Friday, 12 April 2013

DEADLY NIGHTSHADES Original Article From Melbourne Masterclass notes 1998

A very brief history of
What keeps a cook cooking?
For me, it has always been a fascination with the produce.
No other group of plants has changed the way cooking has evolved as significantly as these.  From suspicion to seduction, from mad apple to love apple, the story of the development and spread of these wonderful food plants is a trip to the red zone, but beware one false move and it’s the shades of night forever.Whenever the question of fusion cooking has been discussed I have usually sided with the reactionary ‘old fogey’ tribe that maintains that it is risky to mix too many ingredients from different cultures. This is probably because I grew up with only one type of cooking—Hungarian, with its heart expressed by that vibrant spice Paprika.
 Of course it was a bit of a shock as I started to read about food and its origins to realise that Paprika had arrived in Hungary from Turkey via Spain from the Americas in the sixteenth century but did not feature prominently in Magyar kitchens and restaurant menus till the nineteenth century!
How about Asia without the chilli? Italy without a tomato? Spain without a pimento?
When the Spanish conquerors started to return to Europe in the late fifteenth century with the looted treasures of the Americas, they also brought back many edible nightshades, and with them, a wealth of new foods that were to have a much more profound effect on the Old World than mere gold.
If you think that telling a Hungarian that capsicums come from South America is a challenge, how many Italians could care to admit that pasta with tomato sauce is an Etruscan-American or Sino-American hybrid?
It is hard to imagine Irish, Russian or indeed any European cooking without the potato?   But of course these seemingly seminal ingredients arrived in Europe only with the discovery of the New World.
Potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, native to the Andes, were feared and deemed inedible by early religious fundamentalists as they were not mentioned in the Bible.
Paradoxically, potatoes have been transformed in Europe from an anti-famine food to one that caused one of the most devastating famines of all in Ireland. A sad lesson as to the dangers of monoculture that is still relevant today. The humble spud also changed the way that America was populated with the vast numbers of Irish fleeing the effects of the famine.
Potatoes have sadly changed from being a healthy, naturally- nutritious and inexpensive food into one of the most expensive processed foods and universal carriers of fat in the form of fries. More please.
The potato was one of the first foods to be genetically engineered and it may yet again seduce farmers by providing income from genetically modified crops that will produce a type of plastic. It could be said that that’s what some potato products taste like already.
 Dried potato made its debut [sorry] high in the Andes several thousand years ago in the form of chuño, where the sudden drop in overnight temperature was used to freeze-dry potato that could be stored for years providing insurance against famine. Chuño was also used to feed the Spanish fleets on their return voyages. 
When all these new plants first appeared it would have seemed like the original “Attack of The Killer Tomatoes” as most nightshades or solanaceae previously known or native to Europe were poisons surrounded by superstition, black magic and witchcraft.
Wolf bane, Mandrake, Devil’s Apples, Sodom’s Apple, Henbane and of course Deadly Nightshade all belong to a group dangerous enough to frighten even the man who eats everything.
Deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna [cruel and beautiful lady]: its name comes from an early Italian practice where women would place a drop of its juice into the eyes to dilate the pupils. A sign of beauty at the time. One of its active ingredients is atropine, still used to dilate the pupil for eye tests. Atropine was used as an antidote to a deadly nerve gas during WW2; it also formed the basis of the legendary truth serum that was used to extract confessions for many show trials hmmm. All American journalists in Bagdad have phials of atropine in their press kit. Please let’s not have a comeback here.
Huckleberries Solanum nigrum are an edible [when ripe] form of what we often mistakenly call deadly nightshade, a weedy plant that finds its home in any nook or cranny. It has a variable form but quite a useful friend, when food is scarce for a poor man’s pie. The cooked leaves are also eaten in India and Indonesia. Did Mark Twain allude to the sweet blueberry or the black nightshade for that precocious rascal by naming him Huck Finn?
Huckleberries or Wonder berries provided one of the best food scandals or hoaxes of the early 20th century, nearly ruining the reputation of that great plant breeder Luther Burbank. Promoted to be a new miracle berry it fizzled with much public embarrassment to become the Blunderberry
Mandrake has a history linked to debauchery and has been said to cure anything except death, which it was also conveniently known to cause. It was used to fool the Romans during Crucifixions and some have said that because Jesus bled on the cross he was not dead but in a deep narcotic sleep leading to a heretic’s view of the resurrection. Juliet may have taken mandrake as her poison only to be resurrected later in a tomb. On awakening she fears the shriek of the mandrake.

