Potatoes: an essential part of the traditional Swiss diet
If there’s one thing we have plenty of in Switzerland, it’s potatoes. I didn’t even like potatoes before I came here and discovered all the subtle differences of texture, taste and all the ways of using them in cooking.
Potatoes are an essential ingredient in almost any traditional Swiss meal. This year’s crop is already starting to show up in local markets.
Large Number of Varieties of Potatoes in Switzerland
The official 2007 Swisspatat list (provided by Agridea, the Swiss agricultural research station) includes 31 different varieties, along with lists for various seasons and types of potatoes, as well as recipes for everyday use as well as for special occasions.
You can take a look at the 31 varieties in the table at the bottom right on the last page of the Swisspatat article to get an idea of which potatoes to look for at what time of the year.
Different Types of Potatoes for Different Uses
There are basically 4 types of potatoes, according to Swisspatat:
Firm or “salad” potatoes. These potatoes do not burst open when cooking. They are moist, fine-grained and not mealy, and can be used in most dishes, with the exception of mashed potatoes and purées.
All-purpose medium-firm potatoes. The skin on these potatoes opens only slightly on cooking. They are somewhat mealy, on the dry side, and have a fine, grainy texture. They are tasty and can be used for most all purposes.
Mealy potatoes. These potatoes burst when cooked, but they are tender, mealy and rather dry. They have a large grain and strong taste and are used mostly for industrial purposes.
Extra-mealy potatoes. These are basically not for cooking and are used for feeding livestock or to make starch, due to their dryness and hard texture.
The Saffron Gatherer — one of many girls climbing hills to gather saffron, in Xeste 3, ca. 1750 B.C.E., a large public building in Akrotiri, on Thera (or Santorini). Restoration by painter Thomas Baker.
Part One in a series of articles on aspects of saffron. Photos under the title and below, of wall paintings from the excavated areas of Thera (also called Santorini), are taken from a magnificent site that has expired off the Internet, www.therafoundation.org.
How Far Back Does Saffron Use Go?
50,000 years ago in Western Asia, wild-gathered saffron was rubbed onto sacred stones on hilltop shrines. The sun picked them out, and they shone. Millennia later, saffron gave color, radiant in torchlight, to cave paintings in Iraq. Only relatively recently has the saffron crocus been cultivated, the spice valued as a flavoring for food. Before that, it was a ritual substance, a powerful medicine to relieve melancholy and other ills, and a dye for the clothing of high-born women. The association of saffron with female sexuality is long and intimate, referenced in the Song of Songs, in Homer and in Ovid.
The First Pictorial Record of Saffron and Saffron Culture
Where did the wild saffron crocus first appear? There are competing theories, but it’s down to Central Asia and Greece. Where was it first cultivated? In Greece. Saffron is the dark red thread linking many ancient peoples, and the first pictorial record of it was made in the Cyclades, on the island of Thera – more usually called Santorini – in the Late Bronze Age.
Until 1967, when the excavations of Prof. Spyridon Marinatos began bringing it to light, the clock had been stopped on the settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Thera, for about 3,600 years. Volcanic ash from the Thera Eruption, the largest geological event of ancient times, had both destroyed and preserved the town, setting it apart from history for a very long time.
A riverscape, from Akroitiri on the Island of Thera — 1800-1700 BCE
A townscape on the harbor, Akrotiri. 1800-1700 BCE
In the centuries leading up to the eruption, dated around 1650 BCE, Thera was a dolphin-girt paradise, the southernmost island in the Cycladic arc, 70 miles north of Crete. Though Cycladic culture is not quite Minoan, material culture on Thera was rich in Minoan influence, and, through trade, in the influence of Dynastic Egypt. When the language of the Minoans, the tormenting Linear A, is at last understood, more will be revealed. For now, research must be conducted without history’s most ardent kiss — language that we can read.
A German map of the Cyclades and Crete, with Thera (here called Santorini) dead center. Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to the same geothermal activity that would one day disastrously increase, hot water ran in pipes through the multi-storied houses of Akrotiri, Thera’s big town. Ventilation was understood, with light wells sunk in blocks of dwellings. Then as now in the Mediterranean, staples were stored in gigantic ceramic jars – olive oil, grain, dried figs. There was intricate and characteristic jewelry and there was perfume — of coriander, almonds, bergamot and pine. Weaving was so fine that garments could be woven sheer and then embroidered. In the harbor, resinated linen covered the hulls of ships long enough for 30 oarsmen. There were blue-toned vervet monkeys from Egypt, tall stone vases for lilies, and sufficient paint for many radiantly colored and figured walls — had there not been paint, we would know very little of the rest.
