How did tea, chocolate, sugar and coffee end up on Irish tables?

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Over the past year and a half we’ve all become more than a little obsessed with our next meal and food in general. Banana bread, sourdough, and slow cook were lockdown diversions, in some cases resulting in the so-called covid stone. As a former professor of food science and nutrition, I was not immune to such concentration as I became fascinated by the history of some of our most popular foods and the effect of great wingspan they had over the world, not just size.

The Irish obsession with tea – Barrys or Lyon, the debate continues – places us second in the world in terms of consumption, even ahead of the United Kingdom. Yet I never realized that the first and biggest industrial espionage in history was at the heart of the drink’s popularity.

The cultivation of tea has been a well-kept secret of the Chinese since time immemorial, and they only exported tea leaves, but not plants or their cultivation, in exchange for money.

The cultivation, processing and brewing of coffee, on the other hand, was a well-kept secret of the Turks.

To finance the English-speaking world’s insatiable appetite for tea, the East India Trading Company first cultivated opium in India and then smuggled it into China. In return, the Chinese opium lords paid the British in cash, who paid for tea to be exported – a circular economy.

The Company, as it was called, realized that this was not viable and hired Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, who had traveled to China and was fluent in Mandarin. Fortune, dressed in traditional clothing and with a shaved head except for a trendy long pigtail, traveled to the main tea-growing regions of China, having recruited a group of locals who would wear it in his sedan at curtains.

His servants took money and bought seedlings, mature tree bushes, arboriculture and tea-processing equipment. Fortune brought 20,000 plants, six experienced tea processors, and all the equipment needed to grow and process tea to India. Thus began the Indian tea industry. The consumption of tea in England skyrocketed, as did its taxation and ultimately smuggling. In 1667 England imported 22,000 pounds of tea and two centuries later that figure reached 32 million pounds.

The cultivation, processing and brewing of coffee, on the other hand, was a well-kept secret of the Turks. They acquired their coffee know-how in the 3rd century on the highlands of Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa, and it was not until the 17th century that coffee was introduced in Europe, more precisely in the aristocracy. French by the Turkish Ambassador.

Sugar was another gift from the East, originating in India but taken over by the Arabs. He found his first home in Cyprus and Crete – the Arabic word for Crete is qandi, hence sweets

Cafes sprang up all over Europe and in Dublin, different cafes were favored by different political parties. Dick’s was created by Richard Pue and was favored by the Tories, while the Whigs preferred Lloyd’s coffee to Oxmantown.

Many foods came from the Orient – surprisingly, pasta was first introduced to Italy during the time of the Arab rule of Sicily. The oriental influence faded and the pasta became as Italian as Verdi, Puccini, Chianti or Montepulciano. The many shapes of pasta aren’t due to the whims of engineers, but rather each one is designed to maximize the interaction with the foods that accompany them.

Spaghetti works well with simple sauces made mostly with olive oil and certainly not with a bolognese sauce. Penne, a tubular, feather-shaped pasta with a ribbed exterior, is ideal for capturing the meaty stew that comes with it. Bucatini relates tubular pasta to string pasta in that it might look like a thicker version of spaghetti, but is actually a tube with a 3-millimeter hollow. Why the narrow hollow? It is thicker than spaghetti and the hollow allows hot water to cook it from the inside as well as from the outside.

Sugar was another gift from the East, originating in India but taken over by the Arabs. He found his first home in Cyprus and Crete – the Arabic word for Crete is qandi, hence sweets – but to prepare granulated sugar heat is vital and wood has become a limiting factor in sugar production. . Eventually, the influence of the east was overtaken by that of the west. Columbus took sugar to the New World where it flourished, but it was forever shamed by the slave trade that was used to cultivate it.

In turn, the influence on our everyday foods brought back from the New World is amazing: tomatoes, corn, cassava, peppers, green beans, lima beans, avocados, pineapples, artichokes, potatoes, blueberries, cashews. , papayas, pecans, pumpkins, squash, turkey and, of course, chocolate.

Speaking of chocolate, Jesuit and Dominican missionaries working in the New World had quite different views on it. The Dominicans viewed the Aztec chocolate drink as an evil, promoting libidinous tendencies, especially among women. Jesuits saw an opportunity to make a profit to support their global work. They have become the biggest exporters of cocoa beans from the Amazon forests. When the chocolate was brought back to Spain, the Dominicans persisted in their suspicion about this velvety drink and brought many before the Inquisitions to face charges of debauchery and magic related to chocolate.

The history of various foods is fascinating in itself – I have written such a book so much about it – but the more we understand their origins and the roundabout circuits that have often brought them to us, the more we can appreciate and savor what we eat. .

Food Through the Ages – A Popular History, by Mike Gibney, is published by The Liffey Press


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