Thursday, January 12, 2012
Farm Bulletin: The Vegetables of Vinegar & Salt, Pt. 2
Just when I start thinking we 21st Century types are soooooo smart, someone digs up some old dude who had it so much more together than we do. One such old dude is John Evelyn, who was all over a diet of vegetables about, oh, 300-plus years ago. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm has been getting to know Mr. Evelyn of late, and shares his discoveries with us. Read Part One here.
Before Karen and Frank Morton veered into the seed business, their Wild Garden Seed salad greens were cherished by Portland restaurants. We love hearing Cathy Whims [when she was the chef at Genoa in the late 90s] describe the careful attention the Mortons paid to preparing the ever-changing mixture of greens, every leaf perfect, delivered in a damp muslin bag. Evelyn (above, by Robert Walker) demanded the same attention for his mixture; "let your herby ingredients be exquisitely cull'd and cleans'd of all worm-eaten, slimy, canker'd, dry, spotted or in any ways vitiated leaves." He specifies spring water for washing and, after draining, swinging them gently in a coarse napkin to draw off excess moisture.
The carefully gathered greens need the finest couture de cuisine. For oil in the dressing, he commends omphacine pressed from olives native to the Republic of Lucca, now a province of Italy and still producing superb olives. Olive oil had a range of uses and grades, including lighting and lubrication, as well as food. Omphacine is the first pressing of green olives, what we call, implausibly, "extra virgin" today. For the contrasting acid, the best wine vinegar is specified, though lemon and the tart juice squeezed from verjus grapes also meet his approval. If that special grape type is not available, the freshly squeezed juice from other small, unripe grapes will do. For salt, he favors the "brightest bay grey-salt," what is sold today as fleur de sel and sel gris. The seasonings are English mustard, preferably from Tewksberry, and pepper (black or white). The yolk of a freshly laid egg, boiled moderately hard, is allowed as desired.
He finishes up with the tools needed. These include a willow or osier basket with partitions to separate the various salad greens as they are collected so the correct proportions are used, a silver knife to trim them, and a porcelain or Delft-ware bowl for serving. The iron knife, pewter and silver bowls in use at the time would leave the salad with an unpleasant metallic flavor. In his attention to detail and proportion in preparing and presenting his salad, Evelyn has no rival even among the most fussy modern chefs and gardeners.
The latter half of "Acetaria" deals with seasonality and health, and what we refer to as "industrial food" today. Evelyn inveighs against the flaccid vegetables raised in urban hotbeds prepared from over-rich stable muck and other filth collected from the city streets, favoring instead the healthy vegetables grown in the rich humus of the countryside and hedgerows. He also disparages "forwarding," pushing the vegetable and fruit growth outside of their natural seasons and into inferior quality. He promotes the merits of a diet of vegetables.
Evelyn was not a vegetarian per se; he was an ardent lover of vegetables and a southern diet, what we refer to as the Mediterranean diet. He advocated eating mostly plants, and was appalled by the slaughter methods in London's abattoirs, much in the same spirit as Michael Pollan pushes us to think about our food's origin and quality. However, he was not wantonly dogmatic, so he leaves the question of whether salad should come before or after the savory dishes convincingly explored and learnedly unresolved, as it still is more than three centuries later.
In addition to the original 1699 edition, "Acetaria" has been reprinted at least four times. In 1934, the Women's Auxiliary of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden published the complete work in an edition of 1,000 copies, nicely bound with hand cut signatures. This version is available electronically on Gutenberg. Still Point Press of Dallas, Texas published a numbered edition of 1,000 on high quality French paper (1985) along with a few illustrations, bound with a leather spine. Unfortunately, this handsome edition leaves out the Greek and Latin passages and the margin notes, and the artsy illustrations have no botanical merit. A 1996 version of "Acetaria," published by Prospect Books, now in paperback (2005), retains the whole text and translates the Greek passages, a more satisfactory approach. Finally, The Grand Salad (Peacock Vane, Isle of Wight, 1984) is a book based on passages from "Acetaria." Sadly, it is hard to read as it is handwritten in a calligraphic style. The work also has egregious deletions and some additional dry text that adds nothing to Evelyn's original, despite its good intentions.
Read The Vegetables of Vinegar & Salt, Part One.