And there was saffron. The wild-growing crocus species that produces saffron, C. cartwrightianus, has for purposes of cultivation mostly given over to a selection, C. sativus. Numerous crocus species, some with deep mythological associations, bloom in the late winter, the spring and the fall. C. cartwrightianus and C. sativus, with their petals of violet-blue, bloom in the late fall, a time of tremendous fecundity in both plant and animal life in the Mediterranean. It takes about 70,000 deep orange-red stigma to make a pound of dried saffron.
In the building known as Xeste 3, larger and more decorated than any yet excavated at Akrotiri, a two-storied chamber of frescoes – true frescoes, painted on wet plaster for a time-defying bond – depicts women and girls gathering saffron crocus blooms, bringing them in baskets to a saffron-cushioned goddess seated on a three-tiered platform. It is by far the most splendid and evocative cycle of paintings from the ancient world to be discovered in our time, and a match for almost any painting from pre-classical antiquity. Xeste 3 was probably a public building – on an ashlar wall there is an altar surmounted by a painted pair of horns tipped and dripping in red and, below, a lustral basin, both too large for domestic use.
If public or semi-public rituals were performed here, then to what end? And in whose propitiation? And how was saffron involved? The cycle of frescoes in Xeste 3 poses many questions, and answers not a few of them most provocatively.
The Goddess on the Saffron Cushion… To be continued.
SOURCES CONSULTED in the WRITING of THIS ARTICLE
The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion, by Walter Burkert
Art and Religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Society, by Nanno Marinatos
Thera: Pompeii of the Ancient Aegean, by Christos G. Doumas
Excellent articles for determining this aspect of saffron — never make a botany-based mistake about saffron again!
Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.
In this brief history of the sandwich, you’ll learn that a sandwich is an extremely versatile and universal food item consisting of two slices of bread in the middle of which is encased a filling, or of a single slice of bread garnished with a topping (tartines/bruschetta, smørrebrød, canapés, etc.). In both cases they come in an infinite number of varieties that differ in flavour, style, texture and size.
The origin of the term dates back to 1762 and saw the light of day in East Kent, England. According to legend, John Montagu aka the Fourth Earl of Sandwich was so busy gambling that he did not want to stop his activities in order to dine, so he ordered the waiter to bring him slices of roast beef enclosed in two wedges of bread. In this way, he could continue playing while eating and would in no manner dirty his fingers. That is how this quick and improvised snack became known as “sandwich”.
Even if the Earl gave his name to this popular “speciality,” it is to be said that bread has been served with meat and/or vegetables for centuries before this “invention” and that its forefather probably already existed in Neolithic times with the advent of the domestication of wheat. The first form of sandwich is attributed to the ancient Jewish wise man Hillel the Elder (~1st century B.C.) from Babylon who apparently put meat from the lamb sacrificed for Passover and bitter herbs (horseradish, chicory, sow thistle, eryngo, and lettuce) between pieces of matzo (kosher cracker-like, unleavened bread). Another genre of sandwich was common during the Middle Ages: thick slabs of stale bread called “trenchers” were used as plates and can be regarded as the precursors to the open-faced sandwich.
At the beginning, sandwiches represented a humble and simple lower-class meal, but by the middle of the 18th century, the aristocracy started serving them as a late-night collation, and they were considered very chic. Then with the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and its hordes of restless workers slaving away in factories, sandwiches became a working-class luncheon, since they were practical, easily accessible, nourishing (calorific), inexpensive, portable and could be eaten in a rush.
After having first appeared in England as well as Spain, the sandwich rapidly spread through the rest of Europe and the United States, where it was first promoted as an elaborate main dish. The 20th century saw the rise of the sandwich in the U.S. and the Mediterranean when bread became an indispensable component of people’s diet and started being consumed in much larger quantities than in the past.
We think of taste as something universal that we have in common with all (or most) human beings, as a mechanical and chemical process that requires no thought. If we could measure the data that goes into our final judgment about the taste of a food, we’d likely be in for a shock. Perhaps surprisingly, our subconscious also plays a major role in what we like or dislike, and we use all our senses to determine this.
