Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Essay - on salt, mushrooms and memories of times past

It seems strange now, but when I first started to cook, I never used salt. Salt was something that you added to food later to taste. Salt was placed on the table in a little bowl, silver for formal occasions. It was never sprinkled over food, but added to the side of the plate in a Russian girllittle pile.

Later, my habit of doing this seemed strange to others. By then, salt was incorporated into cooking. "Why don't you wait and see if it's salty enough", I was told when I asked for the salt or added it to the side of the plate. I was reminded of this by a fascinating post  by Asya Pereltsvaig, Russian cuisine: a Melting Pot of Native Sensibilities and Foreign Influences. There, to my astonishment, was a description of my salt tradition! Salt was scarce, so you didn't add it to food, but kept it separate for later use.

As a child staying with my grandparents, I sometimes used to eat my porridge sitting with my grandfather on the front verandah at Mann Street. I say front, but the main verandah was actually at the back of the house. That's another oddity. He ate his porridge in the Scottish way. There was no sugar, but he did sprinkle the porridge with salt. I did likewise! This tradition did not last, at least so far as I was concerned. Brown sugar was just so much more attractive. And with cream, delicious!

Since all this is making me a little nostalgic, this is a photo of my grandparents with that verandah. You can see that it's a quite impressive view!

Fah, Gran frint verandah Many of the traditional cuisines are in fact farm or peasant cuisines. You ate what was around, what was in season.

If you look at the Russian case, the aristocracy brought in newly fashionable food  tastes, but the peasant had to use what was available. You can see this clearly in China. Today, of course, we are all aristocrats and can access whatever we like. The sometimes mess called modern Australian cuisine (I find that word poncy: do you? How about just food?) reflects that. We no longer focus on getting best taste from what we have, but instead focus on buying the things that we believe will give us best taste.

Friday night at dinner overlooking Sydney Harbour, a friend and I chatted about mushrooms. If you look at Asya's piece, you will see the reference to mushrooms. Mushrooms were food of the ordinary people, collected from the fields or forests. There were no mushrooms in the shops when I was a child. All the mushrooms we ate were field mushrooms. We used to pick them ourselves, or sometimes they would come in from a local property. We also learned how to identify those that could be safely eaten. That was kind of important!

The American writer Harry Turtledove specialises in alternative history or, alternatively, new worlds based on historical examples. I learned a lot about the Byzantine Empire, for examDarknessple, from the novels set in or around  Videssos, a world based on Byzantium and its environs. Harry' has a PhD in Byzantine history! 

Mushrooms feature in one series; from memory, I think that it is the Darkness series. Within the series, the Kaunians are a strange melange based on the Roman Empire (the previously defeated Kaunian Empire) plus the Jews (now oppressed minority). The Kaunians  love collecting mushrooms, They also know how to avoid one especially poisonous variety that tastes delightful but leads to very painful death. This mushroom features in a revenge attack towards the end of the series.      

Today, mushrooms come in boxes with brown paper bags for packaging purposes. Then, we picked them.

When Aunt Kay died, we went down to Glenroy, the Vickers' old property, long sold. The house had gone, demolished, as had many of the old features. We drove through the paddocks identifying the features we had all known. There were mushrooms everywhere, huge mushrooms, the biggest I had ever seen. They looked all right, just like the ones that I had known.

Thirty years ago, I would have picked and picked. Like the Kaunians, I adore mushrooms. But they were so big and I had forgotten through my urbanised environment; we all wondered if they were okay. Some were picked, but most were left alone. 

In fact, they were the old field mushroom. So through the decay of old memories and the resulting uncertainty, I missed my chance of collecting mushrooms with the huge, old, full-bodied taste when things were real. I have never seen mushrooms like them. I really haven't. And mushrooms properly cooked are the food of the gods.             


Anonymous said...

Lovely post, invoking many memories. Mushrooms good. Porrige with salt almost as good!


Bob said...

Ah, Jim. Memories. I have sat in that very spot but not with porridge - probably a drink. That corner was enclosed and we had to open it again to its former glory.
I have succumbed to a severe bout of nostalgia.
My grandfather also put salt on his porridge but I prefer golden syrup.
Bob Clarke

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, kvd. I really enjoyed writing this and the previous post. Sometimes you get a flow in writing.

Hi Bob. I'm glad that I plunged you back into nostalgia! And kvd too. The verandah was closed in when the house was turned into two flats after grand died. It was too big for Fa on his own. In the last years before Fa died, I often sat there in the now enclosed space drinking dry ginger on the rocks and playing with the dog.

I'm glad that you opened it up. We can share nostalgia!

Ah, golden syrup. That's worth a post in its own right!

Anonymous said...

James, your memory fails you. we picked kilos and kilos of those plate sized mushrooms. Really wasn't difficult as they they weighed 2-4 to the kilo! Rosie and I cooked them up and then took many frozen bags back to Wagga Wagga. Mother (your aunt Kay) always added salt to the soaking process the night before, then added brown sugar the next morning!
Thanks for the family update, will respond, cheers James

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jamie. I remember you and Rosie picking them, but we didn't! They were just so big, and the Belshaws weren't sure. Now I didn't know how Kay prepared them, and with salt too!

In my life, and barring failing memory(!), I have never seen mushrooms that big. I will try Kay's recipe!

Look forward to your update.

Anonymous said...

Salt added to the oats not the mushrooms!

Jim Belshaw said...

That makes a lot more sense! Actually, I suspect Mum used to make porridge the same way. Still, it made an interesting mushroom treatment!