Or so I am reliably informed. It is, after all, a bean. It grows in a pod. It is edible. It provides fortification and energy. What more evidence is required?
It is mystifying that our ancient ancestors figured out methods of taming their world; of finding and making foodstuffs digestible. Who first picked up an oyster and decided it was ingestible? Seriously, how did someone, nearly 4,000 years ago, determine that the hard bitter beans hidden inside a cacoa pod could be extracted, fermented, roasted and then ground into a paste; that that paste could later be blended with honey, spices and chilies; and finally cut with water, heated, whipped until frothy and drunk? Not only was there no internet, television or radio, there were no books, little documentation of any kind and precious little time for anything other than survival. Yet that is what the Olmecs of the cacoa tree’s native Orinoco and Amazon Valleys did. It was a process that was revered first by them and then by succeeding Myan, Aztec and Incan cultures. It was the Olmecs too who domesticated the precious but finicky cacoa tree and reserved its produce for their royalty. Wonder whose idea that was.
For the major part of its history, chocolate has been consumed as a warmed beverage. It was touted as a fortifier and an aphrodisiac. The Spanish gold-seeker, Cortes, wrote to his king saying that a cup of the precious drink permitted a man to walk all day without food. The infamous Montezuma was said to imbibe three gallons of the magical drink to fortify himself in preparation for his nights with an abundance of wives. As is so with many valuables, the drinking of chocolate was ritually associated with significant events, the harvest, the arrival of planting season, births, marriages and deaths. At one point, the beans were used as money. Its consumption remained a luxury item of the wealthy and privileged for centuries.
The Spaniards brought chocolate to Europe where they secretly monitored the fermentation and roasting methods. They maintained their monopoly until an Italian traveler learned the process and took it to Italy first and then on to the rest of Europe. Europe is where chocolate acquired its sweetness. Then a Dutch chemist developed an extraction method allowing the creation of powdered cocoa and paved the way for the production of solid chocolate. It was the invention of the steam engine that made mass production of chocolate possible. Indeed, it was a long way from bean to bonbon.
The ingestible possibilities of chocolate have barely been explored. The moles of Central America have brought together chocolate and savory meats and vegetables. An old Piamontese recipe uses chocolate with wild boar to mouth-watering satisfaction. That idea having been dangled, nothing says that we must move our chocolate tastes to the exotic too quickly. When you take your next chocolate expedition at the local markets, you will find the term “Fair Trade”. This makes it easier for us to differentiate between chocolates made from cacoa produced without the unfair child labor that has been associated with cacoa production in some West African countries.
Fortunately for us, we have local experts to aid us in feeding our taste for this rich treat. At our recent Winter Harvest Farmers dinner, our market’s Barbara Mojon-Gugnoni provided dessert. It was so meltingly fabulous, I asked Barbara if she would be willing to share her recipe. Happily, she agreed and you will find it below with many thanks for her graciousness.
The English language is so much fun. It excels at enticing an image with the application of a single unadorned word. Then it has to tickle your funny bone with adjectives and adverbs of varying appropriateness. Who, exactly, gets to name things? What a fun job. Who knew you could grow up to be a professional namer? Too late at this point, but I bet I could have been a world-class namer.
We have talked here in the past of mushrooms and been amazed as much by their diversity as their apparent whimsy. Today we’re concerned with the Lion’s Mane mushroom. Its association with savage tresses or the sweeping locks of conductors is easy to understand. Actually, this beautiful fungus has acquired a goodly number of aliases including: Satyr’s Beard, Bearded Tooth, Pom Pom, Sheep’s Head, Bearded Hedgehog, Monkey’s Head and Yamabushitake. It is a serious comfort to know that there are so many fanciful people sharing the planet.
Not atypically, the Chinese have used this and other mushrooms for medicinal purposes for eons. This mushroom is one they dubbed “brain tonic” as they believed that it improved memory. It turns out that they were on to something. Recent Western and Asian research studies have cited this mushroom as having nerve-regenerative properties which has been supported by testing in the treatment of mild cognitive decline, anxiety and depression. This field of research in the West was kickstarted by Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and it has produced interesting results among which are the development of antibacterial agents, antifungals, immuno-suppressants and the treatment of malaria and diabetes.
It will not surprise you that it took the French and the Italians to bring the mushroom to the table. The French are reputed to be the first to cultivate varying funguses. The Italians are credited with first teaching pigs and dogs to sniff out prize truffle fungus. There are reasons that both those cultures produced world-class cuisines.
This week’s recipe is an ultra-simple one, Sautéed Lion’s Mane. It almost doesn’t require instructions, though we will provide them. Don’t forget to check out the website for many more mushroom recipes such as Grilled Portobello Mushroom Sandwiches with Aioli, Oyster Mushroom, Squash and Chestnut Stew and Shrimp with Mushrooms and Ramps in Coconut Milk.
One reason everyone becomes an honorary Irish citizen on St. Patrick’s Day is that, along with the Robins and the Red Winged Blackbirds, it is among the first heralds of spring. You remember spring, right? That promise when the world around us begins to turn all manner of impish elven green. These past few weeks Old Man Winter has been up to his old tricks with one Nor’easter after another. Some of us had been foolish enough to hope that winter had worn itself out when the rains cleared even the plow piles of snow from sun-deprived corners. Seems he’s got a region wide vindictive streak. Fortunately, we know from experience, that Mother Nature eventually wins. Perhaps with a bit of leprechaun luck.
There are many stories of Ireland’s patron saint, one being that he was of Romano-British aristocracy, the son of a Roman decurion and Catholic deacon and the grandson of a Catholic priest. As a teenager, he is reported to have been kidnapped by pirates and enslaved in Ireland for six years. He escaped back to Britain where he became a priest himself and returned to Ireland in service to his church.
Greenland got its name in from a Viking trick to entice pioneers to that island so they could keep the more desirable Iceland to themselves. While England is renowned as “A green and pleasant land”, Ireland holds the title as the greenest land. There may be a few Japanese moss gardeners that hold other opinions. Chicago has uniquely honored their substantial Irish-American population by their annual ritual of dying the St. Charles River green for St. Patrick’s Day. Presumably, St. Charles is not green with envy.
One might justly ask how envy and jealously got into the crowd of positive, affirming symbols designated by green. It is the color most commonly associated with nature, life, health, youth, spring, hope, tranquility, fertility and happiness. In post classical-early modern Europe, green was the color of wealth, bankers, and the gentry, while the angry red was reserved for the nobility. Going Green means to be environmentally sound and supportive. Getting a green light means to move forward. Green eyes, however, are the second rarest eye color in the world, the first being pink.
Okay, spring is coming, despite our still operating snowplows. Celebrations are in order. St. Patrick’s Day is a joyously green festivity. In its honor, we’re offering a toothsome, verdant recipe this week: Chocolate Chip Mint Cupcakes. Top of the party to you!