Traditionally, when we study the four elements of taste, they are presented as follows:
There is no need to explain these. We are all familiar with them.
Today, taste specialists have added a fifth to that list: umami. Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savory taste occurring naturally in many foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. It is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round them out. Some researchers, such as Adam Hadhazi, think there are even more tastes to be added.
But in reality, taste or flavor involves all five senses. Yes: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
Some researchers, such as Gordon M. Shepherd, would have it that what we most often refer to as “taste” is in fact flavor, and that flavor is largely made up of what he calls “retrosmell”. It is true that in the past we were taught that primates lost touch with their sense of smell when they started holding their heads upright, far from the ground, and standing on two legs instead of four, but today, that is called into question. Shepherd is the one who challenged this long-held premise back in 1974.
Retronasal smell, also known as “retrosmell” or “mouth-smell”, is an addition to the conventional teaching about taste; it is an integral part of flavor. Retrosmell takes place while you’re chewing and swallowing, as well as while you’re breathing. When you exhale, you draw “chemicals released by the food into the nasal cavity, where they are sensed and transmitted to the brain,” says Medical Discovery News. It is what defines the aftertaste that stays in your mouth after sipping a good wine, for example.
I have lived much of my life through what I like to call “full-sensory taste.” Of course, I consider sour, sweet, bitter and salty, but the other senses also come into play. When I read a good restaurant menu, I focus on individual ingredients and can quite easily conjure up the final combination of flavors, i.e. taste, a dish will have. Just as when I shop, I first see the ingredient, then I might imagine how it sounds in my mouth (yes, I really do that). This is usually a function of whether it is crunchy, in which case it makes quite a lot of noise, or whether it is creamy, and spreads over the tongue and goes down smoothly (umami comes in here). I even like to touch certain ingredients, such as tomatoes, to see whether they are firm or mushy, or cereals, to make sure they’re still crisp.
On principle, I always smell vegetables and fruit before buying. Though today’s strict standards and expectations on the part of customers are largely visual, looks do not tell the entire story. A tomato might well be perfectly red, round and standard in size, but I know from experience that real tomatoes that you pick from the garden are not perfect to look at, and it is not this so-called “perfection” that determines the taste. As my best friend’s mother used to say, “Art is never perfect, and don’t forget that.” And thus is nature.
From my grandfather’s garden I bring in another element of taste: nostalgia. I will forever associate the chlorophyll-filled smells of the fresh vegetables and fruits from his garden with a sense of well being. I remember getting on my knees to smell the tomatoes before I picked them, like an animal with my nose close to the vines. After we’d finished harvesting for the day, with sweat on our brows, I’d sit on his lap under the shade of trees and drink ice water, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun as he laughed. I’d often hear my horse neighing in the field next door, see the horse barn in the distance. The stifling heat of the Kentucky sun would from time to time be broken up by a breeze that came suddenly out of nowhere, lasting only a few seconds, just enough to help evaporate our perspiration and bring with it a waft of horse sweat. When we finally carried our harvest into the house, my grandmother would start preparing dinner, changing those fresh scents of chlorophyll into seasoned scents of the traditional Kentucky dishes she mastered. The ensemble — all the sensory input and all the partly subconscious thoughts and feelings from these days gone by — is my definition of a perfect time and place and world, as simple as that may seem. It was a full-sensory experience, existing now in the form of subconscious associations that are totally my own, associations that form my likes and dislikes.
When I walk through the farmers market, I use all my senses and some nostalgia too. First I look, filtering out what experience tells me is not fresh or of good quality. I “create” dishes in my mind, “using” the ingredients that seem freshest and imagining the flavor of those ingredients together. It is a full-sensory experience. I imagine the crunchiness, unctuousness, aroma, the acidity, saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, umami. Associations from the past often rush in without me being conscious of them. It’s like a sentence from Proust. In one very long sentence, Proust takes you through all the senses and sometimes back again, and time is suspended, letting them all blend together to make an astonishing whole that is forever your own. This passage, quoted often, is just one example:
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. . . . I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.
Proust is, of course, referring to the conscious pleasure that comes through the senses, to which is inevitably added subconscious associations.
