Fred Esgen talks us through the preparations to get ready…
The year of 1908 was of great moment to the peasantry of this country. It was that year that the allotments act came into force. People formally had grown their food in their own back gardens or on any available piece of ground that the squire didn’t want with perhaps the addition of a family pig to tied them over the winter and a few chickens scratching in the back yard. The industrial revolution changed all that. Families moved into the towns for what they considered more secure work and found themselves living in terraced houses with little or no garden. Councils now provided them with what they previously had free for centuries, a place to grow food for their loved ones.
This last tie to the land that people have had for over a century now is very quietly disappearing as councils build on allotment sites and allotment waiting lists in some of our cities are as much as 60 years. There is hope though for any who do not wish to end their days being chained to a supermarket trolley in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. The French call it POT-AU-FEU. This dish, which is basically a gently simmered meat and vegetable stew, began life centuries ago in the days of the cauldron over the open fire and included any and all ingredients that were free to hand locally or could be bought for a few centimes. France is at its core still very much a peasant nation and the hunter gatherer instinct is still very strong. One has only to go to Provence in the truffle season and see old men scrabbling through the brushwood at the base of Mont Ventoux to appreciate the people’s strong connection with the land and the consequent peace of mind that comes from being self-sufficient and at one with your surroundings.
The Irish peasantry too have subsisted and thrived through hard times and invasions of foreign powers by embracing the one pot tradition known to the whole world as Irish stew. If you have ever had the good fortune to sit in an old Irish pub at lunch time and partake of this deliciously simple meal, washed down with a glass of the black stuff, then you will understand why the best cuisine often comes from cultures that have learned the value of using the freshest natural ingredients around rather than the most expensive. Irish stew after all is just mutton or lamb, potatoes, onions and carrots and a handful of pearl barley, but a deep culinary experience never the less.
An ancient race of people who would be called peasants by some but are in reality highly self-sufficient and articulate are the gypsies, or more correctly Romanies. They have lived quite happily off the material excess of the western world for centuries and gleaned a living from the land at the same time. One of their staple meals, which is cleansing and sustaining at the same time and a massive favourite of mine, is nettle soup. Originally used as a spring blood cleanser and general tonic, nettle soup or alternatively young nettles steamed like spinach to take the sting out of them, are packed with all sorts of goodies like iron, silica and histamines. I have an old nettle patch in my garden used specifically for the purpose of making this most moreish of dishes. It has the same ingredients as Irish stew but substitute nettles instead of lamb, although I have cheated and put in strips of brisket in sometimes to give it body instead of using stock. The result is always the same though, you wake up the next day feeling like popeye!
© FCR Esgen