicken) or anthrax (beef) are much more virulent and harder to get rid of. Trichinosis can easily be avoided by cooking the pork properly.

Structural anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, have argued that the taboo comes from ancient Israelite cultural categories propounded in Genesis. Israelite cosmology adamantly believed in the existence of three zones – land, sea, and sky – that were created by God during creation and should be kept separate. Not only that, each zone has animals that truly “belong” and those that do not. Fish (with fins and scales), for example, belong in the sea because they swim and can breath underwater. Lobsters do not belong because they walk on the bottom. Amphibians that can live in water and on land are an abomination. In this cosmology, sheep and goats belong and pigs do not, because the former eat grass (land food), but pigs eat everything.

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Marvin Harris in Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches takes up a more ecological argument. Why, he asks, do some cultures despise pigs, while others, such as people in highland New Guinea, love them? For the ancient Israelites, he argues, sheep and goats were environmentally beneficial, but pigs were destructive. The core lands of ancient Judah (around Jerusalem) are hilly and difficult to farm. Sheep and goats can be grazed in mountainous regions that are not suitable for arable, eating herbage, and, therefore, turning otherwise unusable land into meat, milk, and bone. Pigs can’t do this. They have to be kept in urban environments.

I have spent a lot of energy asking the question why city-dwelling Jewish priests in Jerusalem despised cities and loved mountain herders, and, in brief, I think the answer lies in Israel and Judah’s constant subjugation to multicultural cities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. I think I can combine Douglas’ and Harris’ ideas, therefore. In part I think they are both right. Jerusalem priests wanted to be left alone and were afraid of assimilation into these vast multicultural empires in which their ethnic identity would be lost. This led to a theology that valued the separation of different things – which included animals, types of cloth, peoples etc. The word “separate” in Hebrew (qadosh) and “holy” are the same. Multicultural cities were evil; the wilderness of shepherds was good. Great leaders such as Abraham, Jacob, and David kept herds. They dwelt in lands that made them tough and fierce fighters. Cities bred arrogance and sloth. Pigs were the food of city dwellers and symbolized their habits: dirty, greedy, and slothful.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Be that as it may, pork is incredibly versatile. I couldn’t even begin to list the food products containing pork – sausages, hams, bacon, etc., never mind chitterlings, pork rind, trotters, boar’s head . . . and on and on. Lard is a great medium to fry in and makes superb pastry. I won’t go on. This site is a fairly broad listing of pork dishes around the world – enough to make you salivate.

http://www.wikiwand.com/en/List_of_pork_dishes

Ok, OK, pork fat is not tremendously good for your arteries. I get it. But, as with all foods that can be harmful, moderation is the key. Four years ago I moved from Argentina which has the lowest per capita consumption of pork of countries where pork is not taboo, to China which has the highest consumption. Even so, Argentina was the first country where I found pork kidneys for sale in markets, and they were delectable. In China I could have drowned in pork. If you ask for “meat” (肉: ròu) in a restaurant you’ll invariably get pork.

I won’t prejudice you with a recipe. You pick – lentils with ham hocks or pig’s trotters, prosciutto, a BLT, black pudding, chicharrones, pork pie

. . . have at it. Here’s a small gallery:

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