To sum it up, when you bite into a potato chip, you start by looking at it to see if it looks appetizing. When you put it in your mouth, you feel the crunch with your teeth (touch) and you hear it. You taste the salt; you taste and smell the flavoring, and it may well have a retrosmell, a taste/smell that lingers in the back of your mouth, even after you’ve swallowed it. All this gives you an idea, often formed from the past, of what it should be like in your mouth. If that “historical” expectation is not met, you probably won’t like the chip.
From this perspective, flavor in the traditional sense of the word takes on a whole new complexity. The traditional elements of flavor are combined with signals and messages from the other senses and with nostalgia and other subconscious associations. Our likes and dislikes become, like Proust’s description, a rich, unique blend of all these elements. There are indeed objective elements, but these cannot stand alone in producing the astonishing whole that is your own, which no one in the world has perceived exactly in the same way. Tasting becomes a moment suspended in time, a moment that is yours and yours only.
In this series of articles, we will explore these elements of full-sensory taste.
Malida, Sweetened Poha: Breakfast Cereal or Ceremonial Offering?
Shulie: I am so pleased to be featured on The Rambling Epicure, this international, thought-provoking culinary site based in Switzerland. I love the multicultural content, which explores the world of food in depth and in all its facets, and brings us together as a community so that we better understand each other. Thank you, Jonell, I am honored to be a part of this wonderful journey. This post gives you a glimpse into my very mixed background.
Jonell: It’s unusual to find someone with such a rich and varied background as Shulie, yet still so close to her roots, who creatively weaves it all together to produce her very own Jewish-Indian fusion cuisine. This article is like an introductory culinary tour of the world, with a big dose of little-known Jewish history and culture thrown in. Got your bags packed? Here we go!
I was agonizing over what my first post should be. I could have written about how I’d won the battle of the great macaron, which was in fact a double challenge, as I had to replace the almonds with another pantry ingredient. Or about the elusive, and as I once thought glorified, meringue. The sheer challenge is fascinating, but macarons are French, or better yet Italian, and meringue is Swiss, and my ancestral roots are deep in the East. So I will start from home, so to speak.
I recently discovered Mónica Pinto’s beautiful food photography when searching for World Food Blogs for my Food News Daily column. Of Portuguese origin, her recipes are often traditional Portuguese, but her photography is firmly rooted in the spirit of cutting-edge food photography. Mónica runs the blog Pratos y Travessas, writtten in both Portuguese and English.
The more you eat, the less flavor; the less you eat, the more flavor.–Chinese Proverb
It is amazing how herbs can completely transform a recipe, giving it a whole new personality. Pureed with beans to make flavorful spread, processed with nuts for hearty pesto, or blended with oil or herb oil are just a few ways to taste the magic of herbs. Other blander dishes such as salads, grains, soups, stews, and breads also get fresh and delicious makeovers when they are in the company of herbs. And we can’t forget lavender cookies or basil ice cream, which add a few stars to the dessert category. It doesn’t take a lot to infuse their flavors to any recipe — sweet or savory. They always play their magic.
Meeta, that’s my name given to me by my dad. I was born back in the summer of 1972, one beautiful day in Bombay, India. I was practically delivered in a hotel. That’s where my father has worked for most of his life and it’s what injected the hotelier’s blood into my veins. This hotel lifestyle enabled me to travel the world, get close to many cultures, learn a few languages, and experience many great adventures.
Knowing only a hotel life, I decided to follow my dad’s footsteps and studied Hotel Management, specializing in Marketing and Guest Relations. I trained in one of the finest luxury hotels of this world in Doha, Qatar. That is when a tiny spark for food was ignited in my soul.
I now have settled down in Germany, with the two men I adore, Tom, my loving partner for almost 10 years, and Soeren my adorable son of 5 6 7 years.
Hotels are not a part of my life in Germany. After graduating I came to Germany and worked in an advertising firm, an architecture and design firm and a couple of software firms. Don’t ask how that came about – it just happened. Glad it did too because along this path I bumped into and fell in love with Tom.
We are now in Weimar and you’ll laugh when I tell you this my traveling feet have begun to itch again! Let’s see where life takes us.
I love photography, always have, but it was with the start of this blog that I discovered the world of Foodography. Since then the passion for photography I developed has taken a complete new angle and opened so many exciting doors. I try to capture shots that speak a thousand words, that makes one feel as if they were a part of the scene and experience the photo with their senses. You tell me if I am succeeding!