In the second Harry Potter film, there is a nice episode where the students are re-potting mandrakes.  Because the shriek of a mandrake as it is being pulled up causes madness and death, the old herbals show how to use a dog to pull it up.  In the film, all the students wear earmuffs.
Tobacco [that other infamous nightshade] has become the real Montezuma’s or, to be more geographically accurate, the Mohican’s, revenge.
Tomatoes, Lycopersicon esculentum [the name translates to edible wolf peach], have had a very hard time getting to the dinner tables of Europe. Even the exquisite aroma of the green leaves was abhorrent to the early European sensibility.
Although native to South America around Ecuador and Chile, it was in Mexico that the tomato was first widely developed for food. The common name tomato also comes from the confusion between it and the name for the Mexican husk tomato tomatl or tomatillo Physalis ixocarpa. The tomatillo is itself often confused for green tomatoes in recipes. Tomatillos and another physalis, the Cape gooseberry, have wonderful exotic scented flavours that are slowly appearing in contemporary dishes: they hold great promise in this climate.
Tomatillos are one of the most interesting flavoured and most simple to grow members of the nightshade family. With all the interest in Mexican cooking that hasbeen like a tsunami of taco its a wonder that the markets are not full of these wonderful fruits. Tomatillos are members of the Physalis or husk tomato family. There is a detailed story in an earlier blog entry from 2007 here. 
From Mexico the tomato arrived in Spain where it initially attracted little attention. The earliest botanical reference for tomato comes from the herbal of Matthiolus in 1544 and historian Vernon Quinn[1942] records its early passage from Seville to Morocco and then from Tangier to Italy. Which might explain its first Italian name of Pomo dei mori or Moor’s apple? Matthiolus named it pomi d’oro or golden apple, perhaps because the early forms were orange and yellow?  Pomi d’oro becomes pomodoro and then pomme d’amour on its arrival into France. Sex is a sure seller even back then. 

