Over the past year and a half, we have all understandably become more than a little fixated on our next meal and on food in general. Banana bread, sourdough and slow-cooking 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 focus as I became fascinated by the history of some of our most popular foods and the far-reaching effect they had on the world, not just waistlines.
The Irish obsession with tea – Barrys or Lyons, the debate goes on – sees us second in the world in terms of its consumption, ahead even of the UK. Yet I never realised the first and largest industrial espionage case in history was at the heart of the beverage’s popularity.
Tea farming was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese from time immemorial, and they would export only the tea leaves, but not the plants or their cultivation, in return for silver.
Coffee cultivation, processing and brewing, on the other hand, was a closely guarded secret of the Turks
To fund the insatiable appetite of the English-speaking world for tea, the East India Trading Company initially cultivated opium in India then smuggled it into China. In return, the Chinese opium lords paid the British in silver, which paid for the tea to be exported – a circular economy.
The Company, as it was called, realised this was unsustainable and hired Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, who had travelled in China and who spoke fluent Mandarin. Fortune, dressed in traditional clothing and with a shaven head except for a fashionable long pigtail, travelled throughout the main tea-growing regions of China, having recruited a group of locals who would carry him in his curtained sedan.
His attendants would take silver and buy seedlings, mature tree bushes, tree farming and tea-processing equipment. Fortune brought to India 20,000 plants, six experienced tea processors, and all the necessary equipment to farm and process tea. So began the Indian tea industry. Tea consumption in England soared as did its taxation and eventually smuggling. In 1667, England imported 22,000 pounds of tea and two centuries later, this had soared to 32 million pounds.
Coffee cultivation, processing and brewing, on the other hand, was a closely guarded secret of the Turks. They acquired their coffee know-how in the third century from the highlands of Ethiopia on the horn of Africa, and it was not until the seventeenth century that coffee was introduced to Europe, specifically to the French aristocracy by the Turkish ambassador.
Sugar was another gift from the east, coming originally from India but taken on board again by the Arabs. It found its first home in Cyprus and Crete – the Arabic word for Crete is qandi, hence candy
Coffee houses sprang up all over Europe, and in Dublin different coffee houses were favoured by different political parties. Dick’s was established by Richard Pue and was favoured by the Tories, while the Whigs favoured Lloyd’s coffee house in Oxmantown.
Many foods came from the East – surprisingly, pasta was first introduced into Italy during the era of Arabian rule of Sicily. The eastern influence waned and pasta became as Italian as Verdi, Puccini, Chianti or Montepulciano. The many shapes of pasta are not due to the whims of engineers, but rather each is designed to maximise the interaction with the accompanying foods.
Spaghetti is ideally suited to simple sauces based mainly on olive oil and certainly not with a Bolognaise sauce. Penne, the nib-shaped tubular pasta, the outside of which is ribbed, is ideally suited to capture the accompanying meaty ragout. Bucatini connects the tubular pasta with the stringed pasta in that it might look like a thicker version of spaghetti, but in fact is a tube with a 3 millimetre hollow. Why the narrow hollow? It’s thicker than spaghetti and the hollow allows the hot water to cook it from the inside as well as the outside.
Sugar was another gift from the east, coming originally from India but taken on board again by the Arabs. It found its first home in Cyprus and Crete – the Arabic word for Crete is qandi, hence candy – but to prepare crystalline sugar, heat is vital and wood became 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 thrived, however it was forever shamed by the slave trade that was used to cultivate it.
In return, the influence on our everyday foods brought back from the New World is astonishing: tomatoes, maize, cassava, chillies, French beans, Lima beans, avocados, pineapples, artichokes, potatoes, blueberries, cashews, papayas, pecans, pumpkins, squash, turkey and, of course, chocolate.
Speaking of chocolate, the Jesuit and Dominican missionaries who worked in the New World had quite different views of it. The Dominicans saw the Aztec chocolate drink as evil, fostering libidinous tendencies, especially among women. The Jesuits saw an opportunity to make profits to support their global work. They became the largest exporters of cocoa beans from the Amazonian forests. When chocolate was taken back to Spain, the Dominicans persisted with their suspicions about this velvety drink and brought many before the Inquisitions to face charges of chocolate-related debauchery and magic.
The history of various foods is fascinating in its own right – so much I wrote a book about it – but the more we understand their origins and the circuitous routes that often brought them to us, the more we can appreciate and delight in what we eat.
Food Through the Ages – A Popular History, by Mike Gibney, is published by The Liffey Press