12 October 2010

12 October - Columbus Day

Today is the day that Christopher Columbus (or, more likely, Rodrigo de Triana, the Pinta's lookout) sighted land on his 1492 voyage to find a way to the rich Indies by a westward route.  It was observed yesterday in order to give everyone three days in which to celebrate the European discoveries of our continents OR to bemoan the same.  I personally am inclined to celebrate.

So here's to you, Columbus (and de Triana) and Brendan and Verazzano and Madog and Hudson and Cabot and Eriksson and Balboa, and Cartier, and more that I cannot even remember.  And also, here's to all of those brave enough to get on small boats and large ships (over the last four centuries), leaving everything behind, the good with the bad, to start over in a new land that most likely didn't speak the same language and has a habit of looking down on immigrants other than themselves.

An appropriate celebration dinner could include foods that the sailors would have eaten on their voyages.  Two essays on the cuisine Columbus would have known and eaten can be found at the Castello Banfi website: 'Christopher Columbus - His Gastronomic Persona', and 'Recipes' from the same; both are pdf files.

According to Lucio Sorre, who wrote the above essays, the victuals on that first voyage included olive oil, vinegar, wine, honey and molasses;  flour, rice, dried chickpeas and lentils; garlic, cheese, raisins, and almonds; sardines, anchovies, salt cod, and pickled or salted beef and pork.

Of course, what did sailors from time immemorial eat?  That's right: SHIP'S BISCUIT
(but I don't suggest you do the same)

A recipe for ship's biscuit from The Royal Naval Museum:

"To produce a similar plain ships biscuit, a medium coarse stone-ground wholemeal flour should be used."

"Add water to 1lb wholemeal flour and 1/4oz salt to make a stiff dough. Leave for 1/2 hour and then roll out very thickly. Separate in to 5 or 7 biscuits. Bake in a hot oven approx. 420 degrees F for 30 minutes. The biscuits should then be left undisturbed in a warm dry atmosphere to harden and dry out."

Other recipes leave off the salt.

The biscuits would then be broken up, pulverized, mixed together with more water, shaped, and baked again.  This process would take place up to four times, to make a durable breadstuff that would last for years.  It also made the biscuit extremely hard - so much so that one did not munch on a biscuit (it would be like munching on a brick), but rather sopped it in soup or gravy or other liquid until soft.  Biscuits were also used in soups and stews as thickening agents.

Well, here is something the sailors might have had to soften their biscuits: Chickpea Stew with Salt Cod, found on the Jose-Made-in-Spain website.  Garlic, salt cod, saffron, and cumin - what's not to like?

... Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
                        And peered through darkness.  Ah, that night
            Of all dark nights!  And then a speck—
                        A light! a light! a light! a light!
            It grew; a starlit flag unfurled!
                        It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
            He gained a world; he gave that world
                        Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”
                                                             —Joaquin Miller  "Columbus"