Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dead horse and anchovy

In one of my all-time favourite British sitcoms, To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (living in somewhat reduced circumstances outside her manor) brings her butler Brabinger tins of tunafish from the grocer's. 'He seems to like it. I can't think why', she comments and begins preparations to cook her own jam.
Although fforbes-Hamilton can hardly be seen as a literary intellectual, I was reminded of this scene when reading The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 by John Carey. In this book intellectuals are shown to feel threatened by the masses that crowd the cities: 'semi-human swarms, drugged by popular newspapers and cinema', soulless suburbians with bad skins from eating tinned salmon and ditto beans.

Tinned food has always made us uneasy. It's convenient of course, and modern techniques have made it no less healthier than fresh food. The British Nutrition Foundation even states that it is often a good source of protein and fibre and calls it a myth that canned food is high on fat and sugar. Tinned food may come in handy when the famous Unexpected Visitor finally arrives (or so Elizabeth David contemplated), but then: would you dare to open a few tins for them and call it dinner? None other than the world's most famous chef, Escoffier, stood at the cradle of tomatoes in a tin, but don't you think your guests still would prefer it fresh and home-made?

It wasn't so much for the convenience of modern house keeping, though, that techniques to preserve food have assumed such enormous proportions since the late 19th century. It had all to do with waging war and feeding armies. It was during the siege of Metz (Franco-Prussian War, 1870) that Escoffier began to study the preservation of meat and vegetables. And it made George Orwell write that in the long run tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun (Carey, p. 22).

It is said that, while catering for the troops, Escoffier could make a decent meal out of a dead horse and a tin of anchovy. What's good enough for ravenous soldiers, will do for the Unexpected Guest. Just leave out the dead horse.

Take the tinned anchovy out of the tin and heat in ample olive oil till it gives off its taste. Pour this acciughate lavishly on fat slices of boiled potato. Add freshly ground pepper.

Acciughate can be served with all kinds of vegetables. On boiled potato it's the Italian version of the Swedish Janssons frestelse, and simply irresistible.

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