Michigan has been experiencing what is politely called a “wintery mix” instead of Spring. On most days there is precipitation in the form of rain, snow, hail, and sleet – separately or together. There may be a half day of cold sunshine, or even an hour or two of warm sunshine. But by nightfall we’re back to our “wintery mix.” This type of weather is very hard on me. One of the effects of my stroke is the inability to maintain a constant body temperature. One of the effects of my age is arthritis. When temperatures change too abruptly I’m physically miserable. Just picture a very grumpy bear, who knows it’s time to break free of hibernation, but the weather… Anyhow, I was trying to ask my friends to excuse my grumpy behavior for a while and received several messages saying, “But what about the bread???”
Avoiding the poisons in store bought bread means I’m baking 3 loaves of bread every week — but it’s all potato bread or herbed bread because those are our household favorites. This does not mean I’m giving up on this blog! I’m currently experimenting with some “patterned” tomato bread that I know very little about. And, as I think some of you know, the history of bread is what fascinates me the most.
By 1550 some of the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors had returned to Europe, bringing with them the Inca and Aztec treasures of silver and gold, but, of much more importance, they also brought back 3 things that eventually changed the foods of Europe: tomatoes and maize (corn) originated in what is now Mexico; potatoes are indigenous to Peru.
Corn didn’t cause much excitement. The grains already available were, in some ways, superior, but corn did produce more and larger kernels of grain. Potatoes and tomatoes were another story! Both plants are part of the nightshade family. While the sailors and soldiers that had been to the Americas ate them regularly, and obviously didn’t die, at first these two plants were grown primarily as unique flowers in the flower gardens. Everyone, from peasant to king, knew how to recognize the deadly nightshade family! (And, to be fair, the leaves of a potato plant will make you sick, and there are some very old fashioned tomatoes that have spikes on their stems and under their leaves that leave a rash similar to poison ivy if you touch them.)
I can easily picture the frustration of the returning soldiers trying to convince their often starving families to try eating a baked or mashed potato! Or to eat a sun warm tomato when they were thirsty and the well water was fouled. Many of the European nobles were involved in small skirmishes at the time, the Holy Roman Empire was beginning to fall apart, and no one really had time to care about the peasants, yet a peasant’s small field could easily be destroyed by two or three horses galloping through their patches of grain. But potatoes grow underground. Even the big war horses don’t destroy the entire potato crop! On top of that, potatoes produce more than grains. One can, quite literally, trace the progress of potatoes throughout Europe by tracing the population explosion. In the same amount of acreage that once fed 3 people, adding potatoes could feed 10 people! Plus, if some gallant knight on his mighty steed happened to trample your grain, you still had potatoes! So it’s pretty easy to see why potatoes spread throughout Europe, even though it took a couple of hundred years — but tomatoes?
The tomatoes Cortez brought back from Mexico generally had white flowers and small yellow fruits, but somehow, somewhere in Spain around 1580 someone (or some village…) prefered the yellow flowers and brilliant red fruits in their tomato flower garden. By 1590 someone who sold olive oil discovered he could preserve the partially dried brilliant red tomatoes in his olive oil (adding a bit of salt and pepper) in glass jars. The flavor was intensified, the jars looked quite beautiful, but how does anyone sell great taste that most people considered quite deadly?
One of my favorite books (it’s only a partial book) called The Lore and Folklore of Bread, tells the story. The merchant (or merchants) from the village created a game, probably played in a tavern. Two large loaves of bread were made, one containing a lot of the preserved tomatoes, the other containing mashed potatoes. Both loaves of bread was rolled into bite sized balls, and arranged into fancy round patterns, alternating the red balls containing tomatoes and the white balls containing potatoes, and a rather drunken game began called “Pick your poison.” Under the false bravado and peer pressure of drunkenness, everyone was willing to play, even the nobles. One of these nobles had the authority to create official labels that allowed the tomatoes preserved in olive oil to be sold as food, as well as dried mashed potatoes.
I doubt very much if the story is true. But it is true that by 1625 sun dried tomatoes, preserved in olive oil were on most export lists, and taxed as a luxury. So I was very, very surprised to find in a “normal” cookbook (circa 1890) to find a “recipe” for tomato bread that was made into bite sized balls, which were combined with balls of white bread in a circular pattern. The problem with early “cookbooks” is they don’t actually give measured amounts and often skip some ingredients completely. (After all, even in 1890 everyone knew how to make basic bread!) So I guessed, and guessed wrong. I’m still working on getting it right.
Someday when I’m no longer hibernating…. <growl>