Saturday, 21 July 2012

Local delicacies

                 I happened to be talking with a Northern Irishman the other day when the conversation turned to regional delicacies. I mentioned butter pies, which he hadn’t heard of, so I told him how they are something found largely in Lancashire, eaten by the people here on fast days, when the consumption of meat is forbidden. Lancashire, it must be remembered, is an Old Catholic county so, of course, it’s fish on Fridays – hence the popularity of fish and chip shops. 

Butter Pie
Butter pies are an alternative to meat pies, with the meat left out and the pie is filled instead with buttery mashed potato and onions. Potatoes may now be a staple food, but it wasn’t always so. When the first potatoes reached the Old World from the Americas, the Protestants wouldn’t eat them because potatoes are not mentioned in the Bible, (neither is America for that matter, but that didn’t stop them moving there), and the Catholics, on the other hand, wouldn’t eat them unless, before they were planted, they were sprinkled first with Holy Water. Unbelievably they caught on, undoubtedly because of their versatility. 

John Gerarde - Herball 1597 - The first mention of potato in English

You can do a lot with the humble spud. Spud, by the way, comes from the root of words like ‘spade’, that is something short and blunt and, frankly, spud-like. A spatha was a short, broad sword, as was a spadroon and a spado; a spud was a short dagger, a small blade, a digging tool – Pepys’s diary entry for October 10th 1667 has “… then begun with a spudd to lift up the ground.” Spuds, or puds, are also fists, particularly in children. 

Recipe for Porpoise Pudding - c. 1430

Pud, or pudding, is an old term for sausage, as in black pudding, another Lancashire favourite. Black pudding is made with oatmeal, onion, spices, diced fat and pigs blood, mixed and then boiled until cooked. Old-fashioned black pudding was flavoured with the herb pennyroyal, which was also known in days past as pudding-grass. 


The thought of pigs blood pudding will make some people turn up their nose at it, but blood sausage is enjoyed across the world, from the German blutwurst, French boudin noir, Spanish morcilla, to Vietnamese doi or Tibetan gyurma. The Latin word for sausage is botulus, from which we get the word botulism, the infection caused by the bacterium clostridium botulinum

Clostridium Botulinum

Justinus Kerner, a German doctor (and poet) identified the botulism toxin in improperly cooked blood sausages, hence the name, which means ‘sausage disease’ (and nothing to do with the appearance of the bacteria, which just happen to look like sausages), but the bacterium itself was not identified by him. That honour belongs to a Belgian professor of microbiology, Emile van Ermengem, some eighty years later than Kerner. 

Emile van Ermengem

Van Ermengem was sent a brine-cured ham, which had been served at a funeral dinner in the Belgian village of Ellezelles, and which had been responsible for an outbreak of botulism, poisoning twenty-three musicians (three fatally). From the ham, van Ermengem isolated the cause of the disease, the bacterium he initially called bacillus botulinus, and further study linked the pathogen to other outbreaks of food poisoning worldwide. Botulism causes muscular paralysis, starting with the muscles of the face and spreading to the rest of the body. If the respiratory system becomes infected, respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. 

However, it was also found that if exceptionally small doses of the toxin were applied to the muscles of the face, then the resulting paralysis also made that person look a little younger, so it began to be used for cosmetic purposes although the name botulinus neurotoxin was a little off-putting, so it was shortened to Botox. The dose needs to very tiny though, as the botulin toxin is extremely potent – it has been calculated that four kilograms of pure toxin is enough to poison the entire human population of the Earth. 

Recipe for Sausages - from Cookery Reformed, or the Lady's assistant - 1755

Sausages and potatoes. Bangers and mash. They are called bangers because cheap sausages would pop – or bang – when they were fried. They still will. Don’t waste your money on cheap sausages – and don’t ask what goes into them. You really, really, don’t want to know. Do, however, buy good sausages – preferably from a proper butcher. Cowman’s sausage shop on Castle Street in Clitheroe sell proper sausages, and has done so for years – their reputation for excellent quality is well deserved. 

Another fantastic sausage dish is Toad in the Hole. That’s sausages cooked in Yorkshire pudding batter, served with thick onion gravy. The name has nothing to do with toads, though. It’s a euphemism for another four-letter word that starts with a ‘t’ and ends with a ‘d’. Just think what a cooked sausage looks like. Are you thinking t**d? Yep, that’s the one.

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