Tomato seeds have even been to space and back in a seed promotion that rivals Don Burke’s efforts. The seeds were sent up on the Columbia spacecraft to see if zero gravity had any effect on germination. It didn’t. But feeding tomato seed to tortoises has added to the theory that Galapagos Island’s early forms of Wolf Peach were distributed by the slow digestive qualities of the tortoise.
The most common mistake gardeners make in growing flavourful tomatoes is to over-water them. Just as with grapes a little struggle adds a lot of flavour.
Eggplants or melanzana [translating as mad apples] are the only significant edible nightshades that did not originate in the Americas. They have been in use in Europe for a very long time.  Eggplants are native to India, some research credits Africa as a source, but central Asia also have naturalised or even native varieties. The form is so variable that it is hard to pinpoint is true origins. The shorter white ones look just like eggs.
The crossover to Europe has been said to have come from Goa with the Portuguese who incidentally are said to have introduced chillies, olive oil and olives to the East.  Fair swap I reckon.  A good example of this exchange is found in the kasoundi relish where 3 worlds meet with eggplant, chilli and olives.
Until chillies were brought back from the Americas it was Pepper that provided the spice that ‘hurts so good.’ Most of us like it hot, and of all the new nightshades the chilli received the most enthusiastic welcome, especially in Asia.
Columbus went out with pepper on his shopping list and came back with the chilli that made it possible to provide a hot spice with a great variety of flavour.
Pepper was hard and expensive to grow, but chillies requiring less exacting climatic conditions brought the world a cheaper thrill.
The excitement of chillies is in the way that the active ingredient capsaicin at first burns, then as our natural endorphins kick in they give us the equivalent of an athlete’s high.
This excitement translates to a heightened sensation of taste. The flavours of various chillies are also quite distinctive when you get past the pain barrier. These subtle differences are what add to the nuances in cooking of Mexico, Thailand and indeed any cuisine that has a strong tradition of using chillies.
The combination of chocolate and chilli goes back to the very ancient times and finds its peak in the Moles of Mexico.
 It is possible to date dishes by charting the spread of this rather tasty form of ‘global warming.’ Pepper crab and Chilli crab provide a clear example.
 In Australia we have more than 130 varieties of native Solanaceae and more than 60 varieties that have been naturalised.
There was widespread use of native solanaceae by Australian Aborigines for food as well as for hunting and ceremonial use. The most widely known is Pituri, a confusing name as it refers to many different native tobaccos: one of these Pituri, Duboisia hopwoodii, contains a very potent form of nicotine. It is rarely smoked but is used as a type of patch and is highly addictive; it is sometimes used to stun prey while hunting as is another native tobacco, Duboisia myoporoides. Less potent forms of naturalised nicotiana are preferred for stimulation.
I have seen eggplants grafted to Australian native tobaccos to produce vigorous and also perennial forms. Talk about fusion...
Those of us that subscribe to the Gondwanaland theory can put Australia right into the middle of the spread of this family of plants.
Many native nightshades resemble the early forms of tomato, eggplant and peppers and may yield some exciting new vegetables in the future.  With the popularity of bush tucker native solanaceae like bush tomatoes have started to appear on our menus. Bush tomatoes are the original sun dried tomato as they are only edible after drying.  We may find it hard to grow a really good tomato because the right variety has yet to be bred for Australia, and it may come naturally from a native stock.
Two other native nightshades the Kangaroo apple Solanum laciniatum and the closely related S. aviculare are only edible when perfectly ripe and should not be tried by the amateur. These native plants, from which we receive the least benefit, are among the world’s major sources of steroids used in the manufacture of oral contraceptives.
Like the macadamia nut they are mainly grown overseas. We do not have a local industry that utilises their properties that include pharmaceuticals used in the treatment of menopausal disorders and infertility.
The pomme d’ amour may yet become true blue as the kangaroo apple also contains alkaloids that are used to treat impotence.
But what does this historical trivia mean in the context of modern Australian cooking?
I believe that because we are in the middle of it, we cannot see that Australians are developing a really new way of looking at food. This new movement is not just coming from the frontline big time restaurants. There is a very fine sense of balance emerging.
Coriander and parmesan cheese type combinations are giving way to fine simple dishes. But while we have access to some quite good ingredients, I believe we have to face some hard facts.
Most of the produce in our mainstream markets is of a very mediocre standard if judged by its taste. While Australian produce may not be radioactive as in some parts of Europe, the flavours just do not come up to scratch. Unless you are plugged into the top of the food sourcing chain you may never know what a tomato tastes like.
Figs, melons peaches indeed almost any fruit are accepted under- ripe and tasteless. We would never accept a warm beer in a pub but why do we put up with flavourless food?  All of our first quality produce is exported. Ripe food should not be a luxury item but try to get a banana that tastes like a banana, a simple cheese that has been matured properly. These foods are only for the wealthy, the home producer or the gardener.
In Europe we find a different dilemma. The markets are full of some great flavours, ripe cheeses and well grown and graded vegetables but inside the restaurant, that is often, right behind the market, time has stood still. The same old dishes without regard to season are monotonously offered. In Europe home cooking still rules.  
 Surreal jelly fluffs and prawn brain juice coming out of dada restaurant/laboratories are sexy enough for young cooks to include the foam gas bottle and pipette into the kitchen kit, but where are the role models for the next generation of growers without whom cooks are stranded?

Self righteous Sermon?  maybe so, but if we can encourage young people to question the origins and pathways that give us flavour, this exciting free movement that is Australian cuisine can develop; if not, the ideas and cooks will go to where the flavour grows.
 Once you have tasted home grown and in season, there is no turning back.
Anyone for a wolf peach sanger? 


Jenny McIntyre said...

Hi George
Do you know how to identify Goji berries? I have a wild plant in the garden with red berries that look like the pictures on Gogle images but I am a bit reluctant to try eating them.

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

Please do not eat anything especially red berries without a proper Identification take it to your local nursery to get some help. Take care